HONOURING THE ELDEST St Patrick’s Day, Achill, where traditional pipe bands have marched since 1882. The Dooagh Pipe Band – the oldest of Achill’s five pipe bands – is pictured walking through a guard of honour formed by the island’s other pipe bands at Church of the Assumption, Dookinella, last Thursday. Pic: Michael McLaughlin
‘PIPING will never go down in Achill’. So said the legendary Achill piper Farrell ‘Dan’ Gallagher in these pages back in 2018.
For the last two feasts of Naomh Pádraig, his words have echoed through the windswept, rugged Atlantic kingdom, where the piping tradition is older than the nation itself.
For over 140 years, Achill’s pipe bands marched the island’s backroads and boreens with their pipes and drums to mark the day of our patron saint.
On March 17, 2020, however, the communal pipe-band celebration that typifies a Saint Patrick’s Day on Achill Island was silenced by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Yet, from outside the front doors of Dooagh, Keel, Tonragee or Dugort, a sound familiar to Achill islanders across the world emenated. It was the sound of the pipers honouring their old tradition by playing a tune outside their homes, all in the spirit of ‘coming together by staying apart’. Dan Gallagher was right. The piping hadn’t gone.
The gesture was repeated last March, when the never-ending third lockdown forbid gatherings of any sort.
Similar precautions had to be taken during the foot and mouth outbreak in 2001, when bands performed only within their own locality.
Last Thursday though, at 6am, the island’s ancient Gaelic soul was revived with the beckoning of the drumín mór beat, summoning the men and women of Dooagh Pipe Band to the shores of Keel West.
At 8am, the island’s largest pipe band marched in their splendid uniform to nearby Pollagh, where they performed their traditional set after Mass.
Later in the day, a wreath was laid for past members followed later by the unveiling of a commemorative plaque at the Chongie Road to mark the pipe band’s 75-year anniversary.
Outside Dookinella Church, the men and women of Dooagh Pipe Band were given a guard of honour by members of the Tonragee, Pollagh, Keel and Dookinella Pipe Bands before they all joined in unison for a rousing blast of pipes and drums.
Snare drummer Emmet Callaghan is one of hundreds who have proudly marched with Dooagh Pipe Band since it was founded on St Patrick’s Day in 1946 by eleven members, replacing the old fife and drum band which formed in 1882.
During the pandemic, the band practised on Zoom, only re-grouping for in-person rehearsals last month.
Emmett describes the time-honoured piping tradition as ‘the most unique St Patrick’s Day celebration in the country’.
“St Patrick’s Day in Dooagh was always a day when those people would make their best effort to come home to be part of the pipe band,” he tells The Mayo News. It was an occasion that was sorely missed in the early days of the pandemic.
“The night before St Patrick’s Day in 2020, I said to my wife, ‘It’s like going to bed on Christmas Eve and knowing that there’s no Christmas Day tomorrow’. It was like that in many houses.”
Emmett says that honouring the old tradition in the way they did in March 2020 and 2021 carried huge significance to the people of Achill.
“It was an eerie sense of tradition when you stood outside last year and you could hear pipes from across the road or maybe across the world, all playing at the same time. It was a sense of togetherness in a time we had to stay apart,” he says.
“It was a sense of community and a sense of coming together when we couldn’t. It was vitally important that it was marked, that the pipes were played and the tradition was carried on even though it couldn’t [be done] in its traditional format.”
Near and far
Achill’s piping tradition is a matter of particular pride in the village townland of Dooagh. Ahead of the big day their distinctive green suits and red kilts have been carefully tended to by the same woman for decades.
Likewise, the band is entirely self-sufficient, relying on donations from Dooagh people at home and abroad. Over 40 men and women travelled from near and far to perform with the band on last Thursday’s truly special St Patrick’s Day.
Among them was Declan Weir, who travelled from San Francisco so he could march on Dooagh soil for the band’s 75th anniversary.
“It’s brilliant. It means the world to us to be together again because the last two years have put a downer on an awful lot throughout the villages. Without the parade, the place just felt empty,” says David McNamara, chairman of Dooagh Pipe Band.
The tradition is passed on within families on the island, meaning it is common to find two or three generations of a family playing in one of the five bands.
Last week, Anthony McNamara, his son Owen and his daughter Leah represented three generations of the McNamara clan in the distinctive uniform of Dooagh Pipe Band.
“We’ve had countless fathers and sons and mothers and daughters in the band. Handing it down through the generations has made at survive really,” says David McNamara.
After outlasting war, emigration and a pandemic, the pipes of Achill Island will continue to sound for many St Patrick’s Days to come.