A Chiff & Fipple Profile by L. E. McCullough
About a year ago, I acquired a C/D set of Concert Whistles made by Pat O’Riordan. I love these instruments. I revere them enough to have a special wooden case made for them (by Kelly McGhee, by the way). Shortly after I had the good fortune to speak to Pat on the phone at some length and we’ve shared some correspondence since. The man is as lovely as his instruments. So, I was delighted when tinwhistle player extraordinaire, author, teacher, scholar, poet, raconteur, and large animal veterinarian Dr. L.E. McCullough offered to prepare a short profile and update on Mr. O’Riordan’s work for
Chiff & Fipple.
I performed at the Ft. Wayne Irish Fest this month and had the chance to renew acquaintance with tinwhistle maker Pat O'Riordan, whom I'd first met in 1982 when he attended a folk music camp I operated in Western Pennsylvania. When I moved back to Indiana, I was delighted to find he'd become one of the premier makers of whistles in the world
From a few simple "experiments" roughed out in his Fort Wayne garage back in 1981, retired engineer Pat O'Riordan's after-hours hobby has blossomed into a full-scale international enterprise. Over 1,400 of his handcrafted Music Workshop brand tinwhistles have found appreciative owners throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe, and the seventy-one-year-old Coventry, England, native is hard-pressed these days to keep up with all the orders pouring in daily from around the globe.
"I've always liked flutes and tinwhistles," says O'Riordan, whose parents hailed from Limerick, Ireland. "About twenty years ago I got a tinwhistle and began learning a few Irish tunes. After a while I started thinking, there's got to be a better whistle than the ones you buy."
A twenty-five-year employee with the Rea Magnet Wire Company, O'Riordan drew upon his mechanical engineering background when fabricating his initial prototypes. "The first thing I did was design a different mouthpiece, similar to a recorder mouthpiece," he says. "Then I made the tube in two sections, more like a flute, with the mouthpiece pushed onto the joint and fitted over a metal tuning slide, like you see on Baroque flutes."
O'Riordan believes that the mouthpiece is the key to a good whistle. "Anybody can make the tubes, there's nothing to that. When I started, I would cross-section Generations and recorders and look at how the windway was made. I came up with a slightly different idea, which seems to adapt through the range very nicely. You have to look at instruments and cut them up and examine them. The windway is crucial. If you get two or three materials of the same thickness, everything else the same, you can barely tell the difference. You might hear a little brightness out of something, a little more mellow out of something, but it's the mouthpiece definitely that gives the instrument its character."
For his whistle bodies, O'Riordan has used kingwood, ebony, African blackwood, aluminum, and brass. After considerable experimentation he's come to prefer Delrin, the high-quality black plastic also employed by Michael Copeland and Chris Abell, for his mouthpieces. "It's a nice, sturdy material," he notes.
O'Riordan travels to Ireland frequently, test-marketing his instruments among active tinwhistle players. Always attentive to consumer feedback, he continues to experiment with new designs and materials.
"I discovered that the aluminum tube gives the greater clarity and superior volume players like to have when competing with other instruments in a noisy session," he says. "After testing that model among players in Ireland, I realized I needed a whistle with a better response that permitted quicker fingering and easier ornamentation. So I developed the thin-wall brass model."
O'Riordan currently produces two models: "The Concert Whistle" in C and D with the body made from kingwood, blackwood and other woods as available and "The Traveller" (keys C, D, E-flat, low F, G, E, E-flat and D) that features an aluminum key tube finished in an abrasion-resistant black anodized coating. Both models have polished brass or nickel tuning slides and strengthening rings, as well as a fabric carrying bag.
Well ahead of the popular curve, he expanded into low whistles about a dozen years ago. "I started working my way down from A and B-flat to G and F, and then I've got an E and E-flat and now a D, which is now in use quite a bit. I've got a prototype low C, and that's as far as I'll go. I don't think anybody's interested below that - you'd have to have awfully long fingers!"
O'Riordan makes his tinwhistles in a small workshop in his garage, spending 4-5 hours a day to produce roughly 120 whistles a year. He attends several music and crafts festivals throughout the Midwest and is an eagerly anticipated attraction at Fort Wayne's annual Johnny Appleseed Festival (scheduled this year for Sept. 18-19).
Not surprisingly, O'Riordan has tried his artisan's hand at other instruments, with a half-dozen harps and guitars and some fifty fretted dulcimers to his credit. Still, the tinwhistle is his first and lasting love. "Tinwhistles have a faster turnaround time, and, when you try something new, you can hear what you've got in only a couple of hours.
"And, I guess I just like to see if I can make a better whistle than the last one off the press."
Prize-winning performer, composer and producer L.E. McCullough is a frequent contributor to Chiff & Fipple. He is the author of the acclaimed The Complete Irish Tinwhistle Tutor. . His book/tape publication, 120 Favorite Irish Session Tunes, was produced by uilleann piper Patrick Sky and is distributed by Homespun Tapes, who issued McCullough's instructional video, Learn to Play Irish Tinwhistle in 1998. McCullough's book of 61 original Irish traditional compositions, St. Patrick Was a Cajun, was released by Ossian Publications in 1998.