The festival is hosted by the Armagh Pipers Club, founded in 1966 by Armagh cultural icon, artist and piper, JB (Brian) Vallely and his wife, Eithne.
The man who inspired the festival was born near Banbridge back in 1768, When William Kennedy lost his sight at the age of four a bleak future, in those harsh days, appeared inevitable.
But fate had other plans. Sent to Armagh to learn the fiddle, the youth was fortunate to be lodged with a cabinet maker who taught him to use a variety of tools. Amongst other things, Kennedy soon found he had a remarkable skill in repairing bagpipes and, as these skills developed, he began to make pipes from scratch.
Over time he introduced many important innovations to the pipes, such as adding keys to the chanter (the finger holes on which players create the melody), so that flats and sharps could be played. He also extended the range of the chanter, adding additional notes to the organ-stop, and adding two large keys managed with the wrist, so that part of the basses, or all of them, can be stopped or opened easily. He even invented his own bagpipes.
Over 130 years after Kennedy’s death, the crucial Armagh connection to Irish piping was re-ignited by Brian and Eithne Vallely, when they founded the now renowned Armagh Pipers Club. Since then the club has been involved in the musical education of thousands of children, most learning from their innovative tutor books. Many of today’s finest traditional musicians, including Brian and Eithne’s sons Niall (concertina), Cillian Vallely (uilleann pipes) and Caoimhín (piano), developed their musical talents at the club.
For Brian Vallely, one of the most important aspects of the festival has been to create, “a level playing field where people feel comfortable to come together and listen to music, enjoy things and all the rest of it.”
This coming together of different backgrounds has seen record numbers of Scots and Highland pipers joining the Uilleann pipers each year. As with many traditional instruments the pipes have long been embraced by both Protestant and Catholic communities, not least in the Armagh area.