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.

Woodstock piperThe 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 Rosgall piperon 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.

Dürer’s piper“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:

  • the bag filled by a bellows, not from a blow pipe;
  • a chanter or melody pipe with a range of two octaves as compared with a range of nine notes on the older pipes;
  • 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.

Aims of Na Píobairí Uilleann

By the 1960s very few people in Ireland were playing the pipes and far fewer, perhaps only five, were engaged in the making of the instrument. It was a matter of grave concern that the art would decline further and so The Society of Uilleann Pipers known as Na Píobairí Uilleann (The Uilleann Pipers) was founded in 1968 at grassroots level by pipers themselves.

The aims of the society are to perpetuate the spirit of the music, in particular the playing of the pipes and the production and maintenance of the instrument itself.

To achieve these aims the single most important facet of the Society’s activities is the teaching of the uilleann pipes, especially to young people, as it is through this that the playing of the instrument will increase, prosper and develop.

The degree to which the work of the Society has borne fruit is reflected in the number of pipemakers, many professional, now producing pipes – about forty throughout the world.

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The Founding Constitution of Na Píobairí Uilleann

Constitution of Na Píobairí Uilleann Bunreacht Na Píobairí Uilleann
Na Píobairí Uilleann is the name of this association. Na Píobairí Uilleann an t-ainm atá ar an gcumann seo.
The main object of Na Píobairí Uilleann shall be the promotion generally of Irish music and the music of the uilleann pipes in particular. ‘Sé is príomhchuspóir do Na Píobairí Uilleann ceol dúchasach na hÉireann i gcoitinne agus ceol na píbe uilleann go sonrach a chur ‘un chinn agus a chothú.
Towards that end the association may: ‘Un na críche sin tig leis an gcumann:
(i) Collect and preserve music for these pipes in any manner considered feasible by the Council; (i) Ceol na píbe seo a bhailiú agus a chaomhúint ar slí ar bith is cuí leis an gComhairle;
(ii) Assemble materials and carry out research on the history of the pipes and pipers; (ii) Abhar i dtaobh stair na píbe agus na bpíobairí a bhailiú agus taighde a dhéanamh air;
(iii) Issue from time to time a publication about piping and the affairs of the association; (iii) Foilseacháin i dtaobh na píobaireachta agus imeachtaí an chumainn a fhoilsiú ó uair go céile;
(iv) Spread a knowledge of reedmaking and promote the making of pipes. (iv) Eolas ar dhéanamh rídeanna a chur ar fáil agus déantas na píbe a chur ‘un tosaigh.
Full membership of Na Píobairí Uilleann is restricted to Uilleann Pipers. Associate membership is open to any person not a piper, provided a simple majority of the Council is in favour of his/her admission. Píobairí uilleann amháin atá i dteideal a bheith ina lánbhaill den chumann. Is féidir le duine nach píobaire é bheith ina bhall caidrimh ar choinníoll go n-aontaíonn tromlucht na Comhairle lena leigint isteach sa gcumann.
A Council consisting of the following officers – Chairman, Secretary and Treasurer – and four other members shall be responsible for conducting the affairs of the association. Comhairle arb iad na hoifigigh seo – Cathaoirleach, Rúnaí agus Cisteoir – agus ceathrar ball eile a líon a bhéas freagrathach as stiúrú agus riaradh Na Píobairí Uilleann.
An annual convention of the association shall be held at a venue to be decided by a majority of the members. The officers and other members of the Council shall be elected at this convention. Beidh tionól bliantúil ann ar láthair a cheapfas tromlucht na mball. Ag an tionól seo freisin sea ceapfar na hoifigí agus baill eile na Comhairle don bhliain atá romhainn amach.
Only full members over eighteen years of age have a right to vote. Ag lánbhaill amháin atá ós cionn 18 mbliana d’aois atá cead bhóta a chaitheamh.
Only such members shall be eligible to serve on the Council. ‘Siad sin amháin a bhéas i dteideal fónamh ar an gComhairle.
The Secretary shall present to the convention in writing a report on the proceedings of the association during the year then concluding. Cuirfidh an Rúnaí tuarascáil i scríbhinn ar imeachtaí na bliana atá caite i bhfianaise an tionóil.
The Treasurer shall place before the convention a financial statement setting out in detail the items of expenditure and receipts of the year together with an account of the financial position of the association. Cuirfidh an Cisteoir i bhfianaise an tionóil ráiteas airgeadais a bhfuil mioneolas i dtaobh fáiltais agus caitheachais na bliana agus cúntas ar staid airgeadais an chumainn ann.
Full members over eighteen years shall pay an annual subscription of £20. Other members shall pay an annual subscription of £10. Associate members shall pay an annual subscription of £20. Iochfaidh lánbhaill atá ós cionn 18 mbliana d’aois £20 mar tháille bhliantúil. Iochfaidh na lánbhaill eile £10 in aghaidh na bliana. £20 an táille bliantúil a bhéas le n-íoch ag na baill caidrimh.

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.

Pipers at Bettystown in 1968
The surge of interest in piping has generated other activities. Numerous records of piping have been issued by recording companies; specialist collections