Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Jerry O'Sullivan

Liam O'Flynn

In his teens, Liam and his pipes began to attend music 'seisiuns' in the Kildare village of Prosperous. Here, for the first time, he met many of the people with whom he would later make his name and tour the concert-halls of the world. These were musicians like Christy Moore, Donal Lunny and Andy Irvine with whom, in the early seventies, Liam formed the legendary Planxty. One of Ireland's most important and influential groups, Planxty brought a style, innovation and 'cool' to Irish music which was to lead directly to the many Irish musical success stories during the decades that followed.

But behind the innovation and experimentation Liam O'Flynn has always managed to remain true to the great piping tradition. He has taken his instrument into previously unexplored territory - be it as a member of Planxty, as a soloist with an orchestra or working with artists as diverse as John Cage, The Everly Brothers, Van Morrison and Kate Bush. But whatever the situation, he has remained resolutely true to the music itself. And it's precisely this mix of credibility and durability which makes Liam O'Flynn one of our greatest musicians and someone long regarded among his peers as Ireland's Master Uilleann Piper.

"I always imagine," Liam says, "that it must have been extraordinary when the pipes were first developed in the eighteenth century - a whole new instrument and here's a fellow coming around to the local fair with this amazing instrument with extraordinary sounds and inbuilt accompaniment. It became an 'in' instrument that very quickly occupied prime position in the tradition and people of all stations took to it. The big houses took to the instrument and they had their own resident pipers. Then you had the traveling pipers who played at all sorts of outdoor happenings and they evolved a different style that was very immediate and quite open and spectacular. I suppose the whole idea of power was attached to people who played such an extraordinary instrument."

Liam is always searching for new arenas in which to take the pipes. With Mark Knopfler he performed the score to the movie Cal. Other movie scores include The Field, A River Runs Through It (with Elmer Bernstein), Kidnapped, and Roses from Dublin (with Vladimir Cosma). No stranger to playing with orchestras, Liam had already achieved an international audience when he recorded The Brendan Voyage with Shaun Davey, a groundbreaking orchestral piece which was followed in later years by three other Shaun Davey works, Granuaile, The Relief of Derry Symphony and more recently The Pilgrim. He had successfully brought the pipes into the greatest concert halls in the world and introduced its unique sounds to audiences and musicians everywhere.

Davy Spillane

From Riverdance The Show at the Point Theatre in Dublin 1995. Caoineadh Cu Chulainn (Lament)
For those that have asked -the correct pronounciation of Caoineadh Cu Chulainn according Erins Web.com is:
'Kweena Coo Hulling'
Song composed by Bill Whelan.
Presented here is
Davy Spillane with a lament on the uilleann pipes for Cuchulain, the great Irish hero and leader who fought the sea prior to his death.
Cúchulainn /(Irish "Hound of Culann"; also spelled Cú Chulainn, Cú Chulaind, Cúchulain, or Cuchullain) is an Irish mythological hero who appears in the stories of the Ulster Cycle, as well as in Scottish and Manx folklore. The son of the god Lugh and Deichtine, sister of the king of Ulster, he was originally named Sétanta , but gained his better-known name as a child after he killed Culann's fierce guard-dog in self-defence, and offered to take its place until a replacement could be reared. At the age of seventeen he defended Ulster single-handedly against the armies of queen Medb of Connacht in the epic Táin Bó Cúailnge ("The Cattle Raid of Cooley"). It was prophesied that his great deeds would give him everlasting fame, but that his life would be short; one reason he is compared to the Greek hero Achilles. He is known for his terrifying battle frenzy or ríastrad, in which he becomes an unrecognisable monster who knows neither friend nor foe.
He fights from his chariot, driven by his loyal charioteer Láeg, and drawn by his horses, Liath Macha and Dub Sainglend.

History of the Uilleann Pipes

The first reference to the bagpipes in Ireland is found in a dinnseanchas or topographical poem, “Aonach Carman”, the fair of Carman, a composition of the eleventh century found in the Book of Leinster:

Pípaí, fidlí, fir cen gail,
Cnámfhir ocus cuslennaig,
Slúag étig engach egair,
Béccaig ocus búridaig.

