Since his father died while he was at school, Paul Vallely has wanted to discover more about him and others who bear his name. In Ireland, two famous Vallelys turn out to be the same man
I was, I suppose, looking for my father. The man sitting across the table might have been him. Not in reality. My father had died at the age of 48, when I was still at school, and this man was merely 10 years older than me. But, with the grace of partiality, he looked as I might have imagined my father to look now, given the arrest of ageing which untimely death allows. And this man's name was Vallely, too.

All this is not why I am here, I thought. And yet it was. I first came across the name John B Vallely in Northern Ireland a decade ago. I was in the office of Sir John Hermon, then the Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and the province's senior policeman had a painting by my namesake on the wall. Today, I cannot remember much about it, only that it was strong and vigorous, and that the canny chief of the constabulary was keen to emphasise that he had paid pounds 2,000 for it.

For 10 years I had meant to seek the artist out, even as I also always intended to track down a man called Brian Vallely who was renowned in Ulster as a player of the traditional Irish uilleann pipes. They were firm purposes which I carried with me, ever unfulfilled, throughout the dozens of visits I subsequently made to Northern Ireland.

Now here I was, sitting in a bar in Armagh City, opposite the man. Or the men. For the John who was the painter was also the Brian who has been at the forefront of the revival of the Irish pipes in recent decades.

He was a sturdy man, a personification it seemed of his paintings - robust and rooted. Seamus Heaney said of John B Vallely's art that he "liked its forthrightness from the beginning". The same was true of the man. But there was about him, too, the elusiveness of the ethereal pipe music which he teaches every week at the Armagh Piper's Club he founded 30 years ago. The two art-forms sometimes interact, as when he recently combined a musical tour of Verona, Bologna and Padua with a series of exhibitions in northern Italy. But there are many colleagues in each discipline who are unaware of his expertise in the other. "Indeed, some people think I am two people. It can be," he says, with words as economic as his brush-strokes, "a convenient deception."

Not that many are fooled in the bars of Armagh. He was much ribbed in the more republican drinking houses when Sir John Hermon's autobiography was published and revealed that Vallely had been the proximate cause of the police chief's second marriage. The chief constable, then a 58-year- old widower, was contacted by a 33-year-old law lecturer at Queen's University, Belfast who rang to upbraid him for some misdemeanour. He agreed to meet her and she went in to tear strips off him, but before she began she noticed the painting. "That's a Vallely," she said as she took in its strong composition and heavy impasto. They fell to talking and the painter became a matchmaker. "You can imagine how well it went down in the pubs in republican Armagh," he recalled.

Armagh is where Vallelys are from. In idle moments on travels throughout the world, I have opened the phone book in New York, London or even Dublin. Vallelys are everywhere in short supply. But in Armagh, the ecclesiastical capital of the island, there are dozens. Armagh is the place from which my great-grandfather - another John - emigrated sometime around 1880 and made his way to the North-east of England to a job in the steel works. He was, my grandmother told me, a puddler - a labourer who heated pig iron in a furnace to transmute it into something more refined. Further back than that the family memory does not go.

But nor did John B Vallely's. Such is the general limit of the oral tradition. His great-grandfather had lived in the countryside outside the city. His grandfather worked a farm before moving into the city. Almost certainly we were related, but there was no documentation to guide us beyond the residual family memories.

We took refuge in coincidence. His father had been a schoolmaster; so was mine. His father had founded the city's Gaelic verse-speaking competition the Feas mhor ardmhacha; mine had also been a lover of poetry. Both were referees; his for Gaelic football mine for boxing (I can still remember the sour, leathery smell of the heavy brown gloves which hung, for some reason, inside the pantry door and how, in there, I cried silently in muffled fear the first night I put on them on before he took me down to his boxing club).

But where I had remained resolutely resistant to the sport, Brian, it transpired, has embraced not just the boxing but also weightlifting, cycling, fell-running and athletics. He is so enthusiastic he had founded the National Athletic and Cultural Association of Ireland which arranged exchange visits with teams from behind the Iron Curtain. Brian, it transpires was a socialist rooted in old-style syndicalism. We were back to coincidence; my grandfather had been one of the founders of the penny-a-week trade union health scheme which was, so we were proudly told as children, one of the fore-runners of the NHS. Brian's activism had been more confrontational. "For his pains," said the catalogue notes from his mid-term retrospective at Belfast Castle, "he has had the dubious honour of being a guest of Her Majesty, on an issue of workers' rights." He was imprisoned on a charge, on which he protests his innocence, of assaulting a police officer on a picket line.

Until 1972, Brian Vallely was a heavily committed civil-rights activist. "It was meetings seven nights a week." Then on Bloody Sunday, British paratroopers shot dead 13 civil rights marchers. "After that, you realised you could be leading people down the road to be shot. It stopped all our overt activity." It was at that point, he says, he realised he had to choose between activism and art. "In the end I decided there were plenty of people who could do that, but not so many who could do this," he said, waving his arm vaguely around the painting that lined the walls of the spacious terraced home which when it was built in Edwardian times would have belonged to a member of the well-upholstered Protestant bourgeoisie.

Suddenly, he seemed uncomfortable at the point the conversation had reached. We rose to inspect the paintings, some of them the work of artists he admires, but many of them his own. Several were of traditional Irish musicians playing fiddles, elbow pipes, concertinas and bodhrns. All around the front room with its spare gallery atmosphere lay instruments - a beautiful harp and heavy tin whistles three feet long. In the hall, a dozen or more violins, guitars and uilleann pipes were piled up in their cases. Later in his studio, housed in an industrial estate known as the Armagh Business Centre, a score of canvases, liberally pigmented with heavy oils which exude an abstracted physicality, all had musicians as their subjects. They were variations as obsessive and as haunting as those of the pipe tunes he plays. And they were charged with the intense melancholy, aching lyricism and dark rhythmic power of this mournful nation's music.

Once, I had thought it my music. I remember the first time I went to Ireland in my twenties and discovered with the sudden force of revelation that the manners and mores of the place of my birth were those of Ireland. Our rhythms and rituals, customs and cadences, tunes and temperaments, weddings and wakes were those of another place, crudely disguised with a Middlesbrough accent.

For a while I wondered about reconnecting. But it was a rhapsody which mistook romance for reality, a bogus MacStiofainism which could not distinguish between Oirishness and the real thing. And my father's maternal grandparents, I knew, by contrast, were of Yorkshire farming stock. I knew because I had traced their remains to the barely intact letters "Hannah and Ruben Smith" on a crumbling sandstone tomb in the overgrown old churchyard at Ampleforth in the fold between the Yorkshire wolds and the moors to the north.

So when Brian Vallely spoke of how he had visited his wife's uncles in Ballyhaunis, Co Mayo - a family with whom I knew I could have no connection - to hear them play the fiddle in the rough, rhythmic, huff-and-puff traditional style developed for dances in the home, I knew that he told of a world which was not mine. It was perhaps a glimpse into my history, but it was not who I was. Like Brian Vallely, I had made my decisions, though my choices were not between activism and art. The voyage around my father was not yet complete. But in meeting this singular musician and painter I had travelled a little further