Do the Most Interesting Musical Pipes Come from Ireland?
While Scotland is branded by its famous Highland bagpipes, Ireland has long made a very different kind that plays a much wider range of music. Meet the indefatigable, obsessive masters of Irish uilleann pipes.
Story by LARRY GALLAGHER
Photography by RUTH CARDEN
John Butler remembers well the exact moment his life changed forever. He was a teenager, lying in bed in the Dublin suburbs, long past midnight. The late-night DJ played a new cut from Moving Hearts, a Celtic-Rock fusion band that was popular at the time. Until then Butler would have run from anything that smelled of Irish culture; he would have spun the tuner through the dreaded Raidio na Gaeltachta station to get to the dial’s safer stations at either end. But what he heard that night caught him completely off guard. It was an otherworldly buzz, a consciousness-rattling thrum that set up a sympathetic vibration with some part of his soul. “As soon as it started with the pipes I thought, ‘Jesus Christ, what is this?’” Butler says. “I can still remember the feeling. It was something about the sound the reed made that grabbed me. I had no idea what the instrument looked like. All I knew was that this sound was totally captivating and I had to find out about it.”
The uilleann pipes’ music is built around melodies, which tend to be relentless and serpentine, heavily ornamented with a variety of trills, warbles, and slides.
The instrument Butler heard that night was none other than the uilleann pipes, the Irish incarnation of the bagpipe. His conversion story is not unlike what you hear from uilleann pipers and pipemakers the world over. That fateful evening would set Butler on a winding path that would lead him from the suburbs of Dublin to a small workshop on an island off Ireland’s west coast, where he would become one of some three dozen artisans in the world dedicated to creating this delightful and maddening musical instrument.
One uncharacteristically rainless day last winter, I made the trip down from my adopted home of Sligo, a few hours north of Butler’s shop, to spend a day with him. Among pipemakers Butler is no superstar. The pipes he makes are elegant, modern by piping standards, but he still considers himself in the middle of the long journey toward mastery. He lives on Achill, an island of rugged beauty that begins two or three stone-throws off the west coast of the mainland of County Mayo. From the back steps of his studio, he’s got a view looking back to Achill Sound and the Ballycroy Mountains. Butler is tall and lanky, approaching 50, and long days hunched over a workbench have left him with some serious neck and back issues, which have forced him to take a temporary step back from his normal production schedule of three to four pipe sets a year.
To help me understand what these instruments involve, Butler straps on a set of his pipes. More than one observer over the years has likened the uilleann pipes to wrestling an octopus, with the tentacles wrapped around the victim’s midriff. The name uilleann (which sounds like “illin’” as the Beastie Boys would have pronounced it), comes from the Irish word for “elbow,” because both of those belonging to the piper are deployed to produce sound. Under the right elbow the player squeezes a bellows, which pumps air into a leather bladder of a bag that is squeezed by the left elbow. The air is forced down the neck of the “chanter,” an oboe-like tube of hardwood with a double reed in its throat. Underlying the melody are “drones,” ancillary tubes that generate three octaves of a single tone, over which the melody dances. Punctuating the rhythm in counterpoint are notes from the “regulators,” up to three additional tubes with metal keys that are played with the wrist of the right hand.
“Traditional” is the term used to describe the music that is played on these pipes. Most of the tunes played in Irish sessions are of unknown origin, handed down through the generations from musician to musician, full of endless variations, with multiple names for each tune, and nothing approaching a definitive version, but generally recognizable whether in Tipperary or Tokyo. As you can hear in the accompanying short video (and others attached to the end of this article), the music is built around melodies, which tend to be relentless and serpentine, heavily ornamented with a variety of trills, warbles, and slides.
Just as playing this contraption requires coordination of multiple body parts, making uilleann pipes requires coordinated proficiency in a number of different media: woodworking, metal smithery, reed making, and leather work. Constructing a set of pipes with all the bells and whistles takes 300 to 400 hours, generally spread out over a year. All but a few of the 200-odd pieces that make up a full set are made by hand.
You can’t get too deep into any discussion of piping without first acknowledging the loudest pipes in the family. The Highland pipes, as Scottish bagpipes are called, are surely the most visible member, and they remain the most widely played. Their totemic import to Scotland, and the cultural stamp these bagpipes have made on the world, cannot be rivaled by any of their cousins. What most of us don’t know, however, is that the Highland pipes are capable of only playing a single octave (OK, an octave plus one note). Meanwhile, the uilleann pipes have a full upper octave available, which, along with the chords provided by the regulators, gives it a much wider range of expression.
