The Lovely Irish Beastie: Introducing the Uilleann Pipes

From the first moment I came across this instrument in its natural habitat and country of origin I was enthralled by it. I recognized the sound from listening to Irish traditional music in the U.S., but I had never in my life dreamed of the true complexity of the instrument itself. It looked like a cross between an octopus and a pipe organ, had an unruly disposition and altogether seemed the type of creature that only a warrior of a musician could tame. Years of classical music training told me to be weary of the beastie instrument, but after many encounters I have developed a fondness for its particular sound and distinctively beautiful music.

I sought out some of the Uilleann Pipe tamers (pronounced ‘ill-yin’ pipes) for some basic knowledge about the instrument and Kieran Brady, long time Uilleann piper, came to my rescue with information on how the instrument functioned. It consists of a bellows, a bag, a chanter, three drones, and three regulators. The air is pumped, not blown, from the bellows, held under the right arm, into the bag, held under the left arm, which supplies air to the chanter, drones and regulator. The regulators and drones provide the underlying tones for continuous accompaniment in tenor, baritone and bass tones, and the chanter plays the melody. There are four double reeds, one for the chanter and three for the regulators, and three single reeds for each of the drones making seven total reeds (woodwind players stop complaining), which makes tuning the instrument incredibly difficult. The chanter rests on the knee and lifting it controls the length of the notes, long or short. It can play in two octaves, and there is a rumor that it can reach one note higher than the highest octave if you hold every inch of your body just so and think really happy thoughts. To make a long story short, this is not an instrument for the faint hearted and I have the greatest admiration for those who have mastered the temperamental creature.

The Irish pipes, as we know them today, came into being around the early 18th century and got their name from the Irish word for elbow, ‘uille’. They were most popularly used in pre-famine Ireland, but gave way to instruments such as the concertina when the dance styles began to shift to set-dancing. However, they made a powerful come-back during the Gaelic Revival in the late 19th century alongside many other Irish cultural traditions and the Irish language itself. Piping clubs started springing up around the country and competitions encouraged old and young pipers to continue the tradition. Today there are several organizations that promote the training of the instrument and traditional music in general such as the Armagh Pipers’ Club in Armagh city and the Na Píobairí Uilleann in Dublin. Pipers can be found in pubs around Belfast such as Maddens Bar, where I met piper Jarlath McTernan who plays at the Bar occasionally and allowed me to record some of his performance to provide a visual example of how the instrument works. Jarlath plays session gigs around the country and is joined in the clip by Ruairí Cunnane on Bouzouki.

For those of you familiar with the Uilleann Pipes I hope you continue to enjoy their unique and wonderful sound, and for those of you as intrigued by this post as I was when I first encountered the instrument, I hope you will seek out its music and develop your own fondness for this lovely Irish beastie.

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