Patrick Touhey: How This Musician Made Irish Pipe Music Mainstream

Revered for his mastery of the Uilleann pipes, criticised for his one-dimensional portrayal of Irishness, Patrick ‘Patsy’ Touhey’s has left a complex tapestry of both musical brilliance and controversy. Nevertheless, without his contributions, traditional Irish music may have never left the shores.

A Boston-Irish Music Mashup

Born in Galway in 1865, Touhey would not know Ireland long. Though his family emigrated to Boston when Touhey was only three, they brought with them a penchant for their homeland’s music, and by 11 years old Patsy took up the Uilleann pipes. 

By 20 years old, Patsy had found some success touring with Harrigan’s Double Hibernian Co. The group—a mashup of lowbrow slapstick comedy, music, dancing and Irish nostalgia—toured the northeast US. This would be Touhey’s introduction to life on stage. 

From 1888-1893, Touhey would appear in many plays from Atlanta to New York to Milwaukie, his pipes in tow. Playing left-handed and quickly, his style was unique and compelling. Touhey played traditional Irish folk tunes with new approaches, abandoning strict timekeeping for a looser interpretation of the music. He was noted to switch from jig to reel with ease and well known for his soulful renditions of classics. Additionally, he played versions of American folk tunes on Irish pipes, delighting surprised audiences with the mashups. 

Touhey’s Controversial Performance on the Big Stage

Touhey demonstrated exceptional talent, captivating audiences with his virtuosity and deeply emotive performances. His repertoire encompassed a wide array of traditional tunes, showcasing the rich heritage of Irish music. Touhey’s influence extended beyond his performances; he played a pivotal role in preserving and popularizing traditional tunes, leaving an indelible mark on the genre. 

But it was his appearance at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and the 1904 World Fair in St Louis that would cement his reputation amongst other Irish artists as derivative and offensive. During his time playing in the “Irish Village” of the 1904 World Fair, Touhey caught the ire of some actors and singers from Dublin’s Abbey Theatre who described his music and costume as “…a vile caricature of the Irish race.” 

In his later life, Patrick Touhey continued touring in shows. He and his wife, Mary (stage name May), played dance halls and stages across the US. Touhey performed for some time in Vaudeville shows, teaming up with well-known comedians and dancers, most notably Charles H. Burke. 

He headed the call of Capt. Francis O’Neill, Chicago Police Chief and Irish music lover, who’s life work included the recording and notation transcription of Irish folk music in the United States. It was because of this work that many traditional Irish tunes survive today, including many played by Patrick Touhey. 

 Keeping Irish Pipe Music Alive

Touhey’s legacy is clearly not without its controversies. Criticism levied against him for perpetuating stereotypes of Irish people through his performances and public persona continue to this day. Some argue that his exaggerated portrayal of the “stage Irishman” – a caricature characterized by heavy drinking and boisterous behaviour – reinforced harmful stereotypes rather than celebrating authentic Irish culture. 

However, it cannot be ignored that without Patrick Touhey’s prolific and skilled playing of the Uilleann pipes—and indeed, without his willingness to record himself on wax cylinders—Irish pipe music may not have found as broad an audience in North America and a generation of pipers may have lost out on that inspiration. And those traditional tunes Touhey adapted to his own? Some of them might have been lost forever without him.