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irish pipes

Great Irish Warpipes

For list of All-Ireland War pipe champions see here: War pipe champions

The Great Irish Warpipes, also called The Bagpipes, or The Pipes, (Irish: píob mhór; literally "great bagpipes"), are an instrument that in modern practice is identical, and historically was analogous or identical to the Great Highland Bagpipe. "Warpipes" is an English term; The first use of the Gaelic term in Ireland is recorded in a poem by Sean O’Neachtain (c. 1650-1728), in which the bagpipes are referred to as píb mhór. The Warpipes have a long and significant history in Ireland and in Scotland, though the Scottish tradition has somewhat overshadowed the Irish one in the past 200 or years so.

Earlier history

The bagpipe was a popular instrument in Medieval Europe but in Gaelic Ireland and Scotland, it seems to have arrived — or, at any rate, to have become a “warpipe” — no earlier than sometime in the 15th or early 16th century. In the literature available on the subject, a great antiquity is often attributed to the bagpipe in Ireland. However, many of these claims, for example, that some of the earliest references to the bagpipes in Ireland are found in the 5th century Brehon Laws, or the different Medieval references in W. H. Grattan Flood's "Story of the Bagpipe" (1911) cannot be substantiated .

An Irish Gaelic version of “Fierabas” may contain our first reference to Warpipes: the quote “sinnter adharca agus piba agaibh do tinol bur sluaigh” translates as “let horns and pipes be played by you to gather your host.” The manuscript may date to the 15th century and the writer may have had bagpipes in mind. Clear references to the Irish píob mhór begin to appear at about the same time as they do in Scotland. Our first relate to Henry VIII's siege of Boulogne. A muster roll of the “Kerne to be transported into Englaunde to serve the kinge” contains entries of various pipers attached to these forces, such as “The Baron of Delvene’s Kerne — Brene McGuntyre pyper”.

Most helpful is an entry in Holinshed’s Chronicles (1577) for May 1544: “In the same moneth also passed through the citie of London in warlike manner, to the number of seaven hundred Irishmen, having for their weapons darts and handguns with bagpipes before them: and in St. James Park besides Westminster they mustered before the king.”

In a 1581 volume, musician Vincenzo Galilei, the father of the astronomer Galileo, wrote that the bagpipe "is 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". In the same year, John Derricke published the poem "The Image of Ireland", in which the pipes are already used to convey signals in battle:

Now goe the foes to wracke
The Kerne apace doe sweate
And baggepype then instead of Trompe
Doe lull the back retreate

One famous description of the pipes from Richard Stanihurst’s De Rebus Hibernicis (1586), reads as follows in English translation:

The Irish also use instead of a trumpet a wooden pipe constructed with the most ingenious skill to which a leather bag is attached with very closely plaited (or bound) leather bands. From the side of the skin issues a pipe through which as if through a tube the piper blows with swollen neck and distended cheeks, as it is filled with air the skin swells: when it swells he presses it down again with his arm. At this pressure two other wooden pipes, a shorter and a longer, emit a loud and piercing sound. There is also a fourth pipe, pierced with several holes which by opening and closing the holes with nimble fingers the piper manages to elicit from the upper pipes a loud or low sound as he thinks fit. The stem and stern of the whole affair is that the wind should have no outlet through any part of the bag except the mouths of the pipes. For if anyone (as is the practice of merrymakers when they want to give annoyance to these pipers) make even a pinhole in the skin the instrument is done for because the bag collapses. This sort of instrument is held among the Irish to be a whetstone for martial courage: for just as other soldiers are stirred by the sound of trumpets, so they are hotly stimulated to battle by the noise of this affair.

(Stanihurst clearly did not understand the proper functions of a chanter and drones).

The pipes seem to have figured prominently in the war with William of Orange. When the exiled King James II arrived in Cork City in March 1689, he was greeted with “bagpipes and dancing, throwing their mantles under his horse’s feet”. On his way to the castle in Dublin, “the pipers of the several companies played the Tune of The King enjoys his own again”.

Decline and revival

On the other hand, there are late 17th century reports of peacetime use of the pipes, for example to play for hurling teams. For 18th century references, however, it is often difficult to tell whether the pipes referred to in a particular case are píob mhór or another instrument (eg. Pastoral/Uillean Pipes). About the last occasion at which the old Irish píob mhór is known to have sounded in battle is reportedly at the Battle of Fontenoy (11 May 1745).

A number of Irish units are known to have had pipers for at least the next half-century; in 1778, a Barney Thompson (reportedly of Hillsborough, Co. Down) in Lord Rawdon’s Volunteers of Ireland in New York was supposedly the pipe major of a full band. Information from a muster roll indicates that there was at least a Piper Barney Thompson in the regiment. The fact that he is listed as a piper, while, for example, a William Neil is listed as a fifer, indicates that Thompson played bagpipes and not a fife. In 1793, according to a 7 September Dublin newspaper:

"Major Doyle announces his intention to introduce into his newly-formed Regiment (later the Royal Irish Fusiliers) the peculiar music of Ireland, the pipes, an introduction that appeals to the Irishman very strongly, and marks that warm affection for everything connected with his native soil which has always characterised his conduct."

