The Piper’s Three Tunes

If ever you were expecting to visit the county of Armagh in the early decades of the nineteenth century, you may have been advised, beforehand, to keep watch for a tall, stout, lazy-looking man, with sleepy eyes and a huge cocked nose. He dragged his feet along as if they were heavy wooden clogs that had been forced upon him by nature. They deliberately restrained his movement rather than helping him move forward as he dawdled along the highways and byways of the county. More often than not, however, he could be caught lounging about a public-house, with a green bag under his arm. That man was Tim Callaghan and you would have been advised to be wary of him and his ways. The following account by a fellow traveller who met with Callaghan will, perhaps, shed more light on the subject –

piper“When first I met Tim Callaghan, he assured me that he had served seven long years with, as he said himself, ‘as fine a piper as ever put chanter under an arm.’  He said that at the end of that well-spent period he began to enchant the gentry of the county on his own account, being the owner of a splendid set of pipes, and three whole tunes that earned him a good living. This puzzled me for a time and as we chatted quietly I asked him, quite innocently – ‘Isn’t it a pity Tim, that with your fine taste in music and possession of top-class set of pipes you didn’t try to learn a half dozen tunes at least?’

“Immediately, I knew that had annoyed the man by the sulky expression that crossed his face. ‘Oh now, friend,’ he answered me, ‘that very same question has been put to me by dozens of people, before you and I hate to hear it! It was only yesterday that a lady asked me that same question. ‘Dear madam,’ said I, ‘did you ever play a tune on the pipes in your life?’ ‘Never, indeed,’ said she, looking a bit ashamed by her ignorance, as she should have been. ‘Because if you did,’ said I again to her, ‘you would soon say, “great job, Tim Callaghan, to get over the three tunes so well, without asking people to do what’s impossible.” And now I appeal to you, Sir, what use is there in complicating people’s brains with six or seven tunes when three does my business just as well?’  After I told him that I could not fault his argument we became very good friends. Being grateful for my patience and forbearance, he eternally murders those three unfortunate tunes for my pleasure. In all honesty I doubt now if I could truly enjoy those tunes being played well, because I have grown so accustomed to Tim’s efforts.

“Tim Callaghan, it must be said, was a politically astute character, and his three tunes were expressly chosen and learnt so as to win over the ears and the acclamation of all denominations of Christian men. Thus, the “Boyne water” is the tune played to please the Protestant audience, while “Patrick’s Day” was just the tune to satisfy an audience of Roman Catholics, and when Tim’s not sure of the creed of the audience he wishes to please, to suit Quakers, Methodists, and other non-conformists,  “God save the Queen” is the third tune. For many years he was perfectly content to give these favourite tunes in their original musical purity, but some wicked gobshite, probably another piper, persuaded him that his melodies would be totally irresistible to the audience if he would add some ornamental variations to them of his own choosing.  Tim was a man who was unaccustomed to flattery, and so naïve that he would never suspect someone having a joke at his expense. Not surprisingly, then, he jumped at this bright idea, overcame his natural and acquired laziness, and made an effort to add variety in his tunes. When Callaghan thought he had mastered the difficulties of the task, he decided to do me the honour of appointing me as the person to pronounce judgement on his melodious additions. All I shall say about those variations is, let the dumbest eejit that ever looked dreamily down an empty well, listen to Tim Callaghan’s variations, and watch his face while he performs those variations. I promise you the man will require heavy drugs if he would ever get time to sleep for laughing!

“When Tim arrives at the door to a gentleman’s residence, he usually begins to entertain with a suitable serenade, and he will drone away at that until the few pence he receives for piping permits him to leave contented. But if he is kept waiting too long, and he sees that there is no real chance of a reward   he becomes furious, and in his anger he will begin to play that one of the three tunes which he believes is the most disagreeable and opposite to the politics of the offender. If the party is a Roman Catholic, he will be unpleasantly shocked, and all his prejudices aroused, by “the Boyne water,” performed with unusual vigour. If the offender is a church-goer, he will never recover from the trauma of “Patrick’s Day,” that is given with an energy that would shatter any goodwill between the parties. Should Tim be asked to play a person’s favourite, or a popular tune, it would be like asking him to stand up and repeat a passage from Homer in the original Greek. If you are lucky he might even give you a civil reply along the lines of, ‘I haven’t got that, but I’ll play one that is as good,’ and one of his trio of tunes would follow. If the customer is keen on something new being played he could find himself cut short with, ‘Who do you think you are to telling me what to play. Anyone else, better even than you, would be content with what I gave you and reward me handsomely’.

