Literature of the Bagpipe – Irish Music

By Roderick D Cannon

IN the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (and perhaps even earlier) Ireland had a bagpipe similar to the Scottish piob mhor, but so far as we know its music was never written down.2 Presumably it depended on an oral tradition of which nothing now remains. The bagpipe which became predominant in Ireland in the eighteenth century was a very different instrument, soft-toned, tuned to the normal diatonic scale, blown by bellows instead of by mouth, and generally suitable for indoor playing. We do not know when or by whom it was first invented, but clearly it was designed to make bagpipe music acceptable to an increasingly sophisticated public; and for this, the provision of written music was an absolute necessity:

I have known some young Gentlemen, Who had not only a fine Taste for all sorts of Musick, but also a fine Genius, to have a great Desire to play the Bagpipe, yet have been hindered from what their Inclinations so urged them to, by this Instrument’s wanting a scale or Gamut to learn by, which all other Musical Instruments of any Value have.3

Geoghegan’s tutor (101), published about 1745, provides the earliest accurate depiction and description of the Irish pipe.4 At this date there were evidently only three sounding pipes — two drones and a chanter. The frontispiece of the book shows a gentleman in a frock coat, standing, and playing the pipes with the bag under his right arm. There are two drones, fixed parallel in a common stock, resting in the crook of his left elbow, and so pointing out nearly horizontally to the left. Geoghegan gives the tuning of the drones as A and a and the chanter scale running from C (middle C) to d”, a range of two octaves plus one note. Most of the tunes require the F sharp and by analogy with the Highland bagpipe one could describe the chanter scale as being ‘in D’ but with the flattened seventh. The upper of the two Cs may be sharpened but the bottom one is always natural; and other tunes call for the key signature anywhere in the range from three sharps to two flats. Geoghegan claims moreover to be able to produce all the chromatic semitones, not by keys but entirely by cross-fingering: a remarkable feat which one suspects was not normally attained in practice. Indeed, Geoghegan virtually admits as much, and he seems to claim some if not all the cross-fingerings as his own invention; for in his preface he goes on to express the hope that traditional players will adopt his methods:

I flatter myself that this Treatise will not be unacceptable to ye Professors of this ancient pastoral Music or to ye Makers of ye Instrument, one of whom I am informed has of late invented a Way of fixing two Keys to ye Chanter . . .which perform a note more than any Pipe or Hautboy, and make some flat and sharp Notes with great exactness. But since I have not met with any pipe of that kind, I hope it will satisfy them that I have made this scale so as to explain the Manner of makeing all the Flats and Sharps, Independent of any Keys.

Here we see the beginnings of two common threads which run through the whole tradition of published bagpipe music. One is the way the ‘amateur’ author feels impelled to make some innovation in the accepted tradition, hoping that the professionals will follow suit, which in fact they rarely do. The other is the fact that technical innovation by the acknowledged experts is always a step ahead of the published book. This time-lag can be very misleading to the historian, who must be warned that printed sources, however old and valuable, can never give the whole story of an art which even today progresses mainly through oral tradition — the direct contact of expert teacher and gifted pupil. With the Irish pipe, it was only after the instrument had reached its peak of development that published tutors caught up with the mechanical intricacies. With Scottish pipe music on the other hand, while the instrument has changed little, playing technique has altered considerably, and it is safe to say that most books published during a period of such change are out of step with the teaching of the best authorities.