Butler, an obvious partisan for the pipes he plays and makes, describes the difference thusly: “For a start [the Highland pipes] are an outdoor instrument and are generally associated with armies and marching, that kind of thing, so really they’re for scaring the shit out of your opponents as you’re coming over the hill.” (Fans of the uilleann pipes love to point out that the pipes you hear on the soundtrack to the film “Braveheart”, even when Highland pipes are what you see on screen, were produced on uilleann pipes.)
These rivals make only two of many dozens of different kinds of pipes that have appeared over the centuries in nearly every European country, and many beyond: in the Caucasus, in Turkey and Iran, as far away as South India. Even factoring in regional chauvinism, one could make a reasonable case that the uilleann pipes have emerged as the most culturally vital of the lot.
“The world of uilleann piping has never been so healthy,” says Emmett Gill, Archivist at Na Piobairi Uilleann (Irish for “The Uilleann Pipers”), or NPU — the Dublin-based nonprofit that tirelessly promotes the pipes both locally and globally. NPU regularly loans out more than 100 sets of pipes to novice pipers around the country, hosts concerts, classes, and workshops, and publishes a small mountain of books and videos.
According to NPU’s official guess, there are approximately 7,000 uilleann pipers across the world, with significant pockets of the diaspora not only in the U.S. and Australia, but also in such unlikely places as Argentina and Japan. (For a more immediate sense of what these pipes sound like, see the sidebar video: “John Butler: Devoted Maker of Ireland’s Uilleann Pipes.”)
The very next day after his midnight epiphany, Butler tracked down his friend Eoin, the only kid in the neighborhood who played what he now realized were uilleann pipes. By wild coincidence, it turned out that his friend’s pipes were made by none other than Davy Spillane, the very piper that he had heard on the radio the previous night. “He was my new hero. He was my new favorite musician, he lived a mile away, and he made pipes.” Uilleann pipes can be polarizing in their effect on people. For every person like Butler to whom they say “Come hither,” there are probably two to whom they say, “Back away slowly, then run!” The definition of a gentleman, according to an old joke, is someone who knows how to play the pipes but chooses not to. (The other standard joke among pipers is that a piper spends half his time tuning, and the other half playing out of tune.)
Butler attributes these slurs, at least in part, to the rough history of the craft, which has survived two prominent brushes with extinction, forcing several generations of makers to have to relearn it the hard way. Though versions of reed- and sack-based music-making devices have been around for millennia, the ancestor of the modern uilleann pipes, the pastoral pipe, has been dated to around the 1720s. When it emerged initially, its handmade detail would have made it prohibitively expensive for all but the wealthy.
Over time, the pipes gradually drifted down through the classes, eventually becoming a signature instrument of wandering minstrels, who made their living providing culture and entertainment for many a rural community. But like many other things Irish, the ranks of itinerant pipers were decimated by the potato famine in the mid-19th century, and by the turn of the 20th century, nearly all of the noted pipemakers had either fled the country or died penniless in workhouses. Francis O’Neill, the Chicago Police Chief whose 1903 compilation of Irish tunes, “O’Neill’s Music of Ireland,” remains the most exhaustive ever published, once put the situation thusly: “As the limit of development had been reached, the vogue of the [uilleann] pipe had declined, and notwithstanding the agitation for its revival in recent years, the outlook to an enthusiast presents but little ground for optimism.”
Enter the Rowsome family. If there is a first name in Irish piping, it would be Rowsome. Over six unbroken generations, continuing to the present day, the Rowsomes have been a constant force in the piping world. In the middle of the 19th century, paterfamilias Samuel Rowsome sent his three boys to study music theory with a German tutor; son William went on to become a pipemaker in Dublin, but it was grandson Leo, born in 1903 and reared in his father’s shop, who would refine the craft to what many consider its highest expression, producing pipes until his untimely death in 1970.
Alas, that year marked the beginning of another dark age in the history of the instrument. By that point, there were no full-time pipemakers left on the planet. Even in Dublin, only a few dedicated amateurs kept the tradition alive, turning out serviceable sets and making whatever repairs they could. “The pipes got a bad rap for a while,” says Butler. “When I was learning, they just weren’t in tune, and that was that. People just got on with it. The pipes that I started with were probably never in tune.”
The daunting challenges of reed making once put Butler through a particularly dark night of the soul that, years later, still fills him with dread.
