The Rhythm of the Uilleann Pipes: My New GPS

Mar 2, 2019 10:33:00 AM / by Emma Aulenback

In this week's post, Emma discovers the sounds of Uilleann Pipes, a traditional Irish musical instrument, as part of her Irish Language and Culture course in Dublin. She also shares what makes this extraordinary instrument so special and even gives it a go at playing it!

“What did you say the address was again, girls? The GPS can’t seem to find this place.”

You know you are in for a real adventure when that persnickety little blue dot on the Taxi’s Google Maps starts having a meltdown. Desperately computing and recalculating...searching for the unsearchable. Gems are meant to be hard to find, right? Or wouldn’t we all be rich?

It just so happens that the meeting place for our CAPA course, Irish Language and Culture, was a cultural goldmine—full of good craic (the Irish term for FUN!)! We stepped out of the cab, leaving the technical directions by the wayside. Like a siren alarm, we were beckoned to the front door of a tall, handsome brick building by the stunning vibrations of the Uilleann Pipes—an iconic instrument in Ireland's traditional music history.

Are we human, or are we dancers?  Stumbling upon this Irish set dancing class turned into an unexpected lesson in our Irish Language and Culture class!

It may come as quite a shock to learn that Dubliners do not skip down the street, strumming a Celtic Harp with one hand, while sipping a Guinness with the other. However, the odds of finding a Uilleann Pipes player are also quite slim. Thankfully, the Na Píobairí Uilleann (Society of Irish Pipers) exists to ensure that the world never loses this authentic Irish art form! In fact, the piping practice just received UNESCO status as intangible cultural heritage. And rightly so! While decibels and frequencies can all be recorded and quantified, the elation I felt filling my entire being could not be measured on any scale.

When we are not off dancing Irish sets with locals in the basement of this Society’s building, my classmates and I struggle to pronounce Gaelic vocabulary. Here in Ireland, learning Gaelic is compulsory, which is a source of contention between the people and their government, as many disagree with the teaching methods. Most of the Irish students we interviewed for our assignment could not even say so much as their names in Gaelic, after years of schooling. While language is beautiful in its ability to unite people around a common culture of symbols and words, it can also work to drive people apart. Miscommunication and misunderstanding are often synonymous in conflict.

Picure of Uillean Pipes PlayerA Uillean pipes player explaining how they work.

The messages sent through the vibrations of the Uilleann Pipes, however, can never be lost in translation. Although each interpretation may be different, we are all touched by the unique melodies in some way. As for the sounds my classmates and I produced when we strapped on the practice pipes and gave it a go… well, they can only be described as feeble burps and belches. As it takes 21 years to master the art (7 years learning, 7 years practicing, and 7 years playing), I do not foresee myself headlining any concerts in the future. Plus, the best pipemaker is on a long waiting list (Bruce Springsteen did not even make the cut)—so it is really just not in my cards.

The Uilleann pipes in action! It is quite the arm workout, as you have to pump both arms to make a sound!

Nevertheless, if you really want to experience this musical gem—rich with Irish tradition—take a trip down to 15 Henrietta Street, Dublin 1. But remember, do not rely too heavily on apps to guide you—tune in with your best listening ears! And if all else fails, maybe then you can try pulling out Shazam.

Thanks, Emma!

Emma Aulenback


Emma Aulenback is an official CAPA blogger for spring 2019, sharing her story in weekly posts on CAPA World. A Sociology major at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, she is studying abroad in Dublin this semester.

Emma's journey continues all semester so stay tuned.

Learn More about the CAPA Dublin Program

Topics: Dublin, Ireland, International Education