Uilleann Piping's World Renaissance
Personal Reflections by Tom Wilsbach
I started in uilleann piping in 1974, when I attended the tionol (meeting) of the pipers' organization, Na Piobairi Uilleann (NPU) at Termonfeckin between Drogheda and Dublin. It was a much smaller piping world - there was just one annual tionol worldwide - and few of the fifty-odd pipers present could have envisioned the worldwide renaissance of the next quarter century.
NPU had been founded eight years earlier, and had been working mightily to nurture the piping tradition. Its meetings and newsletters were helping young pipers to learn their craft, and the club was putting them in contact with the best pipers in Ireland. But only a handful of pipemakers were active; since the death of Leo Rowsome in 1970 only Alf Kennedy in Cork, Dan Dowd and Matt Kiernan in Dublin, and a few others were turning out pipes. Some of the oldest makers, like Frank McFadden in Belfast and Patrick Hennelly in Chicago, were all but retired.
Willie Clancy's death in January 1973 had been a severe blow to the new organization, and a deep personal loss to its members. A charter member and popularly viewed as one of the "Trinity" with Leo Rowsome and Seamus Ennis, Willie had been an unfailing source of music, inspiration and encouragement for young pipers. Only weeks before his death Willie had hosted a gathering of pipers at his home and reeled off tune after tune to his visitors' delight. Now, as one piper put it, "no other music could...satisfy me as fully as Willie's, and now that he is dead we starve."
Despite setbacks, the years to come brought steady growth to uilleann piping. In Willie Clancy's memory two enterprises were set in motion that would be of incalculable value to pipers. The Willie Clancy Summer School was founded the summer following its namesake's death, and grew to be a huge annual gathering, with classes, sessions and concerts featuring the pipes and other traditional instruments. A collection of Willie's music, the first study of an individual piper's style and repertoire (The Dance Music of Willie Clancy, by Pat Mitchell) was published by NPU in 1976.
The mid-70s brought resurgence in pipemaking, with the first appearance of many young pipemakers; some had learned from older makers, others were self-taught. By 1978 Pat Sky, David Quinn and Tim Britton were working in the States, Johnny Bourke, Bruce DuVe, Joe McKenna and Eugene Lambe in Ireland, Allen Ginsburg in Britain. New pipemakers, in the process of learning their trade, might sometimes produce failed experiments or have problems with timely delivery, but without them the tradition might have dwindled away. As the century approached its end, more and more pipemakers emerged, including the German maker Andreas Rogge, the Breton Alain Froment, Australian Geoff Wooff, Newfoundlander Neil O'Grady and pipemakers in Holland, Spain and other European countries.
Ireland joined the European Economic Community (now the EU) in 1973, and this historic event indirectly helped the spread of uilleann piping beyond Ireland and the Irish Diaspora. Ireland's trade with Europe increased gradually, as did visits to Ireland and familiarity with the music by Europeans. As a market for Irish touring musicians developed on the Continent, Irish pipers (notably road warriors like Paddy Moloney, Liam O'Flynn and Finbar Furey) made possible the recruiting of a European legion to the pipers' ranks.
As the popularity of uilleann piping widened, NPU became a larger and more effective organization, and other pipers' clubs arose to sustain local, regional and national groups. The earliest such club was the San Francisco Pipers' Club, founded by Denis Brooks in 1979; it was followed by the Seattle Club and other groups in Chicago, Baltimore and elsewhere. These local clubs coalesced into a North American organization headquartered in Seattle, with a newsletter and annual events. First came the West Coast Tionol (1981), alternating between San Francisco and Seattle. Then an East Coast gathering (1986) moved among several cities. More recently local chapters in St. Louis and Chicago have organized annual events, and groups from San Diego to Maine have held piping workshops irregularly. In Europe clubs in France, Holland, Italy and Germany have organized tionol, often bringing in expert pipers from Ireland to play and teach. Together with folk festivals, Irish festivals, pipers' gatherings like North Hero, and summer schools like the Augusta Heritage Workshops, a regular circuit has developed.
In the 1990s uilleann piping entered a new worldwide dimension, cyberspace. If NPU was not the first piping entity to put up a website, it became one of the most important, featuring event calendars, a catalog of recordings, books and instructional videos, together with links to pipers and pipemakers worldwide. Another valuable resource is the listserve (open forum) run by Ohio piper David Daye. If the majority of its participants are from the US, voices are also heard from Sweden, Australia, Britain and Canada. In recent years participation from Ireland has lessened. At the heart of the tradition perhaps the need for piping information is satisfied locally, making a worldwide link less vital than it is for lone pipers in Moscow or Brazil. An occasional drawback to the "open forum" is the difficulty in telling true from uninformed expertise. But, not to accentuate the negative, the useful information, good humor, and opportunity to make "friends we haven't met" make this list a precious resource
Where will uilleann piping go in the twenty-first century? It should survive 2100 nicely, considering the breadth and depth of the tradition in 2000. The mid-century Trinity of Rowsome, Clancy and Ennis is long gone; in its place we see a pantheon of three or four dozen really fine musicians and hundreds, perhaps more than a thousand enthusiasts worldwide. Current trends should support higher technical standards of musicianship. More women will be drawn to this largely-male branch of Irish music. The quality of pipemaking will continue to improve acoustically and aesthetically, based on both innovation and tradition. Experienced pipers will continue to share resources and expertise with novices. And if the tradition is to flourish, the bonds of friendship and generosity will be as essential as bagpipes.
Tom Wilsbach began playing under Tom Standeven of Philadelphia in 1974. He wrote his master's degree thesis on uilleann piping in the US in 1978 at the University of Maryland. He lives in Portland, ME, with his wife Rebecca (a Northumbrian piper and fiddler), and is active in local and regional piping circles. He also compiled the internet information below.
This picture was provided by pipemaker B.C. Childress. You can learn more about Bruce and his instruments by visiting the Instrument Makers page or his web site at: www.bcpipes.com
This is a full set of Irish uilleann (say "illen") pipes and it uses 7 reeds - one for each of the 7 pipes that make up full set. The pipe Bruce is holding in his hands is the melody pipe or CHANTER. All bagpipe melody pipes are known by this name. The longest pipe at the left of the picture is the BASS DRONE. There are two other drones that are not visible from this angle, the TENOR and the BARITONE DRONE. The three keyed pipes under Bruce's right hand are called REGULATORS. These instruments also come in half sets - chanter and three drones and practice sets -chanter and bag. All sets require a bellows and if you look at Bruce's right elbow you can see one underneath and strapped to it. The bellows is also belted to his waist. Uilleann pipes are always played while sitting down.