The tin whistle is often one of the first instruments a player picks up on their journey through Irish music. Because of this, many people don’t quite take it as seriously as they should. Listening to these tin whistle players is a perfect cure for any such snobbery!
The tin whistle has been played in Ireland ever since it became popularly available in the mid 1800s. But its roots go much further back than that, and there are mentions of simple fipple flutes in Irish sources from the Middle Ages. Nowadays, it’s taught in classrooms across Ireland, meaning almost everyone there has played one at some point or another.
These tin whistle players, though, have gone far beyond the beginner tunes. They are ten of the best to ever toot a whistle. Maybe you’ll be inspired to join them; after all, while they’re not quite a “penny” whistle anymore, they’re pretty inexpensive!
Mary Bergin is regularly acknowledged as not just Ireland’s greatest living tin whistle player, but one of its greatest living musicians. While she does play the flute like many fellow tin whistlers, her spritely, highly ornamented whistle playing is like no other. Her 1979 album Feadóga Stáin is a must-have for any tin whistle player or Irish music lover. She’s also credited with helping to change perceptions of the tin whistle from a fun little musical toy and stepping stone to bigger things to a serious instrument in its own right. Her popular tin whistle tutorial books have helped countless whistlers learn to play.
Along with his great playing, Micho Russell was one of the great personalities in Irish music. He often introduced his tunes with stories, sometimes personal and sometimes from folklore. His unique clipped playing hearkens back to an older style of playing. He won the All-Ireland Tin Whistle Championship in 1973, and toured around the world playing, singing, and telling stories. But his heart was always in his hometown of Doolin, Co. Clare, which he helped turn into a mecca for Irish music lovers.
Seán Potts was born and raised in Dublin, where he became a part of the folk revival scene in the 1950s and 60s. He was a meber of Seán Ó Riada’s Ceoltoirí Chualann, an ensemble that combined traditional music with classical arrangements. In that group, he met uilleann piper Paddy Moloney, and the two would go on to form The Chieftains. Potts toured all over the world with The Chieftains, and recorded solo as well. His 1972 album with Moloney and bodhran player Peader Mercier simply titled Tin Whistles is a classic. Potts also played the bodhran and uilleann pipes, but the tin whistle was his primary and most loved instrument.
Sean Ryan’s playing is an unique as his look. A painting of Ryan with his trademark beard, long hair, and cap graces the walls of the Crane Bar in Galway where he’s been a session mainstay for decades. He plays in shorter phrases, with plainer ornamentation that let the contours of the tune shine through. He also has a fairy tale job as the owner of the supposedly haunted Leap Castle.
If tunes can be called tongue twisters, then Brian Finnegan has written plenty. He’s best known as the flute and tin whistle player in Flook, a progressive Irish trad band. Finnegan has introduced some remarkable techniques to the tin whistle, leading to highly complex ornaments and plenty of syncopation in his playing. Some of his original compositions like The Donegal Lass have become popular session tunes. There are many who can try to play like him, but Finnegan’s technical wizardry on the whistle is something to behold.
Donncha Ó Briain
Donncha Ó Briain is one of the best examples of music persevering through any hardship. He was born with muscular dystrophy, and had very limited mobility in his short life. Coming from a musical family, he played the tin whistle largely from physical necessity. In the years before he died at the young age of 30, he couldn’t even pick up a tin whistle without help. Yet through all of that, he became known as one of Ireland’s greatest tin whistle players. His fingers were quite deft despite his disease, and his playing is technically proficient without being overstuffed with ornamentation.
Carmel Gunning is one of Co. Sligo’s great exports and a master tin whistle player. She has a brilliantly fiery style that owes much to the fiddle and flute traditions of her home area. But she’s also able to bring it back and play with delicate grace when the tune needs it, and won the 1976 All-Ireland Slow Airs competition on the tin whistle. Her 1990 album Lakes of Sligo features some stellar flute and whistle playing, and is a must-have for any whistle player. Gunning has devoted much of her life to teaching, and runs her own summer school which draws musicians from all over the world to Sligo.
Joanie Madden was born into a musical Irish-American family in the Bronx, but didn’t take to the instruments she tried out. When she started playing the tin whistle, though, she immediately fell in love. She credits Mary Bergin as one of her big influences, and took lessons with noted East Galway musician Jack Coen as a young girl. She’s perhaps best known as a founding member of the all-female Irish music group Cherish The Ladies, but she’s in demand as a solo musician as well. She’s also played with Sinéad O’Connor and Don Henley among other popular artists.
Cathal McConnell comes from a part of Co. Fermanagh well-known for producing great flute players. So it’s no wonder that he became a talented flute and tin whistle player himself, as well as a noted singer. He co-founded the band The Boys of the Lough, which was one of the most popular traditional Irish groups of the 1970s. He’s also known as a inveterate showman, sometimes serious but always quick with a funny story or song.
To get a sense of his musical talent, here’s a bonus video of him playing two whistles at the same time:
Josie McDermott was a legendary player in irish music on the tin whistle, flute, and saxophone (yes, saxophone!). He was born on the border of Sligo and Roscommon, and lived there all his life. Twice an All-Ireland Champion on the tin whistle, he also won for flute and lilting. He became a fixture on the ceilí band circuit, with numerous appearances on Irish radio. McDermott was a hugely influential player in his area, and many local flute and whistle players cite him as an influence. Many of his compositions have become standards in sessions and in popular recordings, including “The Trip To Birmingham” and “Darby’s Farewell To London.”