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The Piper’s Despair: A Few Words on the Uilleann Pipes

O f all the instruments used for Irish traditional music in Francis O’Neill’s day, the uilleann (pronounced “ILL-in”) pipes were held in the highest esteem. To this day, they are considered by many to be Ireland’s national bagpipes, and the most dis- tinctly Irish of instruments. Of the thirty-two items in the Dunn Family Collection of Captain Francis O’Neill Cylin- der Recordings, twenty-eight are played on uilleann pipes.

A full set of uilleann pipes consists of the following components:

  • a bag, held under the

piper’s right arm, which is squeezed to supply air to the chanter

  • a bellows, strapped to

the piper’s left elbow, which is pumped to keep the bag filled

  • a two-octave chanter, or

double-reed pipe, with eight finger-holes, which plays the melody

  • three drones, which

sound continuously behind the chanter

also seals and opens the end of the chanter by pressing it against a leather pad rest- ing on one of his knees, to produce a staccato effect as needed. As if this were not enough, some pipers even sing while playing the pipes as accompaniment!

The uilleann pipes devel- oped from a bagpipe very similar to the familiar Scot- tish highland bagpipe. The bellows was added in the first quarter of the eighteenth century, creating an instru- ment known as the pastoral pipe, which was popular over a wide area, including all of Scotland, the north of Eng- land, and much of Ireland. By the end of the eighteenth century, a bagpipe had emerged that had two more regulators, and was generally called the “union pipes;” this was later adapted to “uil-

leann pipes.” It is unclear in which country the last two regulators were added, so it is quite possible that the uil- leann pipes are not originally Irish at all.

The name “uilleann pipes” has a contested history. Many people claim that it is an old name for the pipes derived from the Irish word for “elbow,” and refers to the pumping of the bellows with the elbow. In all likelihood, however, the name was introduced to replace the earlier term “union pipes.” The name “union pipes” was used for the Irish bagpipes by the latter half of the eighteenth century. Francis O’Neill still called them “union pipes” a hundred years later. The term probably referred to the fact that the three drones and three regulators are set

in a common stock, rather than being allowed to hang or stand independently, as in most mouth-blown bagpipes; this “union” of the drones and regulators made the pipes easier to man- age. However, in 1800, a law called the “Act of Union” gave the word “union” a new, political meaning for many Irish people. The act annexed Ireland to Britain, creating The United King- dom of Great Britain and Ireland. It was despised by many Irish nationalists, and it is probably through an aver- sion to the political-sounding name “union pipes” that Irish speakers invented the alternative term “uilleann pipes.” This is the term that is generally used for the instrument today. m

  • By Stephen Winick

  • three regulators, or

capped drones, which make no sound unless the player strikes a row of brass keys with a hand or wrist; in that case, each sounds a note determined by which key is struck

In addition to pumping the bellows with one elbow, squeezing the bag with the opposite arm, playing the melody on the chanter with both hands, and hitting the regulator keys with the right hand or wrist to create both chordal harmonies and percussive effects, the piper

A piper from near O’Neill’s birthplace, ca. 1904. The girl in the lower right plays a “half set,” without regulators, and the girl in the upper right plays a whistle. They are probably the piper’s students, at different stages of learning. LC Prints and Photographs Division, Reproduction number LC-USZ62-67034.

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