Literature of the Bagpipe – Irish Warpipe Music

By  Roderick D Cannon

AT the beginning of the present century, when the Union pipe of Ireland seemed on the verge of extinction, there came a sudden revival of interest in the ancient warpipe. In practice this meant the Scottish Highland pipe, at first imported from Scottish makers, but later manufactured in Ireland. At first it was fashionable to modify the instrument by omitting one of the two tenor drones, in imitation of the old two-drone pipe played in Ireland in Elizabethan times, but nowadays nearly all pipers and bands use the three-drone form, identical with the Scottish instrument.

A major difficulty in the early years of the revival must have been the shortage of good Irish tunes suited to the small compass of the Scottish chanter: some pipe tunes were of course common to both Scottish and Irish tradition, and Scottish pipers had borrowed a fair number of Irish jigs; but still the total number was small. It was the Scottish publisher David Glen who took the first step to extend the repertoire. His collection of Irish Tunes for the Scottish and Irish War Pipes (502) appeared in 1911, the tunes selected by an Irish piper, William Walsh of Chicago, and arranged with appropriate grace notes by Glen. With no less than 143 tunes for the price of 1s 6d, this could be regarded as the best value for money ever offered, but it must be admitted that the book is disappointing. There are far too many tunes which have simply been mutilated to fit the new chanter: whenever the melody line passes out of range it is ruthlessly cut back with little respect for the tonal character or shape of the original. Irish tunes are particularly vulnerable to this process; often they begin with a theme of fairly restricted compass, and then in the second measure soar into the upper register which is freely available on the violin or Union pipes. It is fatal to try and adapt such a tune; all that happens is that the listener recognises the opening bars of a familiar tune, only to be frustrated by the garbled passages which follow. The better policy is to abandon entirely such measures as cannot be played without alteration, and to compose new ones instead. This is legitimate both historically and artistically; in many existing tunes, the second and subsequent measures are in fact variations, often composed much later than the first; and it is not unknown to find differing sets of variations in different traditions.

Subsequent collections for the Warpipe have all appeared from Irish publishers who have generally taken a more conservative line. There is an interesting parallel between these books — Orpen-Palmer (1913), McCullough (1924) and Crowley (1940) (503, 505, 506) — and the pre-1860 era of Scottish pipe music. In both cases the prevailing diet is one of traditional airs more or less effectively rearranged for the pipes, and as the tradition matures, so to speak, so the tunes become more assimilated to the bagpipe style. Listening to a modern Irish band playing Garryowen, Brien Boru’s March and The Connaughtman’s Rambles, one would hardly guess that all three tunes had been taken over from other media.

At the same time, good original compositions are comparatively few. Liam MacAndrieu, writing in 1923, thought this inevitable:

I believe that there is a great future for the War Pipe in this country, but there is a real lack of Irish tunes properly set for the instrument. I do not think we may look for many new compositions, as the Scots have worn the theme bare. What I have endeavoured to do is to set the old Irish tunes with the proper grace notes, and in the tunes of slightly greater range than the pipe chanter, to preserve formation and rhythm as far as possible.85

Worn bare indeed! Since those words were written we have had the works of G. S. MacLennan, John Wilson, and Donald MacLeod, to mention only three of the outstanding Scottish composers, and scores of first-class tunes have been devised by other individuals known and unknown. It is dangerous to prophesy, but still fascinating to speculate, on the future of Irish Warpipe music. Will players always be content with an amalgam of Irish folk melody and Scottish military band style? Already the latest published collection (508) contains a number of original tunes, and the present writer’s hopeful prediction is that Irish pipe music will move forward, as did the Scottish, to a large repertoire of tunes designed expressly for the nine-note chanter, but at the same time distinctively Irish in character.

An alternative approach to the problem of fitting the tunes to the chanter was tried quite early on, when Henry Starck of London began manufacturing the ‘Brien Boru’ bagpipe. This is essentially the Highland pipe with a modified drone arrangement (three different drones, tuned A, e, a) and a chanter with keys extending the range by a fifth, downwards to ’ sharp and upwards to d”. There is an illustration in W. H. Grattan Flood, The Story of the Bagpipe (1911), p. 200. The musical potentialities are perhaps best described in the maker’s own words:

The ‘Brien Boru’ pipe, recently invented by William O’Duane on the lines of the ancient pipes, is a most remarkable instrument, for, unlike any other marching pipe existing, they can render correctly the music of Ireland. For spirited music they are unequalled, with the upper notes wild and piercing, while the lower notes are capable of playing hymn tunes like an organ.’86

There have been two tutors and collections: one published by Starck in 1908 (501) and another by Hawkes and Son in 1922 (504). The only other reference to such an instrument in the printed literature is in Crowley’s collection of 1940, where one tune is given an alternative setting with the b’ ‘for players with keyed chanters’. The Brien Boru pipe is a radical innovation technically as well as musically, since the keywork effectively prohibits the traditional grace notes; Hawkes’ Tutor in particular advocates an extremely simple playing technique. The Brien Boru pipe is still played to some extent, particularly in Northern Ireland, but there are no music books in print at the present time.


  1. McCullough’s Irish Warpipe tutor and tune book (No. 505 below), Preface.
  2. Starck, The Complete Tutor for the Brien Boru war pipes (No. 501 below).