For most of today’s pipemakers, Butler included, the connection to the Rowsomes is more than abstract. The critical dimensions of the pipes he makes are reverse-engineered from the family’s legacy pipes. To illustrate, Butler shows me a set of 96 probes that he used to fathom the shape of the bore in a 1924 chanter made by William Rowsome. With the precision that you might expect of an engineer, Butler charted the results on a graph. He found that as it expanded from the 5-millimeter opening at the narrowest part to 13 millimeters at the bell, the bore followed neither a straight line nor a predictable curve. Instead, he found a landscape of subtly undulating peaks and valleys up and down the interior. Comparing these graphs over a number of chanters confirmed his suspicion that these fluctuations were intentionally created by the maker to produce a specific sound. Butler used these principles to help him pursue a particularly elusive, subjective quality of tone — what pipers call “sweetness”— that tends to lie beyond the discernment of the neophyte.
As is often the case in a craft so obscure, the craftsmanship starts a few levels of remove from the artifact it will produce. Butler’s first task was to make the tools needed to craft the finished product. One of the first is called a “reamer,” a long, thin shaft of carbon steel whose profile follows the internal contours in the bore, in reverse. “Between the reamers and the reeds, that’s where the magic lies,” says Butler. “It’s really down to the amount of time and detail you put into getting these right.”
The chanter — the primary cylinder on which the melodies are played — is a tube of hardwood that’s been turned on a lathe. The chanter is typically made from African hardwoods such as blackwood and ebony, but historically it came from a wide range of woods, from boxwood to greenheart, salvaged from the old docks of Dublin. Due to the living nature of wood, the chanter must be initially bored and left to dry for up to a year, because minute shrinkages in the interior dimensions can have major effects on the intonation of the instrument.
While Butler appreciates the old-school handcrafting his trade involves, he’s not shy about exploiting the best of modern technology to help him over the finish line. To that end, he’s made ingenious use of computer-assisted design, or CAD, files, which have allowed him to quickly cut out pieces with a water jet. (For more detail, see the sidebar, “High-Tech Help for a Low-Tech Craft”).
As with any pipemaker, the central tool in Butler’s shop is his lathe. This should come as no surprise since uilleann pipes are essentially an agglomeration of different-sized cylinders attached to a bag. The lathe of choice for pipemakers in this part of the world is a vintage metal lathe, made by the English company Myford during the heyday of British machining in the mid-20th century.
The other half of a pipe’s mystery lies in its reeds, the material that generates the sound that is amplified and modified by the rest of the apparatus. In terms of raw materials, the reeds are by far the cheapest part of the pipes to fabricate, but they are the most critical element in the whole machine, and their vicissitudes have nearly undone many a pipemaker. “Reed making is the black art of pipemaking,” says Butler. “You can have all the dimensions in the world, but one day you can make a reed and it’s beautiful and the next day you do everything the same and it doesn’t work. There’s just no logic to it. Your hit rate definitely improves with practice, but you still go through these periods where things just don’t go well.”
The uilleann pipes employ a double reed, similar to those found in the oboe and the bassoon. These reeds come from the cane of the same plant, Arundo donax, from which all woodwind reeds are crafted. Botanically speaking, A. donax is a giant grass that grows wild around the Mediterranean. In California, which many makers believe supplies the cane best suited for pipe reeds, the plant is classified as an invasive weed.
Reeds start as a tube of cane, 5 inches long and about an inch in diameter. An experienced maker can render a basic functional reed in under an hour. Whether the reed will ever truly sing is largely in the hands of the reed gods. No amount of intervention can salvage a dud, so these get quickly shunted to the dustbin. If a reed proves sound, however, a maker might tweak it on and off for weeks to achieve its much sought-after qualities: sweetness of tone, rich overtone, and reliable intonation.
Tangling with this challenge once put Butler through a particularly dark night of the soul that, years later, still fills him with dread. Early in his pipe-making career, he found himself dissatisfied with the quality and consistency of his reed making, so he set aside a few days to hone his skills. “There was just something missing from it. As your ear gets better and better attuned, that’s what you hear. That’s probably the curse of pipemaking, or any instrument making. Your standards rise, and they probably rise quicker than your abilities.”
