Pipes you play with your elbow

Three flutists — but no pipers — played at Gus O’Connor’s Pub in Doolin, Ireland when I spent an evening there in May.

The food and music were great, as expected, in the small town known for its sessions and proximity to the perilously beautiful Cliffs of Moher (AKA the Cliffs of Insanity from “The Princess Bride” movie).

As I left the pub my companion noticed a sign outside the pub that said, “The Piper’s Chair,” with a picture of a man and the uilleann pipes. I realized then I’d have to fess up about my use of the word pipes.

I’ve been referring to pipes and pipers in this blog as a catchall for flutes and whistles and their players. I like how folktakes (such as the story of the Pied Piper) and myths sometimes use the word “pipes” that way.

But in the Irish tradition and other Celtic traditions, flutes and whistles are flutes and whistles. And pipes are a whole other category featuring bags and bellows.

Bagpipes. They are Scotland’s national instrument. You may have heard them at funerals or parades. You likely haven’t heard them rallying troops for battle in the British Isles, but they were used for that too. (A little more history for you here.)

I heard a number of people playing the uilleann pipes, throughout a music weekend in Skerries, Ireland. “Ulileann” means elbow, and players pump air through the pipes with their elbow on a bellows. My “Pocket History of Irish Traditional Music,” also refers to the ulileann pipes as union pipes.

The instrument and the musicians who travelled with it rose to a prominent spot in Irish music history around 1800 as touring harpers faded from the scene.

“In filling the void left by the demise of the harper, the piper now became the keeper of slow airs, clan marches and what have come to be known generically as ‘piping pieces,'” writes Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin in that pocket history book. “Itinerant pipers enjoyed considerable status in western townlands. They were carriers of news as well as entertainment, and their arrival generally prompted a ragairne (house dance).”

I’m not going to delve much deeper than that into the world of ulileann pipes or bagpipes or any of their relatives in the instrument world. But while I’m on the subject, here are a few ties between Irish flutes and Irish pipes.

  1. The tin whistle is a gateway instrument for both Irish flute and the uilleann pipes.
  2. That’s because the fingering patters are similar (and whistles are inexpensive at around $10).
  3. Some musical ornaments played on Irish flute started as ornaments on the pipes.

Back in May at Gus O’Connor’s Pub, that night with the three Irish flutes, another gentleman stood for a solo song. He sang in Irish Gaelic with a lovely, resonant baritone.

It might go without saying, but I’m not going to be exloring those kinds of pipes in this blog either.

Be sure to check out my next post featuring a podcast interview with renowned Irish whistle and flute player Joanie Madden. I’m so excited to share it!

READ MORE: Irish flute 101 with Norah Rendell 

Here I’m scoping out the Cliffs of Moher on Ireland’s Atlantic coast in May 2016. Photo by Ben Decker.

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