Thanks to An Piobairi Uilleann For their kind permission to reproduce the articles below:

Buying Uilleann Pipes - About The Pipes - History of the Uilleann Pipes

Buying a Set of Uilleann Pipes

This article by Martin Nolan appeared in An Píobaire III.2.

Some suggestions when buying pipes

All too often aspiring pipers set off to acquire a set of pipes, be they practice set, half-set or full set, with very little knowledge as to what they should look for. These few tips may save someone, somewhere from heartache and frustration. If so, they will have served some good. 1. Do buy from an established fulltime maker. 2. Do buy, when and where possible, from a maker near you. 3. Try to establish a reasonable date of delivery that suits both yourself and the maker. 4. Ensure that the pipes are in tune and made to your satisfaction before you pay. 5. Both new and second-hand pipes should be reeded before being purchased. Some reeds need to be "played in". However if a reed is badly out of tune there is a possibility that it is the chanter which is faulty. 6. It has been suggested that if you intend to buy a full set from a particular maker you could perhaps buy a chanter (practice set) first, and if this proves satisfactory you could safely proceed with the rest. 7. Know exactly what you want before you order. No good changing your mind about pitch and other details when the pipes are half made. 8. Check bellows and bag for leaks and porousness, keys for stiffness and side play, and of course key leaks. 9. Try to see other pipers who play similar sets and ask their opinion. You could ask the maker for a list of satisfied customers. 10. Be prepared to look after on-going repairs and general upkeep activities, e.g. re-hemping the chanter top, regulator tops and drones. Key springs can become soft and can easily be re-sprung. 11. Be sensible - buy a saxophone and play some REAL music!!!!



About the Pipes

The Uilleann pipes is the Irish form of the bagpipes, a family of instruments with representatives throughout Europe as well as parts of Asia and Africa. It emerged in the first half of the 18th century in Ireland and Britain and was developed to its modern form in Ireland over the following 50 to 60 years. It is the most highly developed of all bagpipes, having a chanter capable of sounding two full octaves, as well as other features not found on other bagpipes.

The component parts of the Uilleann pipes are:

Bag, Bellows, Chanter, Drones, Regulators.

These parts all contribute significantly to the sound and musical potential of the instrument. (Click here to see a detailed view of all the parts of the instrument)

BAG : The presence of the bag is the feature that gives all types of bagpipe their characteristic sound. Its purpose is to provide a continuous flow of air to the instrument, facilitating the kinds of musical expression that can exploit this feature. In the Uilleann pipes the bag is usually made of leather or synthetic material. Into the bag are tied the blowpipe for the supply of air, the chanter (the melody pipe) and a stock into which the other components (drones and regulators) are inserted.

BELLOWS : Generally speaking, in the more recently developed forms of bagpipe the air is supplied to the bag by means of a bellows rather than through a mouth-blown blowpipe. The Uilleann pipes shares this feature. Apart from relieving the player of the necessity to blow into the bag, the presence of the bellows has another important effect. The fact that the instrument is supplied with dry air from a bellows rather than moist air from the player’s mouth, means that the reed can be modified. Not having to withstand the effects of moisture the cane can be pared thinner and a more mellow, wider response can be obtained. Where the (mouth-blown) Highland pipes have a range of only 9 notes, the Uilleann pipes can normally sound two full octaves, and it has been demonstrated that all the notes of a third octave can be obtained.

CHANTER : The chanter is the part of the instrument upon which the melody is played. It is a woodwind instrument, the sound source being a double reed made of cane or (sometimes) synthetic material. Among orchestral instruments the oboe is the closest to it in design and sound. It has a conical bore and ten note holes; the highest one at the back of the instrument is closed by the thumb. It is open at the bottom, and the note sounded with the bottom open and all the finger holes closed is the keynote of the instrument. Without additional keyed sound-holes two keys can be sounded without difficulty, one of them by using cross-fingering for a single note. By convention these keys are referred to as D and G regardless of the actual pitch of the instrument. It is normal to add at least one keyed sound-hole to a chanter – to achieve the note of C natural in the upper octave. An F natural key is the second most often used accidental and keyed sound-holes are often provided for this note as well. Fully keyed chanters that are completely chromatic are found, as well as examples with varying lesser degrees of complexity. Traditional music can mostly by played with just two additional notes. The Uilleann pipes chanter is open at the bottom, but can be closed in normal play by being placed on the player’s knee. This feature enables the Uilleann piper to use two sets of musical possibilities that are not simultaneously available on other forms of bagpipe. Players of permanently open chanters (e.g. the Highland pipes chanter) employ a suite of ornaments to embellish the necessarily sustained notes. On the other hand, players of permanently closed chanters (e.g. the Northumbrian ‘Smallpipes’) can opt for a totally staccato style, giving a completely different character to the music. Players of the Uilleann pipes have a chanter that can be open (held off the knee) or closed (placed on the knee), allowing them to play in either style, or in a mixed style, availing of the advantages of both.

DRONES : The drones are pipes that are tuneable and are designed to provide continuous single-note accompaniment to the chanter. They can be switched on or off by means of a stop-key, and are tuned by means of sliding components. On the standard modern set there are three drones, tuned to the bottom note of the chanter and the notes an octave and two octaves below that. The drones are set into a common stock (which is tied into the bag), and they like across the player’s lap.

REGULATORS : The regulators are similar to the chanter in design, having several note-holes. However these are closed by sprung keys, and the regulators are sealed at the bottom. In the standard set there are three regulators and they are set into the same stock as the drones and lie across the player’s lap above the drones. They are so arranged that a chord can be sounded by pressing three adjacent keys. The different regulators have four or five keyed note-holes, so five basic chords are easily accessible the player. When playing dance music these can be obtained by using the side of the lower hand on the chanter, and they are used to provide rhythmic and simple harmonic accompaniment. In slower music or when the lower hand is free, more complex chords can be sounded. Although other forms of bagpipe have analogous components, the configuration and functionality found on the Uilleann pipes is unique.


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 on 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.

The 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