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.

Irish Music at The Ould Sod

San Diego’s Irish Music Sessions at the Ould Sod

There’s a fascinating variety of traditional music to be found in the San Diego area. Mike De Smidt tells us about the weekly Irish music sessions at The Ould Sod, an Irish pub on Adams Avenue.

George at The Ould SodMany people became familiar with Irish traditional music in the 1990s with the emergence of the stage phenomenon Riverdance. Some may also be aware of something that has existed far longer and continues to be a vibrant affair for musicians and spectators alike: the session, best described as a group of musicians playing a spontaneous selection of dance music. Irish music has a very long history, dating back thousands of years, but the music that is heard today developed primarily in the past two hundred or so years.

One important aspect of Irish traditional music that makes it distinct from many other European musical traditions is its contiguous history, unbroken by shifts in the political climate or changes in cultural taste. Sessions are a great venue for the transmission of this tradition from one generation of musicians to the next.

The purpose is thus not only musical but also social. Friendships are forged and reinforced through the sharing of tunes from the participants’ repertoires. Sessions, moreover, play a vital role in building a sense of community.

Photo of The Ould SodThe session at The Ould Sod on Adams Avenue in San Diego has engendered a wonderful musical climate for more than 20 years and serves as an anchor for the local community of Irish musicians. Every Tuesday night, between five and ten musicians gather in an alcove by the front door or in the beer garden area at the rear of the establishment and play a variety of tunes—jigs, reels, hornpipes, slides, and the occasional song—for themselves and for anyone else who wishes to listen.

This is an important thing to note about Irish sessions: the musicians, while certainly happy if other pub patrons enjoy the music, are primarily playing for their own enjoyment. That being said, it is a fairly inclusive affair as well. New musicians—of varying experience—are welcomed into the group, learning the shared repertoire and often adding to it with music they bring to the gathering on their own.

While it is a regular weekly event at The Ould Sod, the session still maintains an air of informality that adds to its charm and sense of inclusion. There is no amplification, the instruments are acoustic, and you will find a wide variety of them at that! There’ll be the fiddles, flutes, banjos, and guitars that most people are familiar with, but also more unusual instruments such as the uilleann pipes and the concertina.


Photograph by Michael Eskin

A session is an occasion to celebrate, enjoy a musical culture, and have a great night out with your friends. Tuesdays at The Ould Sod are certainly no exception.

— Mike De Smidt is a musician, ethnomusicologist, and instrument builder living near Santa Cruz, California.

See a short video of a typical Irish session, from Joe McHugh’s Pub in the village of Liscannor on the west coast of Ireland.

The Ould Sod
3373 Adams Ave, San Diego, CA 92116
(619) 284-6594

Website | Google Map



The Bodhrán: Ancient Sound of Irish Percussion

This article is one in a series of reports on the fascinating variety of musical instruments that audience members encounter through Center for World Music programs.

When I was a young lad in Cork, Ireland the bodhrán (pronounced bow-rawn, like cow brawn) was commonly considered as the “ancient sound of Irish percussion.”  Indeed, we are told that the bodhrán was used to summon the fairies from their magic fort on full-moon nights. Many novice players could not understand why this profound sound of the past was not widely featured in traditional Irish music sessions across the world. After all, they would say, isn’t this “the Irish drum”? Little did we know that the opposite was the case. While teaching bodhrán in upstate New York at the Catskills Irish Arts Week, I sat in on an eye-opening lecture by Fintan Vallely entitled “Hunting for Borr-án: Shaking a Stick at the Origin Myths Concerning the Irish Drum.” My world as a bodhrán player was completely dismantled.

