Uilleann pipers belong to the group of instruments that are considered to be the most difficult to play. There is a famous saying that it takes “7 years of learning, 7 years of practicing, and 7 years of playing” to master the pipes. Great uilleann pipers are revered in Irish music as heirs to one of Ireland’s most cherished traditions.
Despite similarities to their more famous cousins, the Great Highland bagpipes, the uilleann pipers have evolved into a highly complex instrument. Drones and keyed regulators are used to accompany players, making one instrument sound like a whole band. However, they’re extremely finicky, and any piper will tell you that it takes a lot to even get them to play.
A group of these 10 uilleann pipers are known for being the best in the world. They represent some of the best pipers of all time, from old-school pipers who kept traditions alive to modern pipers who have pushed them to new limits. Check out our guide on where you can buy a set of pipes if you’re feeling inspired!
seamus ennis, god of uilleann pipes
While Séamus Ennis was born in Dublin, he traveled throughout Ireland as a youth, collecting songs and tunes for the Irish Folklore Commission. His father bought the pipes in a pawnshop, and he learned to play them from him. In the course of his travels, Ennis recorded and learned from countless master musicians.
Ennis was well known for his slow airs, even though he was generally recognized as one of the greatest uilleann pipers of the 20th century. The pipes became more popular during the folk revival of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, and Ennis became a mentor to the next generation of uilleann pipers. It was he who helped found Na P*obair* Uilleann in 1968, an organization dedicated to preserving and advancing the pipes.
Johnny Doran – Colonel Fraser,My Love Is In America,Rakish Paddy
In a long line of traveling pipers, Johnny Doran was one of the greatest. As a member of the Irish Traveler community, Doran traveled from town to town playing the pipes to earn his living. Those who knew him said he lived a free and imaginative life, which reflected in his playing style.
In addition to being a great player, Doran is one of the most influential uilleann pipers of the 20th century. When Willie Clancy saw Doran playing the pipes, he was said to have been inspired to pick up the pipes. There are only a few recordings of Doran that are still cherished by pipers because of their insight into his unique style of playing.
Paddy Keenan, another great Traveler piper, learned music from a young age thanks to his father and grandfather, both of whom played the instrument. The uilleann pipers were introduced to a broader audience by Keenan’s work with the Bothy Band. He is known for keeping the traditions of the traveling pipers alive through his virtuosic playing.
During the first half of the 20th century, Leo Rowsome may have done more than anyone else to keep the flame of uilleann pipe playing and making alive. In addition to being the first uilleann pipers to play on Irish radio, he was the first Irish musician to perform on the BBC. In addition to recording extensively, he was known as the “King of the Pipers.” His unique free-flowing style influenced a later generation of pipers. Later in life, he spent much of his time teaching others how to make pipes, a practice that had been in decline for a long time.
One of the most prominent uilleann pipers of the 1970s and 80s, Liam O’Flynn was a founding member of the well-known band Planxty. I studied under Leo Rowsome as a teen, and also learned much from Séamus Ennis and Willie Clancy. When Enya, Mark Knopfler, and the Everly Brothers needed an uilleann pipers, O’Flynn got the call. Despite this, his playing remained traditional, and his death in 2018 was mourned by everyone associated with Irish folk music.
“Pipes Solo – Lark in the Morning”, Cillian Vallely & Alan Murray
Cillian Vallely was born into a musical family in Northern Ireland and learned the pipes at the famous Armagh Pipers’ Club. Vallely regularly tours around the world as a member of the band Lúnasa. While he has a solid traditional background, he isn’t afraid to venture outside the limits of Irish music. His recent collaborations include playing with multiple symphony orchestras, joining the Celtic Jazz Collective, and appearing on Bruce Springsteen’s High Hopes album.
WGBH Music: The Chieftains “Opening Medley” Live from WGBH
In his role as a founding member of The Chieftains, Paddy Moloney has performed around the globe. As well as composing and arranging music for the band, he has composed music for several films. He emerged from Dublin’s folk revival scene in the late 1950s and early 1960s and organized the Chieftains in 1962. The band has since become one of the most recognizable bands in traditional Irish music.
Finbar Furey – Traditional Irish Pipe Music (1969)
Finbar Furey, who comes from a musical family and settled outside Dublin, is another Traveler piper. He and his brothers formed The Fureys, a folk band that had numerous hits in Ireland and the United Kingdom. He is also known for being the first to play the low whistle, an instrument he and Bernard Overton invented. He is an accomplished singer and banjo player, which shows his innate talent for music. Furey, like Paddy Keenan and Johnny Doran, is known for his wild, inventive playing, a Traveler trademark.
Hornpipes: The Faithful Friend, The Plains of Boyle
When Willie Clancy was a teenager, he heard Johnny Doran playing uilleann pipers for the first time. His own set soon followed, and he took the lead in bringing the pipes back to Ireland. He is the namesake of one of the biggest gatherings in Irish music, the Willie Clancy Summer School, held every year in his hometown of Miltown Malbay, Co Clare. As with Leo Rowsome, Clancy took an interest in pipe and reed making, and made efforts to promote them at a time when the skills were disappearing.
Ronan Browne has been involved in many fusion projects as an uilleann pipers willing to push the envelope. The original piper in the hit show Riverdance was also a founding member of Afro-Celt Sound System. As a composer for films like Gangs of New York, Browne has also brought an Irish sound to the big screen. Throughout it all, Browne has maintained a traditional sensibility, and his group Cran tours regularly.