It was three months before he produced a reed he considered acceptable. “I went through hell. Everything fell apart. I couldn’t take it any further and then I lost my ability to make a good reed. I’m sitting in this isolated schoolhouse in this windswept valley in the middle of nowhere in Achill. If I can’t make reeds, I can’t be a pipemaker. What am I doing?” Luckily for his sanity, a pipe-making associate from England soon showed up and dropped by his shop. “I kind of combined my method with his method and I started getting working reeds again. At that point I really considered walking away from it because it was so head-wrecking.”
Nothing in Butler’s past had trained him for pipemaking’s peculiar challenges. Though he has always considered himself a solid player, he never felt piping would be anything but an avocation. In university, he got a bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering and a master’s in Industrial Design. That set him on a typically modern career track, moving from designing cardboard boxes to test probes for motherboards, and finally to medical devices, specifically new technologies for managing wounds created by laparoscopic surgery. “That was a dream job,” he says, “Developing intellectual property and trying to sell it to the big boys in the market.” All the while Butler kept up with his piping, in the back of his mind hoping that one of the medical devices would catch the market’s attention and make “squillionaires” of him and his cohorts.
At one point in his early career, in an exercise suggested by a friend who was a life coach, Butler sat down and wrote an essay titled “My Ideal Life,” in which he described himself living in West Ireland, engaged in some activity that involved working with his hands. Unfortunately (or fortunately, for the pipe-making world), before he made his first squillion, Butler fell prey to venture capitalist downsizing. In the following years, Butler sold a house and, while bumming around the west of Ireland, helped a pipe-making friend make a pile of chanters for NPU. Within two years of losing his job he found himself living in West Ireland, working with his hands, living his “Ideal Life.”
Butler has worked his own unique visual motif into the design of his pipes — a small, asymmetrical trapezoidal flourish on the metal keys, which is echoed in the “puck” at the end of the bass drone. While that touch gives his pipes a kind of modern sleekness, it has raised an eyebrow or two among the more conservative guardians of the tradition. But Butler doesn’t mind. “A pipemaker is tied into physics as to where the holes are and the shape of the bore,” he says. “But the externals of the set, that’s where I get to put in my own aesthetics.”
At some point, of course, the high ideals of beauty, spirit, and creation meet the hard realities of food, clothing, and shelter. For all his labor and experience, Butler can charge about 8150 Euros ($9400) for a full set of pipes. That’s squarely in the middle of the uilleann pipe market, where a single set ranges from 5,000 to 15,000 Euros. (This is excluding the array of fantastically cheap Pakistani sets available on eBay for as little as $200. “Absolute rubbish” is the general consensus on these instruments, among the pipers with whom I spoke.)
Butler’s price tag might scare away a beginning piper, but the reality is that many people invest in pipes in stages, with a set’s most expensive parts coming later. All that a beginner needs are the chanter, bellows, and bag. For a “practice set” like this, Butler charges 1,650 Euros. The next step is to add a set of drones — the three additional tubes that create the root note over three octaves — for another 2,500 Euros. Finally come the regulators, the set of wrist-operated keys that allow for chordal counterpoint. These require a great deal of metalwork, which is why Butler prices them at around 4,000 Euros.
Subtract the cost of materials (which Butler guesstimates at around 850 Euros) and divide the remainder by the 300 to 400 hours of labor a set requires, and you realize what any pipemaker will tell you: This profession will never make you rich (at least not financially). And yet, for the handful of pipers at the top of the craft, it offers an odd sort of job security.
“I heard Seamus Ennis and it ruined my life,” one pipecraft instructor said, referring to one of the 20th century’s titans of piping. “I‘d be working in a bank now if not for that.”
Geoff Wooff, who is widely considered one of the two or three finest pipemakers on the planet, can command 15,000 Euros for a full set of his pipes. At age 69, he’s got a waiting list so long that he has essentially closed his books for the rest of his life (although he reserves the right to bypass the waiting list, if a world-class piper comes shopping). “The waiting time could be 10 years or more,” he says. “Some have waited longer.” From his workshop in central France, Wooff can reliably crank out two full sets a year. And yet, for all his acclaim, he says “I have never made a decent living at the craft, although it has been my only source of income for 41 years.” Ditto Benedict Kohler and David Quinn, a Vermont-based duo who are two of the world’s best pipemakers, and who split the craft’s skills between them. They charge $12,000 for a full set, and they too, have a 10-year waiting list.
Curiously, of the uilleann pipe makers who are generally considered to be the world’s top masters, most actually live outside of Ireland. Besides Wooff, Kohler, and Quinn, three honorable mentions are Makoto Nakatsui of Japan, Chris Coe in England, and Andreas Rogge of Germany.
