Rhymes with Chillin’ : The Irish Uilleann Pipes

Ben Jaber plays uilleann pipes at Mingei International Museum

How old were you when you first heard that bagpipes are from Scotland? That’s indeed what most Americans assume. But many other countries besides Scotland—Spain, France, Italy, Germany, and Bulgaria to name a few—have their own unique bagpipes, upon which they play their traditional music. My good pal Jonathan Parker has detailed some of this further in his excellent article on the säckpipa from Sweden.

Ireland’s native bagpipe, the uilleann pipe, holds the distinction of being the world’s most complicated bagpipe. Moreover, it is on everyone’s shortlist of the “most difficult instruments” to play. The uilleann pipes evolved out of the parlor instrument traditions of Europe. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the times of the penal laws in Ireland, there was a need for a quieter, softer-toned instrument. Secular music and dance were forbidden, so the best way to promote such banned activity was to keep it behind closed doors.

The pipes’ methods of construction remain largely the same today as they were 200 years ago. Thankfully, the quality of new instruments being built is now at an all-time high.

All bagpipes have in common a chanter, the flute-like pipe upon which the melody is played with the fingers, and one or more drone pipes that play a single, sustained note to provide a rich foundational blanket of resonating harmonics for the chanter melody. Uilleann pipes take the accompaniment further with the addition of regulators, a strange name for them because regulators don’t really regulate anything. They are stopped pipes with sprung keys that sound single notes when played with the heel of the wrist and fingers. The regulators can be used to great effect rhythmically in dance music as well as to sustain the drone tone in slower music, giving a full sound not unlike a pipe organ.

Components of the uillean pipe

As reed instruments, bagpipes use vibrating reeds of different types and materials to make sound. A full set of uilleann pipes uses no fewer than seven reeds, usually made from cane, to power the chanter. The drones and regulators also use reeds. The reeds are sounded by pressurized air stored in the pipe’s bag, from which—you guessed it—this class of instruments derives its name.

Most bagpipes are mouth-blown, their bags kept inflated by the musician’s lungs. However, there’s a sub-category of several types of softer-sounding bagpipes. (Among these, in my opinion, the uilleann pipes are clearly the best!) These maintain the pressure of the air in the bag not with the piper’s breath, but will a small bellows. They’re played seated with the chanter and drones positioned across the player’s lap. Air is pumped into the bag by a little bellows strapped around the waist and to the arm opposite the bag arm. (The bag and bellows can be set up on either side of the body depending on whether the player is left- or right-handed.)  The arms rock up and down, back and forth, squeezing and releasing the bag and bellows with the elbows, thus regulating the pressure on the reeds.

This is where the instrument gets its Irish name, uilleann, which is a form of the Irish Gaelic word uille, which means “elbow.” And yep, uilleann rhymes with chillin’. I know, it looks like it should be pronounced ooo-lee-ann, or you-lee-ann, or perhaps aeolian, but not so. Try saying chillin’ minus the ‘ch’. Ill, iller, illest! Uilleann! It’s a term that was ascribed to the instrument in the early 20th Century by the Irish author and musicologist Grattan Flood. Before that, these instruments were known simply as Irish pipes. Uilleann sounded way more exotic, so the name stuck.

Detail of set of uilleann pipes, c. 1940. Note the keys on the regulators. Photo: Terry Moylan, © NPU, 2013

Unlike the Scottish bagpipes, whose chanter plays nine notes, the uilleann pipes’ chanter can play two complete, 12-note chromatic octaves. This is achieved with keywork similar to that of other woodwinds of the time. The upper octave is obtained by overblowing the reed, as with an oboe or flute. The difference is that in this case, as we have seen, the airflow is controlled by the piper maintaining pressure on the bag and operating the bellows with their elbows. As one might imagine, getting seven reeds to tune and balance with the three drones and three regulators staying steady, all while the musician is playing up and down the chanter’s entire range, can be very, very tricky. Near impossible. Hence the whole “most difficult instrument” thing.

The instrument’s difficulties contributed to uilleann piping’s struggle to stay alive as an art form. It nearly faded to extinction multiple times throughout its history. As of 1970, the greatest pipemakers in Ireland were all dead and gone, and fewer than a hundred people in the world were still playing the instrument. In 1968, a group of Irish pipers joined forces to form the organization Na Píobairí Uilleann (NPU, in English: “The Uilleann Pipers”) to revive the fortunes of the instrument. Through the efforts of the NPU and other enthusiasts, there’s been a dramatic reversal in the uilleann pipe’s fortunes. It must also be noted that the Internet has had a profound influence on the pipe’s survival through the passing of information (as in this article), as well as online instruction and recordings.

In 2017, UNESCO officially recognized uilleann piping as an element of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Now in 2024, I’m happy to report that more people than ever are playing the uilleann pipes in just about every corner of the globe. Some of the finest pipes ever built are being made in Sapporo, Japan, of all places!

Students graduate from a 3-year Na Piobairi Uilleann pipemaking course, 2015. Photo: Fennel Photography, © NPU 2015

From its humble beginnings, the uilleann pipes evolved into a sophisticated instrument worthy of the Irish bourgeoisie, with a court piper, as it were, in every house. Eventually, it climbed its way to the concert stages and recording studios of the world.

Piper Paddy Keenan in San Francisco, 1985

The awe-inspiring, hair-raising, soul-wrenching, mind-altering sound of the pipes is what attracted all of us who play it. A dear family friend of mine who played Scottish pipes and Irish pipes growing up introduced me to the classic recordings of the best Irish pipers at an early age. I’ll never forget hearing the first track of Paddy Keenan’s 1975 Brown Album. I hadn’t yet seen what pipes looked like, but then there was this magical drone sound that fired on, followed by the raw, wild, unbridled, soulful, forward motion of Paddy’s chanter playing. And then, there were chords! harmonies! Multiple voices! My young mind was blown, and I was hooked.

I started with the tin whistle, and eventually, as I listened to more of this music, I was drawn into playing the flute. With Paddy Keenan’s recordings also came the music of the Bothy Band and Planxty, which were luckily among my earliest influences. Though I never had any formal lessons, I consider myself fortunate in that regard because all my teachers, with whom I studied via their recordings, have been the best of the craft. They include Seamus Ennis, Liam O’Flynn, Willie Clancy, Tommy Reck, Mick O’Brien, Robbie Hannan, and Ronan Browne.

Benjamin Jaber is a talented multi-instrumentalist who has studied traditional Irish music since his early teens, being completely self-taught on the uilleann pipes, wooden flute, and tin whistle. He has made a name for himself as a sought-after performer and teacher in the field. Ben has played and conducted workshops at numerous Irish music festivals and camps, including the Lark In The Morning Camp, the North Texas Irish Festival, the Austin Celtic Festival, the EnnisTradFest, the Féile Parkfield in historic Parkfield, California, and the Willie Clancy Summer School in Milltown Malbay, Co. Clare, Ireland. In his day job, Ben is principal horn of the San Diego Symphony Orchestra. He remains active in the recording studios of Los Angeles, having many film and TV projects to his credit.