By turns soul-searching and exuberant, the sound of the Irish uilleann pipes is familiar enough today from the mist-laden TV dramas and a cameo role in Titanic, but only 50 years ago it was on the verge of extinction. Julian May explores the instrument under the guidance of Liam O'Flynn, whose playing has helped to ensure the tradition is thriving again. (Reproduced by Kind permission of Songlines: Photos Toner)
uilleann pipes
The uilleann pipes, lock, stock and several barrels. From left to right; the chanter, the drones, and regulators with the bag and popping strap, and the bellows.

The film Braveheart opens with roaming shots of a rugged, damp, mysterious landscape; a beautiful Scotland riven by atrocity. To aurally augment the atmosphere, what do we hear? Of course, a distant lamentation of pipes. But not Highland pipes; for his film, Mel Gibson imported their distant Irish cousins, the uilleann variety. William Wallace had been dead for half a millennium before they were invented, but Hey - this is Hollywood. Cut to Titanic, Leonardo di Caprio wants to show Kate Winslet a really good time. They escape the stuffed shirts in first class, dive below decks and behold, the Irish émigrés are dancing with wild abandon to the great tunes that a musician in the corner squeezing from his uilleann pipes. There you have it, the two stereotypical extremes of the Celtic world, encapsulated by this single instrument.

Paddy Mo loney chief of The Chieftains, must possess the best travelled set - he's played them everywhere, with everyone. Davy Spillane uses his like a jazz saxophonist and they are a crucial ingredient to the mix of the most successful fusion band of the moment, Afro-Celt Sound System. The uilleann (pronounced 'illun') pipes, like the rest of Irish culture, have gone global.

Even so, the moment of musical history the great piper Liam O'Flynn will cherish for the rest of his days is the recital he gave in London on August 12th 1999. He played a few tunes from Galicia and a smattering of new work, but predominately the programme was of Irish traditional music. Nothing unusual in that; it's what he does. But the venue was the Royal Albert Hall and the evening was broadcast by BBC Radio 3 as part of the most prestigious of serious music festivals, the BBC Proms. 'It's wonderful,' O'Flynn enthuses. 'This is the first time this music has appeared on such a platform. It's tremendously important.' So it is, because while there have been African, Jazz and Indian Proms, this was the first featuring the traditional music of Ireland. 'Not mediated through versions by classical composers,' O'Flynn asserts, 'but the thing itself.' It's a measure of the respect for that music, for the musician and the instrument itself.

Saved from extinction
It is strange to think, then, that within living memory the health of uilleann piping was even more parlous than that of the Irish language. 'The instrument came very close to extinction,' O'Flynn reflects. 'It nearly did die, and the ordinary people would not have been aware of the existence of the uilleann pipes. The lowest point came about 60 years ago when there were very few piper's left, maybe 50 at most, and no more than a handful could make a set of pipes.' But those few tenacious pipers - notably Leo Rowsome, Seamus Ennis and Willie Clancy - clung on when the Irish began to rediscover their own music in the 1950s the tradition, at its last gasp, was not beyond resuscitation. For O'Flynn these players, all of whom he new and learned from, are heroic figures: wonderful musicians, vital bearers and advocates of their tradition, generous teachers and great men. O'Flynn has played a crucial role himself. He joined the group Planxty in 1972 and they were phenomenally successful, touring widely and beyond the usual remit of folk music. Many people, drawn to their exciting music, heard the uilleann pipes for the first time and were struck by their power, their expressiveness.

'I must have been hearing the uilleann pipes from more or less day one,' says O'Flynn. 'I was born into a family of traditional musicians - though none of them pipers.' His mother, from County Clare, sang and played the piano; his father was a fiddler whose good friend Sergeant Tom Armstrong, of the Kildare Garda, used to visit frequently, bringing his pipes. 'My earliest musical memory is of extraordinary impact - some deep chord within me that the sound of the uilleann pipes struck. And I was in no doubt that that was the instrument that I wanted to play. I dreamt about the time when I'd be old enough and strong enough to get a set of pipes.'

