The Uilleann Pipe: ‘Cultural Memory and Cultural Vision’

27 December 2017

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 among bagpipes for their sensitive tone, quality and their 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 nineteenth century their development was complete. It is a relatively quiet indoor instrument that has gained popularity.

In 2017 the United Nations cultural agency, UNESCO, has recognised the Irish Uilleann Pipe as an important cultural icon that has been inscribed on the ‘List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity’ as a particular type of bagpipe used to play traditional music. It showcases and celebrates human diversity and ingenuity and raises awareness of the importance of protecting shared cultural heritage. UNESCO declared that Uilleann piping offered an important way of socialising, providing a sense of rootedness and connection to the past. The cultural recognition follows an earlier decision by UNESCO to inscribe the Irish Folklore Collection into the Memory of the World Register.

President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins, praised the move as a “welcome and much deserved tribute to 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 memory and cultural vision.” As part of Irish culture many summer schools are active to promote and teach traditional Irish musical instruments, song and dance, Irish language, poetry and literature. Festivals and other activities are major events.

Bellows and Pipes*

The earliest reference to a bagpipe bellows is by Michael Pretorius, ca 1619 in ‘Syntagma Musicum’. He describes a set of French bellows fed 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.

The advent of the seventeenth century brought a new social order to Ireland. The dominant dynasty ‘O’Neill war’* had just ended and a general pacification of the people was undertaken. As part of the plantation scheme, English customs were introduced to the young people. English dancing, music and language began to supplant the old Gaelic ways and customs. Ireland now became an indoor society and much less warlike. As there was no longer a need for loud instruments and bard traditions, the harp and great drone bag pipe fell out of use. Young Irish people became more attached to the soft pastoral sound of the mouth blown English Northumbrian and Scottish Border Pipe of the planters or English land settlers.

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.

Ita Marguet, December 2017

Note: Acknowledgement is given to encyclopaedic and other sources used in this text. It follows a published article titled *Flight of the Earls when the last of the Gaelic chieftains left Ireland, by Ita Marguet,March 2008. *The Concise History of the Bagpipe by Frank J. Timoney, The Uilleann Pipe.