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The Piper In Peace And War
Part II - Irish Regiments


As pipers in battle, Irish pipers have a very long history. They are said to have been with the Irish troops that crossed over into Gascony in 1286 in the cause of Edward I.; they were at Crecy in 1346 and played in support of their 6000 comrades in arms in that memorable fight, and doubtless commemorated the victory of Edward in some pipe salute. Irish pipers may also take pride in the knowledge that one of their predecessors was chosen by Albrecht Durer as a subject for his art, the woodcut of that warrior piper of 1514 being considered one of the finest executed by the great artist.

Like the Scots bagpipe of 1745, the Irish war pipe was long frowned upon by all hostile authorities as provocative of war, and, consequently, one of the steps taken by Edward III. for securing the pacification of Ireland and the establishment of good order, was the enactment forbidding the practice of pipe music — an edict which can have had little effect.

Cromwell took the same view in regard to the potency of the bagpipe, and threatened any who dared to transgress the law against playing the bagpipe with banishment to the Barbados. What a punishment for pipe-playing! There is, however, no record of any piper having been “found out.”

In every feud, every battle fought on Irish soil, the pipers were present to urge on their respective sides to victory as well as to serve the purposes of a bugler. In the siege of Kinsale, for example, in 1600, when Earl Tir Owen found himself, in the darkness of night, surprised by a superior force, his signal for retreat was made by the piper on his bagpipe; and in 1647, when the garrison of Ardlonan Castle had to surrender, there was among the number one bagpiper.

In that same year there was in Ireland a company of Scots under Sir Alexander M'Allister or M'Allisdrum, alias M'Donell, who had gone to the assistance of an Irish chief who had some accounts to settle with another chief. The Scots were annihilated, and all that remained to mark their service in that land was the pipe melody which their pipers were wont to play. The Irish, who had memorised the tune, made use of it under the name of “M'Allisdrum’s March.”

One of the most remarkable regiments of Ireland came into being about the year 1661, when His Majesty’s Regiment of Guards, or Irish Guards, was raised for Charles II.; and that regiment had, in addition to its complement of officers, 1200 soldiers, and 24 drummers — one piper for the King’s Company. From their headquarters in Dublin the Irish Guards, with their piper, marched to Derry and fought at the battle of the Boyne, where the medley of tunes played by the pipers of the opposing armies must have been formidable.

The Irish Guards were then on the eve of their extraordinary career; after the victory for the troops of William of Orange the Irish Guards were given their choice of a sovereign, and, with the exception of seven, they elected to follow the fortunes of the deposed king, James II., in exile. In the army of France they won a great name for valour in various battles. They assisted the French troops in 1702 to drive out the Austrians from Cremona, the city famed for violins, a feat which the pipers commemorated in a pipe melody which has yet a high place in the pipe music of Ireland — “The Day we beat the Germans at Cremona.”

Better known then by their successive colonels’ names — Ruth’s, Dillon’s, Roscommon’s, Walsh’s, and Berwick’s, and as the “Irish Brigade,” the Irish Guards fought at Fontenoy with distinction, their pipers playing “The White Cockade” to the disturbance, no doubt, of the Royal Scots, the 21st, 25th, and 42nd Regiments, on the other side. Their success stimulated the French authorities to despatch detachments of the Guards to the aid of the Jacobites in Scotland, where, in the battle of Culloden, they were all either killed in action or taken prisoners.

It was the French Revolution that put an end to the service of the Irish Guards, or Irish Brigade, in the cause of France. The colonel declined to serve the Republic, and his men accepted the invitation of the British military authorities in 1794 to become a distinct regiment in the British Army, with leave to retain their old uniforms with the light blue facings and badge of St Patrick.

The Irish Guards, however, had fallen on evil times. Their reserve of recruits from the homeland they could not obtain, for rebellion was ripening in Ireland—to culminate in 1798 and the Guards, unable to fill up the gaps in their ranks, were forced, after a period of active service in North America and the West Indies, to endure the necessary hardship of being transferred to other regiments.

The Irish Guards had ceased to be — but not altogether. A century later the extraordinary valour of Irish soldiers throughout the course of the nineteenth century was officially recognised by the formation in 1902 of His Majesty’s Regiment of Irish Guards, which was placed on the same footing as the Grenadier, Coldstream, and Scots Guards; but, unlike the Scots Guards, they had no pipers until 1916. The prominence in active service of pipers in Scottish units had reminded the Irish Guards that they, too, used to have pipers, and once the memory of their old-time pipers had been awakened, steps were taken to form a pipe band. The first to present a set of Irish war pipes — that is the ordinary bagpipe with two drones — was the patriot John Redmond, M.P. Pipers were enlisted, were taught by the pipe-major of the London Irish, and were clothed in the time-honoured saffron-coloured stuff, dress of Ireland’s ancient warriors, with dark green stockings, saffron tops, saffron garters and knots, dark green jacket, and service bonnet with the white metal bearing the star, and on their “dress bonnet” the badge, of the Order of St Patrick on the right side of the bonnet, and with the St Patrick’s blue hackle above the badge.

