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What the Fugue are Uilleann Pipes?

Did you know that there are more than 30 different kinds of bagpipes from all over Europe and the Middle East? The Irish bagpipes, or uilleann pipes, are pretty different from what most people think of as bagpipes. The uilleann pipes are much quieter, too, very expressive, and almost always played sitting down. And no kilts! Playing Irish pipes, sitting down, with a kilt is considered unladylike.

So, how does one pronounce the Irish word “uilleann?” It sounds like “ill-un,” or rhymes with “chillin’,” but maybe has a short, little “ya” in the middle, and rhymes better with “million.” Just say million, but faster. Here’s a little poem:

How often is seen a real piper with uilleann?
Around these parts, we’re ’bout one in a million.

Well, it almost rhymes.

The Irish word uilleann means “elbows.” Instead of blowing into the bag with the mouth, the bag, which is under the left elbow, is inflated with a bellows, which is under the right elbow. Most of the instrument lies across the player’s lap. The bellows is strapped to the waist with a belt, so it’s a pretty safe instrument, having a seatbelt and dual airbags.

The piper squeezes the bag to push air through the pipes, which have several reeds that produce the sound — a little like oboes and clarinets tied to the bag. A full set of uilleann pipes has seven reeds — four like the oboe’s double reeds and three single reeds, like a clarinet.

Like different sizes and keys of saxophones, the uilleann pipes also come in different pitches. In The Brendan Voyage at Smilin’ Isles, you will mostly hear the pipes made for concert pitch. For most of the piece, the pipes symbolize the boat, but one movement — “Journey to Iceland” features a chanter pitched one step lower, to imagine being under the water with the whales.

Even in Ireland, the uilleann pipes are still pretty rare. Uilleann pipes were perhaps more common in the 19th century. But, in 1965, they were nearly extinct, so the five remaining Irish pipe-makers got together with the few remaining players and formed a society to rescue the instrument.  Now, there are several thousand players around the world, and a few more of us uilleann pipe-makers, too. It’s not as hard to learn to play this instrument as it used to be when piper Liam O’Flynn recorded The Brendan Voyage in 1980. These days, you can hear them in movies (below deck where the real party was on the Titanic), popular music (U2, Van Morrison, Depeche Mode, Kate Bush), and even video games (World of Warcraft, anyone?).

Now you know more about this Victorian era, steampunk, folk music instrument that I play, and I hope that you also find it as charming and romantic as I do.

Headshot Image for Dirk Mewes

Dirk Mewes

Uilleann Pipes