Kennedy, William (1768–1834), uilleann piper and pipemaker, was born near Banbridge, Co. Down. He was blind from the age of four because of smallpox. When he was thirteen he was sent to learn the fiddle and was taught by the Armagh fiddle player and piper John Moorehead. While there he lodged at the home of a cabinet maker; he took an interest in the work and discovered that he had a very mechanical mind. In addition to learning music, he spent a great deal of time working with his home-made tools and began to specialise in making and repairing household furniture, though he was also a clockmaker, buying and repairing broken clocks. He made a cabinet for the harpist Mrs Reilly of Scarva, Co. Down, in whose house he met the piper Downey, encountering the pipes for the first time. Kennedy then started to make and repair sets of pipes. He married around the year 1793 and began to spend more time repairing instruments, as it paid well. In 1798 he left Co. Down and settled in Mullabrack, Co. Armagh, near Markethill. Two years later he moved to Tandragee and devoted himself almost entirely to the Irish pipes. It took him nine months to make his first set of pipes, but later he is reputed to have made over thirty sets in eight years. His blindness underlined his remarkable genius, as he was totally dependent on hearing and touch in his work. Much of what is known about him appeared in a short autobiographical sketch which formed part of a longer biographical piece in James Wilson's Biography of the blind (1821). This was subsequently reprinted in the Ulster journal of archaeology (1906).
Much debate has taken place regarding Kennedy's contribution to the development of the uilleann pipes, but he is said to have developed the regulators and chanter keys to facilitate the playing of sharps and flats, and he extended the range of the chanter to make it possible to play high E. When he died, 29 October 1834, the Newry Telegraph commented: ‘though totally deprived of sight, he was enabled, through his industry, his perseverance, and his genius, to execute with precision, taste and judgment, various elaborate works of a nature which have heretofore required the utmost exertions of well-trained artists . . . this ingenious man fabricated his own tools, and with ease he constructed time-tellers, bagpipes, flutes, and various other instruments of music’ (11 Nov. 1834). Some of the pipes made by Kennedy have survived and were played at the William Kennedy Piping Festival in 1996. The festival was established in 1994 and takes place annually in Armagh. Live recordings from the festival have been issued on CD.