Martin Gallen is the personification of how the economic downturn has forced people to diversify. From spending his days on muddy building sites, the Strabane man has moved into the field of music and is today, quite literally, carving out a reputation as one of Ireland’s foremost uilleann pipe makers.
Through his own brand, Banba Ireland, the 38-year-old builds uilleann pipes from scratch, to be sold to musicians right across the world.
Incredibly, Martin himself only lifted a set of pipes for the first time three years ago. Since then he has built, repaired and re-tuned instruments for some of the country’s best known pipers, among them Paddy Keenan and former Planxty member Liam O’Flynn.
Shortly Martin Gallen will publish his first book on the art of reed making and speaking ahead of its arrival he told the Strabane Chronicle of his journey from building site to building pipes.
“Noel Devine is a well known pipe player from this area and I gave him a lift one day. He was on his way to teach someone and I said I wouldn’t mind giving the pipes a go.
“So Noel agreed to give me a few lessons and he lent me a practice set to see how I got on. That was just over three years ago now,” Martin said.
Uilleann pipes can cost from as little as £1,000 right up to £60,000. Cash strapped after work in his day job dried up, Martin Gallen decide to have a go at building a set of his own.
“When it came to buying a set I realised the price so I said I would have a stab at making my own,” he explained.
“A friend of mine gave me my first lessons in reed making and I began learning from there. Once I had the basics I began teaching myself the rest.”
What started out as a hobby has become a full time job, with Martin’s expertise now in high demand. His rising popularity is, in part at least, fuelled by his unique style. Among the materials he employs during his working day are First World War artillery shells. Bought at cut price from the internet, the shells are moulded into key components of a set of uilleann pipes.
“I bought the shells from a collector in England and they are ideal for what I’m doing.
“I like to have a story behind the pipes I make because they are going to be with whoever buys them for the rest of their lives. So I think it’s important that they have a story to go with them,” he said.
Like the Irish language, pipe playing has enjoyed a huge resurgence in recent years, with clubs and organisations popping up right across Ireland. At one point during the 1960’s the art of traditional pipe making in Ireland almost died out altogether. Thanks to the work of groups like na píobairí uilleann though, it is once again thriving. And no longer is it confined to these shores but in places like Germany and America where uilleann making is becoming increasingly popular.
In the world of piping there is an old saying that to be a musician it takes 21 years – seven years listening, seven practising and seven playing.
“They are difficult to play,” Martin admitted. “And the younger you are the more chance you have of mastering them.
“Personally I was always best when working with my head. I was never even remotely musical and I never for one second thought I would end up working with my hands.”
On an average day in his small Banba Ireland workshop, Martin can be found working exotic woods like tulip, ebony, African black wood, ewe and chestnut into what will eventually be a magnificent set of pipes.
“It’s a brilliant feeling when you hear the music something you have made produces. When you hear them played back to you, there’s nothing else like it,” Martin said.
Such has been his rise within the industry, Banba Ireland has become a point of contact for the majority of top Irish pipers. One unexpected guest to his workshop recently was former Simply Red guitarist Tony Bowers.
“He called in just to get his pipes sorted,” said Martin. “He spent a few hours here just chatting about piping and about reeds. He was a really down to earth guy but not the kind of person you expect to turn up on your doorstep.”
Banba Ireland is a company on the up, very much in the same vein as the reputation of the man behind it.
“If you had told me five years ago that I would be doing what I’m doing I would have laughed at you. If you had told me ten years ago you could have saved me a student loan,” laughed Martin.
“I love what I’m doing and hopefully the company keeps on growing.”