“The first occasion that I had the pleasure to see and hear Tim Callaghan, was in the middle of the dark and dreary winter, and in a quiet country home of a local minister. It was so quiet, in fact, that even the vile screeching of a tin whistle would have been welcomed until we had something better. You can imagine the joy we felt when the inspiring drone of the bagpipe caused our ears to prick to attention and expectation! The Minister’s servants were excited, noisily expressing their absolute delight, and in asking the minister to permit the piper be brought into the house and play the pipes. Their request was granted, the minstrel was allowed in, and seated in the hall. Well, Tim’s first tune in the minister’s house was, of course, ‘the Boyne’, which he played with a great spirit.  Moreover, he played very accurately on the whole, with the exception of a few rather essential notes that he omitted as being unnecessary and troublesome, or, some servants believed, because his fingers were so cold. Finally, Tim was led into the kitchen, where they seated him opposite a blazing fire. ‘Now he’ll play in earnest!’ they cried out with one voice, and they all gathered around him in expectation of more music.

“Tim was now in the house of someone he considered to be in the lower levels of the gentry, but he was willing to please all requests and conditions. Hesistation came when he began to wonder whether he shall repeat the ‘Boyne,’ or begin to play all-enlivening ‘Patrick’s Day.’ In an attempt to gain an answer he turned to a little boy who was gaping with wonder at the grand pipes that Tim was holding. ‘What religion are the servants?’ he asked the boy

‘They are of all sorts, sir,’ whispered the little boy, Tommy in reply, blushing all over because the piper had taken notice of him.

‘Of all sorts!’ muttered Tim and instantly decided, with much solemnity of face to play ‘God save the King.’

“The butler listened awhile with his expert’s ear. ‘You’re a great performer on the pipes!’ he told Tim at length, and with a hand on each hip. ‘and that’s a fine piece of Hannibal’s composition! But it’s not suitable for all occasions, and a livelier air would agree with our temperament much better. Change it to something new.’ Then, tucking his apron aside, the butler gallantly took the rosy tips of the housemaid’s fingers and led her out, while the gardener politely did likewise with the cook. The piper looked a little sullen, and he still continued the national anthem as if he knew what he was doing, and was determined to play out his tune. But, the butler did not like being ignored and his temper began to bristle.

“‘Really,’ he observed with a snobbish smile, ‘we are very loyal people around here, but at this particular moment we don’t want to join in a prayer for our sovereign’s welfare! Stop that melancholic thing, man! give us one of Jackson’s jigs.’

“’Out of fashion?’ asked Tim sullenly, ‘but I’ll give you all one as good,’ and ‘Patrick’s Day’ set them all in motion for a quarter of an hour.

’Oh, we’re all quite tired of that!’ the housemaid said at length, ‘do, piper, give us a waltz or quadrillel. Do you play ‘The Haymaker’s Jig?’ for Jem Sidebottom and I used to dance it beautifully when I lived at Mr Andrew’ s!’

“’What do you call it?’ asked Tim rather sneeringly.

’The Haymaker’s Jig,’ replied the young lady, drawing herself up with an air enough to kill a piper.

’Phew!’ replied Tim contemptuously, ‘that’s out of fashion too. But, I’ll give you one as good.” and the “Boyne” followed, played neither faster nor slower than he had been taught it, which was in right time, and nowhere near dancing time, much to the annoyance of the dancers. Another and another jig and reel was demanded, and to all and each Tim Callaghan replied, ‘I haven’t got that, but I’ll give you one as good,” and the “King,” the “Boyne,” and the “Day,” followed each other in due succession.

“Was there anything more provoking! There stood four active, zealous dancers, with toes pointed and heads erect, anxiously awaiting a further top class exhibition of Tim Callaghan’s powers! There stood the dancers, looking beseechingly at the piper. There sat the piper staring at the dancers, wondering what in the name of God they were waiting for, quite satisfied that they had got all that could be reasonably expected from him. ‘And have you nothing else in your chanter?’ the butler angrily demanded at last.

“’E— ah,’ Stammered Tim Callaghan, as if he did not understand the question. But, the question was put to him again, slower and a little louder. ‘Jaysus, you are powerful for asking questions of a man!’ Callaghan retorted impatiently, ‘your master would be content with what I played for you, and he would be grateful for it!’

“’By all that’s holy!’ exclaimed the butler, ‘this beats everything I ever heard of about entertaining! Tell me, did you ever attend a concert for the nobility? — Ha! ha! ha!’

“‘As sure as God,’ laughed the housemaid, ‘I am certain that this boy is going to get a great many more kicks than pennies! — Ha! ha! Ha!’

“’And that’s good enough for him!” added the gardener, ‘for a man that has only three half tunes in the world, and none of them right! Jaysus, what is your name, friend?’

“’What’s that to you?’ growled the Callaghan.

“’Absolutely nothing, friend! Only I thought that you might be the piper that played before Moses — Ha! ha! ha!’

