A true giant of the Irish Islands, Achill sits off County Mayo’s Atlantic coast. Achill’s sheer cliffs and mountains make it a formidable beast on the battered fringes of Western Europe. Due to its vast scale, and a road bridge at Achill Sound linking it to the mainland, some wouldn’t consider Achill one of the classic Irish islands; however towering sea cliffs, desolate boglands and a thriving creative community drew my friend, the photographer Tom McGeehan, and I out west to explore the island. 

Months earlier, over a few jars in a Belfast pub, Tom and I conceived a mission to visit as many of Ireland’s islands as possible, with Achill at the top of our list. Having not personally spent considerable time on the island since childhood, and our trip being Tom’s first visit, we decided we would discover more about the island. 

Arriving early in the morning, we started by exploring the deserted village, a collection of tiny dry stone homes abandoned during the famine; a poignant setting for an early morning stroll. Following this, we hiked up the slopes of Croaghaun mountain, the third tallest sea cliffs in Europe, keeping a beady eye out for resident Peregrine Falcons above, as well as the killer whales that frequent the waters off the Island’s north shore below. 

We finished the day with a refreshing swim on Keel strand, and creamy pints of stout at the Annexe pub. Achill feels like its own country when compared to many of the other Irish Islands - a vast landform with distinct regions and layer upon layer of wild landscapes. But to fully appreciate an island it is important to speak to its inhabitants, and we are consistently drawn to the musicians, writers, poets, and artists.    

When meeting creators and artisans in wild places such as these, Tom and I often question whether the landscapes where these makers are based directly affect their creative output. We often find ourselves chattering away about artistic plans, Tom snapping away and me jotting down lyrical fragments of writing as we trudge along the remote coastline. Surely these seascapes must prompt the creativity of the islanders too? 

We stopped with John Butler of Ceol Pipes and together tried to work out how much of the natural drama of Achill is imprinted on his finished product of the uilleann pipes. The uilleann pipes are an ancient Irish instrument, famously difficult to play and, as we found out, just as difficult to craft. John’s workshop is situated on a remote hillside in a tiny old school house in Ashleam, southern Achill. All around us were intricate parts, worked brass rings, and immaculately finished black ebony pipes. John works with metal, wood and leather, all by hand, to create some of the most beautiful instruments we have ever seen.

From him we received an education on the technicalities of playing the pipes, in terms of how air is supplied to the pipes by use of bellows under the right elbow and constantly pumped to the bag under the left arm. This in turn feeds chanter and drones, played simultaneously by both hands and the right wrist. John’s craft and attention to detail is staggering- there are so many components, moving parts, reeds, regulators and keys; months of work go into the making of a full set of pipes. Every millimetre of sanding and lathing affects the overall, extremely specific, sound of the pipes, and John is open about how frustrating the process can be. Fiddly and fussy at times, one slip of the hand can spoil hours of work. 

John’s workshop lies behind a stud wall that divides the old school house. The larger part of the school house serves as an occasional meeting place for community groups, whilst also doubling up as useful space for John to test the sound of his pipes. The high ceiling and wooden floor provide a perfect acoustic environment for solo piping. During our visit, Tom and I were treated to a rendition of the haunting slow air tune, “The Green Fields of Canada”. 

Although Tom and I had both heard uilleann pipes being played before, this was a new and unique experience. There were none of the indistinguishable squeals from the corner of a busy pub session or the unrealistic, synthesised sound of a “Songs of Ireland” compilation from a souvenir shop. This was a moving, skilful, and masterfully honed performance. Loud and crystal clear, we were afforded an opportunity to fully appreciate all the subtle nuances of sound that the Uilleann pipes can offer.

Once we regained our speech, we asked John about his journey to Achill, and how it influences his creative process. His story is an incredible mix of chance, coincidence, and risk. Until 2008 he worked as a designer of medical equipment in Dublin, a high powered and intensively paced computer engineering job at the height of the Celtic Tiger. He was a piper only by hobby and had no knowledge of pipe making whatsoever. But like so many others at the time, the rug was pulled firmly from under him and John was made redundant when the economic bubble burst. 

John  explained that before, “jumping back on the hamster wheel”, and looking for a new job, he visited a pipe maker in Germany. Whilst  travelling home inspired, yet  facing the prospect of treading the waters of economic uncertainty, a divergent and spontaneous idea came to mind; sell up in Dublin, learn to build uilleann pipes, and move out to Achill Island, a favourite spot from the surfing trips of his youth. The day an  estate agent put up the “Sale Agreed” sign on his house, the papers proclaimed that Ireland officially entered recession, and by the following year, with some informal pipe making tuition, John had relocated to Achill to chase his new dream. 

Having met  his heroes and shared tunes and skills with some of the most respected players and makers, it is clear that much of what defines John is linked to the  experiences gained through the uilleann pipes. It is also evident that Achill itself is engrained on Ceol Pipes too. John knows and appreciates the island landscape well, illustrated by his photographs of Achill that he showcases on his website. It was clear to us that he channels that passion when building, and indeed playing, these pipes. John finds it difficult to put into words exactly how this environmental influence manifests itself but agrees that Ceol Pipes would not be the same if based in Dublin. 

John suggests that it was the, “black art of pipe making”, and Achill that found him, rather than the other way around. When John first arrived to inspect the very hall that would become his workshop, he discovered that it had been built in 1924, the same year his first set of pipes were made. These little coincidences, as well his romantic escape of the city for a new and much simpler life, to do something he loved, is what makes Ceol Pipes so special.

This little business maintains a connection to an older and more peaceful pace of life on the island, to the natural world, and the changing of the seasons. It turns away from the corporate mentally of the city, the endless pursuit of growth, and constant chasing of ever unreachable deadlines. John works slowly, by hand, using naturally occurring products. The sound of the uilleann pipes, is deeply emotional, powerful, and mournful in character. These elements make for a beautiful marriage between a maker and their landscape.  You could scarcely imagine Ceol Pipes without Achill, or Achill without John and people like him.

Leaving John, Tom and I were fired up with inspiration and refreshed enthusiasm. We drove across the island to Keem Bay and hiked up to the cliffs at Achill Head. The scenery was astonishingly beautiful, and we revelled in the inexplicable magic of the West Coast islands. Staring back across Achill you could almost hear uilleann pipe melodies spilling over Slievemore in the wind. Melodies built for, built by, landscapes like these.   

Written by:

Ewen Friers

Photographed by:

Tom McGeehan