+3531 6313822 nationalich@chg.gov.ie

Uilleann Piping

Location Ireland and worldwide
Categories Performing arts
Social practices, rituals and festive events
Oral traditions and expressions, including language
Traditional craftsmanship
Keywords Piping, pipers, Na Píobairí Uilleann
Contact organisation Na Píobairí Uilleann


Uilleann Piping is a musical practice which uses a particular type of bagpipe (known as the ‘uilleann’, ‘Irish’, or ‘union’ pipes) to play Irish music.

The uilleann pipes is a very highly developed type of bagpipe. Originating in the early 1700s, it developed through the 1800s in Ireland, and within Irish communities abroad, to become the modern instrument. It is a complex instrument, with aspects of its musical functionality found nowhere else.

For two centuries, the instrument has been identified with, and used almost exclusively, for the performance of Irish traditional music. Uilleann Piping is perceived within Ireland as an especially national form of musical practice, and is valued as an essentially Irish form of artistic achievement, both in terms of the performance of the national music, and the manufacture of instruments to a high level of craftsmanship.

Uilleann Piping has strong roots in tradition, and aspects of performance and repertoire can be traced back through many generations. The community includes participants of all ages.

The performance of Uilleann Piping connects players to a centuries-old practice, which provides them with a platform from which to develop their own approaches to the music. Current practice is non-prescriptive; however it does emphasize the option of continuity – that knowledge of the accumulated insights and techniques of earlier players should expand the player’s abilities and understanding of possibilities. This is the basis for innovation and creativity, and the past four decades have seen young players reach unprecedented levels of virtuosity.

In 2017, Uilleann Piping received international recognition when it was inscribed by UNESCO on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Background information

Uilleann Piping is practiced throughout Ireland. There are two significant centres of the practice: Dublin, where Na Píobairí Uilleann is based, and Armagh, where The Armagh Pipers Club is based.

Outside Ireland, Uilleann Piping is practiced in most parts of the world, including Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, the United States of America, Canada, most countries in Europe, Japan, Malaysia, Cuba, Argentina, Mexico and Brazil.

Practice and practitioners

The community of uilleann pipers, is represented by Na Píobairí Uilleann (NPU – The Society of Irish Pipers), based in Dublin, and with a worldwide membership. NPU has been identified as the most representative organization involved with Uilleann Piping, as its membership is located in many parts of the world, and accepts as members all who wish to play the uilleann pipes, without regard to age, religion, race, gender or any other characteristic.

Na Píobairí Uilleann is already known to UNESCO, as the organization was accredited as a recognized NGO in 2014 (Ref NGO 90283)

Other clubs include The Armagh Pipers Club (Northern Ireland); The London Pipers (U.K.); and many others.

The bearers and practitioners of uilleann piping number around 6,000 individuals. These are dispersed throughout the world but are found in greatest concentrations in Ireland and in Irish communities abroad. As the appreciation of Uilleann Piping becomes internationalized, people with no Irish background are increasingly attracted to the art, and many become players themselves. The factor that binds them as a community is the shared love of a musical form, Irish music, and particularly the shared love of Uilleann Piping.

Special respect is accorded to players on the basis of their abilities as performers, or their perceived value as tradition bearers. These value judgments are community-based and not market-led. Uilleann Piping has not been commoditized by commerce, so within that world the community reaches a consensus on the value of the contributions that different pipers make to the tradition.

Aside from these cases there is no differentiation within the community in the form of specific roles, based on gender or any other characteristic.

Uilleann Piping is usually enacted in a social setting. Social intercourse is founded on a shared love of the music and the instrument. In the case of many (if not most) pipers, the enjoying of communal music-making would be an important way of socializing.

Other social functions would include a ritual use of the element in the context of life events such as marriages and funerals where the sound of Uilleann Piping is seen as a means of providing a sense, valued on such occasions, of rootedness and connection to the past.

As Uilleann Piping is identified with Ireland and Irish music, it also provides its practitioners with a sense of connectedness to Ireland, or to Irish music. For Irish people this is a very strong and valuable bond, and allows them to enjoy a pride in a native form of cultural expression. For non-Irish admirers of Irish music and piping these emotions would be similar if not identical. These effects may be considered over and above the pure aesthetic pleasure to be derived from the element.

Development, transmission and safeguarding

The knowledge and skills of Uilleann Piping are transmitted in a variety of ways, using long-established and modern approaches. The most highly valued is the practice of one-to-one, master-to-student instruction. This usually takes place in the form of group classes involving small numbers of students, ideally three to six. The instruction is mostly one-to-one, on a rotation basis, but the opportunity of observing another student receiving instruction has been found to be very valuable and helpful in the learning process. Tuition is very often provided at minimal or even zero cost by enthusiasts, and those who have received this benefit usually repay the gift by undertaking themselves to teach when they have reached a sufficient level of competence. Most organized groups use this approach. There are also pipers who teach on a professional basis.

In recent times modern methods have been used for transmission of Uilleann Piping, including Video and DVD tutorials, and on the internet – formally through sites such as www.pipers.ie and informally through such modern commercial channels as Skype and YouTube.

The most prominent group involved in Uilleann Piping is Na Píobairí Uilleann (NPU). It was founded in 1968, by pipers, with a mission to stop the decline of the instrument. There were then only c. 100 players known to exist, including those in Irish communities abroad. At that time the instrument was unknown outside those circles.

In its half-century of existence NPU’s efforts have contributed to a massive increase in the use and appreciation of the instrument and its music, with around 6,000+ players now worldwide. Through its programmes of research, publications, tuition, and training, NPU accumulates and distributes information relating to the history, manufacturing skills, and performance of Uilleann Piping. This has resulted in a flowering of the art in modern times, with more players, and more virtuoso players than at any previous period.

Other groups have shared this effort, particularly the Armagh Pipers Club which has made a massive contribution to the resurgence of interest in Uilleann Piping, especially in Northern Ireland in early years, and subsequently with an increasing international dimension to its activities.

Scoil Samhraidh Willie Clancy (the Willie Clancy Summer School) has, since its foundation in 1973, placed Uilleann Piping at the centre of its activities.

The Sean Reid Society has instigated original research into the history and technical aspects of Uilleann Piping, and have made the results freely available.

Many other groups and individuals have undertaken private research and have shared their findings freely, often through the pages of An Píobaire, the magazine of NPU.

The Irish State has assisted in safe-guarding Uilleann Piping through the agency of An Comhairle Éalaoin/the Irish Arts Council, which supports NPU on an annual basis through its grant-scheme for Regularly Funded Organizations (RFO). NPU has been in receipt of support in this way since 1984.

Dublin City Council has supported Uilleann Piping through the provision to NPU, rent-free for 99 years, of an eighteenth-century town-house in the centre of Dublin. The Council has also provided funds on several occasions for repairs and refurbishments, as well as for education and performance. In 2006 the Irish Government provided a significant grant to allow the complete restoration of the house, which has provided NPU, and by extension Uilleann Piping, with a prestigious headquarters and archive, and a heightened visibility.

Through the same channels, other groups and organizations are also supported which make a contribution to the safeguarding of Uilleann Piping. These would include the Scoil Samhraidh Willie Clancy, the Irish Traditional Music Archive, and Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann. Many smaller groups and festivals are also supported.

Contact organisation

Na Píobairí Uilleann