Long wait for uilleann pipes spurs appeal for new makers


ALL GOOD things come to those who wait, but in the case of the uilleann pipes that wait can be seven years.

The demand for the most quintessential of Irish instruments is so great that an appeal has been launched to increase the number of craftspeople making them.

The pipes, unique to Ireland, cannot be mass-produced and still have to be painstakingly assembled, piece by piece.

Throughout the world there are orders for uilleann pipes worth €7 million outstanding. A full set of pipes costs between €7,000 and €20,000, and the typical wait from a renowned pipemaker is seven years – and in some cases 15 years. Despite the shortage, only 20 per cent of uilleann pipes are made in Ireland.

Na Píobairí Uilleann, the organisation that promotes piping, has set up a 2,400sq ft industrial unit at the Port Tunnel Business Park in Clonshaugh, Co Dublin, to school a new generation of makers.

It is also showcasing the art and craft of uilleann pipemaking every day until April 26th at the Culture Box, Temple Bar, as part of the Year of Craft 2011.

Na Píobairí Uilleann believes 30 people could be employed full-time in making the pipes.

The training centre is conducting part-time courses on different aspects of the craft, but the organisation says it needs to raise a minimum of €120,000 a year for the next five years to achieve its ultimate goal of conducting full-time courses.

A fundraising campaign has begun and singer-songwriter Damien Dempsey will perform on Friday, April 29th next at the Grand Social venue in Dublin to raise funds for their initiative.

In 1970 there was only one full-time uilleann pipe maker in the whole world. Now there are 60, including in such far-flung places as Pakistan. The instrument came to worldwide attention through such musicians as Davy Spillane, Paddy Moloney of the Chieftains and Liam O’Flynn of Planxty. To make a full set of pipes, a craftsman has to be skilled at metalwork, leatherwork, wood turning, carpentry and jewellery making.

The pipes’ reeds, of Californian or Spanish cane, are the “engine of the instrument” and preparing them is a “real black art” requiring years of knowhow, according to Na Píobairí Uilleann chief executive Gay McKeon, who is also a teacher and player.

The pipes are among the most complicated instruments in the world to build, he says.

“It would take a very skilled person 400 hours to make a set of pipes from beginning to end.”