Blowing Pipes

There’s just something about bagpipe music. People invariably describe it as yearning, plaintive, mournful.
Coastal Point • SAM HARVEY: Jim Gallagher poses with his bagpipes at Smitty McGee's on St. Patrick's Day.Coastal Point • SAM HARVEY:
Jim Gallagher poses with his bagpipes at Smitty McGee's on St. Patrick's Day.

The combination of the somber buzz from the “drones” and the keening melody from the “chanter” seems to evoke emotion like no other instrument.

Now, locals have someone to call for bagpipe music at their important occasions.

Clarksville resident Jim Gallagher, a retired firefighter, has been playing the pipes since the mid-1960s.

He recognized the instrument’s ability to pluck the heartstrings. “It has that effect on a lot of people,” he said. “Just for that very reason — a lot of people, it brings tears to their eyes — you try not to make eye contact with the crowd.”

According to Gallagher, the pipes also have a power that raises spirits and quickens the blood.

The Highland bagpipes are also known as the “Great War Pipes,” and were traditionally played as soldiers marched into battle. “They raised the adrenaline level so high that men were more willing to go forward under the sound of the pipes,” he said.

Gallagher started playing with the New York City Emerald Society — Fire Department Pipes and Drums in the mid-1960s. Gallagher worked for various ladder companies in the South Bronx for 25 years.

“If they needed you for a fire department-related ceremony, such as a line-of-duty funeral, they would either excuse you from work or if you weren’t working, they would give you a comp day,” he explained.

He called it a great public relations tool for the fire department, and said he’d played all over the east coast.

Gallagher said most bagpipers were eventually called upon to play at funerals, but many people liked them at weddings, too.

He has tartans for each occasion –green and blue Hunter Rose plaid with dark jacket for the former, bright red Royal Stewart plaid for the latter.

Gallagher said he was first generation. His father and uncle (ages 14 and 16, respectively) came to America from north Ireland (County Donegal) in 1920.

They settled in the Bronx, and Gallagher remembered Gaelic conversation and tradition throughout his childhood.

“Growing up, whenever we had company, we listened to Celtic music,” he said. “So, that’s where I got my love for the music.”

Gallagher said there was still a good deal of discussion regarding the origins of the bagpipe. Some say they came from Egypt, but he noted a general consensus that they’d developed independently in Ireland or Scotland.

He carries a set of Scottish “Kintail” bagpipes. According to Gallagher, all quality pipes are made out of black walnut, a dense hardwood with a very good tone.

“As long as you’ve got black walnut, you’ve got a good set of pipes,” he said.

Finger placement is as on a flute, and bagpipers start learning that on a practice chanter, which is much easier to blow.

Filling a real bag requires considerable effort. “It takes quite a bit of wind,” Gallagher pointed out. “When you first start playing you think, “Boy, I’ll never be able to do this,’ but like anything else, with practice you become accustomed to it.”

The player blows across four handmade cane reeds to evoke the bagpipes’ signature sound. Three create the drones and the fourth dictates the melody.

He started his own training upon joining the fire department, right after high school.

Gallagher retired in 1989, as a captain, but returned to the city following the tragedy on 9/11.

Eleven of his former colleagues from the South Bronx died that day, and Gallagher said he’d performed at funerals nearly seven days a week in the months that followed.

Although the occasional loss of life was an inevitable part of the job, he said he was never sorry that he chose firefighting as a career.

“It was a great job — almost like a fraternity,” Gallagher recalled. “Everyone was very close, and we looked after each other.”

He started training on the bagpipes shortly after joining the fire department, right out of high school, and remembered his first instructor’s request — that he pass his knowledge along, and keep the music alive.

His son, Denis, was his first student. Gallagher said the young man started playing off and on through high school, and more seriously after graduating from college.

Now a New Jersey State Police trooper, Denis has played the bagpipes with their band for the past four years.

Father and son still play together on occasion, at family gatherings and when the New Jersey pipers came down to play with the DSP.

Gallagher has picked up a sizeable class since moving to Clarksville in 2002.

He said he’d played at a funeral in the area, and a Delaware State Police (DSP) trooper had approached him following the ceremony.

“He asked if I’d be interested in instructing a class here in southern Delaware, for the southern region of the DSP,” Gallagher said. “So I started doing that.”

He has a full class now, nine students – eight of whom are DSP officers. In addition, Gallagher has joined the Ocean City Pipes and Drums. “I keep myself busy,” he said.

However, he said the band didn’t get to perform all that often, and he hoped by offering his services he could keep himself playing.

For more information, call 537-6543.