By the end of the eighteenth century, Irish pipes were being made with up to three drones and four ‘regulators’, i.e. intermittent variable drones, controlled by keys. The next tutor acknowledges some but not all of the improvements. O Farrell’s Collection of National Irish Music for the Union Pipes5 (103) gives playing instructions for an instrument of more than two drones, and with a single regulator (though an illustration on the title page shows two drones and no regulator, as in Geoghegan’s time). There is still no mention of keys on the chanter. The last book of instructions, before modern times, was written by a ‘gentleman amateur’ of the name of Colclough, probably in the 1830’s (114: the only surviving copy has lost its title page, so the exact date cannot be ascertained as yet). This describes an instrument with three drones, three regulators, and seven keys on the chanter ‘having been so much improved of late . . . that it may almost be called a new Instrument; yet retaining its characteristic tones so well adapted to give that suitable expression to most of the Irish and Scotch airs’. A portrait of Mr. Colclough, which is still extant, and was probably printed about the same time as the tutor, shows him playing on just such an instrument, drones, regulators and keyed chanter all being clearly visible. The musical techniques suggested in the tutor are correspondingly ambitious. The first three tunes in the book are shown partly harmonised in thirds (the idea being that the upper melody line could be played on the chanter with one hand and the lower on the treble regulator with the other hand) and also supplied with a variety of chords and arpeggios. Alternatively ‘the first part . . . may be sometimes play’d an octave lower on the Bass Regulator alone, to make a variation . . .’ and ‘there may be other Notes of the Regulators taken with those of the Chanter in several passages . . . which the learner in the course of practice will discover, he making use of the Regulators according to his own Taste and Fancy, to give any farther exemplication would be only retarding his progress’. In fact out of the 33 tunes in the book, only four have any harmonies explicitly shown, and all the rest are given as treble line only; an indication of the level of musical education which the author felt he could demand of his readers.

The collections of tunes appended to these tutors vary considerably in character. Geoghegan’s selection is barely distinguishable from the albums of popular dances issued by various London publishers at the time. He does have a few Irish titles — Blind Paddy’s Fancy, The Humours of Westmeath and Gahagan’s Frisk (his own composition?), and there is a remarkable piece entitled ‘A Bagpipe Concerto call’d the Battle of Aghrem, or the Football Match’; and besides these there are some well-known jigs of Irish or Scoto-Irish character such as The Major and Whip her and Gird Her. But the bulk of the collection is made up of song airs and contemporary popular dance tunes, some from ballad operas and others by known contemporary composers, such as Ravenscroft’s Fancy and Chark’s Hornpipe. There are a minuet and a few ‘Scotch Measures’, but only one tune in 9/8 time, and no reels at all. O Farrell’s collection is in complete contrast, entirely Irish and traditional in character, and together with his four-volume Pocket Companion for the Irish or Union Pipes (104) it is still an important source book for modern players. The title phrase National Irish Music speaks for itself and it is significant that the later edition of the Pocket Companion was published simultaneously in London and Dublin. Although little is known of OFarrell’s life and background, it would seem that he was a ‘professional’ rather than an ‘amateur’ player. Colclough’s collection shows a reversion to the amateur taste, but in keeping with the times, it has much more ‘national’ music of one kind or another than has Geoghegan’s. That is to say, there are Irish airs and dance tunes, typified by ‘Gramachree with variations’ and three jigs in 9/8 time; but many more ‘Scotch’ airs like The Flowers of Edinburgh and Maggie Lawder, and an admixture of contemporary popular items such as Buonaparte’s Waltz and Life Let us Cherish.

It is worth remarking that the earliest of the Irish pipe tutors, i.e. Geoghegan’s, makes no explicit mention of Ireland anywhere in the text. The instrument is called the ‘Pastoral or New Bagpipe’; it is commended to ‘all lovers of pastoral musick’, and only the author’s surname and a few tunes reveal the national origin of the work. Possibly the aim was to popularise bagpiping among English amateur musicians as well as Irish.6 Successive publishers of Geoghegan’s tutor all advertised bagpipes (i.e. Irish) for sale in London, suggesting a steady demand that must have continued even as late as 1800. And another sign of the influence of the Irish pipe in England can be gleaned from collections of popular music published in the first half of the eighteenth century, where we find a few bagpipe tunes, not identifiably Scottish or Irish, which seem to call for an instrument having the capabilities of the ‘new’ bagpipe.7

In Scotland, moreover, bagpipes began to be made locally to designs only slightly less ambitious than the Irish. These so-called ‘hybrid Union pipes’ can be seen in a number of museum collections,8 and it was presumably with them in mind that another publisher, John Preston, brought out a revised edition of Geoghegan’s book, with a collection of Scottish tunes attached (109).