(Pipes, fiddles, men without weapons,
bone players and pipe blowers,
a host of embroidered, ornamented dress,
screamers and bellowers.)

It is obvious that the player of the pípaí here mentioned differed from the cuisleannaig or pipe blowers; and since pípaí, modern píopaí, was found some centuries later to designate the bagpipes, it is reasonable to assume that in its earliest recorded occurrence in Irish the term likewise related to this instrument.

The earliest representations of pipe-playing are to be seen on the High Crosses, and illustrations are next recorded in the 16th century. A rough wood carving of a piper formerly at Woodstock Castle, co. Kilkenny, and the picture of a youth playing the pipes drawn Rosgall piperon the margin of a missal which had belonged to the Abbey of Rosgall, co. Kildare, belong to this century. The two pipes depicted are obviously the prototype of the present day Píob Mhór or war pipes. In form they are one with the types depicted on the Continent about this time (e.g. Dürer’s piper, 1514).
There is no record of the pipes or any other musical instrument being played on the field of battle in pre-Norman Ireland. In later times the pipes were regarded by foreign commentators as being peculiarly the martial instrument of the Irish.

“To its sound this unconquered, fierce and warlike people march their armies and encourage each other to deeds of valour”.

The pipes had a more peaceful use. Writing in 1698, John Dunton, an English traveller, describes a wedding in Kildare:

“After the matrimonial ceremony was over we had a bagpiper and blind harper that dinned us with their music, to which there was perpetual dancing.”

The distinctively Irish type of pipe emerged about the beginning of the 18th century. Its distinguishing features are:

(i) the bag filled by a bellows, not from a blow pipe;
(ii) a chanter or melody pipe with a range of two octaves as compared with a range of nine notes on the older pipes;
(iii) the addition of regulators or closed chanters which permit an accompaniment to the melody.

O'FarrellThe modern full set of pipes comprises bag, bellows and chanter, drones and regulators. The tenor or small regulator was added to the set in the last quarter of the 18th century. It was spoken of as a recent addition, not yet in general use, in 1790 and it was the only one referred to by O’Farrell in his tutor for this instrument which was published about 1800. The middle and bass regulators were added in the first quarter of the 19th century.

These pipes are now most commonly known as Uilleann pipes (pronounced ill-yin, from Irish uille, elbow). This name was first applied to the instrument as last as the beginning of the 20th century when it was foisted on the public in 1903 by Grattan Flood who then proceeded to equate it with the ‘woollen’ pipes of Shakespeare, thus providing for the instrument a spurious origin in the 16th century.

Pipes are made in various pitches. In the older sets the pitch is usually a tone, sometimes more, below concert pitch. Among players such pipes are known as ‘flat sets’. The bottom or fundamental note of the chanter is called ‘D’, irrespective of the pitch. This custom of calling the bottom note of their instrument ‘D’, irrespective of the actual pitch, is also common among flute and whistle players.

Piping was at its zenith in pre-Famine Ireland. Thereafter the old dances began to give way to the various sets and half-sets based on the quadrilles and the pipes were superseded by the melodeon and concertina. Towards the end of the 19th century it seemed as if the Irish pipes were fated to follow the Irish harp into oblivion. Fortunately, when the national revival, initiated by the Gaelic League, got under way in 1893, all aspects of the native culture began once more to be cultivated. Pipers’ clubs were founded in Cork (1898) and in Dublin (1900).

Competitions for the instrument were organised by the newly founded Feis Ceoil and the Oireachtas and the old surviving pipers were assisted to attend and compete at these events. Genuine traditional players were engaged to teach beginners and in this way the art of piping was passed to a new generation without any break in tradition. While the succession was secured, the pipers’ clubs did not long survive the first flush of enthusiasm and once more the future of the instrument was in jeopardy. Occasional surges of interest occurred but public reaction to the music was one of disdain and the difficulty of obtaining pipes in tune and easily sounded disheartened youngsters attracted to the instrument.

