The uilleann pipes are known for being one of the most difficult instruments to play. One famous saying is that it takes “7 years of learning, 7 years of practicing, and 7 years of playing” to finally master the pipes. Great uilleann pipers are revered in Irish music as bearers of one of the most cherished traditions of Ireland.
While they bear some similarities to their more famous cousins the Great Highland bagpipes, the uilleann pipes have developed into an extremely complex instrument. Players accompany themselves using a set of drones and keyed regulators, which can make one instrument sound like a whole band. But they’re incredibly finicky, and any piper will tell you that it takes a lot to even wrangle a sound out of them.
These 10 uilleann pipers are known for being at the top of their game. From the old school pipers who helped keep traditions alive to the pipers who have pushed the boundaries of those traditions, they represent some of the best to ever play the instrument. And if you’re feeling inspired, check out our guide to where you can buy a set of pipes for yourself!
While Séamus Ennis was born in Dublin, he traveled throughout Ireland as a young man, collecting songs and tunes for the Irish Folklore Commission. He learned the pipes from his father, who had bought a set in a pawn shop. Throughout his travels, Ennis recorded and learned from countless master musicians.
While he is generally acknowledged as one of the greatest uilleann pipers of the 20th century, Ennis was especially known for his slow airs. As the pipes became more popular during the folk revival of the 50s, 60s, and 70s, Ennis became a mentor and elder statesman to a new generation of pipers. He helped found Na Píobairí Uilleann in 1968, an organization dedicated to preserving and advancing the pipes.
Johnny Doran was one of the greatest in a long line of travelling pipers. As a member of the Irish Traveller community, Doran would go from town to town, playing the pipes to earn his keep. His wild and imaginative playing style is said to reflect the freedom with which he lived his life.
Along with being a great player, Doran is one of the most influential uilleann pipers of the 20th century. Willie Clancy was said to have been inspired to pick up the pipes when he saw Doran playing. The few recordings of Doran that are still treasured by pipers for their insight into his unique playing style.
Another great Traveller piper, Paddy Keenan learned music from a young age thanks to his father and grandfather, who were both pipers themselves. Keenan was a founding member of the Bothy Band, where he helped bring the uilleann pipes to a broader audience. Today, he’s known for his virtuosic playing and for keeping the traditions of the travelling pipers alive and well.
Leo Rowsome did perhaps more than anyone else to keep the flame of uilleann pipe playing and making alive during the first half of the 20th Century. He was the first piper to play on Irish radio, and the first Irish musician to play on the BBC. He also recorded extensively, and was known as the “King of the Pipers.” His unique free-flowing style became a huge influence on a later generation of pipers. Later in life, he spent much of his time teaching others how to make pipes, a practice that was in serious decline.
As a founding member of the well-known band Planxty, Liam O’Flynn was one of most prominent uilleann pipers of the 1970s and 80s. He studied under Leo Rowsome as a teen, and also learn much from Séamus Ennis and Willie Clancy. When big acts like Enya, Mark Knopfler, and the Everly Brothers needed an uilleann piper, O’Flynn got the call. Still, he was steadfastly traditional in his playing, and his death in 2018 was mourned by the entire Irish folk community.
Born into a musical family in Northern Ireland, Cillian Vallely learned the pipes at the famous Armagh Pipers’ Club. As a member of the band Lúnasa, Vallely regularly tours around the world. He has a solid traditional grounding, but isn’t afraid to go outside the bounds of Irish music. Recent collaborations of his include working with various symphony orchestras, forming a part of the Celtic Jazz Collective, and an appearance on Bruce Springsteen’s High Hopes album.
As the founder of The Chieftains, Paddy Moloney has played to audiences all over the world. He’s the band’s primary composer and arranger, and has also composed music for many films. He came up through the folk revival scene in Dublin during the late 50s and early 60s, and organized the Chieftains in 1962. Since then, they’ve gone on to become possibly the most recognizable band in traditional Irish music.
Finbar Furey is yet another Traveller piper, coming from a musical family who settled outside Dublin. He and his brothers formed The Fureys, a folk band who had numerous hits in Ireland and the UK. Along with the pipes, Furey is known for being the first to play the low whistle, an instrument he and Bernard Overton developed. He’s also an accomplished singer and banjo player, which shows his innate talent for music. Like Paddy Keenan and Johnny Doran, Furey is known for his wild and inventive playing, a Traveller hallmark.
A teenaged Willie Clancy first saw a set of uilleann pipes when he heard Johnny Doran playing. He soon got his own set, and became a leader in reviving the pipes in Ireland. He’s the namesake of one of the biggest gatherings in Irish music, the Willie Clancy Summer School, which is held annually in his hometown of Miltown Malbay, Co. Clare. Like Leo Rowsome, Clancy took an interesting in pipe and reed making, and made efforts to promote them at a time when the necessary skills were dying out.
Another uilleann piper willing to push the envelope, Ronan Browne has been a part of many fusion projects. He was a founding member of Afro-Celt Sound System as well as the original piper in the hit show Riverdance. Browne has also lent an Irish sound to the big screen through his composing for films like Gangs of New York. All the while, Browne has kept his traditional sensibilities, and tours regularly with his group Cran.