O'Flynn extolls the mellowness of their sound, the uilleann pipes' characteristic sweetness of tone, but he acknowledges too their raw wildness - a quality hinting that the piper is perhaps not totally in control. As well as chirruping happily along, these pipes can wail chillingly, as in 'The Foxhunt', the most remarkable descriptive piece in their repertoire, when they evoke first the yelps of the hounds, then the death throes of their unfortunate prey. The poet Seamus Heaney, who works in an occasional duo with O'Flynn, credits the strength the drones bring, creating the 'floor of the sound, the foundation to build on with their deep steady quality'. He relishes too 'the merriment playing along with it' in the jigs and reels, yet, like O'Flynn, is struck by the emotional impact of the uilleann pipes, likening 'their capacity to lament and enlarge sorrow' to great poetry. A fine example of this is 'The Death of Staker Wallace'. 'Staker Wallace led an outfit called the White Boys,' O'Flynn explains. 'They dressed up in sheets at night and rooted up the hedges the landlords enclosed the commonage with - the peasants were already in a desperate plight. He was hunted down, tortured and hanged in 1798. Then his head was put on a spike. There was a song about him. Only a few lines survive but we have the tune, which is a kind of monument to the man.' It is unutterably sad, and when O'Flynn plays it he lengthens and blends certain notes, and the melody itself seems weighted down by anguish and loss. 'Many of the tunes', says Heaney, 'are slow airs with a certain dolourness.' But the aspect of the uilleann pipes and their music that impresses him most is that they are 'not about dolour, but overcoming it; a spirit not caving in but keeping going.' One begins to realize why for many Irish people the pipes rather than the harp are the national instrument. Indeed, one of the new pieces O'Flynn included in his Proms concert was The Bridge, written - at her request that the uilleann pipes be played - for the inauguration of Mary McAleese as President of Ireland.

A mechanical marvel

It is the extraordinary sophistication of these pipes that makes such a range of expression possible. O'Flynn complains that ordinary musicians can just pick up their instruments, while he has to strap himself into his. The piper has to sit , with the bellows under one arm, pumping air with his elbow - resisting the temptation to do this in time with the music - through a tube across the stomach to the bag under the other arm. Ideally, the bag is made of pigskin, which used to be treated with lard to keep it airtight ('with dire consequences for the piper', O'Flynn recalls, 'should he sit too close to the fire'). Cheaper modern pipes have rubber bags which don't leak, but leather is still preferred because it filters the air, catching the dust that can play havoc with the reeds. The bag powers the chanter, the pipe which plays the melody. It has seven finger-holes and a single thumb-hole on the back. Unlike the Northumbrian small pipes this chanter is open-ended and has a conical bore. For much of the time the chanter rests on the 'popping strap', a piece of leather tied around the pipers thigh, but it must be lifted off the strap to obtain certain notes and to blend them. The best chanters are made of ebony, or African blackwood, but these, prized for their density even more than for their beauty, have long been difficult to acquire. O'Flynn recalls his teacher Leo Rowsome, who was a great pipe-maker as well as player. 'He was always on the lookout for old policeman's truncheons - just right for making chanters if they weren't split with use. He used to be on the lookout for old billiard balls too. They were sometimes made of ivory and he'd use them for mountings.' Nowadays, chanters are sometimes made made of boxwood, which is also very close-grained and hard, or even cherry. As many as seven keys may be fitted, giving a range of sharps and flats, but traditional music requires only one, which gives C natural in the second octave; the scale of the instrument is D major.

bellows and drones
The uilleann pipes are secured to the player with a strap around his waist. The air is then pumped from the bellows (on the left of the opicture) through a tube across the stomach and into the bag before it is released into the various pipes
playing the uilleann pipes
The bag, ideally made of pigskink, is protected by a velvet cover

Yes, indeed: the second octave. Nearly 300 years ago an unknown genius pared a reed that gave access to the upper octave by means of overblowing - using extra pressure on the bag. Whereas the beauty of the Highland pipes lies in the exploitation and ornamentation of their restricted range, that of the uilleann pipes is the freedom to roam over two octaves. But there are also 'flat pipes', pitched a tone or more lower. O'Flynn has a set of these inherited from the great piper and collector Seamus Ennis. These are quieter, mellow and even more of a chamber instrument.

