Cormac MacConnell: The bagpipes 60 years ago still hurt my ears

Bagpipes. iStock

As July signals the start of the ritual marching season for our Orange brethren, in readiness for their huge Twelfth of July rallies, on the other side of the historic border which is convulsing this chaotic Brexit business, ye will please forgive me, for strolling down Memory Lane.

I can’t help it.

There are no backstops against boyhood memories, if one was born and bred by the shores of the Lough Erne,

lapping against what was truly a hard border, back in the 1950s of the last century —especially if one was part of the nationalist minority community.

It is totally true, that I can recall without any malice at all, that the two Orangemen pipers we had to listen to in the evenings from June onwards, in our parish of Cleenish, were highly respected farmers.

But, God love them, they were the world’s worst pipers.

The memory, as a boy a long lifetime ago, of enduring their practice sessions in their own backyards, still makes my ears wince.

I will explain the situation.

The most respected farmers in our parish were descended from the planters imposed on this island by John Bull across the Irish Sea a couple of troubled centuries earlier.

They were staunch Orangemen, frugal but progresssive farmers, good neighbours, even across the religious and political divide between the communities, and it was important to them to man the ranks and files of the local Orange pipe and drum band which skirled up and down our border roads, after the marching season began each July.

The two Orange farmers I mention would have worked a hard day in their meadows and byres, before they ended their evenings practicing on their bagpipes for the upcoming triumphant marches.

The sounds, rolling over the meadows and pastures they were maestros of, were dreadfully discordant altogether.

Their big hands were designed for pitchforks and graips and scythes, and for driving the big horses pulling the mowing machines, not at all for the chanters of bagpipes.

It was a penance, not just for them, but for any Papish cubs within earshot.

The minority community historically might not have successful farms or jobs or employment prospects in the Six Counties of that era.

They were in possession, though, of the rich trove of Irish music, song and dance for which we are famed all over the world today.

Ye know all the details of that yourselves.

You also know how the flashpoints of the Orange marching season always occurred when the parades passed through nationalist areas, with the bands playing at top volume to hammer home the message of control, via tunes like “The Protestant Boys”.

That one, with its detailed fingering, always caused a lot of trouble to the two Orange pipers whose practicing sessions we endured all those years ago.

Both good souls, they have long since passed away to the next dimension above, and I bet they were damn glad to leave those bagpipes behind.

In terms of the farming practices at which they were so advanced and successful in that era in Cleenish Parish, up against the Cavan border, it is another index to the incredible farming developments since then, that their practicing sessions in the summer evenings sounded out over meadows in which the hay swathes would not have been brought home until all the real nutrients had been burned out of them.

But one of those great farmers was the first in our area to make silage, bringing home loads of green grass, and the neighbours thought that he had totally lost his mind.

That was until their own cattle, being driven home in the autumn, were so attracted to any stray grasses that had fallen from the silage loads of the worst piper in their world.

Times change, indeed, and changes are usually more positive than negative.

It is very humid this evening in Killaloe, and I would like to replace the memory of that dreadful piping of the past with sweeter music from one of the many good sessions in the heritage towns of Killaloe, and Ballina across the bridge in Tipperary.

That will be a perfect cure, and I won’t mention the marching season or anything like that all night.

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