TOWARDS the end of the 18th century the face of Europe was changed by a wave of cultural and creative activity.
Banbridge’s own blind piper. William Kennedy was part of that upheaval, according to a book entitled ‘A Biography of the Blind’ written by James Wilson in 1821, containing an interview with William Kennedy, who was still alive.
William Kennedy was born near Banbridge in 1768. He lost his sight when he was four years of age. When he was thirteen he was sent to Mr Moorehead in Armagh to learn how to play the fiddle.
At that time it was customary to send blind children to train as musicians so that they could earn a living. William made good progress and stayed there for over a year lodging with a cabinet maker who taught him how to use tools.
When he came back to home he began to make furniture, then he bought an old dilapidated set of Irish bagpipes (Uilleann pipes, from the Irish word Uileann, meaning elbow).
He experienced great difficulty putting his old pipes into playing order and through them he learnt how pipes are made. On hearing of his interest in pipes neighbours began bringing broken pipes of theirs along to him to be repaired.
As he worked he thought about how he could improve the instrument and began making tools to do the job. He had his first set of new improved pipes completed within nine months. He added keys to the chanter making it possible to play sharps and flats, extended the range so the instrument could play high E and added two large keys played with the wrist so that part, or all, of the basses could be opened at will.
This was an amazing achievement for someone who was completely blind. He could not see either black ebony or white ivory so used an extremely sensitive sense of touch to tell the difference.
A local clockmaker became interested in learning how to play the pipes and he and William instructed each other!
In the past Uilleann piping was closely associated with social dancing and they were also used by Protestant clergymen as a substitute for a church organ.
In 1868 the ‘Armagh Guardian’ printed an article about the importance of hard work. It described how a lazy lad by the name of George Frizell was driving his father demented by messing around and refusing to settle down to work. One day a crowd, including lazy George, gathered in William’s shop and somebody asked him how he, who was blind, managed to do such amazing work.
William replied he hated to hear people pitying his parents because they had a blind son so had decided to use his other senses to make himself as useful as possible. He believed determination and a sense of duty would enable anybody could do anything. He realized that because he was blind he would need to have several occupations if he wanted to be independent and was delighted as he was able to support his parents in their old age,
He said, “The only thing I ask of God now is health, for as to fortune, He has given me an exhaustless one in my workshop. The blind ones in this world are not they who cannot see the sun but they who cannot see duty.”
His words had a profound effect on lazy George who returned to William’s shop the very next day and pleaded to be taken on as an apprentice.
William married in 1793 and spent the next twelve years supporting his wife and family by making all sorts of clocks, repairing pipes, making linen looms and occasionally furniture. According to TGF Patterson, a past curator of Armagh Museum in 1798 William was living in Mullabrack, near Markethill. He moved to work in Tandragee in 1800.
William Kennedy’s obituary appeared in the Newry Telegraph on 11th November, 1834.
It read, “Died, at Tandragee on the morning of the 29th October, Mr. William Kennedy, one of the most extraordinary men who have appeared in these latter times. Though totally deprived of sight, he was enabled through his industry, his perseverance and his genius to execute with precision, taste and judgement, various elaborate works of a nature which have required the utmost exertions of well trained artists.
“Add to this he was a kindly, industrious, moral and religious man, an affectionate husband, and, in all respects, an useful and justly esteemed member of society.”
In other words he was a son of who Banbridge should be very proud. His memory is kept alive by an annual Festival of Piping organized each November by Armagh Pipers Club. Their Festival is planned for 14-17 November 2013 and they intend to hold some sort of event in Banbridge.
Today the Uilleann pipes are kept very much alive in Banbridge by our own Brendan Monaghan, who has travelled the world with his pipes and who has worked with stars such as Phil Coulter.