Across the piper's lap lie the drones - three of them. These provide a constant accompaniment to the chanter. One of the secrets of listening to pipe music is to attune the ear to hear not just the drone and a chanter but the cords they create together (such as, with Highland pipes, an apparent fifth, a note that is there even though nothing is producing it). The tenor drone echoes the bottom note of the chanter, the barritone is an octave below that and the bass another octave below the baritone. (Uilleann pipes, ever versatile, have a key which can silence the drones.)

uilleann pipes chanter

uilleann pipes chanter
Top: the chanter with its single key, resting on the popping strap. Bottom: the chanter is raised off the strap for certain pitch changes.

Bagpipers the world over content themselves with bags, chanters and drones in various combinations. But Ireland is a land given to excess - so the uilleann piper has to contend with regulators too. These are three pipes, stopped at the end and fitted with keys, arranged over the drones. With the heel of the fist, or the fingers of one hand if it is not too busy on the chanter, the dextrous piper depresses the keys to provide simple chordal accompaniment. 'Why "regulators" no one has ever been able to tell me, nor any book either,' muses O'Flynn. 'But "regulators" they are.' The use of these is controversial. Leo Rowsome was inordinately fond of them, leading Seamus Ennis to mock his 'parp-parping' style. Johnny Doran, a traveller piper (who died as a result of a wall collapsing on his caravan in Dublin) used them almost percussively. His playing was fast, even flashy, because he played at fairs and markets: his audience was on the move and he had to arrest them with his virtuosity. He influenced Willie Clancy, and more recently Davy Spillane who admired the wildness of Doran's style more than the parlour 'pipering' of Rowsome. Ennis, whom O'Flynn reveres for his mastery of the instrument in its entirety, used the regulators sparingly, to great effect. O'Flynn exploits the regulators with his customary restraint.

uilleann pipes drones

uilleann pipes

uilleann pipes regulators
Top: the drones (the smallest hidden from view) and the regulators with their metal keys.
the smallest drone nestles next to the left of the three regulators.
the regulators are played with the fingers of the right hand while the left continues to play on the chanter.

So the piper is pumping the bellows, varying the pressure of the bag, bouncing the chanter off his thigh as he plays the tune, switching the drones in and out and wresting chords out of the regulators. 'There is quiet a lot to think about,' says O'Flynn, a man of almost English understatement. 'It calls for a certain degree of co-ordination. I don't play any other pipes but if there are any more difficult ones I don't want to know about them.' He tells a story of coming through customs with a friend at Heathrow airport with his pipes in their neat case. A stressed security man rushed up. 'Is that a gun in there?', he snapped. 'No,' piped O'Flynn's companion, 'Worse!'

A woolly tale
In the Merchant of Venice Shylock remarked that, 'There are those who when the woollen bagpipe sings i'th nose cannot contain their urine.' It's not the alleged diuretic property of the pipes that has exercised scholars, but the word 'woollen'. There are no known knitted bagpipes, though it may refer to the decorative covering of the bag. But 'woollen' is not that distant in sound from 'uilleann', especially if you're pirating a copy of a play scribbling it down as it's being performed, and you have little grasp of Irish. Was Shakespeare familiar with the uilleann pipes? It's a nice notion, but unlikely.

Shakespeare died in 1616, a century or so before they began to develop and at least two before they reached their present state. The name is derived from 'uille' the Irish for 'elbow', because they are bellows or elbow-driven rather than mouth-blown. But this name was itself only introduced at the turn of the century. Prior to that they were known as 'union' pipes because their sound is formed by the unity of chanter, drones and regulators.

The uilleann pipes were popular across the range of society. Indeed, there is some evidence that the bellows developed so that aristocrats would not ruin their faces and dignity by indecorously puffing into their pipes. These gentleman pipers included Lord Edward Fitzgerald and Lord Rossmore, and the great houses of the early nineteenth century employed pipers. At the other end of the social spectrum there was the itinerant pipers, epitomized in this century by Johnny Doran and, in between, farmers like Leo Rowsome's grandfather Samuel and the blind piper Garret Barry of Inagh, in whose footsteps Willie Clancy followed. After the Great Famine in the 1840s many musicians were among those who left for America. Eventually there was an important traditional scene in Chicago, sustained by Francis O'Neill, the captain of police who employed musicians on the force - and was known to release musical felons in return for a tune.

