Irish eyes and ears focus on pipes and drums

By JACK MURTHA
Staff Writer

 Frank Johnson and Kate Honan rehearse with other members of the Pipes and Drums of Barnegat Bay at the Christ Episcopal Church in Toms River on March 5.  STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER ERIC SUCAR Frank Johnson and Kate Honan rehearse with other members of the Pipes and Drums of Barnegat Bay at the Christ Episcopal Church in Toms River on March 5. STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER ERIC SUCAR Like a perfectly poured pint of Guinness, pipes-anddrums bands have long steered the Irish through times of celebration and suffering.

As St. Patrick’s Day approaches each year, bagpipers and drummers clad in customary uniforms play tunes like “Fields of Athenry” and “The Minstrel Boy” for jolly parade- and pub-goers. Those same performers attend funerals to send off the dead and comfort mourners with “Amazing Grace” and “Danny Boy.”

Through each ringing note that falls upon young ears, New Jersey’s pipes-and-drums bands breathe life into their Celtic heritage, no matter the occasion.

“We’re just excited at the opportunity to continue the tradition, pass it on to new people and celebrate the Irish culture,” said Michael Hannigan, pipe major and co-founder of the Middletownbased Vol. Patrick Torphy Pipes and Drums band.

 Above: Jonathan Vernachio of Beachwood plays a drum as part of the Pipes and Drums of Barnegat Bay during a rehearsal at the Christ Episcopal Church in Toms River on March 5. Left: Jen Weingarten of Toms River plays the bagpipes. Above: Jonathan Vernachio of Beachwood plays a drum as part of the Pipes and Drums of Barnegat Bay during a rehearsal at the Christ Episcopal Church in Toms River on March 5. Left: Jen Weingarten of Toms River plays the bagpipes. The 16-person group, which includes everybody from elementary school students to members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, practices every week. Both amateurs and hardened veterans forge connections to their roots through the music, Hannigan said. That story repeats every spring with their audience members, some of whom briefly join the band after seeing shades of green on the Irish holiday, Hannigan said. But for many people, the observance ends with the donning of a flat cap and a wool sweater, he said.

 PHOTOS BY STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER ERIC SUCAR PHOTOS BY STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER ERIC SUCAR “I certainly was one of those people. Every St. Patrick’s Day, I’d throw on a Notre Dame shirt and call it a day,” he said. “For the past 17 years now, it’s something that I celebrate on a weekly basis.”

Those who use the occasion to reflect on the history of the Emerald Isle gain the chance to build bonds with older relatives, Hannigan said. Conversations over Irish fare and a classic flick could lead to broader questions about what one’s ancestors went through and in which direction the family tree could grow.

“It’s an honor to look back and recognize the struggles that they had to put up with — coming over with little to no money, bringing their families and really starting with nothing,” he said of Irish immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries. “And there are success stories in the communities that were built and the ways in which they clung together to do what they had to do to survive.”

For Hannigan, the past first shone through years ago in his father’s eyes, when the two men marched alongside bagpipers and drummers in an Irish parade. The songs visibly resonated with his dad — a memory that stuck with Hannigan and pushed him to pick up the woodwind instrument.

Pipes-and-drums bands often act as a bridge between generations in the Celtic lineage, which encompasses individuals of Scottish ancestry, as well. Many groups take pride in teaching young people how to inspire crowds through the songs of years gone by.

Linda Cooper, the agent and a tenor drummer for the Pipes and Drums of the Atlantic Watch in Red Bank, has two sons who play alongside her. Her first son joined the band to take advantage of the free lessons, and her second child began learning how to play the bagpipes last year.

“It’s really nice when all three of us go out and have a shared experience, whether it’s so hot that we’re going to die, so cold we’re going to die, or a beautiful day,” Cooper said. “We think of ourselves as a family band, and we have a few families.”

Youngsters learn discipline and self-control in the Atlantic Watch, she said. When they are in uniform, they act like it, and everybody is expected to carry their weight, she said.

“The kids are members, and they’re treated like it,” Cooper added. “That’s stuff that they don’t get anywhere else.”

The band is open to all individuals, regardless of skill level or ethnicity, pipe major Jim Whyte said.

Practicing the pipes can pay off quickly, compared to other instruments, he said. While the talent of world-class bagpipers cannot be matched, simple songs usually mesmerize audiences.

“You don’t have to be a virtuoso to be appreciated,” Whyte said. “Nobody wants to hear you play guitar unless you can play like Eric Clapton.”

But the evolution of a bagpiper takes anywhere from months to years of hard work, said Frank Johnson, pipe major and founder of the Pipes and Drums of Barnegat Bay, Ocean County.

New recruits do not touch bagpipes for quite some time, he said. Instead, they refine their craft on a practice chanter before they are given the green light to buy an expensive set of pipes and a meticulously designed uniform, he said.

Knowledgeable teachers school beginners on how to read music, carry notes and even properly hold the chanter, Johnson said. Hopefuls graduate to the actual instrument after they develop a steady tone, can comfortably cruise through scales, add embellishments and memorize music, he said. The process can take about a year.

“Some people learn quicker than others,” he said. “Basically, we like to teach the young people the correct methods of piping and drumming.”

They are then able to join their elders in playing for crowds of cheering people during strolls along main drags, he said.

Bagpipers and drummers also provide the soundtrack for life’s more somber moments.

Tom Kaminski, pipe major for the Middlesex County Police and Fire Pipes and Drums, said his group formed to pay homage to fallen public service officials.

“Anybody who dies in the line of duty deserves a pipe band — not just a couple of pipers, but a band,” Kaminski said.

Many of the band’s roughly 30 members played at the funerals of those who died in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he said. Along with the aforementioned pipe bands, the police and fire squad still performs during 9/11 memorial services.

The band’s prior sets have included funerals for a Rutgers University student and volunteer firefighter who died in a blaze, deceased soldiers from South Amboy and the Colonia section of Woodbridge, and a New Brunswick police officer who was killed on the job, Kaminski said.

“It’s tough to put into words. It’s our way to honor the person who was killed in the line of duty or hurt trying to protect us,” he said. “It’s our little way of trying to give back to the family.”

Pipes and Drums of the Atlantic Watch:
Open to all
Open house: 7-9 p.m. April 10
Red Bank Primary School
22 River St., Red Bank
Contact: Linda Cooper at 732-788-8900
or Jim Whyte at 732-890-5022
www.atlantic-watch.com

Vol. Patrick Torphy Pipes and Drums:
Open to all
Free lessons every Tuesday at 6:30 p.m.
Bayshore Catholic Center
12 Route 36, Middletown
Contact: Michael Hannigan at 908-902-6471
www.facebook.com/torphypipesanddrums

Pipes and Drums of Barnegat Bay:
Open to all
Practice for new and experienced musicians
every Monday at 7 p.m.
Christ Episcopal Church
415 Washington St., Toms River.
Contact: Frank Johnson at
bagpiperjohnson@comcast.net
www.pipesanddrumsofbarnegatbay.com

Middlesex County Police and
Fire Pipes and Drums:
Open to all police officers and firefighters
in Middlesex County
www.mcpfpd.com