Eugene Lambe, Kinvara:
Pipes, flutes and a boat called Fánaí...
  1. It's all in your mind, of course....

  2. If you set up a meeting with one of Ireland's most famous pipe and flute makers and he graciously responds that, yes you're welcome but you might better be advised that he's working on a boat and has to watch the tide, you naturally suppose he's a fisherman or at least working on a fisherman's vessel, a Kinvara hooker maybe. And in a way that's true, except for the fact that Eugene Lambe, Kinvara, County Galway, Ireland not only owns his boat, he built it. And a hooker it is not, even I can tell you that. He's off to Iceland, he tells me. Soon, Go
    d willing.
  3. -Go down to Kinvara, turn right to the harbour, find Fánaí and I'll meet you there, says Lambe.

  4. Said and done, I drop my not so UP-interested daughters at the Dunguaire Castle (Hynes Clan, 1520) just outside Kinvara and go downvillage.

  5. Picturesque Seaside Fishing Village, says the guide, and it's partly true.

  6. Small bright coloured houses line the harbour. Not too many fishing boats around. Fánaí is on the other hand easy to be found: 11.23 meter greenish Irish sailing power with a 67.93 sq metres of sail area and a Yanmar Diesel 56 H.P to help.
  7. Lambe's car arrives, we say hello, and yes, he looks like the man who would sail around the world. Alone, if necessary.

  8. We drive through the backstreets of Kinvara on to the southbound main road to Lisdoonvarna-Doolin and end up at a house just beside the road. We go backside and suddenly we're in Lambe's workshop. Lathes, tools, machines, not unlike my Swedish pipe maker friend Leif Eriksson's, maybe a twist or two more to the metallurgic side, UPs being far more metallic than the Swedish Bagpipe. But this is indeed the shop of an instrument maker.

  9. I try to restrain myself to questions. And Lambe talks:

All rights text&photos reserved Jan Winter©2006 except for photos of Dunguaire Castle and Kinvara (© Katarina Winter), photo of young Lambe (© Jim McGuire) and photo of Fánaí (© Eugene Lambe)

What made you start, Eugene?
— I played whistle as a young child, but it took until my late teens until I discovered the uilleann pipes. I was a student in Dublin then, and made my first set of pipes in the university workshop in 1966, after getting in touch with Matt Kiernan, a pipe maker in Dublin who at the time lived in a place called Cabra. I visited him and bought a practise set from him. There weren't many UPs around and not many UP players either. So I was lucky to meet Kiernan before I started to make my own. Kiernan is long dead. He was old when I met him, died in his nineties.

But wasn't it a big thing to start making your own pipes?
— I did it gradually. I started with my Kiernan set and made drones for it and got it working right. And then I started looking at other pipes. Very soon I came up with measurements of my own.

But before that you moved to England for some years?
— Yes, when I graduated from college I went to England, working as a scientist for the Ministry of fisheries. I set up a small workshop in Lowestoft in East Anglia. There was some music going on there, a band called East Anglia Country Dance band, and I used to play pipes with them.

In 1970-71, I went back to Galway and it was only there that I seriously began to make pipes. At that stage there was a revival in the pipes and a lot of people wanted them. The older pipe makers were more or less gone or dying off so there was nobody else making them.

I had met people like Leo Rowsome, Matt Kiernan and Dan Dowd, so in a way I had a connection to the old pipe makers. I started making them down in Galway, I was working at the University at the time and was making pipes as a hobby. About 1978 I decided to cut the ties with the university. I started off a full time business making pipes. I bought an old schoolhouse in Fanore near Doolin in county Clare, and I was there for nearly 18 years. I made a lot of pipes during that time.

Most UP makers have a model they work from until they find their own style. How was it for you?
— The thing is that you could copy a set of pipes that somebody else made, theoretically perfectly, but unless you can make the reeds the same as in the original, you won't get the same sound. So you almost have to learn to make reeds first and then make the set that will blow those reeds in tune.

So are you saying that it is more difficult to make reeds than a set?
— It's a different skill, yes. You should never underestimate reed making. You can make a very nice set of pipes, but you only have a bunch of sticks unless you can make reeds for them. And you can make a wonderful set that doesn't work anyhow because some of the dimensions are critical, some more than others. So many people have tried making the pipes without being very successful. The two things have to go together.

Have you ever used other material than cane for reed making?
— I've seen people using yogurt containers and other plastic material but I have never used it myself. Always used cane.

I was thinking elder and the like.
— Yes I have made some from elder, but that was many, many years ago and only for experiment. Elder was used for the older flat pipes because it was said to give a nice soft sound. But I once heard that the old famous pipe maker Stephen Ruane from Galway supposedly made reeds from the yew tree (lat. Taxus baccata). I don't know if this is true but yew is used for bows and if it can be elastic for bows , it might work for reeds.
I also heard about a man who made drone reeds from what we call american snowberry. (lat- Symphoricarpos americanus).

Did you ever teach how to make pipes?
— In the early years I used to bring a lathe to Milton Malbay and I held a workshop there and actually made some chanters so that people could see how it was done. But as the years got on it became more difficult because my customer base increased. During the Milton Malbay week the pressure was so great from visiting customers that I couldn't find time to get down there. But I taught reed making now and then. I travelled to America once a year playing at gigs and always doing reed making workshops. So I probably started off some of the American pipe makers, like Kirk Lynch in Kansas and Bill Thomas in New Hampshire, passing on the little tricks I had.

By the way, have you ever made reeds for special climates?
— No, not really. (laughing) No, I am embarrassed to say it but I have had the reed in my set for 15 years now and I have played that reed in Alaska, in New Zeeland, Ireland of course, and I have never touched it.

