Origin of the Pipes in Ireland

When most people think of the bagpipes, they think of kilts, tartans, and all things Scottish.  In fact, folk of Scottish descent often feel animosity toward using the pipes to play Irish tunes or at Irish events.  While there is no doubt that the Highlanders developed the bagpipes into the modern instruments we see today, the pipes themselves are not native to Scotland.  Two theories exist concerning how the pipes came to Scotland: they were either brought there by the Romans or by Irish colonists.

The first record of bagpiping in Ireland has been dated to the time before Christ.  In 35 B.C., history records the arrival of nine pipers from the Fairy Hills of Bregia (County Meath) to pay homage to the chieftain King Conaire the Great (c. 63-33 B.C.).  The Irish “Piob Mor” or “Great Pipe,” which later became known as the Irish War Pipe, existed in Ireland from an early date.  The bagpipe often associated with Scotland was brought to that land from Ireland following the invasion of the Pictish kingdom by Fergus MacErc, Prince of Dalriada in North Antrim in the year 470 A.D.  At that time, the kingdom of Argyle (“the Eastern Gael”) was established in Alda and the history of Gaelic Scotland began. 

Bagpipers were a significant part of ancient Irish society.  The Piob Mor is mentioned in the old Brehon Laws which were finally commited to writing in the 5th century.  The importance of piping during the years of the Irish cheiftains is evident in the 9th century representation of a piper on the great stone High Cross of Clanmacnoise in County Offaly.  This seat of Irish culture in Clanmacnoise fostered the great ancient school there which at its height involved six to seven thousand students.  The Book of Leinster and the Book of Ballymote, written after Brian Boru’s great victory over the Vikings in 1014, spoke of pipes and pipers.  There is also a drawing of the Irish War Pipes in the famous Dinnseanchus, the Irish topographical history dated 1300 A.D.  There are pictures and carvings of Irish pipers throughout history in libraries and collections all over the world.

“Irish as they stand accoutred being at the service of the late King Henry”, by Lucas d’Heere, circa 1575.
From Derricks Images of Ireland published 1581.
From a 16th century painting within the missal of the Abbey of Rosgall, Co. Kildare.

The Irish Warpipe

Military leaders recognized that the martial music of the bagpipes appealed to the warlike spirit of the peoples of the Isle.  Pipers were the musicians of the Kerne, the Irish light weapon foot soldiers frequently recruited by British kings as well as monarchs on the continent.  The Dinnseanchus shows the Kernes accompanied by their pipers fighting at Calais under Edward I in 1297 A.D.  Legend has it that after losing the Battle of Falkirk in July 1298, the Scots noticed how the Piob Mor had roused and encouraged the Irish troops who fought for the English, and they decided to employ their own Highland pipes similarly.

The Scots went on to develop and use their War Pipe in clan battles over the centuries.  The British, who ruled Ireland but not Scotland, struck a blow against the use of the bagpipe in Ireland.  In 1366 A.D., due to the Irish War Pipes’ ability to rouse men to deeds of violence and insurrection, the Statute of Kilkenny was passed making it a penal offense to have, play, or entertain bagpipers in Ireland.  The Statute also abolished Brehon law and instilled English common law in Ireland.  The Uilleann Pipes were later developed in Ireland to be played sitting down, thus circumventing the ban and allowing the Irish to retain some of their piping skills.

Despite the ban, the English were always ready to use Irish soldiers and their bagpipers outside of Ireland.  Examples include War Pipe bands within the 87th Regiment of Foot (Royal Irish Fusiliers) in 1793 and also the 27th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers in 1859.  Pipers were also among Irish troops at Calais (1346), Harfleur (1415), Bouglogne(1540), and Rouen (1618).  The bagpipes that were played were modeled after the two-drone design of the Piob Mor: one tenor drone, one bass drone, along with a chanter.  This design persisted until the Royal Irish Regiment formed from the three remaining Royal Irish units, and it was decided to switch to the modern three-drone model.  Among other reasons, this allows the regiment to compete in civilian competitions.  In recent years, there has been a resurgence of bagpiping in Ireland.  The Na Fianna Irish Pipe Band continues this longstanding tradition.

Louis Noble personal piper to Michael Collins, ca. 1913. Note the 2-drone warpipe.
A piper of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, WWII.
An Irish Uilleann Piper. This bellows-blown bagpipe became the national bagpipe of Ireland.

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