Monday, March 17, 2014

The Pipes, the Pipes are Callin'…

The best plate of corned beef and cabbage to be had in Albany on St. Patrick’s Day is at the Hall of the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) on Ontario Street downtown. Actually, I’m there on the Saturday before St. Patrick’s Day because that’s when the City of Albany celebrates The Day with two Parades. The regulation one is a Downtown event that attracts the politicians and ends in front of City Hall (first erected in the late 1600s by the Dutch, commonly referred to as The Orangemen, but not on this day). The other occurs in North Albany, historical seat of the Irish and their political power from the First World War to today. The North Albany Limericks run it on their turf and no outlander pols show their faces, I’m told.

Back at the AOH post-parade, the steam table is manned by six elderly Irishwomen in aprons, ladling out slabs of corned beef, steaming cabbage, carrots, and bread and butter to the throng on line (overwhelmingly male); the Irish soda bread (two kinds—white and brown) is already in baskets at the tables. Four other grandmotherly types circulate, working the lineup of the hungry, handing out pieces of soda bread like nurses tending to weary warriors as they stumble in from the battlefield. Two even older ladies—beatifically smiling, wrinkled faces—take your money at the entrance to the Hall, and push the raffle tickets: 3 for $5, you win a Basket of Cheer (what else?). The twelve of them—a Band of Good Faeries.

There’s entertainment. A kilted bagpiper is on a dais upfront. I pay attention as he describes his instrument, a two-drone bagpipe. A drone is the bag and he has to blow it up to play and as he demonstrates you realize what a perfect name is “drone”—pure onomatopoeia! Its range is merely nine notes but an experienced piper can “whiffle” to enhance the tune. Then, for the next twenty-five minutes, he plays—The Galway Piper, The Rakes of Clonmel, The Minstrel Boy, The Garry Owen, ending with the only one I can name, Amazing Grace. Marvelous! Stirring! And very loud! As the pipers played when the Irish faced the English down the Centuries. Queen Elizabeth I, when told that the Irish fought more fiercely on hearing the pipes, decreed death for their playing. Later, Cromwell would let you live but minus your fingers. In 1745, after the Battlle of Culloden, any Scot caught with a bagpipe was hung. The bagpiper, who led the Celtic armies into battle, was honored as the bravest of men, with the shortest of life expectancies.

Makes me wonder if there were English pipers?

© 2014 Robert Knightly


  1. My first job in NYC was on West 54th St, about 3 doors west of 5th Ave and I was so thrilled to be in the crowds of happy celebrants to watch the parade.... those were the days... T. Jackie Straw

  2. Nice tribute, Bob. We had our corned beef at the local Elks lodge on Saturday night. Good stuff.

  3. I loved this, Bob. Wish I could have been there for the CB&C. For my birthday dinner, I had traditional Old Sod Irish food-- fresh Atlantic fish and roasted potatoes with steamed vegetables--prepared to perfection by my granddaughters! Your remarks about the pipers are moving. Much more respectful than my father's joke about the Scots: They are a strange people--they invented golf and called it a game and the bagpipe and called it music.

    1. Annamaria, just wanted to say how moved and happilt taken back to yesteryear by your memories of your Dad, especially the Family Photo Gallery. Just lovely!

  4. Thank you, Robert. You have heard a lot a Sam stories over the years, I am sure. Next, the Edgar banquet!