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The Irish Pipes
Or Uilleann Pipes

Since about 1900, the Irish pipes have been known in Ireland as uilleann pipes. The Irish word ‘uilleann’ means elbow, and refers to the action of the elbow which has to pump air into the pipes when playing. Watching it being played you can quickly appreciate the complexity of the actions involved. The elbow has to pump, while both hands are engaged in playing, and the instrument has to rest on the players’ knee.

Irish musician and instrument maker Eugene Lambe, playing the uilleann pipes at his workshop in Kinvara, County Galway, Ireland.

Eugene Lambe, well-known piper and maker of uilleann pipes, playing a tune at his workshop in Kinvara, County Galway.

Uilleann pipes are considered to be very difficult to play. Seamus Ennis, who was a famous pipe player, is often quoted:

“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 seven years practising, and seven 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.”

As well as being hard to play, the pipes with their many parts such as reeds, regulators, bag, bellows, chanter, drones, are very complex to look after.

Eugene Lambe making a chanter for a set of uilleann pipes.

Eugene Lambe working on a chanter for a set of pipes.

History Of The Irish Pipes

The uilleann pipes older history is somewhat unclear, but it is generally assumed that the original pipes were the large war pipes, which were blow pipes and that these were adjusted for use at home and on stage into instruments with lesser volume. There are mentions of the Irish pipes from about the 1750ies on describing them as a distinctly different instrument compared to the Scottish or any other type of pipes. They have more notes, and are praised as more melodious and having a softer sound.

Read More About Irish Music

The first well-know Irish piper was Denis Courtney who came to fame on the London stage in 1788. His fame contributed greatly to Irish music becoming more popular in England.

1743 saw the publication of the first tutoring book with tunes especially adjusted for the pipes, The Compleat Tutor for the Pastoral or New Bagpipe by John Geoghan, an Irishman. It is not clear what type of pipes werebeing tutored for. The book included Scottish, English and Irish tunes suggesting there was some overlap.

The modern uilleann pipes as we know them today, which are pitched in D or E flat, were developed in Philadelphia by the Taylor brothers from Drogheda. They date back to the middle of the 19th century. At that time, Irish Music was a flourishing market in the States, and the pipes were developed for this market. They had to suit the environment of large dance and concert halls.

Today, however, the pipes are as essential to Irish folk music as are salt and pepper to an Irish stew.

Their peculiar sound reminds one of a bygone era without TV, radio, and mobile phones. To me, subjectively, the pipes have an anchoring effect in the music. They add a base note making the music stay ‘earthy’.

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