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Sweeney History


Toirdhealach Mac Suibhne
(Turlough McSweeney)


No Irish piper of ancient or modern times, unless it be "the piper who played before Moses", has been the subject of so much publicity as Turlough McSweeney, "The Donegal Piper", since brought to light by Mrs. Hart and installed at "Donegal Castle" on the Midway of the World's Columbian Exposition at Chicago in 1893.

In the evolution of time and decay of ancient Irish institutions during the nineteenth century, the professional piper sometimes was obliged to abandon his calling and seek a livelihood by more profitable means; and so it was with McSweeney.

On his arrival in Chicago, McSweeney found that his instrument from age and disuse was entirely unfit for the services required; and had it not been for the kind helpfulness of Sergeant of Police James Early, it would have been scarcely possible for him to fulfill his mission.

While the "Donegal Piper" played outside the main entrance to "Donegal Castle", Patsey Touhey, the great Irish-American piper, was the center of attraction within; and no two musicians on the Midway, representing their respective countries, won more attention or elicited more praise than they.

For an Irish piper, McSweeney's coldness and reticence were in marked contrast with the manners of most persons of his class. This taciturnity may have been constitutional; yet who knows but it was the visible effect of maintaining the dignity befitting a distinguished piper, conscious of his descent from the chieftains of his once powerful Clan MacSuibhne of Tir-Conaill.


It was while in one of his gracious moods that he confided as to how he came to be such a great piper. In his young days McSweeney was no musical prodigy, as one may surmise from his subsequent reputation. In fact, he was not much of a player at all, according to his own account, though having the advantage of heredity and example; for his father and grandfather, particularly the latter, were fine pipers in their day. "There was no music in me", is the way he tells of his lack of talent. But he was anxious to learn and be a credit to his name and ancestry.

Despairing of other means of attaining success, it occurred to him to make an appeal to the fairies on the rath of Gaeth-Doir on the hilltop half a mile away, One moonlight night he plucked up his courage and with his pipes buckled on all ready for playing, he made his way up along the "boreen" and across the fields and timidly entered the fort. But perhaps the reader would prefer to read the story in his own words:

"Well, as I was saying, when I got to the center of the Plasog, as near as I can tell you may be sure I wasn't any too comfortable. Anyway, I addressed myself to the king of the fairies, saying "I am Turlough McSweeney, the piper of Gwedore and I hope you will pardon my boldness for coming to ask your majesty to play a 'chune" on the piper for me and I'll return the compliment and play for you.' Yerra man, like a shot out of a gun, the words were hardly out of my mouth when the grandest music of many pipes, let alone one, played all together, filled my ears; and that wasn't all, for lo and behold you, what should I see but scores of little fairies or luricauns, wearing red caps, neatly footing it, as if for a wager. Believe me, I was so overcome with fright at such a strange and unexpected sight that I ran for the bare life, my pipes hanging to me and dropping off piece and joint along the way; and by the time I reached home, the dickens a bit of my whole set of pipes was left to me but the bellows and the bag and they couldn't let go as they were strapped round my waist.

"Picture to yourselves the kind of night I spent after what happened. Anyway by sunup in the morning I ventured out and started to try and pick up the disjointed sections of my pipes, as I know well enough the route I ran. My luck relieved my misgivings when I found the last missing part, which had dropped off at the very entrance to the rath or fort when I ran away.

"I lost no time in putting the now complete instrument in order and to keep my word and fulfill the promise made to the king of the fairies the night before, I struck up 'The Wild Irishman,' my favorite reel. Words can't express my astonishment and delight when I found I could play as well as the best of them. And that, gentlemen, is how I came to be the best Union piper of my day in that part of the country."


