What Are Uilleann Pipes?

Uilleann pipes are the Irish members of a bagpipe-like instrument family that can be found throughout the British Isles and continental Europe. The bag of these Irish national pipes, also known as union pipes, is inflated bellows rather than a blow pipe, as is the case with most of their relatives. The modern instrument, which dates from the early 18th century, was not refined until the late 19th century, when tuning was standardized. Unlike Scots highland pipes, uilleann pipes are usually played indoors, with the piper sitting.

In English, uilleann pipes are pronounced “ill-yun.” Their name comes from the Irish word for elbow, which refers to the part of the arm that is used to pump the bellows. The piper wears the bellows around his or her waist and right arm, allowing him or her to sing while piping. The melody pipe, also known as a chanter, has a chromatic two-octave range and produces sweeter and mellower tones than its more well-known cousin, the Scotch highland pipes. The chanter includes drones as well as regulators with closed keys that, when opened, produce simple chords, allowing for harmonic and rhythmic accompaniment. By closing each tone hole before opening the next, a staccato, rather than legato, effect can be achieved blocking the bottom tone hole of the chanter with the piper’s thigh.

The uilleann pipes’ lower volume and sweeter tones lend themselves to a highly melodic repertoire among bagpipes. Modern pipes are usually tuned in D, though there are other “flat” tunings available to go with the various fixed tunings of tin whistles and other instruments. Louder pipes tuned to concert pitch did not appear in the United States until the late nineteenth century, in response to the acoustic demands of larger halls. For their rounder, more mellow tone, some modern solo players prefer the older “flat” pipe sets. While guitarists and fiddlers can “tune down” to the flat pipes, concert-pitched uillean pipes are usually accompanied only accordions.

Due to the complexity of a full set of uillean pipes, beginners usually learn on a “practice set,” which is a smaller set of pipes. This simple set includes a chanter with no drones or regulators, as well as a bag and bellows, and comes in both concert and “flat” tunings. After mastering the process of simultaneously inflating the bag, regulating its pressure, and fingering the chanter, the student usually progresses to a “half set” of three drones. Once the student has mastered the drones, he or she will progress to a full set of uillean pipes, which will include the regulators required for playing highly complex melodic music.