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Whistles History

As instruments are concerned, whistles go way back, some say to China of 5000 years ago. In the Celtic world, however, references to whistles date back only to approximately the 11th century. Whistle players are mentioned in some early Irish literature, and stone high crosses have carvings of players blowing on bone pipes with narrow conical bores. There is evidence that 12th-century Vikings played bird-bone whistles in the streets of Dublin; the High Street excavations in Dublin’s old Norman quarter have yielded the oldest extant specimens of Irish whistle.

On its long journey from ancient China to present-day Ireland, the whistle has picked up a confusing array of names and nicknames. Some of these are pennywhistle, fipple flute, Irish whistle, vertical flute, tin flute, flageolet, cuisle, cuiseach, feadan, and feadóg stáin. No matter what you call it, the mechanics are the same: it is a simple six-holed instrument played with by blowing through the fipple (mouthpiece) attached to one end.

Early in the 19th century, English-made whistles started to appear with the six finger hole arrangement that we see today (also some with the traditional thumb hole and keys). The 19th-century feadan (one definition of the word is "a hollowed stick") was made from the hollowed stalks of such plants as cane, elder, and wild reeds and grasses. As craftspeople became more proficient in bonecarving and woodworking, new materials were used for the exterior, reeds and fipples. The fipples in Medieval bone flutes (also known as flageolets), for example, were made of clay.

One of the largest manufacturers today is the Clarke Tinwhistle Company. Its founder, Robert Clarke, is said to have made the first metal tinwhistle in 1843, modifying the design of a wooden whistle he himself owned and played. Clarke found the new tinwhistles to be brisk sellers; setting up his wheelbarrow full of whistles in the marketplace, he would play for the crowds and demonstrate how he made them.

Recent History

Prior to the 1950s, whistles generally had wooden fipples and tapered conical tubes. Then the plastic mouthpiece was introduced, and a straight cylindrical tube replaced the traditional conical-bore tube. The next milestone in whistle development was the Low D whistle, invented by Bernard Overton in the 1970s. Overton was an associate of Finbar Furey (The Fureys), who played an Indian bamboo flageolet. Bernard had always found it strange that whistles were not designed as other instruments were, with bass, tenor, alto and soprano models. When Furey's bamboo whistle, which was held together with tape and gum, eventually fell apart, Overton made a replacement out of aluminium and the Low D whistle was born. Finbar Furey recorded the first tune on the newly invented Low D whistle, his slow air The Lonesome Boatman.