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Piper Martin Preshaw hits high note with royal approval

By Una Brankin

Published 15/06/2015

Martin Preshaw plays one of his pipes. Right, in his workshop and getting his award from Prince Charles
Martin Preshaw plays one of his pipes. Right, in his workshop and getting his award from Prince Charles
Martin Preshaw in his workshop
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A former west Belfast taxi driver has been awarded the highest of honours by The Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust for his traditional uilleann pipe-making.

Martin Preshaw (46) received the prestigious £9,000 prize from Prince Charles at an awards ceremony last Thursday in St James Palace, London.

The Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust (Quest) awards funding to a small number of artisans each year to help sustain traditional crafts.

Mr Preshaw, one of the finest uilleann pipe-makers in the world, has custom-made instruments for musicians across the globe from his workshop in the Enniskillen lakelands, his home since 2007.

"The money's lovely but to get that sort of acknowledgement is priceless," Martin said. "When Prince Charles was giving me the certificate, he said 'thank God someone is still making the uilleann pipes' - and he pronounced uilleann correctly."

A grandfather-of-one, Martin began playing the folk instrument as a child, and later gave up a teaching career to concentrate on pipe-making, supporting himself by taxi-driving, Chinese meal delivery and factory work.

He has received a series of awards in the past number of years from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland through National Lottery funds, to support his career development and purchase of equipment for his workshop.

At Thursday's ceremony he brought along a set of pipes which will travel this week to a client in America.

"Prince Charles stopped to have a look at them on display after the ceremony and asked about the wood I used, and said that the uilleann pipes he'd heard at Hillsborough Castle were absolutely beautiful, and that they were very like the Scottish Highland pipes.

"My problem is my big gob - he was walking away and I said, 'But these are much more like a musical instrument'.

"He turned back with a big grin and wagged his finger at me. He has a good sense of humour and he's nice and charismatic." As Quest ceremony invitations are limited to one, Martin travelled to London without his wife Irena and children Meg (22) and Robbie (19).

The family live on a small farm with a herb garden on the Fermanagh-Donegal border, with springer spaniels, Brian and Rosie.

Martin's work closely follows instruments made by 19th century masters. The range of crafts involved in making a set of uilleann pipes include wood-turning, metal-smithing and leatherwork. As everything is done by hand, it can take three months to build, tune and voice a set of pipes.

Martin says: "The Quest bursary will allow me to travel to New York for further mentoring and tuition.

"It is the first competition I have entered and to receive such a significant award from Quest is unbelievable. I would also like to thank the Arts Council Northern Ireland and National Lottery players for their support.

"The past couple of years have seen great pipers like Gay McKeown and Emmett Gill and other superb pipers like Brian McNamara, Alfie Mulligan and Ciaran Mac Feilimidh who have been playing my instruments and providing sound files for my website.

"With musicians of that calibre celebrating my work I can be confident I am on the right road."

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