Uilleann (pronounced ill-en) pipes are not the instrument the average person visualizes when the word bagpipe is mentioned. Uilleann is the Irish word for elbow. It’s used to describe this style of the instrument because instead of inflating the pipes with a tube held in the mouth, Uilleann bagpipes are blown by a bellows under the arm.
Older sets of Uilleann pipes are rare and the instrument’s sound is unique. According to John Donnelly, who plays both the flute and the pipes, a good set of Uilleann bagpipes can last hundreds of years and are valued for the tones the instrument produces.
BackStory caught up with 61-year-old Donnelly to talk about the history of bagpipes and the importance of music in Irish culture.
BackStory: What is the significance of the bagpipe in Irish traditional music?
Donnelly: Bagpipes are found in various forms throughout Europe, the mid East and Asia, but none are as complex as the Uilleann pipes, which can play a full two octaves on the chanter, staccato or legato and can add chord accompaniment.
During the Penal Times in Ireland the Irish language was outlawed and playing the pipes, and/or seditious tunes was a hanging offense. Because of the complexity of the instrument they have never been mass-produced, and good sets were very rare up until very recent times.
BackStory: How long have you played and what makes this particular pipe so interesting?
Donnelly: Forty years ago when I first took an interest I think it would be safe to say that there were fewer than fifty practicing pipers in the US, less than two hundred in Ireland and probably not more than another hundred or so worldwide – I think that now there are more people making and selling good quality sets than there were playing the instrument forty years ago.
There is a slight downside to this phenomenal revival, what’s rare is precious, and because the instrument and players were once scarce they were perhaps more esteemed, now a great piper might just be another great musician. Still the pipes have a very unique sound and ability to emulate the human voice, particularly in the sad slow airs, and likewise the ability to stir the blood when set to a jig, reel or march.
BackStory: What stories can you tell me about other sets of bagpipes you may have acquired – any set with a particularly interesting history or that may have belonged to someone well known?
Donnelly: The first Irish bagpipes I ever saw were played by a man named Thomas Standeven, a native of Philadelphia who, as far as I know, had no Irish ancestry. Tom was a rowhouse kid who served in the army and then spent his working life as a U.S. customs agent.
Beginning in high school (maybe earlier) he taught himself dozens of musical instruments, traditions and languages. Tom died at age 70 in 2002.
Tom was by far the most influential American in the perpetuation and revival of the Uileann pipes. I think he made a connection with the wave of Irish immigrants who brought their music to Philadelphia in the 1950’s, especially the Sligo fiddler, John Vesey.
Tom rescued and preserved dozens of historically significant sets of pipes (at a time when as he said “you couldn’t give them away”). He mastered the Irish language, along with some eastern European languages and he played Irish and Bulgarian instruments as well as singing their songs. His capacity for learning was exceeded only by his capacity for teaching and his generosity in the interest of preserving the treasures he found. He taught scores of people and he never charged anyone for a lesson. He gave away dozens of valuable musical instruments that he rescued with the only request being that they were always to be either played or passed on again.
BackStory: You mentioned in your first email that part of the Irish tradition is “to know as much of the history of the instrument and previous players as possible.” Tell me more about what that means.
Donnelly: The tradition I mentioned is just Irish traditional music in general. There is always interest in knowing as much as possible about tunes and songs – where did you learn that one, where did the one before learn it, where did they live, and so on.
With Irish Uillean pipes there is also a special interest in the source – maker and previous owners of the instrument – probably because they used to be rare and good sets can last hundreds of years.
James Keane the box player often says that when we play a tune, and remember where we learned it, we bring that person back if only for a brief visit.
Learn more about the Irish in America in BackStory’s “Wherever Green is Worn: The Irish in America.”