Uilleann Pipes

One thing you have to get accustomed to when traveling around Ireland is the really fun pub scene. There are more modern pubs, jazz pubs, sports pubs, but in your standard pub scene there are always people I call hidden musicians. By that, I mean people who put down their Guinness and pick up an instrument from under their table at some predetermined point. There’s no way to tell if they brought this instrument or if it was just there, but without a doubt at some point a band will form and play traditional Irish music, seemingly out of the blue. Amongst the fiddles and flutes, one of the instruments you frequently see is a strange sort of bagpipes with a much softer, lighter sound. They are uilleann pipes.

A set of uilleann pipes

Maud actually briefly mentioned these in class as an “alternative” to bagpipes, and that characterization is pretty accurate. Uilleann pipes are a type of bagpipe that is powered by bellows pinned between the arm the hip. Uillean (roughly pronounced as “illin”) pipe players are unique because they can play in quieter settings, sitting down. A number of Irish traditional music bands use them because the sound has become distinctly Irish. The Chieftains are probably the most famous artists to use the uillean pipes, their pipe player Paddy Maloney is quite good.


You can hear it as part of a band here:

Pipe music in general is very important to Celtic cultural history and tradition. Most forms of bagpipes came from war pipes. Bagpipes are still used today within military contexts because of that history and the power they produce.  While I am a big fan of their sound, I can admit that the most common bagpipes played are unwieldy and very loud, so they don’t lend themselves to indoor playing or listening. Matt Molloy, the flute player for the Chieftains, owns a pub in Westport, Ireland. That’s the pub from the second link. I was there when a local bagpipe band began to play in the next room. A group of fifteen or so students from the music school came out to play. They were really cool to see, but the building was shaking and pictures were falling off the wall. Bagpipes are good for cutting through the cold March air on St. Paddy’s day, but not a great choice for musicians playing for pub audiences. Uilleann pipes don’t drown out every other sound and have become a unique Irish sound.

Pipe band at Molloy's. Note the guitarist in back trying his best.

Pipe band at Molloy’s. Note the guitarist in back trying his best.

The actual history of the uilleann pipes is pretty vague. They were first developed sometime within the late 17th century to the early 18th century, with the first mention of bellow-powered pipes coming as early as 1619. The Irish name, píobaí uilleann, translates to pipes of the elbow referring to the bellow system. They are a distinct instrument with a significantly softer sound that still maintained some of the character of highland pipes. Throughout their history, people also referred to them as Union pipes, in reference to the construction of the instrument, but the uilleann name stuck by the start of the 20th century. Interestingly enough, a large force that drove their original development were the English landowners precisely because of the ability to play indoors. English social customs and culture moved music and life indoors, so the uilleann pipes developed as a way to bring in traditional Irish culture. Most trad music bands nowadays have a set of uilleann pipes, in large part due to the Chieftains and other bands before them. They are also a fairly common sight on the streets of Galway, Cork, and other southern and western Irish towns. Some of the buskers even use them to play American folk music and pop music. Get Lucky sounds incredible on the pipes.