The Uilleann Pipes

Many people are not aware of the fact that there are roughly thirty different types of bagpipes, and out of them all, the uilleann pipes are the most complex and versatile. Not considered "warpipes," they are softer and sweeter, especially the lower pitched sets. Because of this, they can be played along with other instruments without overpowering them. In fact, the lower pitched pipes are themselves easily overpowered!


A Breakdown of the Uilleann Pipes

A full set of uilleann pipes consists of a bag, a bellows, a chanter, drones, and three regulators. The bag is self-explanatory, but here is a description of the rest:

Bellows- The reeds require a dry air source, which is what the bellows provide. The player fills the bag by pumping a bellows located under the arm opposite the bag.

Chanter- The melody pipe. The bottom of it rests on the player's leg, allowing for staccato play, because the chanter only sounds when a finger is lifted off or the bottom note is played. Nearly all bagpipes are legato-only, meaning there is no way to stop the sound of the chanter once you start playing. 

Drones- Provides a constant sound against the chanter and regulators.

Regulators- Keyed pipes that the player plays with his wrist. Think of these as chanters that lay across the player's leg, and that only sound when you press the keys. Again, a full set has three regulators, but there have been sets that were built with more. This is rare, however. Maintaining and playing three regulators is more than enough work for most!


A Brief History of the Uilleann Pipes

In the second half of the 17th century, a new type of bagpipe, the pastoral pipes, was developed around the border area of England and Scotland. Very early on, Irish pipemakers started producing the instrument, making changes and improvements in the process. Because of the modifications, the instrument became the "union pipes." By the early 20th century, the term "union" was dropped in favor of "uilleann," which means "elbow" in Irish Gaelic. 

Because of the Great Famine, the number of pipemakers and pipers dwindled to an alarmingly low amount. During the early 1900's, it looked as though the tradition may even die out. Fortunately, a few people continued playing, making, and teaching the pipes. People like Leo Rowsome, Seamus Ennis, and Willie Clancy kept the tradition alive. During the 1960's and 70's, Irish music became a global phenomenon, thanks to bands like the Chieftains, Planxty, and the Bothy Band.  Currently, the uilleann pipes continue to experience popularity on a global scale. More people play the instrument now than at any point in history, and there is no sign that it will slow down in the near future.