Bagpipes and Funerals

Have you ever wondered why bagpipes often are played at police and firefighter funerals? This practice in the United States dates back before the Civil War and after the Great Potato Famine when Irish landed on these shores in unprecedented numbers. Although many arrived with just rags on their backs, they also brought a beautiful and haunting tradition with them.

Before the Irish Potato Famine, many Irishmen were farmers, but they were classified as some of the poorest people in the Western World. They were so poor that they subsisted entirely on potatoes, and they often rented farmland or worked for a place to live and for a small plot to grow potatoes. While they were poor, they were healthy, as a person can be sustained on potatoes. Still, jobs were few and the Irish farmers were many. Although they may have been healthy, they were at a loss for what most Englishmen would have considered a “modern and industrial life.”

The French sociologist, Gustave de Beaumont, visited Ireland in 1835 and wrote: “I have seen the Indian in his forests, and the Negro in his chains, and thought, as I contemplated their pitiable condition, that I saw the very extreme of human wretchedness; but I did not then know the condition of unfortunate Ireland…In all countries, more or less, paupers may be discovered; but an entire nation of paupers is what was never seen until it was shown in Ireland.

When the potato famine struck in 1845, this loss of crop meant that the only item of sustenance had disappeared from the Irish diet. The famine lasted for six years, and in that time over one million men, women and children died and another million were forced to leave the country and shipped to Canada or to the U.S. U.S. Immigration records indicate that by 1850, the Irish made up 43 percent of the foreign-born population. Up to ninety percent of the Irish arriving in America remained in cities. New York now had more Irish-born citizens than Dublin. Those who did not stay in New York or Boston traveled to places such as Albany, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and out west to Butte, Montana, and San Francisco.

Everywhere the Irish went, they were unwelcome. First, they were Catholic in a largely Protestant country. Additionally, they were poor, which many people thought caused a strain on this country financially. Finally, they were different – they did not try to assimilate, instead keeping a clannish mentality that helped them to retain some of their former Irish identity. They were provided with little to no assistance, and they took the jobs with the lowest pay and the most danger. Even after they proved themselves in battle during the Civil War, they competed against free slaves for the lowest paying jobs around.

Since police and firefighters’ jobs were so dangerous, a disproportionate number of immigrant Irish filled these jobs. And, when one of their own died, they used bagpipes to mourn their loss.

But, you might ask why Scottish bagpipes are used rather than Irish uillean pipes…while both pipes may have been used in funerals during the nineteenth century, the Scottish bagpipes won out for their most universal acceptance. Plus, they’re louder.

If you ever wondered where the individuals are found to play at police and firefighter funerals, you need look no further than the The National Conference of Law Enforcement Emerald Societies (NCLEES). This national society was founded in 1995, and you’ll find chapters of this society in just about every major U.S. city. Membership is extended to any bona fide Law Enforcement or public safety Emerald Society with at least fifty (50) members. Although this nonprofit group conducts activities concerning education, fundraising and recruitment – they also teach their members how to play the pipes and drums and to perform what is now known as the “Memorial March” for their fallen comrades.

So, from a rather sad and sordid beginning, the Irish brought a tradition to this country that honors the men and women who put their lives on the line every day to protect their neighborhoods.

For more about the Irish Potato Famine, visit The History Place and Ireland’s Great Famine 1845-1849.

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