Then for 2 November: “A War Pipers band in Major Doyle’s regiment was formed.” This band seems to have lasted for a few years, but is not believed to have survived into the Peninsular War, although other Irish units reportedly had pipers in 1793 and the years thereafter. The "Irish Warpipes" seem to have died out about this time, or at least to have fallen into obscurity. Perhaps the píob mhór, while played by a few individuals, came to be seen as mainly Scottish, the bellows-blown Union or Uillean pipes being the new "Irish pipes". Business directories of Dublin in 1840 show a Maurice Coyne as a maker of Union and "Scotch" bagpipes at 41 James Street.

In the second half of the 19th century, however, the general revival of Irish nationalism and Gaelic culture seems to have coincided with a return of the popularity of the warpipes. The art picked up again until the pipes achieved considerable popularity in both military and civilian use. Today, pipe bands of the same kind as the known Highland form are a standard feature of British regiments with Irish honors and the Irish Armed Forces, and there are many local bands throughout both the Republic and Ulster. The Irish Warpipes as played today are one and the same with the Scottish Highland bagpipe.

Attempts in the past to make a distinct instrument for Irish pipers have not proven popular in the long run. In the first half of the 20th century, it was very common to play pipes with only one tenor drone; the reason for this will be discussed later. Several attempts were made to improve the pipes; the most successful was the London pipemaker Starck’s “Brian Boru” bagpipe, with a keyed chanter that could play a full range of traditional music and a baritone drone, often held with the tenor and bass in a common stock. Such pipes are produced by few makers today and are played by only a minority of pipers. Starck’s pipes for Irish players, whether two- or three-droned, were also typically turned in a distinct, somewhat antique-looking style, with button-sized mounts instead of the normal projecting mounts, cup-shaped drone tops with slightly projecting ringcaps, and rows of narrow beads instead of combing and beading. A pattern more or less like this was made by several makers, but is also rare today. In the 1950s and early 1960s, some Irish pipers in the British Army, notably the Irish Guards, played pipes that more or less followed this pattern, but the turning was on the whole more massive, with wider beading or perhaps the standard combing and beading. It would be most informative to know who the maker of these pipes was.

Similarity of the original Irish Warpipes to the Great Highland Bagpipe

A number of authors have suggested that the old Irish píob mhór was a somewhat distinct instrument from the Scottish Highland bagpipe, but the evidence on which they have based their claims is suspect. It can only be hypothesized at present, but there are several reasons to believe that the old Irish and Scottish pipes were more or less the same instrument. For one thing, Scottish and Irish culture were not isolated, and artistic trends could be copied and shared. At the 1785 Highland Society of London piping competition, piper John MacPherson played “Piobrachd Ereanach an Irish pibrach”, and it is quite possible that at least some of this “typically Scottish” piping music (piobaireachd, the “classical music of the Highland bagpipe”) comes from Ireland. If it is true that the MacCrimmons of Skye once had some Irish students at their piping school, these would have presumably played piobaireachd on Scottish-type chanters. The reverse could also have been true: in his 1913 book "Irish Minstrels and Musicians", Francis O'Neill wrote: "That a School of Piob Mor or warpipe music existed in Ireland as late as the middle of the seventeenth century, is beyond question, for we find that Domhnall Mor, or Big Donald MacCrimmon, son of John, the founder of the famous College of Pipers, in the Isle of Skye, was sent by his chieftain, MacLeod, to a school or college of pipers in Ireland, to perfect himself on the instrument." This statement appears also to be apocryphal and would need corroboration. One way or another, the main dilemma when comparing the instrument in Scotland and Ireland lies in determining such technical points as the number of drones and the tuning of the old Irish pipes. Unfortunately there is little information about the early instruments. The following rough or inaccurate illustrations are known to survive:

1. A 1788 engraving by John Braisy of a drawing made of a contemporary painting of the siege of Boulogne, 1544 (the original, formerly at Dowdry Castle, Sussex, was destroyed when the castle burned down in 1793). This picture shows the small detail of a piper leading kerne after a cattle raid, but is not helpful in showing any significant details of the instrument.

2. A wood carving formerly at Woodstock Castle, Co. Kilkenny, dating to the 15th or 16th century showing a piper with a shorter and a longer drone and a chanter. The proportions of the instrument are quite questionable, the drones being surprisingly short and the chanter enormous. The picture is on the whole simplistic.

3. A c. 16th-century painting in the margin of a missal of the Abbey of Rosgall, Co. Kildare, and now in the Bodleian Library, showing a piper playing an instrument with two drones and a chanter in the usual positions. The drones are of unequal length and all pipes have flaring Medieval-style bell ends. Otherwise, however, the picture is quite rough and unrealistically proportioned.

4. A possibly 16th-century manuscript of a Dinnseanchus, an Irish topographical history, contains an initial letter in the form of a pig playing the pipes. The instrument has two drones, one clearly a bass and one shorter. The chanter and drones seem to slightly bell out at the end. The illustration looks relatively “normal” in configuration, but is still sketchy enough that no further details can be deduced from it.

