How Shakespeare Gave a Name to Irish Pipes Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

How Shakespeare Gave a Name to Irish Pipes

1 Conversation

The Bard battles with the uilleann pipes.

Shakespeare introduced a huge number of new words into the English language. We quote him daily without realising it. According to a Washington Post article,

He gave us such verbs as 'puke', 'torture', 'misquote', 'gossip', 'swagger', […] He invented the nouns 'critic', 'mountaineer', 'pageantry', and 'eyeball'; the adjectives 'fashionable', 'unreal', 'blood-stained', 'deafening', 'majestic', and 'domineering'; the adverbs 'instinctively' and 'obsequiously' in the sense of 'behaving in the appropriate way to render obsequies for the dead'.

There is one legacy of Shakespeare's that would surely astound even the Bard himself: he is responsible for the name of the uilleann pipes, without ever having used the word, or even heard of this particular instrument, which hadn't been invented yet.

The Irish Pipes

Irish bagpipes come in two varieties: the war pipes (very loud, for outdoor use only) and the uilleann1 pipes (mellifluous and sophisticated, with greater melodic range and extra harmonic notes and chords available to the player). The war pipes are mouth-blown like the Scots pipes; the uilleann pipes are blown by an elbow bellows, like the Northumbrian pipes.

Uilleann is the genitive of uille, the Gaelic word for elbow. But like many examples in the history of musical instruments, the derivation of the name is not that simple.

The bellows-blown pipes reached Ireland in the early 18th Century, when an enhanced form of musette2 began to be developed between various instrument-makers in England, Scotland, and Ireland3. This instrument was given the name 'union pipes' by an Irish piper, Denis Courtney. The first appearance of the name 'union pipes' in print was in a newspaper advertisement for a concert in London in 17884. After the 1801 Act of Union that annexed Ireland to the UK, hints were dropped that the name 'union pipes' celebrated this political event, but Courtney's dates disprove that claim. Eventually antagonism against the Act of Union prompted an Irish musicologist of the early 20th Century, William Henry Grattan Flood, to Gaelicise 'union pipes' into 'uilleann pipes', borrowing a suggestion from two eighteenth-century Irish chauvinists who had not heard the term 'union pipes', but who wrenched Shakespeare's words in order to make an unlikely point5.

Shakespeare's Woollen Bagpipe

Act IV, Scene 1 of The Merchant of Venice mentions 'a woollen bagpipe'. This makes so little sense6 that it was corrected in some editions to 'swollen'. The Oxford English Dictionary hesitantly files the Shakespeare quote under meaning (c) of the word 'woollen':

Silent, as if padded with wool: said of the feet or footsteps. Obs[olete].
After L[atin] pedes laneos or lanatos habere, 'to have woollen feet', to walk silently, to move unperceived.
¶The allusion in the foll[owing] quot[ation] is uncertain.
1596 SHAKES. Merch. V. IV. i. 56 There is no firme reason..Why he cannot abide a gaping Pigge?.. Why he a woollen bag-pipe.

The context of the speech could possibly support such a reading; it is an object of irrational aversion which Shylock cites to justify his whim in insisting on the pledged pound of flesh instead of accepting repayment of his debt:

Some men there are love not a gaping pig;
Some that are mad if they behold a cat;
And others, when the bagpipe sings i' th' nose,
Cannot contain their urine; for affection,
Mistress of passion, sways it to the mood
Of what it likes or loathes. Now, for your answer:
As there is no firm reason to be rend'red
Why he cannot abide a gaping pig;
Why he, a harmless necessary cat;
Why he, a woollen bagpipe, but of force
Must yield to such inevitable shame
As to offend, himself being offended;
So can I give no reason, nor I will not,
More than a lodg'd hate and a certain loathing
I bear Antonio, that I follow thus
A losing suit against him. Are you answered?

A case could be made that Shakespeare is invoking the phenomenon of synesthesia, in which the sufferer's reaction goes beyond the sense proper to the stimulating source. What sets off the unfortunate listener's bladder is the bagpipe singing 'in the nose' – which could describe both the nasal tone of the instrument7 and also the itchy feeling it might induce. 'Woollen' may describe a similar itchy feeling; the sound of the pipes might irritate the nerves like the feel of scratchy wool next to the skin.

There is a much simpler solution, however. It is traditional in Spain to cover the whole bag with a decorative knitted cosy. Other countries, including England and Scotland, use covers woven from wool, complete with fringes, and some use a whole sheepskin for the bag, with the woolly side out. Indeed Grove8 (the musician's bible) suggests this explanation: there, surely, is your 'woollen bagpipe'.

