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The band competes in Ireland. COURTESY ST. COLUMCILLE UNITED GAELIC PIPE BAND

St. Columcille United Gaelic Pipe Band of Kearny

Rehearses and practices at
First Baptist Church, 650 Kearny Ave., Kearny
Beginning lessons Mondays at 7:30 p.m.

Practices for different grades on different days, check website, stcolumcille.com.

By GWEN OREL
orel@montclairlocal.news

Lorna McGonigal was going to be in the pipe band, whether she wanted to or not.

The St. Columcille (pronounced Column-kill) United Gaelic Pipe Band of Kearny was founded by her great-grandfather, after all.

Sean McGonigal, an Irishman who lived in Glasgow before emigrating to the United States, founded the band in 1949.

Sean passed piping down to his son, Joe, who is now the Pipe Major Emeritus of the band. But Joe McGonigal did not have any sons.

“So my sister and I were forced to be involved, and we hated it, because what child loves being involved with what your family’s involved in, right?” the blonde Montclair real estate agent said with a laugh.

After being forced to be involved, she and her sister Katie grew to really like it.

In July, The St. Columcille United Gaelic Pipe Band of Kearny took the trophy as Grade 3B champions at the 73rd Annual All Ireland Pipe Band Championships in New Ross, County Wexford, Ireland.

The competition is held every year, alternating between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Joe McGonigal still performs with the band, with his three brothers Michael, Kevin and Sean McGonigal. Lorna and Katie perform, and Joe McGonigal’s nephew Chase McGonigal. Sean

The band has more than 50 members. Forty of the players competed in All Ireland.

Pipe band divisions go by grade, Lorna explained. Grade 1 is the highest and Grade 5 is the most basic. The Grade 5 division of St. Columcille won Best Overseas Band in the Grade 4B category (there is no Grade 5 in Ireland).

In the competition, St. Columcille took two first places in piping, a first in ensemble and a fourth in drumming.

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Lorna McGonigal shows off a flourish. NEIL GRABOWSKY/FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL

PLAYING AND FLOURISHING

Though Lorna started on the pipes at 10, today she plays the tenor drum. A tenor drum is the kind of drum used in marching bands and pipe bands, held over the shoulder with a strap. Drummers perform “flourishes,” the name for the fancy whirls that pipe band drummers make while they march.

“Once I had my braces, that was a really good excuse not to practice. ‘Oh, it hurts too much, I can’t play,’” she would tell her father.

So her father put her on the tenor drums.

“And that’s when I really ended up loving it,” Lorna said. “And I got very good. And I started being asked by some other bands around the East Coast to instruct.”

Today she teaches the instrument, and plays in the Grade 1 division.

She was attracted to the drums in part because of the visual element of the flourish. Drummers create routines for the flourishes, so that they are almost like a drill team.

“Parts of it are almost like dancing, that we have to coordinate with the line of tenor drummers,” she said.

And today she also likes the pipes.

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READ: FRIENDS AND NEIGHBORS; COUNCILMAN-AT LARGE, MONTCLAIR AMBULANCE UNIT VP RICH MCMAHON

READ: MUSIC, FOOD, BUCKETS OF CHALK: TIERNEY’S TAVERN MUSIC FESTIVAL

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“Obviously, when I was a child and I didn’t like it, I thought it was annoying, because there was no way you can adjust the volume. It’s just always loud. And unfortunately in this country with a lot of parades and everything, people are used to hearing what bad bagpipes sound like. And think that’s what it’s supposed to sound like. But a well tuned bagpipe is actually a very ethereal sound.

“You have to think about where the pipes were started, you know gloomy cloudy cliffs in the Highlands. It can be a very guttural sound, but very emotionally evocative,” she said.

Eilish Harrington of Montclair plays pipes in the Grade 5 band. She did not travel to the Ireland competition, but played instead, with the portion of the band left in the States, in Montclair’s July 4th parade.

Harrington began playing pipe in 2000, and joined the band in 2002.

“It feels awesome to be surrounded by the music,” Harrington said. “It gives me a greater sense of pride in my heritage.”

Unlike Lorna, nobody else in her family is in the band, though she hopes her nephews will join one day.

You do need lung power, and patience, to play the pipes, Harrington said. Fortunately, her two dogs have always liked the sound, even when she was a beginner.

Although not part of the McGonigal family, Harrington said that she feels like the band itself is a family.

“It’s a dedicated, hardworking and passionate group of people,” she said.

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A button for the winners. COURTESY ST. COLUMCILLE UNITED GAELIC PIPE BAND

UNITED STATES OF PIPE PLAYING

The St. Columcille United Gaelic Pipe Band has always had inclusiveness built in. “My great-grandfather named the band on purpose, because some bands are very pro-Scottish and that’s it, and some are, in response to that, just Irish, and they don’t play Scotland the Brave,” Lorna said. “We have more of an all-inclusive sort of mentality.”

Bagpipes or highland pipes, for example, are more associated with Scotland rather than Ireland.

But Lorna pointed out that bagpipes are important in other musical cultures as well, including that of northern Spain. St. Columcille teams up with a community of those pipers to play at different events.

Pipes have historically been played more by men than by women, a “boys’ club,” Lorna said.

“I mean there is a military background, you know war pipes and all that, so it really just wasn’t something that the ladies are encouraged to do. But now, our students are split, girls and boys, of the kids coming up. And in a lot of the top-level bands you’re seeing more an even distribution of women and men, which is really nice to see.”

Beginners can learn for free on Monday nights from 7 to 9 p.m. at the First Baptist Church in Kearny. Rehearsals are held on Wednesday nights.

The band flew to Ireland to compete to make a change, she said. They have competed in the world championships before, held in Glasgow, but this year they decided  “to have more of an Irish experience.” The Irish welcome is real, she said.

“It was an interesting experience, just because they’re not used to seeing other bands. They’re not used to catering to bands who are looking for places to stay. Most of them could make it in a day trip.” St. Columcille stayed in a dormitory.

McGonigal played flute in high school, but has given that up. But she’s sure she will continue to play the tenor drum.

“I get to play with my uncles, and my sister and my fiancé [Kegan Sheehan, who she has been playing with since the age of 12, and who does publicity for the band],” she said. Being with her family working towards something, making music together is special.  

“I was conceived on my parents’ honeymoon, where they honeymooned at the World Championships in Scotland,” Lorna said. “So I really have been involved my whole life.”