“’Oh! This eejit wouldn’t even know who Moses was,’ said the cook, as she returned to her kitchen. The butler, meanwhile, had had enough and showed his disappointment and displeasure in Callaghan by taking hold of the piper and throwing him out from the comforts of the fire and the house.

“It was after this that I once again had the delight of hearing Tim Callaghan play. It was in another part of the county, where he was not so well known. A lady had gathered a number of young people to a sea-side dance one evening. But, just before the dance was to begin, she had heard that the fiddler she had employed had become ill, and could not possibly play that night. There was, as far as she could see, nothing that could be done. So, when the guests arrived, and the terrible news communicated to them, the gentlemen in spite of themselves looked very disappointed, as if they anticipated a dull evening ahead. The lovely bright faces of the ladies were overcast, though as usual, they tried to hide their disappointment and continued to act as if nothing was wrong. In this middle of this dilemma one of the young men suddenly remembered that he had seen a piper coming into the village that evening. He told the organisers that he thought it was probable the piper would stop for the night at one of the public-houses nearby. There was now a fresh sense of hope that instantly illuminated all faces, and a messenger was immediately sent for the piper. For my part, whenever I heard mention of a piper, I knew who was going to appear before me.

“’What sort of person is your piper?’ I asked the gentleman that had introduced the subject.

“‘A tall, stout, rather drowsy-looking fellow,’ he told me.

“’Oh!’ cried I, ‘it is the unique Mr. Tim Callaghan!’

“I was eagerly asked if Callaghan was a good piper. But, as I was reluctant to give an answer, another person, who knew honest Tim and his ways, answered, ‘Now, anyone in their right mind will not attempt to trumpet the praises of any other person, because one person’s opinion may not match another’s opinion.  For this reason, then, we leave Tim Callaghan’s musical merit to speak for itself.’

“At this time I can relate another anecdote that occurred while the messenger had gone to retrieve Callaghan. Another servant, called John, was once sent on a similar errand. John’s master had friends spending the evening with him, and he wanted his servant to procure a musician for the young folks for whatever price he could get. After half an hour John returned home to report that his search had proved fruitless. But, instead of simply saying that ‘he could not find one,’ he flung open the main living-room door, and announced his failure in the following way —

“’I searched the city’s cir-cum-fe-rence round,

And not a musician is there to be

found!

I fear for music you’ll be at a loss,

For the fiddler has taken the road

to Ross!’

John then made his bow and retired.

“Tim now made his appearance, and was seated in place at the top of the room, with the attention and respect that was due to his abilities. For my part, the very sight of Tim, and the thought of his consummate assurance, or stupidity, in attempting to play for dancing, amused me beyond any expectations. But, I suppressed all urges to laugh, and kept my eyes and ears on the alert, wondering what was going to come next.

“A bowl of his favourite punch was prepared for him, and while he was sipping it, I thought he cast a scrutinizing and anxious glance at the company that was assembled. I am quite certain that Tim was probably thinking how he should adjust his politics to suit those ready to listen to him. But, poor Tim had little time to settle, for a quadrille set was immediately formed, and he was called on to play! The eager ladies and their young men never once thought that a modern piper might not play quadrilles. In truth, I found it extremely difficult to stop myself from bursting into laughter! There stood the eight elegantly dressed and refined dancers ready to begin, and there sat Tim Callaghan in all his surly stupidity, with a dreadfully puzzled look on his face. He hummed and hawed, tuned and droned much longer than  was really necessary, completely unaware of the demand that was about to be made on him and his pipes. He was much more interested in wracking his brains as to which of his three tunes he should play first.

“’A quadrille, piper, when you are ready!’ one of the gentlemen called out.

“’E— ah!’ stammered Tim Callaghan as he opened his sleepy eyes wide with surprise and began to fiddle some more with the pipes.

“’ A quadrille!’ repeated the young gentleman.

“Ogh,  sure all of that is out of fashion, but I’ll give you one just as good,” and because the company was a mixed one, of whose political opinions he could not be sure, the dancers were suddenly astounded with the most unpleasant rendition of  “God save the King” that they had ever heard!

“All stared at him in disbelief, and most laughed heartily, but what was more hurtful to poor Tim was that his arm was grabbed roughly, and he was forced to stop in the middle of his tune. Then there was an angry demand that if he could not play any quadrilles he could play such and such a waltz, and the names of a dozen popular waltzes were called out to him. Unfortunately, Tim had never heard of any of them in his life! In his confusion and panic Tim began to play “the Boyne,” and some person angrily called the lady of the house. The name called seemed to Tim to be a Catholic one, and a sudden ray of joy shot through his body to his ends of his fingers, and from there to his pipes, and “Patrick’s Day” was the result. A kind of jigging quadrille was then danced by those people who were not so fussy and wanted just to have fun. But, one fussy couple, which included a finely dressed and perfume soaked lady and an aristocratic looking man with his nose permanently stuck in the air, returned to their seats with looks and gestures of horror and disgust. Tim was too busy to notice any of this as he threw himself wholeheartedly into his piping, excited that the ‘quality’ was actually dancing to his music!

