The title "King of the Pipers" has been bestowed on various Irish uilleann pipers but few would dispute that Leo Rowsome, who died 50 years ago on September 20th, is the one most deserving of that title. A third generation uilleann piper, he played a central role in the revival and preservation of uilleann piping in Ireland as a pipe maker, performer, teacher, organiser, collector and publisher.
His grandfather Samuel Rowsome (the surname is of Huguenot origin), from Ballintore, Co Wexford, was a player and pipe maker and his father William established a pipe-making and repair business in Dublin, where Leo was born in Harold's Cross on April 5th, 1903, one of six musical children. His father recognised his talent from an early age and taught him all he knew about playing, making and repairing uilleann pipes.
The son was an avid student and quick learner, so much so that by the young age of 16 he was appointed teacher of the uilleann pipes at the Dublin Municipal School of Music, now the Technological University Dublin Conservatoire.
He also taught at the Dublin Pipers’ Club, which broke up as a result of the Irish Civil War.
With others, he revived the club in 1936 under the name Cumann na bPíobairí.
His father died in 1925 and he took over the family business. One of the first things he did was to make a set of pipes for himself. On Na Píobairí Uilleann website, his fellow piper and friend of 50 years, Seán Reid from Ennis, wrote that “for quality of tone and brilliance”, that set of pipes “was never equalled in its class in his lifetime . . .This glorious instrument, shining and resplendent and sounding like an organ, was for nearly 50 years an object of fascination for countless audiences and of veneration and almost superstitious awe for pipers.”
The first Irish national radio station, 2RN, began broadcasting in 1926 and Leo Rowsome was the first uilleann piper to perform on it; he played solo at first and later in duets with Frank O'Higgins, Micheál Ó Duinn and his own brother John, all playing the fiddle. He also played on air with the All Ireland Trio, the other two of whom were Neilus Cronin (flute) and Seamus O'Mahony (fiddle).
Later in the 1930s he formed his Pipers' Quartet and they broadcast regularly for the next few decades. The great Clare traditional musician Willie Clancy played in the quartet for some years along with Tommy Reck and Seán Seery; among the many other musicians performing in the quartet were Michael Padian, Eddie Potts, his brother Tom Rowsome and his own son Leon. "Leo was at his glorious best when heard broadcasting live over the radio (the Director of Music for some unknown reason would never allow him to be recorded). These programmes were listened to avidly by his numerous fans," according to Seán Reid.
He was the first Irish uilleann piper to perform on the recently established BBC television in 1933.
His recording career began in the era of 78 rpm discs and he made many recordings for the Columbia, Decca and HMV labels. Records of his on vinyl were released by Claddagh Records and Topic Records. Rí na bPíobairí (King of the Pipers) was his final commercial recording and was released on Claddagh Records in 1966.
For most of his life he was a teacher and in addition to his work at the Dublin Municipal School of Music and the Dublin Pipers’ Club, he travelled all over the country to give classes. “He was a first-class teacher and succeeded in giving individual attention to upwards of 30 pupils, many of them juveniles. He was always patient, never abusive, maintained good discipline and while he never pushed his pupils, he managed to maintain progress,” wrote Seán Reid.
Some of his pupils, such as Liam O’Flynn, afterwards became famous.
He married Helena Williams, a schoolteacher and lover of traditional music, from Taghmon, Co. Wexford, in 1934. They had two sons, Leon and Liam, and twin daughters, Helena and Olivia. They were all very talented musically on a variety of instruments.
Leo Rowsome died suddenly at the age of 67, while adjudicating the Fiddler of Dooney Competition in Riverstown, Co Sligo. He was a joint founder of Na Píobairí Uilleann with Seamus Ennis in 1967 and on its website, Seán Reid paid tribute to his "outstanding manual dexterity, eyes like a hawk, a keen, analytical brain and a most retentive memory".
Reid also said about him that he never had an unkind word to say about anyone and that “he was not the least bit puffed up by fame but simple, warm-hearted, jovial, happy, with a fund of anecdotes and in general the very best of good company”.