McPeake, Francis (‘Francie’) (1917–86), piper, was born 20 January 1917 at 43 Malcolmson Street, Belfast, the son of Francis J. McPeake (1885–1971), piper and tram conductor, and Mary McPeake (née Loney).
The elder Francis McPeake was born 4 May 1885 at 2 Springview Street, Belfast, the son of James McPeake, a labourer (who sang and played the flute), originally from Ballymacpeake, Curran, Co. Derry, and Elizabeth McPeake (née McPeake) from Belfast. At thirteen years of age he left school and started working in a linen mill, at fifteen he was a tram conductor, and eventually he became a photographer. He first learned the flute before starting to play the pipes: his interest was encouraged by Francis Joseph Bigger (qv), and the visiting blind piper John O'Reilly, from Dunmore, Co. Galway, was his most important teacher. O'Reilly stayed with him and taught him for a number of weeks in 1907. McPeake won the Feis piping competition in Belfast in 1909 and represented Ireland together with a Welsh harper, John Page, at the Pan-Celtic Congress in Brussels in 1911. In July 1912 he won first prize in the learners’ class when he attended the foundation of the Pipers’ Club in Dublin. He appears in a photograph of this occasion (along with famous names in the piping world such as Nicholas Markey (qv), Stephen Ruane, and Pat Ward) which was published in Francis O'Neill's Irish minstrels and musicians. McPeake was a staunch nationalist and represented Ireland in many instances as one of relatively few pipers from Northern Ireland at the time.
McPeake's son Francie continued the strong musical tradition in the family. He also played the pipes: father and son were recorded by Peter Kennedy in 1952. They appeared at the Royal Albert Hall in 1956 and later formed the McPeake Trio along with Francie's brother James, who played the fiddle, the piano accordion, and later a harp made by McFall in Belfast. The trio came to be known as The McPeakes. They sang in Irish and in English and were closely identified with particular songs, such as ‘The jug of punch’, ‘The lament of Aughrim’, and ‘The verdant braes of Skreen’, though the one most associated with them is ‘Will you go lassie go?’. They won first prize at the international eisteddfod in Wales in the late 1950s and acquired a strong international reputation: Bob Dylan was among their fans. The trio was later augmented by members of the next generation, recorded by Peter Kennedy again, and made several recordings, including Irish folk (1964) and Welcome home (1967), which is a cassette reissue of a 1962 album for the Topic label. The Topic series The folk songs of Britain, vol. 1: Songs of courtship (12T 157) includes a recording of ‘Our wedding day’ by the McPeakes and has the following sleevenote: ‘Somewhat to the consternation of Irish folk song collectors, the McPeakes, father and son – the father an ex-farm labourer turned photographer and the son a garage mechanic – accompany their folk songs on bagpipes.’ Some of Kennedy's recordings of the McPeake family were released on the compact disc Traditional songs of Ireland (CD-SDL 411) in 1995. Kennedy wrote the following note for the song ‘Siubhan ni dhuibhir’: ‘Frank thinks he learned this well-known love song at school, but could only remember two of the verses. He had not been a native speaker, so he had some difficulty with the Gaelic, but, when he had attended the European events, he had been determined to include some songs in Irish in his repertoire.’ A fourth-generation family group followed, Clan McPeake, inheriting the commitment, much of the repertoire, and the verve of the earlier generations.
Francie's gift for teaching was employed at the Francis McPeake school of music, which was established in 1977, and he wrote a well-reviewed tin whistle tutor entitled Smash the windows, published by Appletree Press in 1981. He also formed the Clonard Traditional Music Society. Francis died in 1971 and Francie died 7 July 1986. The McPeake family remains closely associated with traditional music and with Belfast: the Francis McPeake international summer school was established in 2004.