THE LAST WARPIPES
by Mike McCormack, AOH NY State Historian
Many believed that the last time Irish War Pipes were played in battle was when the legendary Irish Brigade of France turned the tide of battle at Fontenoy led by their piper playing The White Cockade and St Patrick’s March. However that was not the last time. In the mid 19th century, many Irish fleeing Ireland’s Great Hunger, ended up in the coal fields of Durham County in northern England along the River Tyne. The work continued to attract the Irish right into the early 20th century. During World War One, Irishmen from the Durham coal fields formed the Tyneside Irish Battalion to protect their adopted homeland, just as the American Irish had done in the Union Irish Brigade of America’s Civil War.
On 1 July 1916, at the Battle of the Somme, thousands of Tyneside Irish climbed out of the trenches into the morning mist and German gunfire. Their Battalion Piper led them playing, not the three-droned Highland Pipes, but the ancient Piob Mor – the two-droned War Pipes of Ireland. Irish historian, Joseph Keating, later reported: An Irish Piper from Tyneside found himself compelled to leap out of the trench at the signal to advance, and play his company over the parapet into action. He marched ahead through a storm of bullets which were wounding or killing his comrades around him, until he himself fell. The Battle of the Somme was a disaster for the British and it was especially hard on the Tyneside Irish. Newsman, Chris Lloyd, noted that the Tyneside Irish paid a heavy price for their bravery: 75 officers and 2,096 men were killed or wounded including the piper. Instead of heralding their courage and fortitude, the British just unceremoniously erased them from their military roles as simply wiped out, after all, they were only Irish.
The Battalion’s Warpipes were retrieved by Brigade Chaplain, Father George McBrearty, who was also wounded in the battle. In 1923 Father McBrearty left his Durham County parish and gave the pipes to William Robinson, a veteran of the Durham Light Infantry. He requested that the pipes be kept in his family as a reminder of the sacrifices made by those courageous, but unheralded men. In 1929, William, his wife and children, emigrated to America and the Warpipes went with him. They are now in the hands of his grandson, Vincent, who is the Pipe Major of the Siol na hEireann (seed of Ireland) Pipe Band of AOH Division 8 in Selden, Long Island. Vinnie had the pipes refurbished and thereafter, the historic pipes were carried and played once again – this time in New York’s Saint Patrick’s Day Parade by Pipe Major Vinnie Robinson with the Siol na hEireann Irish Pipe Band leading the New York State Board of the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
The famous pipes even appeared in the movie Morning Glory with Diane Keaton in which the band played a part. During a break in the shooting, Ms. Keaton asked Pipe Major Vinnie Robinson to show her how to play that thing he held under his arm. Vinnie gladly complied and still has the lipstick-covered mouth-piece she used among his trophies.
Knowledge of the pipes existence reached Durham County in 2000, when Vinnie’s uncle William, researching his family history, contacted John Sheen who had written a history of the Tyneside Irish. Mr. Sheen referred him to Jim Connor of Durham, whose ancestors fought with the Tyneside Irish and the story of the pipes was shared. Delighted at the discovery of the pipes so long thought to be lost, The Northern Echo newspaper carried the story that the ‘lost’ Pipes of the Tyneside Irish Battalion had been found and were being well cared for. Jim Connor added: I’m sure the unknown Tyneside Irish piper would be delighted to know that in this Millennium year, his pipes had been played once again to excite and elate Celtic hearts in one of the world’s greatest parades. Once the news was out, local veteran’s societies decided it was time to formally retire the colors of the Battalion which had been so unceremoniously dropped from Britain’s military roles as simply annihilated. In 2001, Vinnie was invited to bring the Warpipes home for a formal retirement ceremony which was held with significant dignity. As Vinnie played Minstrel Boy, the adopted song of the Tyneside Irish, on the very Warpipes that so often led them into battle, the colors of the Tyneside Irish Battalion were brought out and formally retired.
Vinnie returned home with another trophy – a certificate of appreciation from the grateful Tyneside Irish. However, when the news reached Mary McAleese, President of the Republic of Ireland, she lamented that she hadn’t been there to see so significant a historic moment. SO, they did it again! Vinnie was invited back in 2003 with the beloved Warpipes and this time, President McAleese was there to be a part of the retirement ceremony as Vinnie with the Irish Warpipes led President MacAleese into Saint Mary’s Cathedral for the opening Mass of the ceremony.
Later, President MacAleese had to have her photo taken with the famous Warpiper. At the end of the ceremony, President McAleese said: One of the great rewards of my job is that I get to hear a lot of music and walk behind a lot of military bands and bagpipes. However, I have never heard anything like I heard today as I walked behind the very bagpipes that led those brave men of the Tyneside Irish into battle. I have had bagpipes played for me before, but never did they sound as sweet or played as well as the one I heard today.
Today when any one asks when the last time Irish Warpipes were played, they only have to look to the last parade of the Siol na hEireann Irish Pipe Band of AOH Division 8 in Selden, New York. U