There were of course Irish pipers resident in Scotland, and it would be interesting to discover more about them and their possible contributions to local tradition. One such was a Mr. Fitzmaurice who composed a number of tunes and published them at his own expense from his lodgings in Edinburgh (106, 107, 108). He made at least one appearance at the Highland Society’s piping competitions in Edinburgh, in August 1807, when he played ‘several beautiful airs on Union pipes, which was received with great applause’.9 Another was John Murphy, who issued a book of Irish airs and jiggs . . ., in which he describes himself as ‘performer on the Union pipes; at Eglinton Castle’. His book (111) contains A Favourite Rondo ‘composed for the Union pipes by J. Clarke’, and also a good many tunes by the Irish piper, Walker Jackson.

At least two of the leading Highland pipers of that day are also known to have played the Union pipe. John MacGregor, piper to the Highland Society of London, gave a concert in Perth in 1821 at which ‘all who heard him were delighted at his superior execution upon the Great Highland bagpipe, Union pipe, flageolet and German flute’.10 And Donald MacDonald, the pioneer publisher of Highland pipe music, advertised in 1822 that he manufactured and taught both the Irish and Northumbrian pipes.11 Nowadays bagpiping is very localised, with little contact between the separate branches of the art, but it would be unwise to assume that such has always been the case. Perhaps in the great days of piping there was a more eclectic spirit, at any rate among the leading players and makers.

Outside Ireland, the Union pipe seems to have died out before 1850, and even in the mother country it entered on a very precarious phase with the great famine of 1840 and the massive emigrations which have so depleted Irish society since that time. This is certainly reflected in the printed music. After Colclough’s tutor nothing was published for nearly a hundred years. One book was reissued — Holden’s collection (105) of c. 1805 which came out again in the early 1840’s; but it was given a new title page and all reference to the bagpipe was omitted. Needless to say, the old books became very scarce, and some of them now survive in only one or two copies. O Neill12 has an amusing tale of one such book. A well-known piper of Donegal, Turlogh McSweeney (born 1829, died 1916),13 acquired a great reputation among his neighbours from his possession of a mysterious music book of great antiquity. An acquaintance wrote in 1909:

McSweeney is a very queer old man, and will give no information about pipes or piping whatever. He still claims to have a book of instructions for the pipes; and has had it for over sixty years, but would not part with it, as ’tis the only one in existence at the present time. He has had offers for it several times; but money would not induce him to part with it. . .

and O Neill continues,

No human eye, except his own, has ever been permitted to profane this treasure by even a glance. As a concession to his benefactors … he presented them with the scale of the natural notes of the Irish chanter, which on comparison, we find is identical with that to be found in O’Farrell’s National Irish Music.I2

The subsequent revival in Irish piping can be traced to the general national revival which saw the formation of the Gaelic League at the end of the nineteenth century. Pipers’ clubs were formed in Cork (1898) and Dublin (1900); piping competitions were organised and the few remaining professional players (who by this date were to be found mainly in the poorhouses) were offered financial assistance to attend.14 Even so, the tradition very nearly died and when W. H. Grattan Flood wrote his well-known book on the bagpipe in 1911, he was forced to conclude on a very disheartening note:

. . . who knows but that in the near future the Uillean pipes may again become fashionable. It would be a real pity that such a fine old instrument should altogether disappear. Doubtless an appeal to national pride in an Irish-speaking, self-governing Ireland will revive the vogue of the pipes, but at present the outlook is not hopeful.15

The Dublin and Cork pipers’ clubs died out before 1914, and ‘a later club formed in Dublin was helped to extinction by the Black and Tans’.14 But a third club, Cumann na bPiobairi Uilleann, was founded in 1936 and later became a branch of Comhaltas Ceoltori Eireann. In the same year appeared two tutors (116, 117), the first for a century or more and filling a long-felt need, for by this time piping was on the increase, competitions were being held annually and disused sets of pipes were being restored to playing condition. The present relatively flourishing state of the Irish pipe music is shown by the formation in 1968 of another group, Na Piobari Uilleann, which concerns itself entirely with the culture of the pipes in all its aspects: manufacture,16 playing and teaching, collecting and preserving the music, and building a historical archive.17


