John Butler remembers well the exact moment his life changed forever. He was a teenager, lying in bed in the Dublin suburbs, long past midnight. The late-night DJ played a new cut from Moving Hearts, a Celtic-Rock fusion band that was popular at the time. Until then Butler would have run from anything that smelled of Irish culture; he would have spun the tuner through the dreaded Raidio na Gaeltachta station to get to the dial's safer stations at either end. But what he heard that night caught him completely off guard. It was an otherworldly buzz, a consciousness-rattling thrum that set up a sympathetic vibration with some part of his soul. "As soon as it started with the pipes I thought, 'Jesus Christ, what is this?'" Butler says. "I can still remember the feeling. It was something about the sound the reed made that grabbed me. I had no idea what the instrument looked like. All I knew was that this sound was totally captivating and I had to find out about it."

The instrument Butler heard that night was none other than the uilleann pipes, the Irish incarnation of the bagpipe. His conversion story is not unlike what you hear from uilleann pipers and pipemakers the world over. That fateful evening would set Butler on a winding path that would lead him from the suburbs of Dublin to a small workshop on an island off Ireland's west coast, where he would become one of some three dozen artisans in the world dedicated to creating this delightful and maddening musical instrument.

One uncharacteristically rainless day last winter, I made the trip down from my adopted home of Sligo, a few hours north of Butler's shop, to spend a day with him. Among pipemakers, Butler is no superstar. The pipes he makes are elegant and modern by piping standards, but he still considers himself in the middle of the long journey toward mastery. He lives on Achill, an island of rugged beauty that begins two or three stone-throws off the west coast of the mainland of County Mayo. From the back steps of his studio, he's got a view looking back to Achill Sound and the Ballycroy Mountains. Butler is tall and lanky, approaching 50, and long days hunched over a workbench have left him with some serious neck and back issues, which have forced him to take a temporary step back from his normal production schedule of three to four pipe sets a year.

To help me understand what these instruments involve, Butler straps on a set of his pipes. More than one observer over the years has likened the uilleann pipes to wrestling an octopus, with the tentacles wrapped around the victim's midriff. The name uilleann (which sounds like "illin" as the Beastie Boys would have pronounced it), comes from the Irish word for "elbow," because both of those belonging to the piper are deployed to produce sound. Under the right elbow the player squeezes a bellows, which pumps air into a leather bladder of a bag that is squeezed by the left elbow. The air is forced down the neck of the "chanter," an oboe-like tube of hardwood with a double reed in its throat. Underlying the melody are "drones," ancillary tubes that generate three octaves of a single tone, over which the melody dances. Punctuating the rhythm in counterpoint are notes from the "regulators," up to three additional tubes with metal keys that are played with the wrist of the right hand.

While uilleann pipes are still played in schools, churches, and concert halls, the pub is still very much at the heart and the hearth of Irish Traditional music — also known as "Trad" music. | (Ruth Carden/Courtesy Craftsmanship Quarterly)

"Traditional" is the term used to describe the music that is played on these pipes. Most of the tunes played in Irish sessions are of unknown origin, handed down through the generations from musician to musician, full of endless variations, with multiple names for each tune, and nothing approaching a definitive version, but generally recognizable whether in Tipperary or Tokyo. As you can hear, the music is built around melodies, which tend to be relentless and serpentine, heavily ornamented with a variety of trills, warbles, and slides.

Just as playing this contraption requires coordination of multiple body parts, making uilleann pipes requires coordinated proficiency in a number of different media: woodworking, metal smithery, reed making, and leather work. Constructing a set of pipes with all the bells and whistles takes 300 to 400 hours, generally spread out over a year. All but a few of the 200-odd pieces that make up a full set are made by hand.

Many of the unsung heroes of Ireland's pipe-making tradition were not elite craftsmen, but journeymen who kept the knowledge alive long enough for new generations of masters to emerge. | (Ruth Carden/Courtesy Craftsmanship Quarterly)

You can't get too deep into any discussion of piping without first acknowledging the loudest pipes in the family. The Highland pipes, as Scottish bagpipes are called, are surely the most visible member, and they remain the most widely played. Their totemic import to Scotland, and the cultural stamp these bagpipes have made on the world, cannot be rivaled by any of their cousins. What most of us don't know, however, is that the Highland pipes are capable of only playing a single octave (OK, an octave plus one note). Meanwhile, the uilleann pipes have a full upper octave available, which, along with the chords provided by the regulators, gives it a much wider range of expression.

