Irish Traditional Music

The Uilleann Pipes

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.

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From the Appletree Guide to Irish Traditional Music by Ciaran Carson.