Wrists and Elbows

Whatever the true explanation, Grattan Flood was convinced that Shakespeare was not referring to wool at all, but to Irish elbows. He was not the first claim this: in fact he merely quoted an earlier writer on Irish music, Joseph Walker, who himself claimed that he was merely quoting another historian, Charles Vallancey. Walker published his Historical Memoirs of the Irish Bards in 1786, by which time the bellows-blown pipes were common in Ireland, though apparently not yet referred to as 'union pipes', a term neither he nor his friend Vallancey mentioned.

Walker quoted another 18th Century writer, Pennant9:

The oldest (Bagpipes) are played with the mouth, the loudest and most ear-piercing of any wind-music; the others, played with the fingers only, are of Irish origin.

The question of how ancient that origin was remained unanswered, but a clear attempt was made to establish a very early date. In their writings Walker and Vallancey extolled the antiquity and nobility of Celtic culture; much of Vallancey's agenda was to set out the clear descent of the Irish and their language from the ancient Etruscans, and he provided a comparative table showing the similarity of the Irish Ogham script to a Tree Alphabet 'lately discovered in an Arabian Manuscript in Egypt'.

Three years before Walker's Memoirs, in 1783, Vallancey had published a description of the banqueting hall in Tara10, transcribed from a supposedly ancient manuscript held in Trinity College Dublin. Of the 46 areas in the banqueting hall, one was labelled 'Cuislinnaigh' to which Vallancey simply supplied the translation 'Pipers'. This is the meaning of the word given in English-Irish dictionaries published in the 18th Century11.

Walker quotes Vallancey with the following elaboration:

In the description of the Hall of Tamar […] we find a place allotted for the Cuislinnaigh; a word which, etymologically considered, evidently implies Bagpipers. At this day the pipers call their bellows, bollog na Cuisli, the bellows of the Cuisli, or veins of the arm on the inside, at the first joint; and as this joint on the outside is denominated Ullan or Uilean (ie Elbow), Vallancey concludes that Ullan Pipes and Cuisli Pipes are one and the same. In Ullan Pipes we have, perhaps, the woollen Bagpipe of Shakespear, to which he attributes an extraordinary effect.

Vallancey may have passed his conclusion to Walker in private conversation, since it doesn't appear in his book; but whoever made the leap, it was fairly heroic in its trajectory.

Cuisle12 is explained thus in Begly and MacCurtin's English Irish Dictionary, 1732: 'Cuisle, corrupted from cuilse, Lat. pulsus13, a vein, also the pulse14.' Walker and Vallancey stretch a point in moving it up to the elbow: the pulse is traditionally felt at the wrist. Furthermore, it seems they have deliberately started counting their arm joints downwards, omitting the shoulder, in order to arrive first at the elbow, thereby connecting to Shakespeare's woolly quote. In any case the more recent Galic and English Dictionary, published by the Rev William Shaw in 1780, gave this definition of cuisle: 'A vein, a pipe15' – which calls for no further exegesis. The bollog16 of the Cuisli is straightforwardly the bellows (or bag) of the pipes, with no need to call into play any joint of the arm.

Grattan Flood extended the mental leap, identifying 'woollen' and 'uilleann' with 'union' in his 1905 History of Irish Music. He gave the date of 1588 for the uilleann pipes' introduction, but furnished no source for this information. He also stated, without producing any evidence, that the famous 1514 Dürer engraving of a bagpiper depicts an Irish musician.

The Part of Elsinore Will Be Played by Dalkey

Grattan Flood was notoriously unreliable. He claimed, among many other things, that Dowland came from Dalkey (near Dublin) and that every time Shakespeare called for the offstage band to play a Tucket, he wanted the tune of Eileen Aroon.

He published his theory on Dowland's birthplace in The Gentleman's Magazine in September 190617. The proof is breathtaking in its reliance on wishful thinking: Shakespeare wrote Hamlet in 1601, without ever having been to Denmark. However his friend, the famous lutenist John Dowland, held a post at the Danish court18, while continuing to publish in London. Dowland, Grattan Flood tells us, came back to London from Denmark in 1601 for a holiday, and also to purchase some musical instruments. Therefore Shakespeare must have asked Dowland to help him with some local colour. We can imagine how the conversation might have gone:

Dowland: Yes, Elsinore is on a bit of a hill but it doesn't amount to much, unlike my own Dalkey with its truly spectacular cliff that beetles o'er his base into the sea …
Shakespeare: Hold on there a minute John, beetles o'er … yes, go on?

It is the phrase 'my own', implied by Flood, which makes one gasp and stretch one's eyes. There is one perfectly solid piece of evidence that Dowland came from Dublin19, but nothing to connect him with Dalkey beyond the name of a Dalkey dweller, John Dowlan, who died in 1577, identified by Grattan Flood as the lutenist's father20, and the relative topography of Dalkey, Elsinore, and Hamlet. The story of Shakespeare consulting Dowland for local colour, merely mentioned21 in the Gentleman's Magazine article, was told with relish to your Researcher by his philosophy professor, EJ Furlong, at Trinity College Dublin in the 1960s.


