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4th annual Santa Barbara Independent St. Patrick’s Day Stroll.

Paul Wellman (file)

4th annual Santa Barbara Independent St. Patrick’s Day Stroll.


The Pipes Are Calling

A Wee History of Irish Pipes


There is perhaps no sound so recognizable as the first drone of a bagpipe. That sustained note acts as harmony to the melody, which is fingered by the piper on the chanter. These days, bagpipes are most commonly connected with the Scots, but pipes have a long history in Ireland, as well.

The Great Irish Warpipes, which are nearly identical to Scottish Highland bagpipes, appear in historical reference as early as the 1400s. As the name implies, the instrument was played by Irish soldiers as they marched into battle. In 1581, the Italian music theorist Vincenzo Galilei — Galileo’s father — described the bagpipe as “much used by the Irish: to its sound this unconquered fierce and warlike people march their armies and encourage each other to deeds of valor. With it they also accompany the dead to the grave making such sorrowful sounds as to invite, nay to compel the bystander to weep.”

While the Warpipes continued to be used in battle, by the 1700s, a new kind of pipe appeared in Ireland—the Uilleann Pipe (“pipes of the elbow”). An ancestor of the Pastoral Pipes, the Uilleann Pipe is smaller; its bellow is filled with air by pumping the elbow rather than blowing with the mouth; it can produce many notes thanks to its two-octave range; it is quieter and sweeter sounding than its warrior kin; and it is played sitting down. Its dulcet tones make it a lovely ensemble instrument and so it can be heard quite a lot in traditional Irish music. Perhaps the best known Uilleann piper of today is Paddy Moloney of The Chieftains, who performed to a sold-out crowd last month in Santa Barbara.

Paddy Moloney
Click to enlarge photo

Paul Wellman

Paddy Moloney

Although the Uilleann pipe is the national pipe of Ireland, its makeup doesn’t lend itself to leading the charge — or parades. Therefore, it is the Great Irish Warpipes or generally the more common Scottish bagpipe that folks see and hear in St. Patrick’s Day parades. In fact, this Paddy’s Day, several area bagpipers will be leading the annual Santa Barbara Independent St. Paddy’s Day Stroll down State Street.

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