Miss Netta Jane Nicholl Johnston known as Miss Johnston, was born on 11th July 1878, she was the eldest of 3 girls and 2 boys. Netta was fondly known as Jane to her close friends and Miss Johnston to acquaintances and strangers. She lived in Nicholls hardware and funeral directors at the bottom of Whitehill Rd, Carnlough with her mother and siblings, they moved back here in 1891 after her father sadly passed away in Sydenham, Belfast.
Miss Johnston was a fine lady piper and is best known as the Lady piper of Carnlough.
Netta was a cultured and refined person who also has been characterised as being eccentric by people he knew her; she was often seen walking around Carnlough in the small hours of night with her sword cane as a method of protection. It has also been reported that Miss Johnston was also very proficient in Judo and kept a shotgun under her bed!
Miss Johnston had a great love for music and played a varied range of instruments including piano, whistle, flute, pipe organ and uilleann pipes, as well as playing and teaching violin. Netta played the pipe organ at St. Mary’s Church of Ireland, Carnlough, where she had been known to practise at 3 and 4 am this led to an ongoing argument between her and the local rector which resulted in her being banned from playing at the church.
In 1904 Netta was elected on to a committee tasked with organising the first Feis of the Glens (Feis na nGleann) this first Feis ran in the summer of that year. It was here that Miss Johnston met the renowned uilleann piper R.L O’ Mealy, from then Netta travelled regularly on a Wednesday to Belfast to have lessons on the pipes with Mr. O’Mealy.
Miss Johnston has been known for her efforts in bringing people together with no divide, through this work she formed the Carnlough Non-Sectarian Flute Band “Notation”. The band ran for many years during the 1920s and 30s, with practices being held to the rear of her home Seaview house – the shop and funeral services that she inherited from her mother’s family the Nicholl’s.
When Netta Jane died on the 30th of March 1953 at her home Seaview House, Carnlough her brother James Lyons Nicholl Johnston was tasked with handling her estate. It is reported that she had left instructions that her Uilleann pipes be donated to the Ulster Museum.
Miss Netta Jane Johnston is buried in the family plot at St. Marys Church of Ireland, Carnlough. Her wishes she expressed to a friend were that she was to be laid to rest in a glass topped coffin and that she would be paraded around the village of Carnlough, with an Uilleann piper playing ‘Let Erin remember’. However, her funeral turned out to be much more conventional.
In 2022 the Ulster History Circle has awarded a Blue plaque in remembrance of ‘the lady piper of Carnlough’ installed at the building which was once her home. Her niece Rev.Violet Johnston was present at the unveiling ceremony along with two renowned lady pipers Marie Kinney and Louise Mulachy, as well as some local residents and members of Carnlough Heritage Hub who fondly spoke of their memories of Netta.
In 2021 a new documentary film was aired on TG4 called Mna Na Bpiob (Women of the pipes), which told the stories of pioneering female pipers including Netta who helped pave the way for female musicians at a time when males dominated the traditional Irish music scene.