A short history of the uilleann pipes

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, Early Modern History Social Perspectives, Features, Issue 4 (July/August 2018), Volume 26

A complex, sophisticated instrument that can deliver a unique form of traditional music.

By Terry Moylan

Above: Frederic William Burton’s Paddy Conneely (d. 1850), a Galway Piper. Conneely, a blind piper, was patronised by George Petrie. (NGI)

In early December 2017, at their general assembly in South Korea, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) inscribed uilleann piping in their Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. It joins an extensive list of expressions of human culture from around the world which UNESCO has agreed constitute precious parts of human heritage. This news will have made many Irish people aware that their heritage includes an instrument that has been developed in Ireland over several centuries to become the most elaborate and musically sophisticated form of bagpipe in the world.

There have been different forms of bagpipe played in Ireland, but this article’s focus is on the bellows-blown form, for which the earliest certain date in an Irish context is 1743, when John Geoghegan’s Compleat tutor for the pastoral or new bagpipe was published in London. This instrument had three drones, which could be laid across the knee, as in modern piping, or supported by the player’s forearm. It had an open-ended chanter like that of the warpipes, but was capable of a wider pitch range—two octaves compared to the warpipes’ nine notes. The chanter being open at the bottom has musical significance. An open chanter behaves like a modified drone—a continually sounding pipe, but one which has had finger-holes added to allow the sounded note to be changed and so provide melody. The open chanter must always sound because the drone must always sound, and the nature of the music played on open chanters is determined by this feature. There is no possibility of pauses or silences between notes, nor of staccato playing.

Above: One of the earliest (1768) sets of ‘union’ or ‘uilleann’ pipes, with an additional ‘regulator’, said to have belonged to Lord Edward Fitzgerald. (NMI)

The pastoral pipes evolved into a new form—the ‘union’ or ‘uilleann’ pipes—during the eighteenth century, and the transition from one form to the other seems to have occurred as early as 1768, just 25 years after the first sighting of the pastoral pipes. An ivory and silver set (said to have belonged to Lord Edward Fitzgerald) in the National Museum of Ireland has that date engraved on the ferrule of the stock, and the hallmark on a silver band on the regulator is also for that year. This is not a set of pastoral pipes such as the one for which John Geoghegan wrote his Tutor. It has an additional component—a ‘regulator’—which consists of a closed pipe with several keyed tone-holes, the notes only sounding when the keys are pressed. This pipe was positioned above the drones, and the tone-holes were placed to provide harmonising notes for the melody played on the chanter, allowing the piper to provide accompaniment to his own playing.

Players sit down

If the new regulator was to be accessible and usable, the body of the set with the regulator had to be laid across the player’s knees, and the piper had to sit down to facilitate this. This modification probably occurred in the 1750s or 1760s, and was the turning point in the evolution of the uilleann pipes. The pastoral pipes’ chanter was longer than the uilleann pipes’ chanter, and in later examples the extra length consisted of a

Above: John Geoghegan, whose Compleat tutor for the pastoral or new bagpipe was published in London in 1743. (NPU)

detachable ‘foot-joint’. The longer chanter enabled the piper to sound the leading note, i.e. the note below the key-note of the chanter, a very useful musical feature. Once the new regulator was added and the seated playing position adopted, players found that if they discarded the foot-joint, or swapped a long, single-piece pastoral chanter for a shorter one (sacrificing the ability to play the leading note), they gained a whole new palette of timbre and technique. The seated position and shorter chanter allowed them to silence the chanter by placing the bottom of it on their thigh. This brought them the possibilities of staccato playing, silences between notes, and a wide range of tonal colour and articulation that had been unavailable on an open chanter. And, of course, it did not close off the possibility of playing in an open-chanter style; this could still be done. The only loss was the sacrifice of the leading note. The chanter with the Lord Edward set in the National Museum is not of ivory and is most probably not the original. It is possible that the original chanter (possibly a one-piece type?) was replaced by a new, shorter chanter to facilitate the new way of playing. The judicious mixing of both possible playing styles—open and staccato—creates an attractive musical texture and is the mark of good uilleann piping.

‘Union’ or ‘Irish’ pipes

This new instrument was (formally) called the union pipes, and the first mention of the instrument by that name is contained in a newspaper advertisement from 1788. Informally, it was generally referred to as the ‘Irish pipes’ throughout Britain as well as Ireland. Union pipes were produced by makers in Ireland, England and Scotland in the late eighteenth/early nineteenth centuries, but from the early decades of the nineteenth century onwards their production and development was led by Irish makers. Starting with the transitional configuration of bellows-filled bag, chanter, three drones and one regulator, several decades of development and experimentation saw the configuration expanded, first to two regulators and then to three, four and even five, designed to provide ever-more elaborate harmonic possibilities for the player. The burden of maintenance of more elaborate sets eventually led to the more complex designs being abandoned, and a standard configuration emerged, of sets with three regulators. While that configuration is considered standard, no individual set can be regarded as standard. Every set is bespoke and hand-made, and no two sets, even from the same maker, are identical. Sets continue to be made to other designs, with different numbers (and pitches) of drones, and with more or fewer regulators, as makers cater to the demands of different pipers.