“Well! As there seemed nothing better to be had, “Patrick’s Day” was played continuously, as a quadrille, then as a country-dance, much enjoyed by all who preferred dancing to sitting.  He played it before and after supper until, at last, everyone was weary of it, and the general view was that Tim should drop the “Day” and take up the “Boyne,” and try to make it move as best he could. By that time, too, Tim had become very tired of the patron saint’s tune, and now that he had drunk his fourth full-flowing tankard of punch he was more inclined to have a sleep rather than play more tunes. But he was soon roused by our worthy host, who was a man who enjoyed fun and was the very soul of the party. ‘For pity’s sake, piper,’ he said, ‘try to give us something that we can put bit of a step to! I wasn’t in the right mood for dancing to-night until now. If you are an Irishman at all, just take a look at the pretty girl that is to be my partner for the next dance, and perhaps those lovely eyes might inspire even you, you sleepy sot, with a bit of movement to perform some sort of a miracle on those pipes!’

“Short as this address was, and lightly as it was uttered, it had no effect on Tim other than making him even more ready to sleep. While the elderly host was speaking, the drowsiness was descending upon Tim faster and faster. He dozed and was shaken awake again. ‘What do you want?’ he growled loudly. ‘What the devil do you all want?’ Looking down at the assembled crowd as he was, I expected him to say, poetically, ‘Now my weary lips I close; Leave me, leave me to repose.”

“‘Play more music! More music!’ said our host, laughing loudly. ‘Any sort of music, any sort of noise,’ and he left the piper and took his place amongst the dancers. Tim mechanically fumbled at his pipes, while the gentlemen busied themselves in procuring partners. There was silence for some seconds until our host called out to him. ‘Begin, piper.’

“‘Out of fashion,’ muttered Tim in broken half-finished sentences, ‘but— I’ll— give— you  one— as— good,’ and a long, a loud reverberating snore at that instant almost made good his promise of music as harmonious as the sounds obtained from his pipes!

“You can just imagine the scene that followed. The smelling salts and perfumed handkerchief of the ladies were immediately required as they began to feel that they were about to faint! Those who were nervous jumped at the sound, as if a gun had been fired, while others simply joined in a chorus of laughter.  This laughter quickly changed to a degree of regret when it was realised that the Inimitable, and undisturbed, continued to sleep prolonged his sleep, and his nasal performance was his grand finale to the evening. ‘Now’, said the friend who had quietened my attempt to praise the piper, ‘hasn’t Tim Callaghan made his own speech of praise? Hasn’t his talent spoken for itself? What a figure our famous piper would have cut, had we ushered him in here with great words of praise!’

When the storm of laughter had subsided, and when all considered that their unrivalled musician had had enough sleep, he was once more aroused, to receive his well-earned reward, when the following discussion began:

“’Tell me, piper, what is your name?’ asked our host with all the gravity of a judge, as he took out a notebook and pen

“’E— ah? Why, Tim Callaghan.’

“’Ha! Tim Callaghan,’ said the host as he wrote down the answer, ‘I shall certainly remember Tim Callaghan! I suppose, Tim, you are quite famous?’

“’E— ah?’

“’I suppose you are very well known?’

“Why, those that know me the once, will know me again’  said Tim Callaghan.

“’I do believe so! I think I shall know you at all events. Who taught you to play the pipes?’

’A man called Tom Harte, of the county Derry.’

“’Had he much trouble in teaching you?’

“’Him! Trouble! I know nothing about his trouble, but I can well remember my own trouble! There are lumps on my head to this very day, from the unmerciful cracks he used to give it when I went astray.’

‘“Ha! Ha! Ha! Oh, poor fellow! Well, farewell, Tim Callaghan! I hope your path through life will be pleasant, and may your fame spread through the thirty-two counties of green Erin, until you’re rewarded by playing the pipes in heaven!’

‘”Sure, I’d rather be rewarded with a good dinner!’ said Tim Callaghan, and made his exit.

“For a couple of years afterward I quite lost contact with Tim, and I began to fear that he had vanished from the earth altogether, without leaving a trace. But, this very summer, that particular bright star appeared again, with a strapping big wife, and a young boy called Timothy at his heels. The child being a perfect copy of his father, his nose, sleepy eyes, shovel feet and all, and all the family apparently surviving very well on Tim’s repertoire of three basic tunes, and their variations.”

Author: weebush

I am an author of Irish Short Story books and have two books currently in publication i.e. "Across the Sheugh" and "Short Stories and Tall Tales." other new stories can be previewed on my blog

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