Liam O’Flynn obituary

Liam O’Flynn in 2012.
Liam O’Flynn in 2012. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA

Revered as a modern master of the Irish uilleann pipes, Liam O’Flynn, who has died aged 72, was a solo performer who commanded deep respect from his fellow musicians, and a collaborator with a wide range of folk, classical, rock and popular music performers. Kate Bush, Enya, Mark Knopfler, John Cage, Mike Oldfield, Emmylou Harris, Sinéad O’Connor and the Everly Brothers were among the artists whose albums benefited from his playing. A further pairing was with the poet Seamus Heaney, who explained his love of O’Flynn’s playing: “The pipes call and raise the spirit. They also quieten and open up the daydream part of people.”

Above all, it was O’Flynn’s membership of the Irish folk band Planxty, with Christy Moore, Andy Irvine and Dónal Lunny, that established his reputation as a piper to a wider audience. The band had first come together when they all played on Moore’s 1972 solo album Prosperous. Planxty took the Chieftains’ concept of group instrumental playing to a new level with the addition of traditional and new songs and instruments including the guitar and bouzouki. The band captured the imagination of a young audience in Ireland more accustomed to listening to rock music, and also found success among folk enthusiasts in Britain. O’Flynn’s playing introduced many people to the uilleann pipes for the first time.

Liam O’Flynn, second left, with other members of Planxty in 1973.
Liam O’Flynn, second left, with other members of Planxty in 1973. Photograph: Michael Putland/Getty Images

The uilleann pipes are a bellows-blown bagpipe with a chanter and three drones, plus three regulators which play chords or a simple harmony and allow syncopation. An indoors instrument, softer than the Scottish pipes, they are played for dancing as well as for listening, especially the slow airs, at which O’Flynn excelled. For Moore, O’Flynn’s playing had a “deep and moving soulfulness”.

O’Flynn was born in Kill, County Kildare, attending school locally and in the county town, Naas. Both his parents were musical: his father, also Liam, a teacher, played the fiddle, and his mother, Maisie (nee Scanlan), taught the piano and was a cousin of the County Clare fiddle player Junior Crehan.

The young Liam was first captivated by the sound of the pipes when a local piper, Tom Armstrong, visited the house to play duets with his father. From the age of 11, he travelled weekly to Dublin for lessons with the great piper Leo Rowsome, and was later influenced by the other two giants of Irish piping, Willie Clancy and Séamus Ennis.

By his early 20s, O’Flynn was playing informally with two future members of the Chieftains, Seán Keane and Matt Malloy, and he won prizes at the Fleadh Cheoil music competition and the Oireachtas festival. In 1968, he was a founder member of Na Píobairí Uilleann, the Society of Uilleann Pipers; he was their honorary president at the time of his death.

O’Flynn gave up his job as a teacher to co-found Planxty, and although he remained a constant figure in the band as the other members left and returned, the relentless touring led them to disband in 1983. A staple of the band’s live performances was Raggle Taggle Gypsy followed by Tabhair Dom Do Lámh (Give Me Your Hand): the transition from the song to the tune in a different time signature led by the pipes always brought applause and cheers from the audience. Among their best albums was The Well Below the Valley (1973); O’Flynn also played whistle with the band. The four original members re-formed for a couple of years from 2003.

In 1980, O’Flynn collaborated with the composer Shaun Davey in The Brendan Voyage, the title of Tim Severin’s account of his re-enactment of the Irish saint’s 6th-century journey to Newfoundland, based on legend. The pipes told the story of the boat, the orchestra the story of what the boat encountered. The innovative use of Irish music, and the pipes in particular, with a classical orchestra in both live performances and the album, had a groundbreaking impact. Further collaborations with Davey included The Pilgrim, Granuaile and The Relief of Derry Symphony.

O’Flynn recorded relatively few solo CDs, most notably The Piper’s Call (1999), on which he performed with an orchestra and with the Galician piper Carlos Núñez, and which included traditional tunes performed with his regular touring musicians, Arty McGlynn, Rod McVey and Steve Cooney.

The Piper’s Call Band appeared at a concert devoted to Irish music at the 1999 BBC Proms to great acclaim. O’Flynn also performed the musical scores to several films, including Cal (with Mark Knopfler, 1984). In 2007 he received the TG4 Gradam Ceoil award for musician of the year.

He is survived by his wife, Jane (nee Nightingale), whom he married in 1988, and sister, Maureen.

• Liam O’Flynn, uilleann piper, born 15 April 1945; died 14 March 2018