Customers for some of these makers could wait years and still never get their pipes. “There is a long tradition of unsuccessful order placement in the pipemaking world,” says Bill Haneman, a transplanted American who makes pipes in the seaside town of Skerries, just up the coast from Dublin. Haneman himself has been on the bad end of one of those deals. He once gave a maker something north of 1,000 Euros as a deposit, was informed repeatedly that his pipes were right around the corner, then after six years accepted the reality that he was never going to get them. “In my case,” Haneman says, “I suspect that the maker had pretty high standards, and I think he actually did have an instrument partly completed for me and probably destroyed it, because one thing or another he couldn’t make. He went down that spiral.”
So far, Butler has never found himself in that particular nightmare, but if he had known what he knows now, he’s not sure he would have chosen the pipemaker’s path. “It’s a blessing and a curse,” he says. “It’s kind of crazy, this striving for perfection that can’t be attained. It can drive you around the bend. Teaches you great patience, I suppose. Still, if you’re not an optimist, you’d never go into making pipes.”
In an industrial park just south of the Dublin airport sits a shop the likes of which the world has never seen. There, behind Scafftex Scaffolding, Ltd., and around the corner from Industrial Seals and Gaskets, is a sign that reads “Pipecraft.” Flanked by these models of modern light industry is the teaching facility of NPU, one of the organization’s bold attempts to avoid the kind of near-death experiences that pipemaking has barely survived over the centuries.
One Wednesday morning at the end of the winter, I dropped into the facility to be a fly on the wall for a day. A half dozen current students were creating sets of playable pipes — their year-long project.
The instructor, Donnacha Dwyer, was born and bred in Dublin and has been a devotee of uilleann pipes since he was a teenager, when his guardian older sister punished him for a night of underaged drinking by signing him up for piping lessons. “I heard Seamus Ennis and it ruined my life,” he says, mostly in jest, referring to one of the 20th century’s titans of piping. “I‘d be working in a bank now if not for that.”
After years as a journeyman player in pubs here and on the continent, Dwyer has managed to patch together a career for himself in adjacent fields: He has made and repaired pipes, given lessons in pipe and flute playing, and, for the past eight years, has taught pipecraft classes. Dwyer might have benefitted from the class himself, as his own “apprenticeship” was decidedly less formal. He spent many an hour in the workshop of one Desi Seery, a legendary flute maker in Bray, just south of Dublin. “He was a crazy old bastard,” says Dwyer. “I spent 20 years out there when I could have spent three.”
The Pipecraft program is part of an ongoing experiment that attempts to answer a common conundrum: What does it take to keep a tradition of craftsmanship alive? In this case, how do you take a quirky trade, populated with autodidacts and eccentrics, and streamline it into a reliable career path for the 21st century? Or is it even possible?
To Bill Haneman, who helped set up the facility and curricula that eventually became Pipecraft, old-school apprenticeships no longer make any economic sense. “It’s a marginal proposition,” he says. “I have thought about taking on an apprentice. It would have to be the right person. But it would cost me money and I would do it for purely egotistical purposes because I wanted to pass on what I was doing.”
Since its formation in 1968, NPU has been working hard to promote the uilleann pipes all over the world, both by teaching the instrument and spreading pipe-making know-how. Over the last 30 years, Gay McKeon, the CEO of NPU, says he’s seen a real resurgence of interest in the pipes’ music. “But the supply of the instrument has not kept up with it,” he says. “Somehow we have to ensure that there are instruments for future generations, and that there is R&D being done.”
To that end, and to hopefully avoid a repeat of the trade’s close brushes with extinction, NPU has organized countless workshops and stocked its website with videos of some of the finest pipemakers in the world basically sharing their hard-earned intellectual property. As generous and rare as that might be, it still constitutes only the tiniest first step in this craft. “To become a high-end maker takes many, many years,” McKeon says. “It wouldn’t be unfair to say that it takes 10 years for the most committed and the most skilled makers, but you’ve got to start someplace.”
At this point, some 160 students have passed through NPU’s various programs. After eight months of this class, Dwyer’s pupils will depart with a set of pipes of their own making. Through that experience, Dwyer hopes that enough seeds will have been planted to keep everyone in pipes for at least another generation. In the meantime this quirky craft continues to defy the odds. “It’s a refreshingly anachronistic pursuit,” says Haneman, “and I think there is a bit of salvation in it for this disembodied 21st century.”