The establishment in 1968 of Na Píobairí Uilleann, the Uilleann Pipers, may well prove to be the factor which will ensure the survival of the pipes in Ireland. Founded by musicians who had ties with the first pipers’ club in Dublin and restricted to practitioners, this society possesses firm links with the past, and these are further strengthened by the discovery of old cylinder recordings (made in the first decade of the 20th century) of pipers who were then old men. Live tuition and the study of those old recordings have resulted in a line of young players whose progress towards a master of the instrument continues to astound the older players. The rediscovery of the pipes, at an international level, is reflected in the number of aspiring pipers from America and Continental Europe who visit Ireland each year to learn the instrument. The progress made by some of these visitors is astounding.

The surge of interest in piping has generated other activities. Numerous records of piping have been issued by recording companies; specialist collections of the dance music have been published as well as a tutor for the instrument and a manual of pipemaking.
Active membership of Na Píobairí Uilleann now exceeds 280 and is spread throughout Ireland, England, Scotland, Continental Europe, North America and Australia. The most heartening aspect of all this activity is that it is rooted firmly in tradition.
In the present exhibition it is primarily the uilleann or union pipes which are on display. This is the distinctively Irish form of bagpipe and undoubtedly the sweetest and most complicated member of that family. These pipes developed around the beginning of the 18th century from the older mouth-blown type, the history of which is here depicted in prints of carvings and pictures from contemporary sources. Earliest surviving sets of uilleann pipes date from the second half of the 18th century but it must be said that datings are not definitive. Only recently has scientific attention begun to be paid to the instrument and problems relating to various stages of its development have yet to be resolved.
The sets on display from the Museum’s collection cover broadly the period 1770-1870. Noteworthy are the ivory set from the late 18th century and the two-drone set from the early 19th century, attributed to Egan, father of the famous Dublin harp-maker. Pipemaking appears to have reached the zenith of its development around the second quarter of the 19th century, a period represented in the exhibition by sets from Kenna, the Moloney brothers and Coyne. All are distinguished by a very high degree of craftsmanship.
Exhibits from present-day makers underline the renaissance of piping which has occurred during the last ten of fifteen years. Since pipe music has remained largely unaltered over the past two centuries, modern sets show no radical divergence fro the older makes. Changes are to be observed, however, in methods of working and in the materials used.

Breandán Breathnach

(Pipes and Piping - published 1980 in conjunction with the National Museum of Ireland as a guide to an exhibition of the Museum's collection of pipes.)

The Uilleann Pipes

Ciaran Carson

The uilleann pipes (pronounced, as near as English orthography allows, 'illyun' - not 'yooleeun' as many would have it) are an Irish development of an instrument which is found in many versions throughout the world: Groves' Dictionary of Musical Instruments lists seventy different types of bagpipe. the uilleann pipes are generally thought to have evolved from the old Irish war-pipes (which were somewhat similar to the Scottish pipes) about the beginning of the 18th century. Their distinguishing characteristics are: a bag filled by a bellows, not a blow pipe; a chanter or melody pipe which gives a two-octave range; and the addition of regulators which can be used for accompanying the melody. The present full set of pipes comprises bag, bellows, chanter, drones and regulators.

Though the correct name for the instrument is held by some authorities to be 'union' pipes - referring to the union of chanter and regulators - the term 'uilleann pipes' (meaning elbow pipes) is iPipesn such general usage that it would be pedantic to object to it.

The modern uilleann pipes, pitched in D or sometimes E flat, were developed in Philadelphia in the latter half of the 19th century by the Taylor brothers, who emigrated from Drogheda. Previously the pipes could be pitched in anything from around B flat to C sharp; the Taylor pipes were in a way a product of market forces, since they produced the greater volume needed to fill the American concert and music halls, where Irish music was a flourishing industry.

Many aficionados of the pipes prefer the comparatively mellow, restrained tone of the old flat sets; significantly, many younger pipers are returning to these instruments - yet another illustration of Irish traditional music as the snake biting its own tail.

