Historical Notes on the Tinwhistle

By L.E. McCullough.


The Complete Irish Tinwhistle Tutor.

I like this little academic introduction to the tinwhistle, which appears in L.E. McCullough's excellent tutor. Thanks to our friend L.E. for permission to reproduce it on Chiff & Fipple. Call 1-800-431-7187 to get a copy. A CD is now included! Dr. McCullough's website is http://feadaniste.tripod.com/


"Sweet as pipe-music was the melodius sound of the maiden's voice and her Gaelic" -Accalam na Senorach (The Colloquy of the Ancient Men), 12th century.

"Pipes, fiddles, men of no valour, bone-players and pipe-players; a crowd hideous, noisy, profane, shriekers and shouters"-"The Fair of Carman" in The Book of Leinster, c. 1160 A.D.


The instrument now known among Irish musicians as the tinwhistle, penny-whistle, or tinflute, has a lengthy pedigree in the historical annals of Irish music. While the oldest surviving specimens are the 12th-century bone whistles recently unearthed at the High Street excavations in the old Norman quarter of Dublin, various types of whistle flutes that were the progenitors of the modern tinwhistle are frequently mentioned in the ancient tales and in the laws governing ancient Irish society. There is the tale in which Ailen, a chief of the fairy tribe Tuatha de Danann, uses the feadan to cast a spell of sleep over the inhabitants of the High King's palace at Tara, so that he can carry out his annual November Eve vengeance. Players of the feadan are also mentioned in the description of the King of Ireland's court found in the Brehon Laws dating from the 3rd century A.D. The 12th-century reference in the poem about the pre-Here's L.E. McCullough.  Stone sober.
Christian Fair of Carman includes cuisleannach (players of the cuisle, or pipe) among the entertainers, despite an obvious aesthetic disapproval on the poet's part. A more complimentary view of the cuisle is expressed by the 12th-century compiler of the Acallam na Senorach in the comparison of its timbre and the sound of a maiden's speech. One of the most interesting references occurs in an ancient poem found in the Teach Miodhchuarta where the seating plan of the royal feasts at Tara is given; cuisleannach are placed in the same division as smiths, shield-makers, jugglers, trumpeters, shoemakers, and fishermen, to name a few of their social compatriots. It might be of some interest to note that the cuisleannach received the pig's thigh as their allotted portion.

Through the efforts of 19th-century specialists in ancient Irish society, it has been possible to obtain some insight into the nature of the various "musical pipes" that flourished during this time. Both the feadan (also called feadog) and cuisle (also called cuiseach) refer to a "pipe, tube,artery,vein" and were made by hollowing out the stalks of plants such as elder, cane, and other wild grasses and reeds (an additional meaning of feadan is "a hollowed stick"). Uileann pipemaker Patrick Hennelly of Chicago recalled that as a young lad in Mayo, he often made musical instruments from ripe oat straws simply by pushing out the pith and then fashioning the lip and fingerholes with a penknife, and, indeed, the basic structural principles of such instruments must have been discovered fairly early and by many people. Later, as the technology advanced, more permanent materials such as wood and bone came into use, and various fipples, tongues, and reeds were devised for sounding the instruments.

Stone high-crosses of the 9th, lOth, and 11th centuries reveal these pipes to have been straight or sometimes slightly curved up at the bottom. They possessed narrow conical bores that widened toward the bottom and are estimated to have been between 14 and 24 inches long. Currently-manufactured tinwhistles in the key of Bb (actually pitched two whole tones below concert pitch) measure 14 3/4 inches in length, but there is little reliable information about the scales or pitch resources of the feadan or cuisle. Possibly, harmonics or over-blown notes may have been used, as is the case with similar types of simple flutes throughout the world. End-blown pipes representative of the general type found in medieval Britain and Ireland were discovered in Somerset and Monmouthshire, England. Made of deer bone, they each had five front fingerholes; one had two rear thumbholes, while the other pipe had one. One pipe had a range of 11/2 octaves, the other 21/2. These pipes were restored to playable condition, and it was found that each could give diatonic scales (as can the modern tinwhistle) It is not unlikely that a relatively sophisticated music was played on ancient bone pipes of this kind.

Occasionally, these pipes were depicted as being played in twos and threes by the same player; this might have been achieved by holding two or three different pipes in the hands, similar to the ancient Greek aulos and Roman tibia. In ancient times double reeds made of cane were used to sound the pipes. It is possible that the tubes were bound together like the parallel double and triple pipes still found in Eastern and Southern Europe and North Africa. In any case, the possibility exists that harmonies and countermelodies may have been practiced by players of the feadan and cuisle.

There is some difference of opinion concerning the instrument known as the buinne (or bunne). Some scholars believe it was a horn or trumpet used for military and hunting purposes rather than general musical entertainment, while others think it was similar to the feadan and cuisle and was equipped with a single reed in the mouthpiece. What might clinch the argument is that the buinnire were seated at the King's feasts at Tara alongside the players of the corn (trumpet).

The modern tinwhistle belongs to the species of musical instruments called flageolets, of which the recorder is a familiar example. The terms "whistle flutes" or "fipple flutes" are also used to designate flageolets and refer to the method of sound production. The fipple is an apparatus formed by a small plug or block, usually of wood, set into the mouthpiece, or, in some cases, is part of the mouthpiece itself. The fipples in the bone flutes from the Middle Ages were made of clay. A small space or duct is created between the edge of the fipple and the inside wall of the instrument; the player's airstream is directed by this fipple/duct system against a sharp edge or lip that is cut into the tube below the fipple, thereby producing sound. This type of vertically-blown flute became known to Europe around the 11th century, according to musicologiSts, and exists today in various forms throughout the world.

Copyright 1976 by Silver Spear Publications, 1987 by Oak Publications. Used by permission.