5. An illustration from around 1575 by Lucas DeHeere. Now in the library of the University of Ghent, it bears the caption “Irish Folk as they were attired in the reign of the late King Henry”, and shows a group of people which includes a boy playing a bagpipe. There are again two drones, apparently in a common stock, and a large chanter, all of which end with flaring bell ends. The bag is very bulbous, and its position is odd; it appears to be held under the piper’s right arm, but the drones go over the piper’s left shoulder. Although this is our best-done illustration, the instrument does not seem to depict an Irish Warpipe, but rather a German/Low Countries “Dudelsack”, such as would have been more familiar to the painter.

6. An engraving in the aforementioned Image of Ireland (1581), showing kerne marching to the sound of the pipes; the piper’s instrument is depicted in exactly the same manner as in DeHeere’s painting; the two images may therefore be related. Another picture in the same work shows a piper lying dead with his instrument beside him.

7. A drawing of the Battle of Ballyshannon (1595 or thereabouts) thought to have been made by an English soldier present at the battle, is on the whole crude but somewhat more helpful. It shows at least one piper and an extra bagpipe behind him. Both pipes are drawn with some of the usual features (a bass drone and a probably tenor drone, a chanter, and flaring ends on every pipe, especially the bass drone), but oddly, the blowpipe projects from a neck in the bag, and the tenor drone hangs on the side. This may or may not have been a mistake on the artist's part.

8. There is also a drawing by George Cruikshank entitled “Carousal and Plunder at the Palace of the Bishop of Ferns” in a book about the history of the Irish Troubles of 1798, in which a piper plays a set with three drones roughly sketched. A blurry color image of the same is known to this author. As Cruikshank was drawing many years after the fact, it is questionable as to whether he was correct in illustrating a píob mhór player, and in such a fashion, in the context of this picture.

Despite the fact that the majority of the above sources show two-droned pipes, the modification in the 20th century of Highland pipes by Irish pipers who omitted one tenor seems to be a mistake in terms of making the pipes “more Irish”. At the time those descriptions were made, the Scottish pipes would probably have been the same; at any rate, there seems to be no evidence that there was a third drone until well into the 17th century. Indeed, a pig piper similar to the one in the Dinnseanchus with two drones exists in a 16th-century Scottish psalter. Like the missal picture, this too is roughly executed; what should be a tenor drone projects from what seems to be a bass, and the chanter again seems disproportionately long. Still, it seems to be suggestive enough of the instrument being similar in both countries.

Next to no museum specimens of the pre-Gaelic revival Irish píob mhór are known. An example is reported to have once been in the Musée de Cluny, Paris. It was said to have been played by a piper of the Irish Brigade at Fontenoy in 1745. Although the museum seems to have discarded this set, a picture of it may exist in a 1902 catalog, as well as a sketch made by Alexander Macaulay in 1936. The pipes seem to have had a green bagcover, two tenor drones like some 18th-century Highland bagpipes, and a common, possibly fork-shaped stock for the drones like that in the 1714 Scottish painting of the Piper to the Laird of Grant (Francis Collinson suggests in "The Bagpipe" (1975) that the drones were bent near the stock; this would be quite strange). In his November 1968 Piping Times article, "The Battle of Cremona", Macaulay compared the Fontenoy pipes, particularly as regards the apparently sizeable, large-holed chanter, to the supposedly contemporary (Culloden-era, c. 1745) Highland pipes at Blair Castle. It would be wonderful to have at least an accessible copy of a picture of this valuable instrument. On 4 July 2007, this author contacted the museum's documentation section. The official he spoke to stated that the question of this bagpipe repeatedly comes up. No documentation can be found about it, but it may have been part of the museum's collections when they were more general in nature (the museum eventually came to specialize in Medieval artefacts). Its status as a specimen of the Musée de Cluny is therefore undetermined at present.

There is also a chanter in the National Museums of Scotland that was made perhaps between 1812 and 1837 by T. Kenna of Dublin, a well-known Uillean pipe maker. It is quite standard in design; it may well have been conceived as a "Scotch" bagpipe (like Coyne's pipes above), and may have been copied from a Scottish pattern. Nonetheless, it is the only extant, supposedly pre-Gaelic revival example of an Irish-made píob mhór known to the author. It should be understood that the pipes were once more variable than today; things like the number of drones were not standardized until comparatively recently. If the Fontenoy pipes had two tenor drones, another set coming from another region could have borne a different arrangement. The big or bass drone (dos m(h)ór) is mentioned in at least two Irish sources, the poem “Cia an traghna so san ghort” and the 1709 version of a puritanical tract, “Parliament na m Ban.” Circa 1690, the poet Daibhidh O’Bruadair refers to pib tri mbhenn. This has been translated as “three-droned bagpipe”, but historian Seann Donnelly thinks something like “bagpipe with three pipes” (chanter and two drones?) would be a more correct translation.

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