The pipes are in many ways a curious hybrid: since Irish music is essentially melodic, it may be thought that the regulators, which permit harmonic accompaniment, are unnecessary. A possible explanation for their presence is afforded by O'Farrell (first name unknown) who published a treatise on the pipes around 1797-1800. This is the title page:

O'Farrell's 'playing... in the Favourite Pantomime of Oscar and Malvina' is of some significance. Irish pipers, according to Francis O'Neill (Irish Minstrels and Musicians), were no rarity on the London stage; and it is evident that they were not playing exclusively Irish music. O'Farrell's treatise, in fact, gives fingering charts for a fully chromatic scale; and, since fully-keyed chromatic chanters from the period exist, we can infer that they must have been used to play music other than Irish traditional music, which very rarely uses accidentals. Harmonic accompaniment would have been perfectly appropriate to the musicof popular pantomime and opera: hence the regulators. It is also a matter of historical record that the pipes were a favourite instrument of the Anglo-Irish gentry. O'Neill's Irish Minstrels and Musicians devotes a whole chapter to 'Gentlemen Pipers', noting that George II was so much delighted with the performance of an Irish gentleman on the bagpipe that he ordered a medal to be struck for him. Presumably many such gentlemen, given their predeliction for playing before royalty, would aspire to musical tastes somewhat more refined than those of the peasantry. Were the pipes, then, an instrument of the people or a plaything of a wealthy leisured class? (Lord Rossmore, one of these gentlemen, owned some 15,000 acres of Co. Monaghan.) Certainly, it is doubtful if the man in the street or the man in the bog could afford some of the instruments which have passed down from the time: these were elaborately-crafted productions using the most expensive materials - exotic woods, ivory and silver. On the other hand, there is some evidence to suggest that pipes were made from local materials such as boor-tree. Whatever the case, the regulators, thought by many to be an integral component of the uilleann pipes, seem to have been grafted on (is it accidental that they are inserted into that part of the pipes known as the stock?) to accommodate non-Irish music. Their role remains problematic to this day, and some authorities maintain that they should be dispensed with altogether. Certainly, the kind of vamping accompaniment which is possible on the regulators is often a hindrance to the music: as the late Seamus Ennis put it, 'the regulators are an abomination if they are used as a monotonous percussion'. Many pipers use the regulators for occasional rhythmic emphasis, in keeping with the spirit of the music; others succumb to the temptation to make as much use as possible of an expensive and burdensome appendage. For whatever reason, most pipers want to have a full set of pipes, though they may never exploit their whole harmonic range; it seems to be a rule of the club, where a gentleman dare not be seen in public without his regulators.

An Irish-American writer named Barry, speaking of the modern Irish bagpipes, says, 'In its original form it had nothing like the range of capabilities which now enables Mr Bohan to perform on it not only the "Humors of Ballynahinch", "Shaun O'Dheir an Gleanna", "Paddy O'Carroll", "The Fox Chase" and "The Blackbird", but serious productions such as Corentina's song from Dinorah and Bach's Pastorale in F major'.... A Dublin correspondent adds, 'In the use of the regulators, Bohan was far ahead of all other players of his day.... In his old age, the minstrel was evidently far from prosperous, and he was indebted for many favours to the generous John Hingston, steward of Trinity College. The latter, who was Canon Goodman's particular friend, fitted him out with a presentable suit of clothing and played in a concert with him at the Viceregal Lodge before the Prince of Wales, afterwards King Edward VII.
Francis O'Neill
Irish Minstrels and Musicians
It is perhaps ironic, given their history, that the pipes should be regarded as the quintessentially Irish instrument; there is, indeed, a school of thought which holds that all Irish traditional instrumental music should aspire to the condition of the pipes, and that any form of decoration or ornamentation is illegitimate unless it can be done on the pipes.

