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His Instruments Stolen, Piper's Tune Mournful

The two sets of Irish uilleann pipes, taken from a San Juan Capistrano home, are the talk of a close-knit musicians circle.

May 22, 2003|Dave McKibben | Times Staff Writer

It's been a week since someone broke into Gabriel McKeagney's San Juan Capistrano house and made off with part of his soul: his two sets of Irish uilleann pipes. And a week since the instruments' haunting sounds have been replaced by his cries for help.

"It's like they took Pavarotti's throat," McKeagney said as he sat in the chair he crafted to accommodate the playing of the pipes.

Unlike traditional Scottish bagpipes, uilleann pipes are not blown with the mouth; they are played sitting down, powered by a bag and bellows under each arm. They are harder to play than Scottish bagpipes and much more expensive. He didn't want to specify the pipes' value, but the instruments usually cost several thousand dollars. One of the stolen sets was a rarity, made by a renowned Irish pipe maker no longer alive.

"I was going to play this for the rest of my life and hand it down to my [2-year-old] son, Brian," he said. "It's a connection to our Irish culture that you can't put a price on."

McKeagney believes he is one of only 2,000 uilleann pipers in the world.

"It gets under your skin, kind of like golf," McKeagney said. "Piping becomes a lifelong vocation. You can never really master the instrument, but you enjoy the ride."

Because of McKeagney's obsession, there is a thriving piping community in Orange County. Five years ago, he formed the Southern California Uilleann Pipers Club, about the time "Titanic" and "Braveheart" were sparking an Irish piping revival. The club has grown to some 50 members, and every month McKeagney opens his two-story home to a core group of 15 to 20 pipers.

McKeagney said he thinks someone in the club or connected to it "dipped their toe in when they saw the financial hurdle" of acquiring an instrument. No money, jewelry or electronic equipment was taken in addition to the pipes, just a few dozen piping CDs and some sheet music.

"If they were of value to anyone, they had to be in the piping community," said McKeagney, who moved to Orange County from Northern Ireland nine years ago.

McKeagney filed a police report and alerted the close-knit piping community via phone and Internet. He has received e-mails and phone calls from England, Ireland and Canada. Some pipers have offered to help catch the thief, and nine have offered McKeagney a replacement.

There will be a reward, amount undecided, if the pipes are returned safely, he said, and he won't press charges if it's done soon.

"It's so eerily quiet in this room," said his sister Aileen McKeagney during a visit. "It feels so weird to be in here without the pipes playing."

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