The pipers of a Scots regiment would probably take exception to the dress of the Irish Guards’ pipers on several grounds: there are no spats, no sporran, no black shoulder-belt or belted plaid, and no dirk. The black braid across the front of the jacket of the pipers, though alien to the idea of the Scot, might pass, but not the silver braid, silver pipings, and silver chevrons of the sergeant-piper or pipe-major. Nevertheless, the pipers arc debonair and smart, and, like the pipers in Scots regiments, have their allotted duties throughout the day. At Reveille they play “Dawning of the Day.” Breakfast requires no warning, nor tea; but at dinner-time they remind all good soldiers of the “Little House under the Hill,” and the notice for “Lights Out” on the pipes is the tender “Oft in the Stilly Night.”

The famous old Irish pipe melody called “Garryowen” summons the Irish Guards to parade, and the regimental march past is to the tune of the equally old and renowned “St Patrick’s Day.”

Their smartness in dress and piping abilities were not so marked, naturally, in 1917, when they were sent to France to join the two battalions, though they were even then, after their year’s training, shaping well. On their first appearance at the regiment's Headquarters, the officers thought that something was wrong in

the “hang” of the kilt, and, jealous for the honour of the Guards, sent for the pipe-major of a battalion of the Gordons to examine and report what should be done to improve that defect.

Their sartorial appearance having been put right, the officers, according to Mr Rudyard Kipling, “solemnly invited Captain Hugh Ross of the Scots Guards to tea, in his capacity as a pipe expert, to pronounce on their merits. And Civil War did not follow.” Mr Kipling was amazed to find the Irish pipers play without displaying any of the animation that characterises the Scots pipers, and, on his inquiring of the pipe-major the reason for the “immobility,” was informed that it “was one of the secrets of the regiment.”

The pipers of the Irish Guards were a success and played before the King of the Belgians and “an unlimited amount of British generals.”

The officers who had financed the pipe band out of their own pockets were, in 1918, relieved of the expense, the pipers being placed on the establishment like their colleagues of the Scots Guards and other Scots units.

Other regiments — the Royal Irish Fusiliers, Royal Dublin Fusiliers, Inniskilling Fusiliers, Leinster Regiment, and the Royal Irish, now Royal Ulster Rifles — had pipers, but not all full pipe bands. Certain “Service” Battalions of these aiming at having pipes and drums, had to seek their recruits among the youth of Scotland, and these youthful pipers were not slow to learn that it was considerably worse than mere bad form to play a tune that had evil memories for certain regiments. Northern units sometimes excited the political antipathies of a South of Ireland regiment by getting the pipers to play “Boyne Water” on the line of march, the Orangemen enjoying the grim looks and muttered imprecations of the Catholic troops; but to the Scots tyro who practised that race-dividing melody on a barrack square came swift protest in the shape of bodily assault, as a few Scots soon discovered.

The Territorial battalions of the London Irish Rifles had had pipe bands since 1906-7, and these were maintained by the officers. Their saffron-hued kilts, however, were not donned until 1911 when the pipers of the 2nd Battalion numbered sixteen and the drummers fourteen.

The pipe bands were very popular with the battalions, the members of which showed their appreciation of the music played by the bands on the march by cheering them repeatedly, astonished that in spite of the heavy kit which the pipers and drummers had to carry, they managed to endure all the discomfort and to keep playing on the longest of their marches. Then, “in the very early hours of morning when the men who had been on duty in the trenches all night were due to return to billets, the band was there to play them back, a service which was extolled by all, an officer remarking that 'the men of the battalion will not easily forget how welcome was their music on these occasions.’”

In action the pipers and drummers were generally employed as stretcher-bearers or as runners, though on one occasion the pipers of the 2nd Battalion were in the front-line trenches, while the battalion were ahead on a raiding expedition in the German lines. The pipers played in order that the battalion might be guided back by the sound of their music.

In 1915 the Tyneside Irish Battalions of the Northumberland Fusiliers could not allow their neighbours of the “Scottish” the glory of having pipers all to themselves; they, too, would have pipes, and Irish ones at that, with the two drones of Ireland. They got them but were compelled by an English brigadier-general to have their pipes with three drones! Before then they had to engage the services of two of the Tyneside Scottish to instruct the willing Irish learners in the rudiments of pipe-playing and in this they were fortunate in having Pipe-Major John Wilson and young Strachan, the latter having to return to his unit on the eve of the battle of the Somme, the pipe-major continuing as pipe-major of the Irish. One could hardly expect that with so little training the Tyneside Irish could compete with the experienced pipers of the Tyneside Scottish.

The Great War had resuscitated the ancient use of the Irish war pipe; it had been allowed to lie dormant except in a few cases till then, but the Irish Free State has continued the practice of having pipers, though they have not as yet sufficient bagpipe makers to keep their bands supplied.

Irishmen were impressed by all that they had heard of the peculiar thrill evoked by the sound of the old Irish airs played by the pipers in the Great War. They were told by Mr Macdonagh, in his Irish at the Front, how their “music warmed the hearts of the soldiers and fired their blood whenever they heard the strains of Irish music. ... It has magic in it ... it transforms the Gael, reawakens in the depths of their being impressions, moods, feelings, inherited from a wild, untamed ancestry . . . and thus gives them, more than strong wine, that strength of arm and that endurance of soul which makes them invincible.”

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