The Tin Whistle: the “Magic Flute” of Irish Music
by Linda McCloud-Bondoc
I’ve always loved the sound of a tin whistle, even when I didn’t know exactly what it was called. In 60’s and 70’s, during the Great Traditional Irish music revival (as it came to be known), I was a huge fan of folk and more specifically, Irish music. For me, the question was never “Beatles or Stones?” but rather, “Chieftains or Rovers?”. And if there was one sound more than any other that drew me in, it was the tin whistle. I loved the way it floated magically above all the other instruments, like a tiny faerie’s voice.
The tin whistle goes by many names—the penny whistle, the Irish whistle (not to be confused with the Irish flute), the Feadóg Stáin—and it has been around for a long time—or not— depending on who you ask. The tin whistle in its present form was originally crafted from tin and soldered together, and it was first introduced and manufactured by Robert Clark in Manchester in 1843. As an inexpensive way for poor people to make music, it became hugely popular, and no wonder. It could be bought for a penny (hence, the nickname, penny whistle) so almost any household could, and did, have one.
But the pedigree of this instrument goes back much further. Some music historians connect it to a woodwind instrument mentioned in the 3rd C. - descriptions of the Irish court. And examples of simple, holed whistles made of bone, dating back to the 12th C. have been unearthed in Dublin, Ireland. The tin whistle is also related to the 17th century flageolet, a 5 or 6 hole flute with a French-made mouthpiece. From this perspective, then, Clark’s “invention” was really just another, in a long line of folk instruments, that added a magic touch to Ireland’s music over the centuries.
Maybe one of the reasons that the tin whistle was so welcomed in Irish music was its ability to carry a strong melody line. “One thing that distinguishes Irish music is a single, very pronounced, big and strong melody with all the other instruments in a supporting role,” says Rosanna D’Agnillo, musician, author, instructor of classical singing, and performer in the Celtic band, Tamlyn. “In other traditions, there is more chordal/harmonic emphasis, but rip roaring melody is what distinguishes Celt/Irish music.” She goes on to say that it’s not hard to imagine, then, that Celts and their descendants would have gravitated towards any instrument that would have supported the clear, high, fast melody line so fundamental to this tradition.
For an instrument that makes such a bold sound, the modern tin whistle has a pretty simple design. It consists of a “fipple”, the whistle part that creates a vibration, and the “chiff”, or the barrel. And while there have been changes in material over the years—the fipple is no longer made of lead and the chiff can be made of anything from wood to brass to plastic—the modern tin whistle is remarkably like the Clark instrument of the 19th century. Most have 6 holes and diatonic tuning, that is, they are pitched to a particular key. For instance, the most common beginner’s whistle in the key of D can play the notes of that major scale as well as that of G Major. In addition to the tuned scales, a whistler can play some sharps and flats by using techniques called half-holing, (partially covering the highest open hole), or cross fingering, that is, leaving high notes on the scale open.
Modern whistles also come in low versions. These variations of the traditional instrument are still tuned to a particular key, but with bigger and longer barrels, they are able to deliver deeper, more resonant pitches. They are also among the most recent additions to the tin whistle family, arriving on the Irish music scene in 1971. This sound of the low whistle is perhaps the most familiar to general audiences: it was featured in the Celine Dion hit, My Heart Will Go On from the 1997 movie, Titanic.
No matter the type or tuning, however, the real magic of the tin whistle, is the sound it makes in the hands of a master like Mary Bergen, considered a practitioner of traditional-style whistling. Using a combination of fingering techniques, breath control, ornamentation, and years of practice, she makes the whistle swirl, lift and dive, leading her listeners into the realms of Irish jigs and reels like a Pied Piper. (See below).
Despite its humble beginnings, this tiny, inexpensive instrument boasts a rich history and a sound as fearless and nuanced as the history of Ireland. So if, on this St. Pat’s Day, you happen to hear a band like Dervish or some old cuts of my favourite, the Chieftains, give a thought to the tin whistle, the little flute-like sound that lends its magic to traditional Irish music.
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