This, of course, is a matter of taste and prejudice; but it has to be admitted that, for those who seek to embody the spirit of the nation in a physical object, the pipes are an ideal hobby-horse. They are thingy, complicated; they are a conversation-piece. Reeds, regulators, drones, comparative length of chanters, beeswax, drones, hemp, rushes, pads, popping pads, valves, drones, can be discussed until the cows come home.

According to the late Seamus Ennis (one of the greatest pipers of modern times) there are three styles of piping; the 'real close fingering of the North'; 'loose or open fingering' and the 'normal or Drawing Room style' (from an interview in Treoir vol. 5, no.2). He goes on to say, 'There are far too many pipers today who think they have it and they haven't even started yet. Tradition has it that it takes 7 years practising and 7 years playing to make a piper. After 21 years I wasn't as able as I am now and if my father were alive today I would still be learning from him.' Ennis gives fingerings for E and F in the third octave - notes that may have been useful for playing some 'Drawing Room' pieces, but which never occur in traditional music, though maybe Ennis, being Ennis, occasionally threw them in just to show they could be done. Showmanship seems to be a trait in some pipers: Finbarr Furey, asked why he played so fast, is supposed to have replied, 'Because I can.'

Until comparatively recently the pipes seemed in danger of extinction; however, organisations such as Na Piobari Uilleann, formed in 1968 under the chairmanship of the late Breandan Breathnach, have helped to ensure their survival, and there are probably more pipers now than in any time in history, though perhaps, if we are to take Ennis at face value, many of them may not have even started yet.

Types of Uilleann Pipes

Starting out — The "practice set"

Because of the instrument's complexity, beginning uilleann pipers often start out with partial sets known as practice sets.

Starter or Practice Set

A practice set consists of only the basic elements of pipe bag, bellows and chanter, with no drones or regulators. The chanter is available in keys ranging from the "concert pitch" D chanter in half-note steps downward to a B♭ chanter, the latter of which regularly is referred to as a "flat set" (as are any sets below the key of D).

In order to play the uilleann pipes effectively, students must learn to pump the bellows steadily while controlling the pressure on the bag and playing the chanter simultaneously. Therefore, beginning students often play on practice sets until they become comfortable with those basic mechanics. Despite their name, however, practice sets are used not only by beginning players but also by some advanced players when they wish to play just the chanter with other musicians, either live or in recording sessions. In these instances, the practice sets can be tuned to equal temperament if needed.

[edit] "Half set"

A half set is the next stage up from a practice set. As with other forms of bagpipes, uilleann pipes use "drones", which are most commonly three pipes accompanying the melody of the chanter with a constant background tonic note. The pipes are generally equipped with three drones: a) the tenor drone—the highest sounding pipe which is pitched the same as the lowest note of the chanter, b) the baritone drone which is pitched one octave below that and c) the bass drone—the lowest sounding pipe, two octaves below the bottom note of the chanter. The Pastoral pipes had four drones, these three plus one more which would play a harmony note at the fourth or fifth interval. These drones are connected to the pipe bag by a "stock". This is an intricately made wooden cylinder tied into the bag (as any other stock) by a thick yarn or hemp thread. The drones connect to the stock, as do the "regulators" (see "Full Set" below). The stock and drones are laid across the right thigh. This is distinct from other forms of bagpipes, in which the drones are usually carried over the shoulder or over the right arm.

The drones can be switched off. This is made possible by a key connected to the stock. The original design of the stock was a hollow cylinder, with two metal tubes running through it to both hold the regulators, and independently supply air to them. Thus the regulators could be played with the drones silenced. In the late 19th century it became more common to build the stock from a solid piece of wood, with 5 holes bored through it end-to-end. This was less susceptible to damage than the earlier design. The piper is also able to switch on and off various drones individually (applying slightly more pressure to the bag and tapping the end of a drone), which is generally used to aid in tuning (a technique used in almost all bagpipes which have drones) or all of them at the same time using this key. This makes the instrument more versatile and usable not only as a half set, but also to allow playing the chanter by itself. The drones use a single-bladed reed (the actual part creating sound), unlike the double reed used in the chanter and the regulators. These drone reeds were generally made from elderberry twigs in the past — cane began to be used in the late 19th century.

