The first bagpipes to be well-attested to for Ireland were similar, if not identical, to the Scottish Highland
pipes that are now played in Scotland. These are known as the "Great Irish Warpipes". In Irish and
Scottish Gaelic, this instrument was called the p铆ob mh贸r ("great pipe").
The uilleann pipes (pronounced "illyun" - not "yooleeun" ), originally known as the Union pipes,
are the characteristic national bagpipe of Ireland. The uilleann pipes bag is inflated by means of a small set of
bellows strapped around the waist and the right arm. The bellows not only relieves the player from the effort
needed to blow into a bag to maintain pressure, they also allow relatively dry air to power the reeds, reducing the
adverse effects of moisture on tuning and longevity. Some pipers can converse or sing while playing as well.
While the warpipe was alive and well upon the battlefields of France, the warpipe had almost disappeared in
Ireland (as a result of its outlaw by the English. The union or uilleann pipe required the joining of a bellows
under the right arm, which pumped air via a tube to the bagpipe under the left arm, with bellows.
The uilleann or union pipes developed around the beginning of the 18th century, the history of which is here
depicted in prints of carvings and pictures from contemporary sources. At about the same time the Northumbrian
smallpipe was evolving into its modern form, early in the 18th century; a tutor of the 1750s calls this early form
of the uilleann pipes the "Pastoral or New bagpipe." The Pastoral pipes were bellows blown and played in either a
seated or standing position. The conical bored chanter was played "open," that is, legato, unlike the uilleann
pipes, which can also be played "closed," that is, staccato. The early Pastoral pipes had two drones, and later
examples had one (or rarely, two) regulator(s). The Pastoral and later flat set Union pipes developed with ideas on
the instrument being traded back-and-forth between Ireland, Scotland and England, around the 18th and early 19th
The earliest surviving sets of uilleann pipes date from the second half of the 18th century but it must be said
that dating is not definitive. Only recently has scientific attention begun to be paid to the instrument and
problems relating to various stages of its development have yet to be resolved.
The uilleann pipes are distinguished from many other forms of bagpipes by their sweet tone and wide range of
notes - the chanter has a range of two full octaves, including sharps and flats - together with the unique blend of
chanter, drones, and "regulators."
The regulators are equipped with closed keys which can be opened by the piper's wrist action enabling the piper
to play simple chords, giving a rhythmic and harmonic accompaniment as needed. There are also many ornaments
based on multiple or single grace notes.
The chanter can also be played staccato by resting the bottom of the chanter on the piper's knee to close off
the bottom hole and then open and close only the tone holes required. If one tone hole is closed before the next
one is opened, a staccato effect can be created because the sound stops completely when no air can escape at
The uilleann pipes have a different harmonic structure, sounding sweeter and quieter than many other bagpipes,
such as the Great Irish Warpipes, Great Highland Bagpipes or the Italian Zampognas. The uilleann pipes are often
played indoors, and are almost always played sitting down.
Back To The Top Of The Uilleann Bagpipes Page