Originally the preserve of the moneyed class

The union pipes, and the pastoral pipes before them, were the preserve of the moneyed class or professional musicians. Their popularity was founded on the fashion for the ‘pastoral’ note in the arts. The fascination with the figure of the shepherd and the shepherd’s music (the bagpipe) was a feature of the court of Louis XIV. The rough peasant bagpipe of the time was transformed, probably by the Hotteterres (instrument-makers), into the musette de cour, an instrument fit for the court. With its bellows and its closed, keyed second chanter, this may have been the inspiration for the pastoral pipes and, later, for the regulator. When the taste for the ‘pastoral’ began to fade in the early nineteenth century, elaborate sets of union pipes began to be discarded by the gentry and to fall into the hands of ‘country musicians’, who used them to deliver the music that their audience used and in the musical accent that they were used to, adapting and developing a body of techniques to achieve this. In this way, starting in the decades before the Famine, the union pipes became a folk instrument. It became embedded in Irish music, and came to be regarded as the premier instrument for interpreting that music.

In the post-Famine years, the pipes became identified with a class of professional musicians, some established in customary locations and others who travelled about in search of audiences. Many became celebrated, such as Pádraig Ó Briain, the subject of Joseph Haverty’s painting The Blind Piper, a.k.a. The Limerick Piper, or John Cash (‘Cash the piper’), a Traveller who busked at events such as fairs and race meetings. Settled pipers included James Gandsey (the ‘Killarney Minstrel’) and Paddy Conneely (the ‘Galway Piper’), who was patronised by George Petrie and whose portrait was painted by Frederic William Burton. Apart from Cash, the others mentioned were blind, as were many other exponents of the pipes and other instruments, as music was a respectable profession for a blind person.

Pipers’ Clubs

As the last decades of the nineteenth century passed, the ‘romantic’ figure of the old blind piper became a repeated artistic motif which established a popular perception of uilleann pipers and uilleann piping as something old and passé, but by the turn of the century active efforts were being made to encourage people to take up the instrument. In Cork in 1899, and in Dublin in 1900, clubs were founded to carry out this work. Celebrated pipers such as Nicholas Markey and Martin Reilly were engaged to teach or to perform, and their example of traditional style was headlined for emulation. One of the most important figures in this programme was Éamonn Ceannt, who led the Dublin Pipers Club before he was distracted by other matters and who, in his writing and in practice, constantly evangelised for the importance of retaining the style and techniques of the older generation. His efforts were successful, as an unbroken chain of stylistic practice can be traced from modern players back through the activists of the early twentieth century to pre-Famine Ireland.

The activities of the pipers’ clubs proved successful and, through a succession of organisational efforts, tuition and resources continued to be provided to keep the instrument and its music alive. The Rowsome family, of Wexford and Dublin, was crucially important in this period, particularly in the person of Leo Rowsome, who, as player, maker, teacher and organiser, made an unparalleled contribution to the craft. Other important players in this period included Séamus Ennis, Willie Clancy, Tommy Reck, and the brothers Johnny and Felix Doran.

Na Píobairí Uilleann

Above: An 1843 engraving of another blind piper, James Gandsey, the ‘Killarney Minstrel’. (NLI)

In 1951 the Dublin Pipers Club, led by Leo Rowsome, took the initiative that led to the foundation of a country-wide organisation for traditional musicans, Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann. Pipers, however, still wished to have their own dedicated body, and 1966 saw the foundation of the Armagh Pipers Club, followed in 1968 by Na Píobairí Uilleann (NPU), which aimed to be a national, if not international, association. NPU has fostered the playing and study of the instrument and its music for 50 years. Publications in the form of books, CDs and DVDs, and an extensive website containing much performance and technical material, have been put in place to support the continuing global taste for uilleann piping. To remedy a bottleneck in the supply of instruments, NPU set up a training centre for full-time instruction in the art of pipe-making, and the graduates of a three-year course are now catering for the increasing demand for pipes. This demand is no longer confined to the sector that had embraced the instrument in earlier days—adult Irish men. Youngsters of both sexes are taking up piping and see it as an unremarkable option among the many musical choices they could have made. Through its use in world-travelling bands such as the Chieftains, the Furey Brothers, Planxty, the Bothy Band and others, and its use in popular films such as Braveheart and Rob Roy, more and more non-Irish people have come to love the sound of the pipes, and have sought them out and become players. Pipers’ clubs now exist around the world in such unexpected locations as Tokyo, Havana and Kuala Lumpur.

The uilleann pipes are a complex, sophisticated instrument that can deliver a unique form of traditional music—one that UNESCO has now declared to be a precious contribution to human heritage. Its use in many locations throughout the world shows that this was just a confirmation of what pipers already knew.


Terry Moylan is Archivist for Na Píobairí Uilleann. He has produced works on Irish traditional music, song and dance.

Traveller pipers

B. Breathnach, The man and his music—an anthology of the writings of Breandán Breathnach (Dublin, 1996).
N. Carolan, ‘Courtney’s “union pipes” and the terminology of Irish bellows-blown bagpipes’, www.itma.ie.
S. Donnelly, ‘A century of pipemaking, 1770–1870: new light on the Kennas and the Coynes’, The Seán Reid Society Journal 2 (2002).
F. O’Neill, Irish minstrels and musicians (Chicago, 1913).


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