[edit] "Full set"

A full set being played by Cillian Vallely

A "full set", as the name implies, is a complete set of uilleann pipes. This would be a half set with the addition of three "regulators". These are three closed pipes, similar to the chanter, held in the stock. Like the drones, they are usually given the terms tenor, baritone, and bass, from smallest to largest. A regulator uses keys (five on the tenor and four on both baritone and bass) to accompany the melody of the chanter; these keys are arranged in rows to give limited two note "chords," or, alternatively, single notes for emphasis on phrases or specific notes. The notes of the regulators, from highest to lowest (given a nominal pitch of D) are as follows: Tenor: C, B, A, G, F#. Baritone: A, G, F#, D. Bass: C, B, A, G. The tenor and baritone regulators fit into the front face of the stock, on top of the drones; the bass regulator is attached to the side of the stock (furthest from the piper), and is of complex construction.

Another method of using the regulators is to play what are referred to as "hand chords": when the melody (usually in a slower piece of music such as an air) is being played on the chanter exclusively with the left hand, the right hand will be free to create more complex chords, using all three regulators at once if so desired. Many airs end a section on a G or A note in the first octave, at which point a piper will often play one of these hand chords for dramatic effect.

The difficulty of playing a melody, pumping the bellows, keeping constant pressure on the bag and playing the regulators at the same time, precludes most pipers from using the regulators much; some pipers have played for years and years yet have little ability to use them. Some pipe makers also add another regulator with one key to play an E (a tone above the chanter's lowest note); this allows a whole tune to be played with the regulators, which was occasionally mentioned in old accounts of pipers. Sometimes this E key is added to the tenor regulator, or, more rarely, the baritone. Another addition is a "double bass" regulator, giving the notes F#, E, D, below the bass regulator. The regulators use the same double-bladed reed as the chanter. A final occasional variant, the three-quarter set, omits the bass regulator. The pipes evolved from one regulator, to two, to three, which became a de facto standard in the early 19th century.

[edit] Chanter

The chanter is the part of the uilleann pipes that is used to play the melody. It has eight finger holes (example given of a D pitched chanter): Bottom D, E♭, E, F♯, G, A, B, C♯, D' (also called "back D"). To achieve the "bottom D" the chanter is lifted off the knee, exposing the exit of the chanter's bore, where the note is produced. The chanter is set on the right knee thus closing off the bottom hole. Many players use a strip of leather placed over the knee, called a "popping strap," which provides for an airtight seal. More rarely, a simple gravity- or spring- operated flap valve attached to the bottom of the chanter achieves the same end. Generally, for all other notes (except for special effects, or to vary the volume and tone) the chanter stays on the knee.

One characteristic of the chanter is that it can produce staccato notes, because the piper seals it off at the bottom; with all of the finger holes closed, the chanter is silenced. This is also necessary for obtaining the second octave; the chanter must be closed and the bag pressure increased, and then fingered notes will sound in the second octave. A great range of different timbres can be achieved by varying the fingering of notes and also raising the chanter off the knee, which gives the uilleann pipes a degree of dynamic range not found in other forms of bagpipes. Pipers who use staccato fingering often are termed "closed-style" pipers. Those who use legato fingering more predominately are referred to as "open-style" pipers. Open piping has historical associations with musicians (often Irish travelling people) who played on the street or outdoors, since the open fingering is somewhat louder, especially with the chanter played off-the-knee (which can, however, lead to faulty pitch with the second octave notes).

A type of simultaneous vibrato and tremolo can be achieved by tapping a finger below the open note hole on the chanter. The bottom note also has two different "modes", namely the "soft D" and the "hard D". The hard bottom D sounds louder and more strident than the soft D and is accomplished by applying slightly more pressure to the bag and flicking a higher note finger as it is sounded. Pipemakers tune the chanter so the hard D is the in-tune note, the soft D usually being slightly flat.

