The most familiar sound at a feis is normally the jigging of the accordions, keyboards and violins, the instruments that typically accompany Irish step-dancing.
At the Rockland County Feis, another noise was in the mix, sharp and sustained – the pipes. More than 35 pipe bands competed at the festival, and it’s one of the bigger pipe band contests in the country.
Pipe bands are not strictly Irish. The world piping championships are held in Scotland, and this year’s contest will be in Glasgow from August 13 to 16.
On their Web site, the organizers describe it as “one of the UK’s most exciting annual celebrations of Scottish culture.”
So it’s Scottish, but that doesn’t mean piping is out of place at an Irish feis. It has become an international kind of hobby.
Caileen Collin was from Long Island, and with the Inis Fada band (Inis Fada means Long Island in Gaelic). “At the Worlds we were next to a band from Pakistan, and one from Spain,” she explained. The Pakistani bands wore bands instead of skirts, she said, but their tunes were the same.
Caileen is a drummer, and has played since she was 13. She also plays in a pep band at basketball and football games.
Dressed in a blue skirt, white shirt and with her large and heavy-looking snare drum around her neck, she clearly loves piping. “She likes the community feeling and the camaraderie,” said her mom, Francine.
The family nature of piping is part of its appeal.
“Three generations are playing,” said Ed Nickerson, treasurer of the Mohawk Valley Frasers Pipe band, who has played for 36 years. “So it has a social aspect.” Nickerson’s wife, Paulette, plays drums in the band.
But they didn’t meet through the piping. “He got his pipes about three weeks before our first child was born,” Paulette added, smiling. “We were married five years before he started.”
Paulette herself was a highland dancer, and when a drummer in the band fell ill, she took his place, temporarily, she thought – but she’s still there today.
The Mohawk Valley Frasers play regularly in competitions, and at other venues – parades, college commencements, funerals and weddings.
Piping’s Scottish heritage doesn’t matter, says Paulette, especially since there are lots of Irish pipe bands too.
“People think of piping as Scottish, but it’s Celtic. In fact, our new logo is from the Book of Kells.”