The funerals of the two heroic Boston firefighters – Lieutenant Edward Walsh and Firefighter Michael Kennedy – take place next week on Wednesday and Thursday. Both men were killed in a catastrophic 9-alarm fire in the Boston Back Bay area on Wednesday.
They will be laid to rest under the same ancient Celtic traditions that have accompanied so many heroes to their final resting.
Perhaps the most recognizable feature is the bagpipers, playing “Amazing Grace” and “The Minstrel Boy.” Both anthems have profound significance for the armed forces of the United States, firefighters and police. Both have profound Irish connections.
“Amazing Grace” was written by British seafarer John Newton. He was onboard a ship in the North Atlantic in 1748 when a mighty storm erupted. After hours of the crew emptying water from the ship and expecting to be capsized, Newton and another mate tied themselves to the ship's pump to keep from being washed overboard and kept working for several hours.
After proposing that measure to the captain, Newton had turned and said, "If this will not do, then Lord have mercy upon us.”
About two weeks later, the battered ship and starving crew landed in Lough Swilly in Ireland, between Donegal and Derry. When Newtown saw the Irish coast and realized he had been saved he underwent a major conversion. Soon after he renounced his support of the slave trade and wrote “Amazing Grace.”
"The Minstrel Boy" is an Irish patriotic song written by Thomas Moore (1779–1852), who set it to the melody of The Moreen, an old Irish air. It is widely believed that Moore composed the song in remembrance of a number of his friends, whom he met while studying at Trinity College, Dublin and who had participated in (and were killed during) the Irish Rebellion of 1798.
The song gained widespread popularity and became a favorite of many Irishmen who fought during the American Civil War and gained even more popularity after World War I. John F. Kennedy named it as one of his favorite songs.
The song is associated with organizations that have a heavy representation of Irish Americans, in particular the police and fire departments of New York, Boston and Chicago and those of various other major US metropolitan areas.
The melody is frequently played at funerals of members and/or officers of such organisations who have died or been killed in service, typically on bagpipes. It was played at the opening of the 9/11 Commemoration Museum in New York in 2011.
The tradition of having bagpipes at firefighters' funerals goes back to the 1800s when Irish immigrants were usually forced to take the difficult and dangerous jobs that nobody else wanted, which at that time happened to be fighting fires. The Irish pipes cannot be heard at a distance, unlike the Scottish bagpipes, which is why Scottish pipes are traditionally used. The bagpipers usually come from the Emerald Societies of the cops or firefighters.
The lyrics of the first verse of “The Minstrel Boy” are as follows.
The minstrel boy to the war is gone,
In the ranks of death you'll find him;
His father's sword he has girded on,
And his wild harp slung behind him;
"Land of Song!" said the warrior bard,
"Though all the world betrays thee,
One sword, at least, thy rights shall guard,
One faithful harp shall praise thee!"
In the accompanying video bagpipers at the 2011 funeral of Firefighter James RIce in Peabody, MA play “The Minstrel Boy.”