The Uilleann Pipe

Du Uilleann pipe - Kachalkina Veronika
Du Uilleann pipe - Kachalkina Veronika

Do you like Irish music and appreciate the typical instruments of the country? We advise you to discover the Uilleann Pipe! Behind this complicated word lies a magnificent instrument, a true symbol of Irish culture! Just as popular as the harp or the fiddle, the Uilleann Pipe is in fact an Irish bagpipe, with a particularly recognisable sound. A lot of Irish people play it, but recognize a real learning difficulty: the Uilleann Pipe is indeed relatively complex to play!

History of the Uilleann Pipe

The Irish Bagpipe: an instrument at the beginning prohibited

The Uilleann Pipe (which means “elbow” in Gaelic) is a recent instrument, which only saw the light of day in the 20th century… This one replaced 2 old Irish bagpipes with almost identical bellows:

the Union Pipes, an instrument used since the 18th century.
and the Piob Mor, an even older bagpipe, which was formerly used during the great battles.

At that time, these 2 bagpipes were victims of many attempts of prohibition and banishment… The law of Brehon indeed aimed at putting an end to the Gaelic order and culture, prohibiting in fact the practice of any Gaelic instrument like the Irish bagpipe under penalty of death… (As a reminder, the Irish were already advocating their independence from the British, and were also doing it in music, using Gaelic instruments like the Irish bagpipes…).

The Uilleann Pipe is born in the XXth century

After several centuries of struggle, the Irish bagpipe is an instrument less and less known. The British have almost succeeded in banning it completely.

Nevertheless, a few enthusiasts refuse to submit, and come into contact with luthiers, who together create a new bagpipe: the Uilleann Pipe, a bellows bagpipe, having only slight differences with its predecessors…

Its sonorities are then softer, and get closer to the pastoral bagpipes crossed in the rest of Europe… Its system of keys has been improved, and its playing has become more complex… In short, a new playground for fans of traditional Irish music!

The Uilleann Pipe runs out of breath, then starts again more beautifully!

Very quickly, the emergence of the Uilleann Pipe feeds new passions among Irish musicians, who see in this bagpipe a real revival for Irish music… The latter then practise it in pubs, in the street, and flee as soon as the British authorities threaten to act.

Nowadays, the Uilleann is still a particularly appreciated instrument, which figures among the greatest instruments of Irish culture… Great Uilleann pipers like Lyam O’Flynn have truly delighted the ears of a growing audience!

Description of the Uilleann Pipe

A Complex Instrument to say the least!

The uilleann pipe is the most sophisticated instrument of the bagpipe family. It has indeed a bellows, which must be activated by the arm, while the hands are activated on what is called a chanter, a kind of pipe made up of drones and regulators. These are keys (13 to be precise) that are activated by the wrist or the edge of the hand and which allow the creation of three-note chords.

The chanter has a slightly conical bore which gives it a rather low power and therefore suitable for indoor playing. Nothing to do with the 120 decibels of a Scottish bagpipe which makes it very noisy to play, wherever you are! (Very pleasant for the neighbours!).

To sum up, a Uilleann Pipe consists of the following elements:

  • A flexible and waterproof bag:
    Most of the time made of leather (nowadays some of the pockets are made of Gore Tex). This bag will serve as an air reservoir on which at least two pipes are fixed, it allows the pressure to be adjusted and offers a continuous flow to allow the musician to catch his breath without interrupting the sound.
  • A chanter :
    It is used to introduce the air into the bag. This pipe is equipped with a valve that prevents the air from coming out of the bag by the same path. The air is introduced either by blowing through the mouth or with the help of a bellows.
  • Additional hoses :
    The other pipe or pipes are used to produce sound. To produce sound, they are equipped with single reeds (like the clarinet) or double reeds (like the oboe). These reeds attached to the end of the pipe in the bag are therefore invisible. When there is enough pressure in the bag, these reeds vibrate and each one makes a sound.
  • The Bumblebees :
    Pipes can produce a permanent high-pitched sound, and they’re called drones. Pipes can also produce a melody by plugging or unplugging holes drilled along the chanter.

The Game

In terms of play, Uilleann Pipe is played in a seated position. An arm supplies the bellows with air, while both hands are activated on the chanter by plugging or not plugging the holes present on the latter.

Formerly, Uilleann Pipe was practiced standing, with a leg bent to put the chanter on it. This position was not the most comfortable, and required a certain endurance on the long run.

Purchase and Price of a Uilleann Pipe

The major disadvantage of Uilleann Pipe is its price. It is necessary to count between 3000 and 4000 € for a full set (drone, chanter, regulator, bellows and pocket) hence the fact that many Uilleann Piper have only a practice set (chanter, bellows and pockets for the modest sum of 1000€).

Some world-famous luthiers make them to order. Plan a good budget if you want a custom-made one!

So much more to discover...