The Irish bagpipes, says Ray Sloan, “are a terrifying instrument.” He puts down his tool and polishes the black ebony with a cloth. One last look… Then he goes outside. Ray Sloan sits outside his workshop and looks off into the distance. “I only built my first set of bagpipes because I didn’t have enough money to buy a set of my own.” At that time Ray was still working as an art teacher. He made full use of his unrestricted access to the school’s metalworking and woodworking shops. “The first set of bagpipes I built myself sounded terrible”, admits Ray, and his eyes crinkle up. “So I immediately built the next set and tried to make them better.” And he has continued building them ever since. The sun goes down behind the Bluestack Mountains. “The Irish bagpipes play with the emotions of the human soul on many different levels. It can make you laugh involuntarily or make you cry.”
A melancholy melody begins to echo over the hills. Ray pumps the bellows underneath his right arm with rhythmic movements. The outer skin of the bag rises and falls underneath his other arm. Will ‘mountain tears’ soon roll down the slopes? The 65-year-old Irishman deftly opens a sequence of valves and flaps. This guides the airflow to a set of pipes. The air pressure escapes through these pipes and gives the Irish bagpipes their unmistakable sound. The music falls silent and the master instrument maker’s facial expression relaxes. Ray Sloan gives a satisfied nod. The three months of work on the have paid off.
The origin of the name provides an insight into an important difference to the more famous Scottish bagpipes: The Irish bagpipes are not supplied with air by the player’s mouth but via a bellows pumped with the player’s elbow. Coordinating the sequences of arm, hand and finger movements is extremely complex. Ireland’s most popular Uilleann piper, Seamus Ennis, once said: “It took me seven years to understand the theory. Then I had to practice for seven years and play for seven years before I had truly mastered the instrument.” This may be an exaggeration but explains why the Uilleann pipes are regarded as the most difficult type of bagpipes to play. They demand a lot of passion and perseverance. Characteristics which also distinguish Ray Sloan.
Ray Sloan has been building bagpipes of every type for 35 years. Every instrument is made by hand. Ray has always worked alone and he never begins a new set of bagpipes until the previous set is finished. Anything else would disrupt his concentration on the essentials: creating an instrument out of black ebony, cow horn, silver and brass parts, which talks to the soul, makes people laugh and cry, dance and pause to think. The Irishman has remained true to his motto: The next set of bagpipes should always be the best. The prices for these unique instruments range from 1,500 to 6,500 euros and attract customers from all over the world. Because they know: The next set of bagpipes is probably Ray’s best.