Through long research, Fintan had found that the bodhrán has been a part of Irish music for only the last 200 years, if that. Its use was not widespread and was generally reserved for only the wildest of parties. As Fintan puts it in his notes on the talk:

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“. . . what is the history of the bodhrán? What we know so far is driven by myth and wishful thinking. . . . the famous Irish drum has no ancient artistic past: at the best it was only ever just a tambourine. The Irish device, from which the word ‘bodhrán’ comes, most likely originally meant an agricultural and domestic tray or container — even a sieve. Yet the bodhrán IS around, and being brilliantly played, as solid an art and presence as the harp or the pipes. We borrowed the device from [minstrel shows] or the Salvation Army, the rhythms from dancers’ feet, and we synthesised the modern playing style from the sounds of Ulster Lambeggers, Indian tabla tippers and Scottish pipe-band snare drummers.”[/stbpro]

Today the bodhrán is a rapidly-developing Irish drum, in both its design and its playing style. It was brought from its humble origins in rural celebrations to public attention in concert halls and theaters by Seán Ó Riada and Peadar Mercier in the 1960s, and featured prominently in the ensembles Ceoltóirí Chualann and the Chieftains. From there it has exploded across the globe and become a mainstay at many Irish music sessions and home fireplaces. Johnny “Ringo” McDonogh is noted as the first player to damp the sound with one hand on the back of the instrument, and many others have further developed this style of two-hand playing. In addition, tunable bodhráns have improved the tone more concretely, and turned the humble farm utensil into a sophisticated musical instrument.

At the age of 19, I stumbled into the Douglas, County Cork branch of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, a non-profit organization whose mission is to preserve and promote Irish traditional performing arts. It was there that a tiny 6-inch bodhrán with a hole in it was thrust into my hands, and I was steered into a bodhrán class with teacher Eric Cunningham. The rest is history. Today, I play a 14-inch Metloef bodhrán, although many instruments of old were 18 to 20 inches in diameter. According to Fintan’s research, those larger sizes were prevalent because old spinning wheels were used as the rim of the instrument. Personally, I find the larger diameters too cumbersome, although other players still prefer them. Two pieces of wood in the shape of a cross, placed within the back-side frame are common in the larger drums, but I feel that they are a hindrance to playing the smaller instruments that I prefer.

In the past, the performer’s bare hand was most commonly used to beat the drum, as demonstrated by the great Rónán Ó Snodaigh. Nowadays, however, a stick called a cípín is typically used. Ideally, the cípín matches the length of the player’s hand, from outstretched thumb to outstretched baby finger, as this is about as much weight as any one’s wrist can withstand for extended playing. When both ends of the cípín are used, this is known as the “Kerry” style of bodhrán playing. A different style, known as “top end,” uses only one end of the stick and is characterized by a heavy emphasis on upstrokes of the cípín. 

Videos of the bodhrán:
The Gallant Fusiliers by Máirtín de Cógáin
Bodhran jigs – Karl Nesbitt & Tommie Cunniffe

Máirtín de Cógáin is an actor, singer, percussionist, storyteller, playwright, dancer, and teaching artist for the Center for World Music.

Máirtín de Cógáin, 21st Century Irish Storyteller

We warmly welcome Máirtín de Cógáin, who joins World Music in the Schools as a teaching artist in residence.

Máirtín de Cógáin-drumming-2Center for World Music artist in residence Máirtín de Cógáin is a singing, dancing, story-telling bodhrán (Irish frame drum) player, who also is a noted playwright and actor. He performs all over the United States, as well as in his native Ireland. An infectious personality, Máirtín pleasantly commands the attention of all audiences, from concert halls to intimate porches.

Descended from a long line of storytellers, Máirtín is the winner of two All-Ireland awards from Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann. He often tours with The Máirtín de Cógáin Project, The Fuchsia Band, or Gailfean. A true promoter of “the Ballad,” he searches for those forgotten songs of old and breathes new life into them, as well as writing some new songs of his own. Máirtín learned from many famous Irish singers such as Danni Maichi Ua Súilleabháin, Séamus Mac Mathúna, and Ciarán Dwyer. He is a fluent speaker of Irish (Gaelic) who was brought up in a bilingual home, and attended primary and secondary schools taught in Irish. Máirtín holds a degree in the Irish language from University College Cork.