Many chanters are fitted with keys to allow accurate playing of all the semitones of the scale. Four keys will give all the semitones: F natural, G sharp, B flat, C natural. The C natural key is essential for obtaining this note in the second octave, and is the key most commonly fitted. Older chanters usually had another key for producing d3 in the third octave, and often another small key for e3, and another for D#' (as opposed to the E♭ fingerhole, which could be slightly off-pitch). Most uilleann chanters are very responsive to "half-holing" or "sliding", which is the practice of obtaining a note by leaving a fingerhole only half covered. This is why many chanters sold in Ireland are sold without keys. With this technique and some practice, many pipers can accurately play the semi-tones which would otherwise require a chromatic key to be installed. The exception is the C natural, which in the second octave, cannot be cross-fingered or half-holed, and requires the key. This is why it is the most commonly fitted key.

The chanter uses a complex double reed, similar to that of the oboe or bassoon. Unlike most reed instruments, the uilleann pipe reed must be crafted so that it can play two full octaves accurately, without the fine tuning allowed by the use of a player's lips; only bag pressure and fingering patterns can be used to maintain the correct pitch of each note. It is for this reason that making uilleann pipe chanter reeds is a demanding task. Uilleann pipe reeds are also often called "the piper's despair" for the immense difficulty of maintaining, tuning and especially making the double reed of the regulators and, most importantly, the chanter.

The Uilleann Pipes

The uilleann pipes (IPA: /ˈɪlən/), originally known as the Union pipes, are the characteristic national bagpipe of Ireland. The uilleann pipes bag is inflated by means of a small set of bellows strapped around the waist and the right arm. Found in other European bagpipes (ex. Northumbrian pipes, Scottish smallpipes), the bellows not only relieves the player from the effort needed to blow into a bag to maintain pressure, they also allow relatively dry air to power the reeds, reducing the adverse affects of moisture on tuning and longevity. Some pipers can converse or sing while playing as well.

The uilleann pipes are distinguished from many other forms of bagpipes by their sweet tone and wide range of notes — the chanter has a range of two full octaves, including sharps and flats — together with the unique blend of chanter, drones, and "regulators." The regulators are equipped with closed keys which can be opened by the piper's wrist action enabling the piper to play simple chords, giving a rhythmic and harmonic accompaniment as needed. There are also many ornaments based on multiple or single grace notes. The chanter can also be played staccato by resting the bottom of the chanter on the piper's knee to close off the bottom hole and then open and close only the tone holes required. If one tone hole is closed before the next one is opened, a staccato effect can be created because the sound stops completely when no air can escape at all.

The uilleann pipes have a different harmonic structure, sounding sweeter and quieter than many other bagpipes, such as the Great Irish Warpipes, Great Highland Bagpipes or the Italian Zampognas. The uilleann pipes are often played indoors, and are almost always played sitting down.


The word uilleann comes from the Irish (Gaelic) word uillinn, meaning elbow, emphasizing the use of the elbow when playing the uilleann pipes. However, the pipes were originally called "Union pipes," the first printed instance of this at the end of the 18th century, perhaps to denote the union of the chanter, drones, and regulators. Another theory is that it was played throughout a prototypical full Union of England, Wales, Ireland, and Scotland. This was only realized, however, in 1800, with the Act of Union; the name for the bagpipe slightly precedes this. Alternatively Union pipes were certainly a favourite of the upper classes in Scotland, Ireland and the North-East of England and were fashionable for a time in formal social settings, where the term Union pipes may also originate. [1]

The term "uilleann pipes" came into use at the beginning of the 20th century. William Henry Grattan Flood, an Irish music scholar, proposed the theory that the name "uilleann" came from the Irish word for "elbow". He cited to this effect William Shakespeare's play The Merchant of Venice published in 1600 (Act IV, sc. I, l. 55) where the expression "woollen pipes" appears. This theory originated in correspondence between two earlier antiquarians, and was adopted as gospel by the Gaelic League. The use of "uilleann" was perhaps also a rebellion against the term "union" with its connotations of English rule. It was however shown by Breandán Breathnach that it would be difficult to explain the Anglicization of the word 'uillin' into 'woollen' before the 16th century (when the instrument did not exist as such) and then its adaptation as 'union' two centuries later. See Folk Music and Dances of Ireland, Cork, The Mercier Press, 1971, p. 77. A much more likely explanation is the fact that many bagpipe bags of that earlier type were made from goatskins which still had the fur attached.