It's a good reed then?
— Yeah it's a good reed (laughing). An oboe player once said "Good oboe players don't always have good reeds but they learn how to play bad ones" I think the same holds true for uilleann pipes. Of course, if I really wanted I could make a reed on the road but I would have to adjust it. Winter time in America was difficult, very dry and very cold. I used to leave my pipes for some hours in the venue where I was to play.

What do you think of mainstock design; hollow, chambered or solid? Has any of these designs any effect?
— I like to keep the regulator reed supplied with a separate air supply but I think something happens (in a positive way) if drones are in a hollow stock.

How long does it take to make a full set? Have you had other people working for you?
— I can make one full set in a month (or less). At one stage I had a few people working for me but in later years I preferred to work alone. I have been semi retired for a few years now and only made a few sets per year.

What should a beginner put first on his/hers priority list when buying his/hers first set?
-Listen a lot to the old pipers..... Seamus Ennis, Willie Clancy, Leo Rowsome, Johnny Doran...Listen, listen, listen…

You referred to Doolin earlier. What made Doolin such an interesting place for musicians and instrument makers?

--There were one or two good musicians who were also good drinkers and they could be relied upon to always be in O'Connor's pub. So people went down there, there was always music. For a long time there was pressure on our culture with the English language and foreign music. But there were little pockets where the language survived and also pockets where the music was kept alive. Doolin just happened to be one of those pockets. It was a poor place, only fisher people living there really and music, dancing and singing was their entertainment. One of the very last native Irish speakers in Co.Clare, Paddy Phadraig Mhicael only died in the late 80's. I had the pleasure of knowing him very well and spent many nights chatting to him in Irish in front of his fire.

And the Russel brothers, you knew them well, didn't you?
-Pakie was the one who was nearly always there at the pub, he was a concertina player. They're all dead now, Gussie died only last year.
I travelled with (flute player) Micho myself, played with him, got very fond of him. Yes, I knew them all.

Is the connection to Micho the reason why you started to make flutes?
— No, not really. There were a lot of flute players in Ireland at the time, but flute makers were non existent. So people started coming to me with flutes to repair, keys and joints that had been broken. People weren't very good at maintaining their instruments in those days and the standard of instruments was p
So in repairing them I came up with the idea to make them, as, compared to a set of pipes, a flute is not a very difficult instrument to manufacture.
So I made a few flutes. About the same time Bruce Du Vé, who came from Australia and set up shop in Spiddal also started. We were the first to make them, about the same time in 1977. Very soon afterwards Colin Hamilton (Hammy) was in the business. Flutemaking and pipemaking boomed and hundreds of people were starting taking to flutes. Before long half of my time I was busy making flutes.

Do you have any idea of how many flutes you have made?
— I have absolutely no idea - only I was in Doolin the other day they had one of my flutes for sale there in the shop. It was one of the first I ever made. I played it and it was still going very well. I was a bit nervous picking it up, but it played great.

What kind of style do you have for making your flutes? Do you put keys on them for example?
— I have made them every way. About 90 percent of the flutes I've made have been without keys, because that's more or less what people want and most people don't use the keywork when they play.
The flutes that I like best of those I've made are based on what is called the German reform flute, which has an ebonite lip plate on them and I believe the sound is much better.
There has been some controversy about this style of flute just because they don't have a black head, a lot of bullshit that goes on in Ireland really. We still suffer at some level from an atavistic conservatism. People didn't get marks in competitions because it was said that is wasn't a traditional flute.

I usually based my flutes on an old Rudall Rose 8-keyed flute that I still have and that plays very well. I used that one as a kind of model but adapted it a little to suit Irish music. For example these old flutes were made to play well in the third register, which we don't use. So I tried to bring out the first register stronger, and maybe sacrifice the third register to get a good bottom note.
The most common keys in Irish music is D and G, in recent years though, many want to play in Eflat. I have made flutes in Eflat too but most of them are in D. And although the keyed flute in theory can be played in any key, in practise it's not very well set up to do so. That's why Böhm invented his improved key system.
The flutes we use here in Ireland are those that came somewhere between the baroque and early classical period. And they were not a great success with classical music because the keywork was hard to manipulate.

Time goes fast, and Lambe is a most generous host. He voluntarily offers to play on his set, his son Ian's low whistle, and a wonderful flute in the form of a promenade stick, even gives my home made scrap metal low whistle a try. He starts out playing a somewhat sombre melody on Ian's low whistle and it takes me some time to realize that he's playing an old Finnish waltz, just in time to join him in the
last chorus on another of Ian's flutes, a silver high D whistle, heavy like it's bigger sister, wonderful to touch and play. Now there's an Irish musician with a twist - and a maker who knows more latin that arondo donax, giving me the Linnéan words for yew and other reed material species. Among other things, really. He's an Irish musician after all and listening to him juggling the regulators of his own set — traditional style or making the whole set suddenly sound like an Italian three piece Zampogna at full pace — is just great.
The cliché “could stay and listen forever” comes to mind.
Before we leave, Lambe shows me a small invention of his.
Maybe this is part of all real pipe makers' toolbox: an old flight passenger's headset (the old stethoscope type) ending in a reed staple, sans reed.
— For the leaks, you know, works all the time, says Lambe.
Yes of course. There's always the leaks. And this gadget detects them, even when playing at UP storm force ten.

Which brings us back to Fánaí. I take some photos of him in front of his boat. Eugene Lambe smiles. Fánaí*) is waiting.

Thanks Eugene, it's been a privilege - and sheer pleasure.

Jan Winter, april 2006

*) Gaelic word for someone who travels sort of aimlessly...

“You should never underestimate reed making. You can make a very nice set of pipes, but you only have a bunch of sticks unless you can make reeds for them”