"Many years after that, when I was living alone in the little cabin after my mother died - God rest her soul - there came to the door in the dusk of the evening a stranger and nothing less than a piper, by the way, who with a 'God save all here', introduced himself as was customary. I invited him in, of course, and after making himself at aise he says 'Would you like to hear a 'chune' on the pipes?' 'I would that' said I, for I know a piper and his music are always welcome in an Irish home. Taking his pipes out of the bag, he laid them on the bed beside him, and what do you think but without anyone laying a finger on them, struck up 'Toss the Feathers' in a way that would make a cripple get up and dance. After a while when they stopped, he says, 'Will you play a 'chune' for me now?' I said I would and welcome, pulling the blanket off my pipes that were hid under the bedclothes, to keep the reed from drying out. 'Give us Seaghan ua Duirhir an Gleanna' (Shaun O'Dheir an Glanna), says I to the pipes and when they commenced to play, the mysteriuos stranger, who no doubt was a fairy, remarked, 'Ah, Mac, I see you are one of us'. With that both sets of pipes played half a dozen 'chunes' together. When they had enough of it, the fairy picked up his pipes and put them in the green bag again. If I had any doubts about him before, I had none at all when he said familiarly, 'Mac, I'm delighted with my visit here this evening and as I have several other calls to make, I'll have to be after bidding you a good night, but if I should happen to be passing this way again, I'll be sure to drop in'

"We must be always careful to not offend the 'good people', but as I traveled around throughout the Northern Counties a great deal after that, and even into Scotland, of course he couldn't blame me if I wasn't at home to entertain him if he happened to call during my absence."

And so ends the story of the "Donegal Piper" partly as told by himself in all seriousness to men not much his juniors in years. For obvious reasons such tales are never debatable, yet those who came in contact with the taciturn minstrel felt that there was something strange, and even uncanny, in his whole demeanor.


In the varying fortunes of its people, the history of few countries presents mare striking examples than that of Ireland. The many and fierce internecine wars with which Ireland was distracted in her early days, followed by the Anglo-Norman conquest of the country in the twelfth century, has tended to bring about a state of affairs by which, at the present time, some families who formally ranked among the highest in the land, are now in poverty, while others have been raised from obscurity and are at present in possession of wealthy estates.

A notable example of the reverses of fortune is afforded by the person of Turlough McSweeney. A reference to O'Hart's "Irish Pedigrees" will show that this remarkable old man, born in 1829 and who has followed the profession of Irish Piper, were formerly princes closely connected with the royal line of Ireland. The records of his race have been so carefully preserved that his pedigree can be traced to Eremon, first king of Ireland, in the year 1690 BC.

Then follows a list of the names of comparatively modern ancestors, ending with Donnchad Mór (last of the McSweeney chieftains), son of Sir Miles McSweeney of Doe Castle.

No wonder his dignity and reserve were well nigh impenetrable.


In the piper's competition at the first Dublin Feis Ceoil in 1897, McSweeney was awarded the second prize and was similarly honored at the Belfast Feis the following year.

Being in line with the tales of fairy enhancement, his mysterious allusions to a book of 'instructions' all through his career have served to make him an object of peculiar interest to people of his class everywhere.. No human eye, except his own, has been permitted to profane this treasure by even a glance. As a concession to his benefactors, he presented them with a scale of the natural notes on the Irish chanter, which, upon comparison we find to be identical with that found in O' Farrell's "National Irish Music" and re-printed in Appendix A of "Irish Folk Music: A Fascinating Hobby".

It is claimed that the only copy of O' Farrell's work in Ireland is in the library of the Dublin Museum, so the 'Donegal Piper' may well have regarded his treasure as priceless, cherishing, as he undoubtedly did, the hallucination that he possessed the only copy in existence of one of the rarest and most unique works ever printed on a British press.

To add to his fame, he has been immortalized by the poetess, Anna Johnson in a poem bearing his name.

A health to you, Piper, and your pipes silver-tongued, Clear and sweet in their crooning. Full of the music they gathered at morn On your high heather hills from the lark on the wing From the blackbird at eve on the blossoming thorn, From the little green linnet whose plaining they sing, And the joy and the hope in the heart of the spring - Oh Turlogh MacSweeney

Thanks to Bernard McSweeney in Malaysia for this story.

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