Uilleann Pipes


Throughout the world there are dozens of types of pipes, all with their own peculiarities. What distinguishes uilleann pipes? Firstly, they are bellows-driven, not mouth-blown. Secondly, unlike other pipes, uilleann pipes have regulators, a system of stopped keys that afford an optional harmonic accompaniment. And thirdly, the chanter range is two octaves.

The word uilleann comes from the Irish word for 'elbow', and the pipes became known as uilleann pipes from the early 20th century. Before that they were known as union pipes. Many commentators believe this was because of the union being between the pitch of the chanter and tenor drone. Uilleann pipes have existed in their current form, i.e. chanter, bag, bellows, 3 drones and 3 regulators, since the mid to late 18th century.

Uilleann pipes are played seated. The chanter, the part on which the tune is played, has seven finger holes on the front, one at the back, and is rested or 'stopped' on the player’s knee (i.e. when all the holes are fully covered and the chanter is on the knee, no air can escape and no sound should emanate). Often a piper will use a leather popping strap, simply a piece of leather, to help make the stopping airtight. Unlike Highland bagpipes, this means that staccato playing is achievable on uilleann pipes.

The bellows are strapped around the waist and under one arm. These draw air into a bag under the other arm, and pressure on the bag then controls the airflow to the chanter, drones and regulators. The notes in the chanter’s upper octave are obtained by increasing the pressure on the bag.

The three drones (tenor, baritone and bass), are tuned an octave apart, the tenor taking its pitch from the bottom note of the chanter. Switched on and off by a stop-key on the main stock, they provide a continuous accompaniment to the chanter. The three regulators are mainly played with the heel of the hand and can offer both sustained chordal and rhythmic accompaniment. The instrument therefore has seven reeds in all - double reeds in the chanter and regulators, single reeds in the drones. Keeping all seven in tune and balance with each other is no mean feat.

Two hundred years ago, pipes were not necessarily set in a specific key - most tended to be somewhere between Bb and C#. These lower pitched pipes, known as flat pipes, give a quieter, more mellow sound. Today most pipes are concert pipes, i.e. in the key of D. The process of settling on this key was began in the 19th century and was central to the further development of the wide-bore chanter. Also key to the wide-bore chanter’s development were two Philadelphia-based Drogheda émigrés, the Taylor brothers. The wide-bore D chanter provided greater volume than a narrow bore one, thus enabling pipers to be better heard in performance. Additionally, with the rise in group performance and the need for musicians to play in the same key, pipes pitched in a key suitable for fiddle, accordion, flute, etc. made such ensemble playing easier. In recent years, flat pipes have found favour again - mainly for solo performing.

Most pipes that date from the late 18th and early 19th centuries have fully chromatic chanters. Why is this when traditional music has its own modal system and is largely diatonic? Indeed why do uilleann pipes have regulators when, in its purest form, traditional music is linear and without harmony?

It’s likely that uilleann pipes were also used for playing music other than traditional - namely operetta and other popular forms of the day (for example, the frontispiece of one of O’Farrell’s collections shows him playing pipes in the operetta Oscar and Malvina). The chromatic chanter meant that pipes could play in various keys, and in keeping with the popular music being played, the regulators could offer harmonic support. However the regulators have been an integral, essential and unique component of the pipes in their traditional role since the start of the 19th century.

By the early 20th century, there were signs that the interest in pipes was on the wane and that they might be following the harp towards extinction. In an effort to prevent this, pipers clubs were established in Cork and Dublin and the Gaelic League held piping competitions at its annual Oireachtas, as did the Dublin Feis Cheoil. Amongst those who halted the decline were Dublin piper, teacher and pipe-maker Leo Rowsome and the families of travelling pipers like the Dorans, Keenans and Fureys. Pipers Willie Clancy and Séamus Ennis also played a major role in the second part of the 20th century.

Leo Rowsome was also instrumental in founding Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann in 1952 and in 1966, The Armagh Pipers Club was formed by Brian and Eithne Vallely to nurture traditional music, and in particular uilleann piping. And in 1968, Na Píobairí Uilleann was established, an organisation whose main aim is to promote uilleann pipes.

Uilleann pipes have been used very widely in recent years in all sorts of settings outside of the traditional, for example in compositions for pipes and orchestra such as The Brendan Voyage by Shaun Davey and Flowansionnamare by Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin; as a lead instrument in the rock/trad cross-over band Moving Hearts; in various Hollywood film scores, e.g. The Field; with the Irish/African ensemble, Afro-Celt Sound System; and by the avant-garde composer John Cage in his composition Roratorio. The unmistakeable sound of the pipes would seem to make them adaptable to various genres.


Players of exceptional talent include Leo Rowsome, Willie Clancy, Séamus Ennis, Patsy Touhey, Liam O’Flynn, Robbie Hannan, John McSherry and Jarlath Henderson


  • Séamus Ennis

    The Rainy Day / The Merry Blacksmith / The Silver Spear

  • Leo Rowsome

    The Bunch of Keys / Buckley's Fancy

  • Patsy Touhey

    The Steampacket / Morning Star / Miss McLeods

  • Willie Clancy

    The Bonny Bunch of Roses (An Binnsín Luachra)