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Famous Tin Whistle Players

Many tin whistle players get familiar with the instrument at a very young age, as their entrance into the world of Irish traditional music. The tin whistle (also called penny whistle) has always been a great starter instrument, very affordable, and not hard to learn. However, due to contradictory beliefs about the whistle being too humble for a professional, some people switch to other musical instruments. Luckily, those who took the tin whistle seriously can now do wonders with it.

The tin whistle became very popular over the last century, especially in the UK & Ireland, where it’s taught and played in many schools. And in the past few decades, it has spread all around the globe. The list of notably good players is huge. However, these are the ones to know about as probably the most influential or currently at their top level (in no particular order). They are great to listen to and learn from, or just to enjoy the music!

1. Brian Finnegan

It takes only a single tune played by Brian Finnegan to understand why he is considered the best tin whistle player on earth by many critics. A true wizard on the tin whistle, low whistle, and Irish flute, with the fast-tempo playing and crispy ornamentation, which is hardly achievable. Born in Armagh, Northern Ireland, he is most known as the leader of the top trad group Flook, and later his other amazing group, Kan. At the same time, he occasionally cooperates with many big names in not only traditional Irish music.

Recommended music featuring Brian Finnegan:

2. Mary Bergin

Mary Bergin is recognized as the best female Irish tin whistle player to date by many. A winner of many competitions at both junior and senior levels, her playing style is very passionate and usually fast, with a strong Irish trad character. Her two albums Feadoga Stain 1 & 2 are still considered “the tin whistle 101”, simply a must-hear. Interestingly, unlike most players, she holds the whistle left-handed, meaning her right hand is on top.

Recommended music featuring Mary Bergin:

3. Joanie Madden

Joanie Madden is considered one of the most influential personalities in Irish music in the USA. She is best known as a member of the group Cherish the Ladies and is still actively performing. Joanie has also recorded and performed with various other musicians, such as Sinead O’Connor, Vince Gill, Pete Seeger, etc…

Recommended music featuring Joanie Madden:

4. Kevin Crawford

Kevin Crawford is another whistle wizard, known for his trad style learned in the county Clare, equally good on high whistles, low whistles, and Irish flute. His name is best recognized through his work with the top trad group Lunasa. He also cooperated with quite a few professional musicians on Irish traditional scenes, such as Tomy Peoples, Martin Hayes, John Doyle…

Recommended music featuring Kevin Crawford:

5. Spider Stacy

Peter Stacy, known as Spider, is one of the most prominent members of The Pogues, a legendary folk-punk group founded in London in the early ’80s. While not being a virtuoso in the same way as other traditional musicians, his playing style and attitude are unmatched. He’s been a pioneer who inspired many musicians to play the tin whistle as an instrument in various modern rock bands later.

Recommended music featuring Spider Stacy:

6. Vinnie Kilduff

Vinnie Kilduff is known for his versatility as a musician, writer, songwriter and producer, and is widely recognized as one of Ireland’s most accomplished and musical talents. Throughout the last thirty years, from contributing to the works of U2 and Sinead O’Connor, to collaborating with many other groups like The Waterboys and Clannad. Vinnie’s smooth tin whistle playing at high speed is simply out of this world.

Recommended music featuring Vinnie Kilduff:

7. Brian Hughes

Brian Hughes, the Kildare-born musician, is regarded as one of the most exceptional whistle players of his generation, with a substantial body of recorded whistle music that is unparalleled in its scope and quality. Brian’s breath control is fantastic whether he plays a slow air or a fast jig. Every note is punchy, well-rounded and powerful. And he’s equally good on tin whistles and uilleann pipes.

Recommended music featuring Brian Hughes:

8. Orlaith McAuliffe

Orlaith McAuliffe, a flute and tin whistle player born and raised in London, has achieved significant success by winning numerous Fleadh Cheoil na hEireann titles. Influenced by a wide array of musicians and taught to play the tin whistle at a very young age she’s now a notable presence in the vibrant London music scene.

Recommended music featuring Orlaith McAuliffe:

9. Alan Doherty

Alan Doherty has gained a reputation as the whistle player on the Lord of the Rings soundtrack. Besides that, it’s worth mentioning his work with the band Grada, another great trad group. Alan is great on low whistle and flute, too and has an exciting playing style, which originates from Celtic music all the way to crossovers that sound quite modern, even jazzy.

Recommended music featuring Alan Doherty:

10. Kevin Meehan

Kevin Meehan, a native of county Dublin, is a rising star in the traditional music scene. With remarkable mastery of the whistle, he has toured globally with bands such as Athru, Troda, and as a solo artist. A young player with such mature musical proficiency surely has a bright future ahead of him. Any tune can sound sweet in his care.

Recommended music featuring Kevin Mehan:

11. Ali Levack

As another gem of a young generation of players, Alexander “Ali” Levack has been considered the new Brian Finnegan by many. He won the BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year award in 2020. and is skilled in bagpipes, whistles, and flute. He is also a valued member of the acclaimed Scottish trio “Project Smok”.

Recommended music featuring Ali Levack:

12. Cormach Breatnach

Cormach Breatnach is another great tin whistle player with a very distinctive playing style. His music has been highly influenced by jazz and blues, especially in accompanying harmonies, which you can easily hear on the recordings he’s done so far. Even though he’s mostly connected with traditional Irish music, he also cooperated with some non-trad music names such as Bernard Purdie, Elvis Costello & Vanessa Williams.

Recommended music featuring Cormach Breathnach:

13. Colin Farrell

Collin Farrell belongs to a bit younger group of musicians who made the breakthrough over the past ten years. He owns a Masters Degree in Music from Limerick University, with the fiddle being his native instrument. However, his whistle-playing skills are quite striking, and there are certain recordings where he plays both the fiddle and the whistle. He currently performs with Lunasa and has been working with many other names such as Caren Kasey, Michael McGoldrick, Tim O’Brian… His second solo album, Make A Note, was awarded instrumental album of the year in Ireland.

Recommended music featuring Colin Farrell:

14. John McSherry

You will rarely hear John McSherry playing high whistles, but he is a true master when it comes to low whistles and uilleann pipes. He is also a composer and studio musician and has worked with many prominent groups and artists such as Clannad, Sinead O’Connor, The Corrs, etc.. At the age of fourteen, he was the youngest ever winner of the All-Ireland pipping championship and is known as the founder of excellent trad groups Lunasa and Tamalin.

Recommended music featuring John McSherry:

15. Michael McGoldrick

Michael McGoldrick has earned him a well-deserved reputation as both a virtuoso and a prolific collaborator with a wide array of acclaimed artists and musical ensembles on the trad scene over the many years. He is known for his remarkable expertise in flute, whistle, and uilleann pipes.

Recommended music featuring Michael McGoldrick:

16. Micho Russell

Last but not least, a true legend, and as usually called “Ireland’s whistling ambassador”, Micho Russell (1915 – 1994) was one of the first famous whistle players of the last century. He won the Ireland Tin Whistle competition in 1973. and was well-known for his very characteristic rhythmic style of playing the whistle. Micho was also a great music teacher and entertainer, one of the most beloved personalities in Ireland.

Recommended music featuring Micho Russell:
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