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Uilleann Pipes History

In one form or another, bagpipes have been around for thousands of years; legend has it that the Roman Emperor Nero played a set of pipes, and some form of the bagpipes may have even been played for the entertainment of Egyptian pharaohs.

Despite the controversies over who, where and when, it is certain that from their earliest days, bagpipes became associated with war. They were so loud that they could even be heard over the sounds of men fighting and dying, making the pipes ideal for leading the Roman infantry into battle. The Great Highland Bagpipes and Irish warpipes were used to rally military forces in Scotland and Ireland for centuries.

Skipping ahead to the late 17th century, instrument makers in Scotland introduced a refinement to the bagpipe lineage called the Pastoral pipes, or hybrid Union pipes. The Pastoral pipes, which were played sitting down, were bellows-blown and characterized by an open conical-bore chanter and the addition of one or more regulators.

Irish Pipers Go Underground

Meanwhile, over in Ireland, the open-minded English in power at that time decided that their world would be a better place with all traces of the Irish culture eradicated. The Irish of that day were playing mouth-blown models like the Irish warpipes, which could be heard for miles and attracted the unwanted attention of the English authorities. Naturally, English officials weren’t content just to seize and destroy the offending pipes; as a general rule, they hanged the piper as well.

As a means of avoiding this musical form of ethnic cleansing, the Irish sought to develop a quieter instrument, which could be played indoors without prompting official interference. The result was the invention of the Uilleann pipes in the early 1700s. By closing the end of the chanter and making them bellows-driven, the Irish had developed a more covert instrument that would be much more conducive to a piper’s continued good health and longevity.

A More Perfect Union

When Irish instrument-makers added the first regulator in the latter half of the 18th century, the name Union pipes (referring to the union of the regulator with the chanter) became popular. At this point, several prominent instrument-makers got started making Union pipes. Among the premier makers of Union pipes was Robert Reid of Northumberland, who would later become the most important historical figure in the development of the Northumbrian smallpipes.

At one crossroads in Irish history—around the end of the 18th century—a sharp decline in the popularity of the Celtic harp intersected with an upsurge in the popularity of pipes. Dating back to the Middle Ages, harpers had traditionally been a privileged class, a valued necessity in the entourage of kings and the nobility. Later, as the fortunes of the nobility waned, it was more typical for harpers to travel, and serve many patrons on an itinerant basis. It was not uncommon for the leading harpers of bygone days to be blind (Turlough O’Carolan being the glaringly obvious example). With the demise of harpers, pipers inherited this role, and became the keepers of slow airs and clan marches. Pipers toured around, playing to rich patrons, and mastering the pipes offered the only way for a blind person to earn money.

Over time, the name Union pipes gave way to a new term, Uilleann pipes (pronounced ill-in). Uilleann means elbow in Irish, a reference to the way a piper expands and contracts the bellows between his elbow and rib cage.

The Taylor Bros. from Co Louth

There was no subsequent development of the pipes as a musical instrument until around 1870, when the Taylor brothers developed the the present form of the Uilleann pipes, with a full complement of drones and regulators. The Taylors hailed from County Louth, but had emigrated and set up a workshop in Philadelphia. Union pipers were catching on in America, and were featured performers in colossal concert halls. The Taylor brothers recognized that the sound of the then-current pipes models was, if anything, too quiet for the concert stage, and set about creating their own innovations and improvements.

The “flat-pitch” pipes that were available prior to the Taylors were pitched in a range from B to C sharp. The Taylor brothers devised “concert-pitch” pipes in the key of D, a brighter key, and made them louder by increasing both the size of the bore and the finger holes on the chanter. The Taylor brothers became renowned for the quality of their sets, which featured distinctive large and flat regulator keys.

Uilleann Piping Today

The tradition of the traveling piper continued unabated (though declining) until around the beginning of the 20th century, which found the few remaining professionals destitute, some of them ending up in the workhouse. The 20th century, however, also brought the Uilleanns into their own as an ensemble instrument; previously, the Uilleann pipes had been almost exclusively a solo performer. Uilleann pipes were played increasingly with other instruments used in Irish traditional music, including tin whistles, fiddles, banjos and accordions. Pipers’ clubs sprang up in many Irish towns, and helped to fuel the Irish music revival in the 1970s and boost the popularity of the instrument. Today, the sweet, distinctive sound of the Uilleann pipes is considered indispensable by many of the top groups playing the Irish traditional repertoire.