  1. For accounts of bagpipes played in all countries, both now and in the past, see especially A. Baines, Bagpipes, Oxford, 2nd ed., 1973; and J. H. van der Meer, Typologie der Sackpfeife’, in Anzeiger des Germanischen Nationalmuseums, 123-146 (Niirnburg, 1964).
  2. C. Collinson, The Bagpipe, London, 1975, pp. 114-6.
  3. Geoghegan, The Compleat Tutor for the Pastoral or New Bagpipe, London, c. 1746 (No. 101). Geoghegan’s pronunciation of his name is perhaps indicated in the tune title, Gahagan’s Frisk’.
  4. It is worth mentioning that the earliest clear evidence of the existence of the Union pipe is a depiction by Hogarth in a sketch entitled ‘The Beggar’s Opera Burlesqu’d’, dateable to 1728. It is reproduced in F. Antal, Hogarth and his Place in European Art, London, 1962, p. 22a. Whether the bagpipe was actually introduced into the Beggar’s Opera (first performed 1728) does not seem to have been ascertained.
  5. No completely satisfactory explanation of the term ‘Union’ pipes has ever been given. It has been connected, rather fancifully, with the political movements which led to the Union of the Irish and English Parliaments in 1801; and more plausibly with the ‘union’ of sounds of chanter, regulators and drone — perhaps as a corruption of the word ‘unison’. It does seem, on present evidence, as if the word ‘union’ was not used prior to the invention of the regulators. It may be stressed here that there is no evidence for the expression uillean pipes’ being used prior to the twentieth century.
  6. See also R. D. Cannon, The Bagpipe in Northern England’, Folk Music Journal, 2, (2), pp. 127-147(1971).
  7. D. Cannon, ‘English Bagpipe Music’, Folk Music Journal, 2 (3), pp. 176-219 (1972). See, e.g., examples 10, 21.
  8. For descriptions see especially Baines, cit., p. 123, and W. A. Cocks, ‘James Allan’s Organ Pipes’, in Proc. Soc. Antiquaries (Newcastle-upon-Tyne), 4th series, 6, pp. 213-216 (1935).
  9. ‘Account of the Competitions for the Prizes given by the Highland Society … to the best performers on the Great Highland Bagpipe’, in A. MacKay, Ancient Piobaireachd, (No. 307 below), pp. 15-22.
  10. Obituary notice in Edinburgh Magazine, March 1822; quoted by Fionn’, i.e. Henry Whyte, Clann an Sgeulachie, A Famous Family of Pipers’, Celtic Monthly, 20, pp. 207-8.
  11. MacDonald, Ancient Martial Music (No. 304-1 below); title page.
  12. O’Neill, F., Irish Minstrels and Musicians, Chicago, 1913, pp. 294-5.
  13. A biographical article on McSweeney appeared, in Irish, in Bcaloideas, the Folklore of Ireland Society Journal, 32, 71-84 (1964), by Padraig McSean. It confirms the identity of the book which, together with McSweeney’s pipes, is now in the possession of Mr. McSean, to whom it was given by Canon Cunningham, the parish priest of Glenties, who in turn had received it as a gift from the old piper whom he attended during his last illness. (For a digest of the article I am indebted to Mr. B. Breathnach.)
  14. Breathnach. Brochure issued for a piping exhibition, 1974. I am grateful to Mr. Breathnach for a copy of the brochure and for most of the information in this and the next paragraph.
  15. H. Grattan Flood, The Story of the Bagpipe, London, 1911, p. 202.
  16. See the recent publication, W. Garvin, The Irish Bagpipes, their construction and maintenance, Blackstaff Press, Belfast, 1978. (Published in association with Na Piobairi Uilleann.)
  17. Reported in Ceol, A Journal of Irish Music (ed. Breandan Breathnach, 47, Frascati Park, Blackrock, Dublin, Eire), Vol. III., No. 3 (June 1969).