The Irish Piper

William Oliver
c. 1825–1901

The Irish Piper
1874

Oil on canvas
30 x 25 in

Purchase, Various Donors, 2014

Born William Oliver Williams, this artist shortened his name to William Oliver. He exhibited at the British Institution and the Royal Academy, London. From the accuracy and detail of this painting, it is clear that Oliver visited Ireland, although this is the only known Irish work by him.

Oliver was known for his doe-eyed, winsome young women, who tend to be at once self aware and sentimentalized, as is the red-haired girl, with her skirt tucked up, dancing on the earthen floor. However, the treatment of the piper, with his hobnailed boots, blue-tailed coat, knee breeches and felt hat, shows Oliver’s more robust painterly skills.

Above the floor-level turf fire hang pot hooks and crook for cooking, a bastable pot for boiling potatoes and stews, and other closely observed details of rural life of Ireland in the later 19th century. Of course, the emigrant chest with domed lid is a reminder of the ongoing legacy of the Famine.

The scant cabin furniture was pushed back for the singing and dancing at céilithe. Terry Moylan, Archivist with Na Píobairí Uilleann, says the piper conforms to the trope of the “aged bard” or “wandering minstrel.” He plays a full set of pipes: bag, bellows, chanter, drones and regulators. And his seat and fingering are convincingly observed.

After the Famine, the old dances were replaced with sets and half-sets, and the pipes were superseded by melodeon and concertina. But in this painting, Oliver anticipates the revival, toward the end of the 19th century, when the Gaelic League set out to restore the lost culture.

The first reference to the pipes is in a dinnseanchas or topographical poem, “Aonach Carman,” found in the Book of Leinster. The earliest representations of pipe playing are to be seen on the High Crosses. Foreign commentators identified the pipes as the martial instrument of the Irish. But above all, they are manifestations of the social and cultural life of Ireland.