International Uilleann Piping Day: Global Celebration

6 November 2021

As a worldwide event it is celebrated on 7 November each year as a day of piping activity organised and coordinated by the Dublin Pipers Club aimed at raising awareness of this iconic Irish musical instrument. It has been developed in Ireland over centuries to become the most elaborate and musically sophisticated form of bagpipe in the world. A Short History of Uilleann Pipes published in History of Ireland, Issue 4, July/August 2018, Vol 26 describes it as a “complex sophisticated instrument that can deliver a unique form of original music.”

In 2015 Ireland ratified the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage adopted in 2003. Three of the prestigious awards have recognised Ireland’s unique history, heritage and identity. In 2017 Uilleann Piping preceded the UNESCO inscription of the sport of Hurling camogie (2018) and Harping (2019) as constituting precious parts of the world ‘s cultural heritage.

President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins expressed the award for Uilleann Piping as a “welcome and much deserved tribute of the sounds and culture of our island … the inclusion represents an honour for a most valuable part of Irish culture, and for Uilleann piping throughout the world, and is a valuable recognition of the skills, imagination, creativity and music traditions … a reputation which is greatly enhanced by our crafts people who have passed their love of music and talent from generation to generation down through the centuries. Our music and craftwork connect us in profound ways, weaving together cultural vision”.

Cultural Memory and Cultural Vision

The Uilleann Pipe, in Irish piob uilleann , ‘elbow pipes’ are played held across the knee using bellows worked by the elbow with three extra pipes on which chords can be played. They are unique amongst bagpipes for their sensitive tone, quality and complexity. They are a difficult instrument to learn, tune and balance, and to maintain in good playing order. They were developed during the second half of the eighteenth century; by the end of the nineteenth century their development was complete. It is a relatively quiet indoor instrument that has gained popularity.

Pipers were never part of the original culture of the Gaelic society like harpers, scribes and poets. Earlier known as ‘union pipes’ the sound of the Irish Uilleann pipe is different from other forms of bagpipes by its notably quieter and sweeter musical tone and wide range of notes produced by intricate playing techniques. In contrast the Highland Pipes (also known historically as the great Irish War pipes) were used in outdoor settings, primarily on the battlefield and today continue to be used at official parades for formal, civic and ceremonial occasions.

The earliest reference to a bagpipe bellows is by Michael Pretorius, ca. 1619 in ‘Syntagma Musicum’.* He describes a set of French bellows fed by pipes with shuttle drones or tuning sliders. Small pipes, along with the keyed chanter producing melody, seem to have come to England and Scotland with traders from the Low Countries and France. The French bellows was soon adopted in the Border and Northumbrian pipe that, in turn, was copied by the Irish where the tradition continues.

Ita Marguet, November 2021

Note: Acknowledgement is given to encylopaedic and other sources used in preparation of this text. It follows titles The Uilleann Pipe: Cultural Memory and Cultural Vision, December 2017 and The Harp of Ireland: History, Tradition, Emblem, December 2019 by Ita Marguet. *The Concise History of the Bagpipe by Frank J. Timoney, The Uilleann Pipe (copyright 2007-2008.)