The first bagpipes to be well-attested to for Ireland were similar, if not identical, to the Highland pipes that are now played in Scotland. These are known as the "Great Irish Warpipes". In Irish and Scottish, this instrument was called the píob mhór ("great pipes").

While the warpipe was alive and well upon the battlefields of France, the warpipe had almost disappeared in Ireland (as a result of its outlaw by the English). The union or uilleann pipe required the joining of a bellows under the right arm, which pumped air via a tube to the bagpipe under the left arm, with bellows. The uilleann or union pipes developed around the beginning of the 18th century, the history of which is here depicted in prints of carvings and pictures from contemporary sources. At about the same time the Northumbrian smallpipe was evolving into its modern form, early in the 18th century; a tutor of the 1750s calls this early form of the uilleann pipes the "Pastoral or New bagpipe." The Pastoral pipes were bellows blown and played in either a seated or standing position. The conical bored chanter was played "open," that is, legato, unlike the uilleann pipes, which can also be played "closed," that is, staccato. The early Pastoral pipes had two drones, and later examples had one (or rarely, two) regulator(s). The Pastoral and later flat set Union pipes developed with ideas on the instrument being traded back-and-forth between Ireland, Scotland and England [2] [3], around the 18th and early 19th century.

The earliest surviving sets of uilleann pipes date from the second half of the 18th century but it must be said that datings are not definitive. Only recently has scientific attention begun to be paid to the instrument and problems relating to various stages of its development have yet to be resolved.


The instrument most typically is tuned in the key of D, although "flat" sets do exist in other keys, such as C♯, C, B and B♭. These terms only began to be used in the 1970s, when pipemakers began to receive requests for pipes that would be in tune with Generation tin whistles, which are stamped with the key they play in: C, B♭, etc. The chanter length determines the overall tuning; accompanying pieces of the instrument, such as drones and regulators, are tuned to the same key as the chanter. Chanters of around 362mm (14 1/4") length produce a bottom note on or near D above middle C on the piano (where A=440 Hz, i.e. modern "concert pitch"). The modern concert pitch pipes are a relatively recent invention, pioneered by the Taylor brothers, originally of Drogheda, Ireland and later of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in the late nineteenth century. Concert pitch pipes typically have wider bores and larger tone holes than the earlier "flat" pitch sets, and as a consequence are a good deal louder, though by no means as loud as the Highland pipes of Scotland. They were developed by the Taylors to meet the requirements of playing in larger venues in the United States; today they are the most common type of uilleann pipes encountered, though many players still prefer the mellower sound of the earlier style narrow-bore pipes, which exist in pitches ranging from D, through C♯, C, and B down to B♭. Pipemakers before the Taylors had, however, built concert pitch pipes using the narrower bores and smaller fingerholes of the flat pipes. Some of these instruments seem to have been designed with lower pitch standards in mind, such as A=415. The Taylors also built many instruments with higher pitch standards in mind, such as the Old Philharmonic pitch of A=453 that was commonplace in late 19th century America.

The D pipes are most commonly used in ensembles, while the flat-pitched pipes are more often used for solo playing — often a fiddler will "tune down" their instrument to play with a piper's flat set, but the inflexibility of other instruments used in Irish music (accordions, flutes, etc.) usually disallows this. It is noteworthy that Irish music was predominately solo music until the late 19th century, when these fixed-pitch instruments began to play more of a role. Like pipe organs, uilleann pipes are not normally tuned to even temperament, but rather to just intonation, so that the chanter and regulators can blend sweetly with the three drones. Equal temperament is almost universal with the fixed pitch instruments used in Irish music, which can clash with the tuning of the pipes.

Seamus Ennis