Liam O'Flynn playing uilleann pipes
Playing the chanter and the regulators can be a serious business.
18th century uilleann piper
An eighteenth-century gentleman piper Photo Irish Traditional Music Archive

Back in Ireland the uilleann pipes were almost ousted by melodeons and concertinas. These were cheap, loud and less demanding. The maintenance of a set of uilleann pipes is almost as demanding as the playing of them. Orchestral wind-players moan about the double reeds but they gaze in awe when they work with Liam O'Flynn, who has often worked with symphony orchestras, performing Shaun Davey's suite for orchestra and pipes, The Brendan Voyage. The wind-players have just the one recalcitrant reed; a set of uilleann pipes has four doubles and three singles. 'There's quiet a lot that can go wrong,' O'Flynn sighs. 'It's quiet a job sometimes to keep them all happy.' Even O'Flynn's venerable pipes sport the odd rubber band and a bit of sticky tape to keep them steaming along.

Liam O'Flynn was 11 before his dream came true and he was given a set of uilleann pipes. This was a practice set - the bellows, bag and chanter without the distraction of drones and regulators. 'I was playing the practice set for at least five years,' O'Flynn remembers. 'My first teacher, Leo Rowsome, insisted on that and I'm very glad, because with the drones and regulators it's too easy to cover mistakes and problems.' O'Flynn describes a relationship with his teacher, who also taught the young Paddy Moloney, that is archetypal and, in the West now rare indeed. 'It was like being an apprentice to a master. Almost all the uilleann pipers I know refer to an older piper. I would say it was impossible to learn on your own. All my music I learned by ear - dots never came into it - and now once the piece is living inside me I can begin to express myself through it.'

From pub to platform

Liam o'Flynn with uilleann pipes
O'Flynn has been known to make airport staff distinctly nervous - the pipes' case looks alarmingly suspect.

O'Flynn is a traditional musician, but a contemporary man of considerable musical curiosity and ambition. He has worked with a great variety of musicians - Mark Knopfler, John Williams, Kate Bush. He even played in Roaratorio, a piece the modernist composer John Cage wrote for the dancer Merce Cunningham, based on James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake. Of deeper significance, though was playing Shaun Davey's The Brendan Voyage as a soloist in front of a full symphony orchestra. In the past, classical composers have had a somewhat imperial attitude towards vernacular music. 'They took the tunes and brought them into the concert hall,' says Shaun Davey. 'But where was the traditional musician? They left him back in the pub.' Since then O'Flynn has been up on the platform, and the uilleann pipes pop up everywhere. Even the quintessential English band of Hope - Roy Bailey, Martin Carthy, Dave Swarbrick and John Kirkpatrick - included Steafan Hannigan playing pipes. Some pipers, especially those working in bands, rarely venture on to the regulators - 'Because they are surrounded by accompaniment,' O'Flynn notes, 'they don't need to use the instrument's own.' He is generous and respectful. Of Davy Spillane, for instance, he quotes the man himself: 'Davy once said he was not an uilleann piper, but a musician who happens to play the pipes.' And a tinge, but no more, of regret, colours his voice.

O'Flynn revels in the knowledge that in his lifetime the number of uilleann pipers has grown from a handful to thousands; that the sound that so moved him as a boy is heard on every continent. But he is clear in his own mind: the uilleann pipes are a traditional instrument, at their best playing music in that idiom. And there's plenty of it. 'I'm playing now for more than 40 years,' he says, ''and still finding new tunes. Well new old tunes. It's wonderful music and you'd never reach the end of it.'

Now that O'Flynn has played on BBC Radio 3 and broadcast from the Royal Albert Hall at the Proms, the traditional musician has come out of the pub and onto the concert platform, bringing his instrument and the music with him.