Fr. Ryan Duns, SJ, teaches viewers how to play the Irish tin whistle through his videos on YouTube.
The Whistle Priest

By Fr. Ryan Duns, SJ

Believe it or not, there was a time when playing the tin whistle, let alone the piano accordion, was not a recipe for instant popularity among one’s peers. Thirty years ago, back when I began to learn to play Irish music, my lessons were a way for me to participate in my family’s Irish heritage. Since I wasn’t coordinated enough to dance, my parents handed me a tin whistle and then, a few years later, put an accordion in my lap. Little could I have imagined then how the gift of music lessons would become such an integral and vibrant part of my priestly ministry. 

For millions of viewers on YouTube, I am known simply as “The Whistle Priest.” Back in 2006, I taught an “Intro to the Tin Whistle” course at Fordham University and put instructional videos online as an aide to my students. In the past decade, I have uploaded more than 130 videos, which have been viewed more than 5 million times. 

On an almost daily basis, I receive emails from people all over the world telling me how they have been using my videos to learn Irish music. Once, in an airport, I was grabbed from behind and an excited young guy blurted out, “You’re the tin whistle priest! My wife and I listen to you in our bedroom!” Reading the astonishment on my face, he quickly added, “We’re lay missionaries, and we’ve been learning to play the whistle for the last six months.” 

Fr. Ryan Duns, SJ celebrates mass with his tin whistle

On a more serious note, the tin whistle has proved to be something of a skeleton key allowing me to enter into people’s lives. I know people who would not normally talk with a priest but who, after playing tunes together, open up areas of their hearts they would otherwise keep concealed.

L-R: Brian Robinette, Ryan Duns, Richard Kearney, Dominic Doyle
 

Pictured with friends after the defense of Fr. Duns' dissertation, entitled "Spiritual Exercises for a Secular Age: William Desmond's Theological Achievement", are, (from left) Brian Robinette, Fr. Ryan Duns, Richard Kearney, and Dominic Doyle

When I play the accordion for Irish dancers, I’m able to celebrate the Eucharist for dancers and their families and bring my two passions — the Gospel and Irish music — together. Sometimes I even find the tin whistle gives me a way of preaching without words. A slow air, with its haunting melody, can reach into otherwise inaccessible parts of the human soul.

 

Above all else, I think, my training in Irish music has taught me the grace of disappearance. As someone who often plays for Irish dancers, I know I am at my best when I recede into the background and allow the dancers to do what they are called to do — dance. Similarly, I know I am at my ministerial best when I am most in the background: when I disappear in order to allow others to come to know and love Jesus Christ in and through the liturgy and to respond to his call to discipleship in their daily lives. 

My ministerial, musical, and priestly goal, is to help connect others to the rhythm at the heart of creation. As a Jesuit, I want others to feel drawn into the rhythm of the Eucharist, where they can overcome fear and inhibition to sing and dance in the company of Jesus. As a music teacher, I always encourage my students — regardless of their musical talent — to find their place within the tradition of Irish music. Each one has at least one note to contribute. So, too, am I convinced by the Gospel: Each one of us is called to contribute a note — even sharps and flats — and take our place in the symphony of God’s kingdom. 

Fr. Ryan Duns, SJ, was ordained a Jesuit priest in 2015 and seeks to spread the Gospel through his life, blog, and Irish music.

Fr. Ryan's videos are availble on YouTube


Return to the Jesuits Magazine Spring 2018 Index
Becoming a Yogi in Action
Praying for the Church & Society
What is First Studies?
A Jesuit Road Trip
God's Will Be Done
Reflections from a Military Chaplain



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