In his late teens he strayed into a Bowery music hall where John Eagan, the “White Piper” of Galway, was engaged. Enthralled by Eagan’s virtuosity he took up the instrument again, and under the instruction of Eagan and Billy Taylor of Philadelphia, he soon became a master.
He toured the Eastern United States with Irish variety and theatre, including Jeremiah Cohan’s Irish Hibernia, in which he played for the step-dancing of young George M. Cohan, and William Powers' Ivy Leaf company. At the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago he played at the Irish Village, one of two rival Irish pavilions, and was later engaged for the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis (Louisiana Purchase Exposition). He starred in vaudeville skits, trading jokes with his wife Mary and their partner Charles Burke. The shows included slapstick, low-brow gags, Irish nostalgia, and a piping finale to which Mary Touhy danced.
Chicago Police Chief Francis O'Neill, the prominent compiler of Irish dance tunes, called him, “the genial wizard of the Irish pipers . . . A stranger to jealousy, his comments are never sarcastic or unkind, neither does he display any tendency to monopolize attention in company when other musicians are present.”
Touhey lived on Bristow Street in the Bronx, New York City, and maintained a summer house in East Haddam, Connecticut. He died on January 10, 1923, and is buried in St. Raymond’s Cemetery in the Bronx.
On some surviving recordings Touhey would switch smoothly from a jig to a reel. Another device was to end his performance with a well-known American piece, like “Turkey in the Straw”, performed in piping style. “He takes the audience by storm,” wrote Captain O’Neill, “even when composed of mixed nationalities.”
His music can be heard on three 78rpm sides recorded by Victor in 1921: two medleys of reels and one of jigs. A fourth medley comprising the Stack of Barley and other hornpipes was recorded but not released. Two of his 78 recordings may be heard on the two volume CD The Wheels of the World, which focuses on early recordings of Irish-American musicians
An earlier negotiation with Edison had fallen through over money, but Touhey advertised a list of 150 tunes and recorded the cylinders one by one at home, filling orders at $10 per dozen. Several dozen of these survive, and a few more examples of his playing can be heard on cylinders made by Captain O’Neill. The two sources can be differentiated as either Touhey or O'Neill's voice introduces the player and the piece.
It was one of O'Neill's cylinders that prompted the Gaelic scholar Father Richard Henebry to declare, “[Touhey’s performance] has the life of a reel and the terrible pathos of a caoine. It represents to me human man climbing the empyrean heights, and when he had almost succeeded, then tumbling, tumbling down to hell, and expressing his sense of eternal failure on the way. The Homeric ballads and the new Brooklyn Bridge are great, but Patsy Touhey’s rendering of ‘The Shaskeen Reel’ is a far bigger achievement.”
Some others, notably Brother Gildas O’Shea of Kerry, disdained Touhey’s style as outside the piping tradition. Asked whether Touhey's recordings had influenced his own playing, Gildas replied, "No, I was learning the pipes at the time." However generally pipers were in awe of Touhey's playing; Séamus Ennis, writing in the liner notes of Dublin fiddler Tommy Potts's Liffey Banks LP, said that he and his father considered Touhey's playing "hyper-phenomenal," and that he considered Touhey "the best of the men who came before my father."
Touhey He left no progeny but several pupils, including Michael Carney and Michael Morris. His style can be heard in the playing of many others, most of whom were either born in or spent considerable time in the United States, including Michael Gallagher, Paddy Lavin, Tom Busby, Tom Ennis, Hugh McCormick, Eddie Mullaney, Joe Shannon and Andy Conroy. Tom Busby was a student of Carney's and described the style of these pipers in various articles and letters printed in An Piobarie, the newsletter of Na Piobari Uilleann. This close-fingered way of playing Busby always described as the Connaught style of piping. The style of these American-based players does differ in various ways from that of players recorded in Ireland, but the possibly unique features of an American style are hard to discern now, due to the lack of recorded evidence.
Various artists including Patsy Touhey
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