What are Uilleann Pipes?

Historical and Social Contexts of the Uilleann Pipes


The uilleann (pronounced ill-en) pipes are thought to have originated in Ireland in the mid-eighteenth century[1] and have been played by both men and women. The word uilleann is the genetive singular/plural form of the Irish-Gaelic word uillinn, meaning elbow, corner, or angle, and was perhaps named so because of the use of both elbows in the playing of the instrument. After the Siege of Limerick (1689-1691), the Irish Piob Mor, or warpipe, fell out of practical use. Historically, it is no longer heard of after the Battle of Fontenoy (May 11, 1745)[2] in which the French army dispensed with the Anglo-Dutch-Hanoverian army in the War of Austrian succession. It is possible that the decline of the warpipes in Ireland in the eighteenth century caused a rise in popularity of the non-martial, quieter uilleann pipes.[3] Uilleann piping was widespread in Ireland during the years prior to the Great Potato Famine of the 1840s. Pipers stricken with disease and starvation either perished or emigrated thus causing a decline in uilleann piping in Ireland.


In pre-Famine contexts, the uilleann pipes were not built to any standardized pitch. However, the kind of concert pitch ‘D’ instrument now used by contemporary musicians was first pioneered in Philadelphia around 1875 by the Drogheda-born Taylor brothers, William and Charles,[4] to accommodate the instrument’s use with pianos, accordions, and other fixed-pitch instruments.


In 1893, the Gaelic League was founded and strove to revive and “promote values of the Irish folk” by reinstituting the Gaelic language and other aspects of indigenous culture including the playing of the uilleann pipes.[5] The heated enthusiasm of this movement slowly cooled until the founding of Na Píobairí Uilleann (“The Uilleann Pipers”) in Dublin in 1968, an organization whose primary goal is the promotion of the instrument and its music.


[1] Bagpipe scholar, Hugh Cheape, suggests that because of a the large amount of extant instruments in Scotland, the Irish provenance of the uilleann pipes is not as certain as it once was. See Hugh Cheape and National Museums of Scotland., Bagpipes: A National Collection of a National Treasure (Edinburgh: National Museums Scotland, 2008), 96.

[2] The Battle of Culloden took place also in 1746 and a disarming act in 1747 deemed the highland pipes an instrument of war. See Francis M. Collinson, The Bagpipe: The History of a Musical Instrument (London ; Boston: Routledge & K. Paul, 1975), 95.

[3] Francis O'Neill, Irish Minstrels and Musicians (Lincolnshire, England: The Moxon Press Limited [orig. pub. The Regan Printing House], 1987 [1913]), 151.

[4] The Companion to Irish Traditional Music, ed. Fintan Vallely (New York: New York University Press, 1999), 413.

[5] Dorothea E. Hast and Stan Scott, Music in Ireland: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture, Global Music Series (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 37.





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