Máirtín de Cógáin-drummingIf not on stage singing, storytelling, dancing, or playing the bodhrán, Máirtín is treading the boards as an actor, notably in the film The Wind that Shakes the Barley. He has co-written many productions with the Be Your Own Banana Theatre Company, recently playing De Bogman off-Broadway in New York.

Máirtín has been playing the bodhrán for many years, learning first from Eric Cunningham (The New De Danann) and later from Colm Murphy (The Old De Danann). Máirtín has taught bodhrán technique at the Catskills Irish Arts Week, Augusta Irish Week, as well as giving workshops at major U.S. festivals including the Kansas City Irish Fest, CelticFest Mississippi, Minnesota Irish Fair, and La Crosse IrishFest. He also gives private lessons in the San Diego area and along the road while touring.

Máirtín de Cógáin-dancing

A traditional brush dance with his father Barry Cogan

Growing up in a house full of dancing, Máirtín helped teach the steps at the family-run céilís (social gatherings) from an early age, and now teaches the folk dances of Cork to dancers everywhere.

Máirtín makes friends wherever he goes. In a very short time, de Cógáin has become a regular performer at some of the most prestigious Irish festivals in the U.S. Although he can often be found leading a tour group in Ireland, or entertaining guests on a traditional Irish music-themed cruise ship, he now spends most of his time in California, where he lives with his wife Mitra and their young son, who shows great promise as a dancer and bodhrán player himself.

Want to learn more about Máirtín and his career? Visit You can also catch him on YouTube telling a story or singing with friends.


The Tin Whistle: Ancient, Simple, Accessible, and Grand

An instrument with an ancient and enduring history, the tin whistle (or penny whistle) is one of the most misunderstood and maligned of wind instruments. Often mistaken for a toy, this flute is, in capable hands, one of the most expressive and delightful of traditional musical instruments.

This article is one in a series of reports on the fascinating variety of musical instruments that audience members encounter through Center for World Music programs.

Originally made from a hollow bone, such as that of a bird’s wing, the tin whistle is a type of instrument known as a fipple flute, and is identical to the flageolet in its earliest form. As its name implies, it later came to be made of tin, and was first mass-produced in this form by Robert Clarke around 1840. Examples of bone whistles dating from the 12th century have been unearthed in High Street, Dublin, Ireland.

Whistle assortment The tin whistle is, in physical terms, one of the simplest of instruments. The mouthpiece has a narrow windway, an opening or “window” cut in to the side of the instrument, and a sharp edge over which the player’s breath passes. The instrument has six front fingerholes and no thumbhole, distinguishing it from the recorder. The bore was often conical in older instruments (typified by the English-made Clarke tin whistle), while many modern whistles have a cylindrical tube and a plastic mouthpiece replacing the older wooden or lead plug. In recent decades, this instrument has been made from a wide variety of materials, including exotic woods, PVC plastic, aluminum, brass, composite materials, and even sterling silver.

Whistle mouthpiecesPlayers of the tin whistle range from the 17th Century English diarist Samuel Pepys, who wrote of his delight in playing the “flagilette,” to the great modern Irish flautist James Galway. Many Irish flute players and uilleann pipers have played the tin whistle as a secondary instrument, including Willie Clancy, Paddy Moloney, Joanie Madden, Liam O’Flynn, Michael McGoldrick, and Mick O’Brien. Among the best-known contemporary players of the Irish tin whistle are Cathal McConnell, Mary Bergin, and Brid O’Donohue.

Deceptive in its simplicity, the tin whistle is one of the most accessible and portable of instruments, and one of the grandest in character.

Video Links:
Mary Bergin plays two jigs, Tom Billy’s and the Langstern Pony
Liam O’Flynn performs the slow air Sliabh na mBan

Jonathan Parkerthe World Music in the Schools program director for the Center for World Music, has played the tin whistle since 1980.

This article appeared in slightly different form in the July 1990 issue of the San Diego Folk Heritage journal Folk Notes.


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