'Tucket' is one of Shakespeare's rare stage directions. It obviously calls for a fanfare, but it is not clear where Shakespeare got the word (a familiar problem). It is generally taken to be the Anglicisation of the Italian word toccata, which denotes a short instrumental piece, like a prelude. The connection Grattan Flood made from 'tucket' to Eileen Aroon (the tune known in England as Robin Adair) is the first word of the song: Tiocfaidh tú nó fanfaidh tú, Eibhlín a rúin? – Will you come or will you stay, Evelyn my dear?

Tiocfaidh is pronounced approximately as 'chucky', which was near enough for Grattan Flood to see in it the true explanation of 'tucket'.

Nowadays we may either smile or cringe, but the times were with Grattan Flood. The Easter Rising in 1916 repudiated the Act of Union, and soon a new Irish state emerged free from British rule. The union pipes are universally called uilleann pipes now, and there is a Dowland Memorial Park in Dalkey22.

1Say 'illen', to rhyme with Dylan.2Gentle bellows-blown pipes were in use in France probably no further back than the 16th Century; they were first illustrated in Praetorius's Syntagma Musicum, 1618.3Evidence of the new instrument first appears in a tutor by one John Geoghegan: The Compleat Tutor for the Pastoral or New Bagpipe, London, 1746.4Denis Courtney, 1760–1794, seems to have described his bellows-blown pipes as representing a union between the Scottish and Irish pipes. In terms of the instrument this makes no sense, as both mouth-blown and bellows-blown pipes were extant in both countries. Courtney, however, was famous for playing Scottish tunes, and even dressed himself up in Highland costume.5See the excellent article on the subject by Nicholas Carolan of the Irish Traditional Music Archive.6Bags were necessarily made of the hide, bladder, or stomach of an animal, to hold air.7The bagpipe singing 'in the nose' could alternatively refer to the comical look of the instrument, with the chanter emerging from the bag like a long nose.8The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 1980, 'Bagpipe' entry.9The Welsh antiquarian Thomas Pennant's account of A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland was published in 1775. It was the inspiration for a documentary broadcast on BBC2 in August 2007, in the Great British Journeys series.10Collectanea de Rebus Hibernicis Part XII. Tara was the seat of the High Kings of Ireland before the coming of the Normans in the 12th Century.11Begly and MacCurtin, The English Irish Dictionary, 1732, and Shaw, Galic and English Dictionary, 1780. Shaw in his Preface acknowledged his obligation to Vallancey, whom he exceeded in estimating the antiquity of the Celtic nations: 'for the Galic is the language of Japhet, spoken before the Deluge, and probably the speech of Paradise' (second page of Preface). An Irish-English Dictionary attributed to Edward Lhuyd (1680-1707) was published in 1768, but in its entries for cuisle and cuisleanach, if not the whole lexicon, it merely parrots Begly and MacCurtin.12Pronounced 'quishla'; plural cuislí.13This derivation is not so far-fetched as it may appear, since many words that contain a p in Latin have a c in Gaelic. This is what distinguishes the so-called P Celts from the Q Celts.14It is the sense of 'pulse' or 'heartbeat' that gives rise to the term of endearment enshrined in the song Macushla.15Shaw's definition is preserved and expanded in modern dictionaries, as for instance 'vein, pulse, pipe, artery'.16Bolg, pronounced 'bullug', can mean either bag or bellows; its usual meaning is 'stomach'.17It is preserved in book form in The Gentleman's Magazine Vol. 301 (July/December 1906).18Dowland was employed by King Christian IV from 1598 to 1606, at an enormous salary. Hamlet was first published in a pirated edition in 1603.19Dowland dedicated a song, From Silent Night, 'To my loving countryman Mr. John Forster the younger, merchant of Dublin in Ireland'. There certainly were Forsters well established in Dublin: one was Mayor of Dublin in 1500-01, and two others in the 17th Century. Grattan Flood names the younger John Forster's grand-uncle, also John, as Mayor of Dublin in 1594, though in the list of Dublin Mayors John Forster is listed as Mayor for 1589-90.20How difficult would it be to find the record of a Dolan or Doolan in any part of Ireland? The spelling with a w indicated an 'oo' sound, as in the name Cowper.21'It is very likely that he furnished his friend Shakespeare with many of those touches of local colour regarding Denmark to be found in Hamlet'.22Update: it seems the park is no longer named after Dowland, and his memorial has now been downgraded to a single plaque.

Bookmark on your Personal Space

Edited Entry


Infinite Improbability Drive

Infinite Improbability Drive

Read a random Edited Entry

Categorised In:

Write an Entry

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a wholly remarkable book. It has been compiled and recompiled many times and under many different editorships. It contains contributions from countless numbers of travellers and researchers."

Write an entry
Read more