(February 26, 1865 - 1923)
Uilleann 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 USA as a professional entertainer and became a prime mover of the Gaelic music revival in the States. Today his music is a byword for unsurpassed virtuosity.
Touhey came from a family of established uilleann pipers. His 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.
The family immigrated to the United States in 1875 where 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 “Jerry Cohan’s Irish Hibernia Show” in 1886.
In 1893, Touhey went to Chicago for the World’s Fair, which introduced him to Edison’s recording technology. Understanding the commercial potential of such recordings, Touhey began selling cylinder recordings 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, Bronx, NY.
Sources: Irish Traditional Music Archive online biography, Irish Minstrels and Musicians, 313; Companion to Irish Music 399; The Milwaukee Sentinel, Dec. 24, 1888.