Butler, an obvious partisan for the pipes he plays and makes, describes the difference thusly: "For a start [the Highland pipes] are an outdoor instrument and are generally associated with armies and marching, that kind of thing, so really they're for scaring the sh-t out of your opponents as you're coming over the hill." (Fans of the uilleann pipes love to point out that the pipes you hear on the soundtrack to the film Braveheart, even when Highland pipes are what you see on screen, were produced on uilleann pipes.)

These rivals make only two of many dozens of different kinds of pipes that have appeared over the centuries in nearly every European country, and many beyond: in the Caucasus, in Turkey and Iran, as far away as South India. Even factoring in regional chauvinism, one could make a reasonable case that the uilleann pipes have emerged as the most culturally vital of the lot.

"The world of uilleann piping has never been so healthy," says Emmett Gill, Archivist at Na Piobairi Uilleann (Irish for "The Uilleann Pipers"), or NPU — the Dublin-based nonprofit that tirelessly promotes the pipes both locally and globally. NPU regularly loans out more than 100 sets of pipes to novice pipers around the country, hosts concerts, classes, and workshops, and publishes a small mountain of books and videos.

According to NPU's official guess, there are approximately 7,000 uilleann pipers across the world, with significant pockets of the diaspora not only in the U.S. and Australia, but also in such unlikely places as Argentina and Japan.

Near-death experiences

The very next day after his midnight epiphany, Butler tracked down his friend Eoin, the only kid in the neighborhood who played what he now realized were uilleann pipes. By wild coincidence, it turned out that his friend's pipes were made by none other than Davy Spillane, the very piper that he had heard on the radio the previous night. "He was my new hero. He was my new favorite musician, he lived a mile away, and he made pipes." Uilleann pipes can be polarizing in their effect on people. For every person like Butler to whom they say "Come hither," there are probably two to whom they say, "Back away slowly, then run!" The definition of a gentleman, according to an old joke, is someone who knows how to play the pipes but chooses not to. (The other standard joke among pipers is that a piper spends half his time tuning, and the other half playing out of tune.)

Butler attributes these slurs, at least in part, to the rough history of the craft, which has survived two prominent brushes with extinction, forcing several generations of makers to have to relearn it the hard way. Though versions of reed- and sack-based music-making devices have been around for millennia, the ancestor of the modern uilleann pipes, the pastoral pipe, has been dated to around the 1720s. When it emerged initially, its handmade detail would have made it prohibitively expensive for all but the wealthy.

Over time, the pipes gradually drifted down through the classes, eventually becoming a signature instrument of wandering minstrels, who made their living providing culture and entertainment for many a rural community. But like many other things Irish, the ranks of itinerant pipers were decimated by the potato famine in the mid-19th century, and by the turn of the 20th century, nearly all of the noted pipemakers had either fled the country or died penniless in workhouses. Francis O'Neill, the Chicago Police Chief whose 1903 compilation of Irish tunes, O'Neill's Music of Ireland, remains the most exhaustive ever published, once put the situation thusly: "As the limit of development had been reached, the vogue of the [uilleann] pipe had declined, and notwithstanding the agitation for its revival in recent years, the outlook to an enthusiast presents but little ground for optimism."

Enter the Rowsome family. If there is a first name in Irish piping, it would be Rowsome. Over six unbroken generations, continuing to the present day, the Rowsomes have been a constant force in the piping world. In the middle of the 19th century, paterfamilias Samuel Rowsome sent his three boys to study music theory with a German tutor; son William went on to become a pipemaker in Dublin, but it was grandson Leo, born in 1903 and reared in his father's shop, who would refine the craft to what many consider its highest expression, producing pipes until his untimely death in 1970.

Alas, that year marked the beginning of another dark age in the history of the instrument. By that point, there were no full-time pipemakers left on the planet. Even in Dublin, only a few dedicated amateurs kept the tradition alive, turning out serviceable sets and making whatever repairs they could. "The pipes got a bad rap for a while," says Butler. "When I was learning, they just weren't in tune, and that was that. People just got on with it. The pipes that I started with were probably never in tune."

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