The following article, authored by piper Philip O’Brien, appeared originally in the Long Island Press, on January 7, 1977.
Bagpipes always in Season on Long Island
Most music lovers have the misconception that Irish and Scottish bagpipers appear in early spring, play their melodies, and then disappear for another year, like rare migratory birds.
Gaelic piping is far from limited to a few hours spent marching up Fifth Avenue on St. Patrick’s Day, although the instruments and music remain mysteries to many. The exotic skirl of the “pipes” can be heard every day on Long Island at music festivals, parades, concerts, or by dozens of individual pipers and piping lessons for those interested are available from a variety of sources, according to one instructor, Tom Downes of Richmond Hill.
Almost every culture can trace a bagpipe to its remote antiquity. The Persians and Greeks had a version for the bagpipe, and pipes are still played in parts of northern Spain, Portugal, southern Italy, Rumania, Hungary, Northumbria and Wales.
But the “piob mhor” or great Highland bagpipe is the one most recognized and considered the quintessential bagpipe. Ironically, it owes its survival and predominance to the English, who tried for more than four hundred years to obliterate it. The piob mhor, also called the “war pipes,” consists of a blowpipe and chanter, or melody pipe, connected to an airtight leather bag that acts as an air reservoir and is regulated by the musician’s arm. Harmonizing tones are produced by three “drones” that also are attached to the bag but which play one fixed note each.
“I heard them played which I was a child and I couldn’t get away from them. The bagpipes are most evocative of Gaelic culture,” said Downes, who also is pipe major of the Tyrone Pipers’ Band, one of several bands in the metropolitan area. “It’s not electrified, amplified or synthesized,” said Sandy Hamilton of Whitestone, another Tyrone piper and a city school teacher. “It’s primitive and in touch with nature,” he added. “You work with leather, wood, hemp and bees wax.
Music scholars differ on whether the Highland bagpipe was indigenous to the British Isles or a refinement of the pipe instrument brought there by conquering Roman armies shortly after the time of Christ. That ancestor of today’s bagpipe had only one or two drones, it is said, and the bag usually was made from a pig’s bladder.Until the middle ages the bagpipe lingered as an instrument of the people played by itinerant musicians, gypsies and warriors. Then, at the time that Europe was awakening to the Renaissance, the English began their conquests of the Gaelic countries and imposed a “dark ages” on the people.
For several hundred years the English enacted repressive laws aimed at wiping out Gaelic music, language, dress and Catholicism. Many of the edicts, including the Statutes of Kilkenny in 1367 and the “Penal Times” of Oliver Cromwell in the mid-1600’s, affixed the death penalty to anyone caught playing the bagpipe in Ireland.
The British rulers thought the bagpipe was seditious and its playing an incentive to rebellion. So intense was Cromwell’s genocide that droves of pipers fled Ireland and joined the armies of France, Spain, and later the American rebels, to fight the British. Thousands of others were exiled to colonies in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Africa. However, they managed to bring their pipes and music with them. In these ways the British actually fostered the bagpipe and helped to export it around the world.
About this same time the Irish developed the “uilleann” (illin) bagpipe in response to another English law which prohibited the playing of a musical instrument while standing, as the war pipes must be played. “The uilleann pipes give you a much greater freedom of expression and sound sweeter than the more harsh war pipes,” said Jim Lundt of Bellerose Terrace, an accomplished player of both instruments.
The Scots too endured suppression of their culture but for a shorter time. They soon accepted Protestantism and English rule and as a result were permitted to keep their music. In the 19th Century, Scottish bagpipe-playing regiments were accepted into the British army and the South Pacific.
Today, one of the centers for bagpipe making include Pakistan, as well as Scotland. Additionally, there are units of pipers in many armies, including those of Uganda and Jordan. The members of many Police and Fire Departments in this country have followed the examples of those in the New York City Police and Fire Departments who established their own pipers’ bands.