Brian Bigley honors Irish heritage making and playing uilleann pipes
Northeast Ohio is home to many with Irish heritage, including instrument maker Brian Bigley, who keeps his connections to the Emerald Isle through music.
The Irish roots come from his father’s side of the family, hailing from Sligo, on the west coast of Ireland. Bigley even has a bit of an Irish accent, even though he grew-up in Lakewood.
“Oh, gosh. It's not on purpose. I think I just spent too much time with Irish people,” he said.
As a boy, his family took him to house parties that featured local musicians who entertained with flutes and fiddles, along with plenty of laughs. After seeing a production of “Finian’s Rainbow” at age seven, Bigley stepped into the world of Irish dancing. But, he said a life-changing moment came when he first heard the uilleann pipes. They’re a little different from the bagpipes most people think of.
“Everybody knows the Scottish pipes that you see in the St Patrick's Day parade, the guys with the kilts,” he said. “Those are particularly Scottish. But, at an event at the West Side Irish American Club, I saw a fella play the uilleann pipes. And so, I said to my mom, ‘Hey, that's the instrument that I want to play.’”
During a recent visit to his Strongsville basement, Bigley flipped the switch on a wood lathe and started fine-tuning a piece of hardwood for a set of Irish bagpipes, also known as uilleann pipes. He was constructing this instrument from scratch.
“I am a pipe maker, a pipe player, dancer and performer,” Bigley said.
Once he finished his work on the lathe, he pushed his goggles back on his head and examined his handiwork. The brown, four-inch piece of wood featured an elegant taper, and looked like a miniature table leg.
“So, this is a blowpipe, the part that sticks into the bag,” he said.
All bagpipes have some form of a bag, or bladder, that fills with air, which is then forced out through a series of pipes, pitched to different notes. In this case, Bigley had a small bellows that he pumped under his right arm while seated. That sends air into the small bag that he squeezed under his left arm.
Uilleann relates to the Irish word for elbow. With all the pumping and the squeezing, his elbows get quite a workout playing. Meanwhile, his fingers dance across the tone holes of a flute-like pipe, called a chanter.
“There was a famous Irish piper called Seamus Ennis, who would always say that trying to play the Irish pipes was like trying to hold down an angry ostrich,” Bigley said. “I think that's about right.”
The first set of pipes he ever put together have a sentimental meaning for him, because he said he was making them at the same time he started dating the woman who would become his wife. There are a few scratches on that instrument and the holes in the chanter are edged with tape, but overall it’s in good shape. And he still uses it in concerts.
“One of the primary differences that you notice right away between the Scottish pipes and the Irish pipes is that there's a bellows that provides the air instead of blowing into them, like you do with the Scottish pipes,” Bigley said. “And some unkind observers have suggested that perhaps the Irish came up with the bellows so that they can drink and play at the same time.
“I wouldn't know anything about that,” he said with a smile.
Once Bigley started playing in local bands, a little over 20 years ago, he realized that there weren’t a lot of bagpipe shops in Northeast Ohio. He figured the only way he would be able to maintain his instrument would be to learn how to build one himself.
“I then got a job with one of the most prolific makers of pipes,” Bigley said. “A fella called Seth Gallagher who had a workshop up in Cold Spring, New York.”
Bigley developed his crafting skills during that apprenticeship, and now he said musicians across the country contact him to order custom sets of pipes. His waitlist stretches to 2025.
If taming an angry ostrich sounds complicated, consider the skills it takes to assemble this instrument: Each pipe needs to be turned on a lathe, the bag and bellows are created from leather and there are various sorts of rivets and other ornamentation involved.
There is a meditative pleasure in all the drilling and the sanding and the sewing, he said. Plus, there’s something else.
“The sound of the pipes really brings about this spiritual phenomenon that is kind of ethereal and otherworldly,” he said. “And that sound has kind of opened a door into an aspect of life that, for me, has become really important. Trying to produce a piece of music that has that, and is moving to people, you start to look inside yourself a bit. It's been a great challenge for me and made me a better person.”