Pipe works and pipe dreams
An Irishman’s Diary about Na Píobairí Uilleann
Gay McKeon of Na Píobairí Uilleann, the uileann pipers’ club, at their Henrietta Street centre in Dublin. The pipers’ future looks secure. But it was different 46 years ago, when Na Píobairí Uilleann had to be set up to protect an endangered species. Photograph: Dave Meehan
Once a threatened species, uilleann pipers have reproduced with such success in recent decades that there are now an estimated 6,000 in the wild, making them far more numerous than, for example, the giant panda.
The pipers’ future looks secure. But it was different 46 years ago, when an organisation called Na Píobairí Uilleann (NPU) had to be set up to protect them. Then, there were as few as 100 players left alive, and only two full-time makers of the instrument on which they depended.
The makers remain scarce, at least relative to players. There are about 60 now, in fact. Yet such is the demand for their work, combined with its time-consuming intricacy (car manufacture is a simple thing by comparison) that some masters have closed their books, having enough orders for the rest of their lives.
This dramatic change in the fortunes of piper hibernicus is in large part due to NPU, the promotional body that began work in Dublin’s Henrietta Street in 1968.
It didn’t establish a breeding programme, as such – just as well, because the playing population was almost entirely male at that time. It did, however, help create the conditions for the instrument to flourish again, as it had flourished in pre-Famine Ireland, when there was an uilleann piper in every townland.
NPU was itself, to some degree, a product of the revival in traditional music already under way.
But when groups like Planxty and the Bothy Band brought the instrument to mass audiences during the 1970s, No 15 Henrietta St supplied the supporting framework. Uilleann pipers were sexy, suddenly. NPU was a forum from which they could go forth and multiply.
I’ll stop with the procreational metaphors now. What got me started was that, when I dropped in to Number 15 on Culture Night, last Friday, they were in the middle of a fascinating discussion about the mammoth, which despite extinction, it seems, still has a part to play in the piping community.
To wit, the “mounts” on pipes – decorative trimming on the wooden parts – used to be made from elephant ivory. Maybe some still are, although it’s not something you can do with a good conscience these days. In any case, there are many alternatives, including antler, bone, horn (non-rhino, needless to say), even plastic.
But mammoth ivory, of which there is plenty available for a price, is also an option. As the speaker on Culture Night put it, the contributing animal “can’t get any more extinct”.
With mammoth ivory or otherwise, a good set of pipes can cost well over €10,000. And even if you can afford them, you’ll probably have to wait. Every part of these strange instruments is assembled by hand, so a full-time maker might struggle to complete half a dozen a year.
Sets for beginners are much less expensive, and more easily found. Even so, an important part of NPU’s work is as a lending facility, without which many learners might never start.
As it nears the half-century, the organisation is still training new makers (and its apprentice players now include an all-female class, a situation once unimaginable). But its ambitions for the future also envisage construction on a larger scale.
For some time, NPU has been in possession of an officially approved plan to expand into its derelict neighbour, No 16, which it hopes to turn into a theatre, museum, teaching space and visitor centre.
Henrietta Street is the oldest Georgian street in Dublin, dating from the 1720s. Its age and the fact of it being a cul-de-sac (the King’s Inns closes off one end) make it a favourite with film-makers. But behind the atmospheric front, it had become by the late 20th century about as decrepit as the uilleann pipe community circa 1968.
So a rejuvenated No 16 would mark a big turn in the street’s fortunes too. The problem is money. The plan costs €5 million – not that much, you’d think, but enough in austere times to be daunting.
In fact, it would take only €2 million for the first phase – the theatre. So if you’re a music-loving philanthropist with a spare hundred thousand, or even the price of a brick, NPU would like to hear from you.
If you’re not, you might still consider attending the pipers’ annual showpiece, The Ace and Deuce of Piping. The latest instalment takes place in Liberty Hall Theatre on Saturday week, October 4th. More details are at pipers.ie.