Uileann piper Patsy Touhey was the most celebrated Irish traditional musician of his day. Born on February 26, 1865 near Loughrea, County Galway, he flourished in the United States as a professional entertainer and became a prime mover of the Gaelic music revival in the States.
From a family of established uilleann pipers, Touhey's grandfather Michael was a well-known piper of his day and his father James was a professional piper employed by Lord Dunsandle. Touhey's elder brothers, John (born 1831) and Pat (born 1836) were both professional pipers in England. After his family immigrated to the United States in 1875, Patsy began learning pipes from his father. Unfortunately, James died shortly after their arrival, and Touhey resumed studying with one of his father's students, Bartley Murphy from County Mayo. He continued studying pipes with the "albino piper," John Egan. Egan gave Touhey his first professional musical experience, touring together in Jarry Cohan's Irish Hibernia Show in 1886.
In 1893, Touhey visited the World's Fair in Chicago, which introduced him to Edison's recording technology. Understanding the commercial potential of such recordings, Touhey began selling cylinder recorders for $1 per cylinder and $10 for a dozen via mail order, maintaining a catalogue of 150 tunes. This produced the earliest substantial body of sound recordings by a traditional musician, giving us unique insight into the incredibly rich world of traditional music-making in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Touhey made the bulk of his living from vaudeville performances. He played tunes on the pipes, accompanied the dancing of his wife, Mary Gillen, and performed in comic sketches. He also provided music for theatrical productions, including a brief Milwaukee run of The Ivy Leaf in 1888.
Touhey died in 1923 and is buried at St. Raymond's Cemetery in Bronx, New York.
To mark his 150th birthday, the archivists at the Ward Irish Music Archives have compiled Touhey's cylinder recordings from the Dunn Family Collection in their holdings and the Henebry/O'Neill Wax Cylinder Collection from UCC into this Soundcloud playlist. You can find more information (and even more recordings) at both websites as well as these other resources:
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By Jeff Ksaizek, Archivist, Ward Irish Music Archives