According to the old vaudeville quip, the Irish gave the Scots bagpipes for a joke — and the Scots never got the joke. I am a Stewart and was raised to love the sound of pipes, but I can more the understand the feeling of the many for whom the instrument is so much musical haggis, to be avoided at all costs. For one thing, the pipes are LOUD. For that reason, counterintuitively, unlike say the accordion, the ukulele and other novelty instruments, there weren’t a lot of acts who played them in vaudeville. Indoors and a few feet away, bagpipes will BLOW YOU AWAY.
That said, the Irish uilleann pipes are smaller, quieter and less harsh. I was introduced to the beauty of this instrument by the music of two friends of my brother’s, Michael Shorrock and Patrick Sky, both of whom I wrote about some here. At any rate, this morning I was delighted to learn about at least one vaudeville act that incorporated these kind of pipes into their performances, the Brothers O’Donnell. Ed was the piper, Cornelius or “Con” scraped the fiddle and danced. Both were also comedians and did comedy patter and skits. The pair were second generation musicians; their folks were from Donegal. The brothers were born in Brooklyn in the 1870s, and likely got their first experience performing in their dad’s Red Hook saloon, which was frequented by firefighters. Professionally, they were most active from 1903 (when they played Coney Island!) through 1914. They mostly played small time vaudeville throughout New York State and the Northeast, in general. From old reviews, you gather that the pair were a couple of charmers and well-liked performers, but their act was a bit frayed around the edges, with a borrowed skit and lots of well-known songs. In time, it read as corny stuff, and the pair fell back on straight jobs. They tried a comeback in 1920, but by then urban audiences were already demanding more sophistication. This was Harrigan and Hart era stuff — strictly 1880s. (Not my value judgment — theirs)
How do I know all this? Through Ithaca’s Nick Whitmer, who not only penned this great biography of the O’Donell Brothers (containing much more than I’ve shared with you) but also shares this terrific scrapbook of their clippings. Whitmer is the keeper of All Things O’Donnell Brothers. I highly reccomend a visit to his site to learn more about them, and much other lore about the instrument and the people who play it.
For more on the history of vaudeville, please read No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous