A brief History of the Uilleann (Irish) Pipes

early version of uilleann pipesThe earliest bagpipes in Ireland - testified to in the fifth century Brehon Laws - were a mouth blown peasant instrument. During the seventeenth century, the musette-type of bellows-blown pipes became increasingly fashionable among upper and lower classes alike, notably in France and Ireland

more developed uilleann pipieBy the early eighteenth century the somewhat improved uilleann pipes were replacing the harp as the preferred instrument for most kinds of Irish music. During the latter half of the eighteenth century, the introduction of the keyed chanter, the regulators, and other refinements by such makers as Egan of Dublin led to the emergence of what is perhaps the most sophisticated form of bagpipes in the world.

old uilleann pipesThe history of piping in Ireland extends over a span of 13 centuries. References occur in ancient Irish annals to the cuisleannach or pipe blower. It is not certain exactly when bagpipes first appeared in Ireland, but it seems certain that in their earliest form they were similar to the Scottish bagpipes of today.

chanter, drones and bellowsDeriving from this older form of pipes the distinctively Irish uilleann pipes are undoubtedly the most sophisticated and complicated form of bagpipes in existence. It is believed that the present form emerged around the beginning of the 18th century. The full set of uilleann pipes comprises a bag, bellows, chanter, 3 drones and 3 regulators.

uilleann pipes diagramThe bag is inflated by the bellows; in the Scottish bagpipes it is mouth blown. The chanter on which the melody is played has a range of two octaves as compared with the Scottish pipes which have a range of nine notes. In the case of the pipes in concert pitch the range extends upwards from the D above middle C of the piano. It has seven finger holes on its face and one thumbhole at its back.

modern uilleann pipesThe drones, Bass, Baritone and Tenor, sound unchanging tones in the course of the melody. The regulators, again three in number, Bass, Baritone and Tenor, lie across the thigh of the player in such a way that the keys can be depressed by the underneath edge of the lower hand while it is engaged on the chanter. The arrangement of the keys in rows permits a single form of harmonic accompaniment to be made.

The pipes are played in the sitting position. The player straps his bellows to his right elbow thus enabling him to pump air into the bag. The air flow from the bag is controlled by the left elbow, enabling the player to change octaves. The chanter is placed on the right knee with the right hand playing the bottom notes of the chanter. This enables the player to use the right wrist to operate the drones and provide accompaniment on the regulators.

The uilleann pipes are regarded as outstanding among the pipes of the world for their mellowness and sweetness of tone.