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Achill Pipe Bands - The Tradition



Dawn March 17th, Reveille! Bass drums raise the parish from its slumber to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in unique Achill style, where inspirational scenery can be appreciated to the rousing tones of pipes and drums. In a rural area, historically ravaged by emigration, a tradition persists that draws natives and visitors alike to these shores, to participate in a proud tradition dating from 1882.

In the days before Xbox, Wi-Fi and mobile phones the bands offered a social outlet for local youngsters, coupled with key life skills and the discipline learned from being part of such organisations and they are thriving!


1882 is when it all began with the formation of the Dooagh Fife and Drum Band, when a call came from the local clergy to celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day, fourteen and a half centuries since Saint Patrick’s arrival in Ireland. Thus the first footsteps were taken in shaping the culture and tradition of a small island off the west coast of Mayo that survives to today.

The first reference to bagpipes on the island came in 1910 with the establishment of ‘Scoil Acla’ by Mrs. Emily Waddell where bagpipes formed part of the curriculum and the first Achill pipers were Anthony McNamara, Peter Roland (Keel) and Sonny English, who followed the Saint Patrick’s Day parade in 1913.

Scoil Acla was re-established in 1985 and it must be noted that many local band members gained their early musical experiences from traditional Irish music classes held throughout the year around Achill.

During the 1940’s a major transformation occurred in the type of music heard on the island. Due to the trend of emigration to Scotland, Achill and Donegal people became extremely close, thus relationships blossomed and Mary Carr of Pollagh, and Hughie Connaghan of Aranmore Island in Donegal, married and moved to Achill in 1945. Hughie had been a member of the pipe band in Aranmore and suggested to the people that it could be possible to set up a pipe band in Achill. So after St. Patrick’s Day 1945, Dooagh and Keel began practicing simultaneously, with both taught by Hughie.

However, Keel Pipe Band made it out first and on a dull St. Patrick’s Day in 1946, the first pipe band marched into Pollagh Church. In 1947 the Dooagh Pipe Band made their debut and the Memorial Pipe Band Dookinella followed a year later, in 1948. 1948 also saw the last Fife and Drum band march, when a group of committed Dooagh men decided they were going to have one ‘last hurrah’.

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(With Dooagh Pipe Band at Trinity College after marching as part of FESSEF parade)

In 1953, The Board of Works was established in England and the work was no longer seasonal, but all year round in nature. Up to this young men and women travelled to England and Scotland to work on farms and returned home for the winters. Band practice was a fantastic way to pass the long winter months and all the bands flourished. However, when work began on projects such as the Hydro stations and the Preston By-Pass, the men of Achill were no longer able to return home for St. Patrick’s Day and the bands suffered.

The 60’s brought about a renewed hope. It will always be remembered as the decade of Lemass, The Beatles and the Galway Footballers ‘three in row’. Achill men started to find work in Ireland, Mick Fadian being one such man. John (Twin) McNamara, who was teaching in Dooagh at the time, managed to secure funding from Mayo VEC and this enabled Mick to teach traditional Irish music in the schools throughout the parish of Achill.

Mick also played the pipes and picked up some tips during his time in England. The fruits of Mick’s labour with the Keel band and the Dooagh band from the late 60’s onwards can be seen today. Way back in the 1970’s, Mick envisaged an Achill band that would primarily concentrate on competition. Mick’s wish came true in 2007 with the formation of the Achill Pipe Band.

The 1980’s saw an improvement in the standard of piping and drumming on the island. The Pollagh Pipe Band was formed and the numbers in the other three bands were growing steadily. One of the main reasons for the improvement was the Achill diaspora living in Dublin. Brendan Joyce, Kieran O’Malley and Padraig Carr all joined bands in Dublin and shared their new found knowledge with the bandsmen and women back in Achill. As well as this, Michael Mc Namara acquired the assistance of Tommy Merigan to teach the Dooagh drummers, and Padraig Carr introduced Terry Tully, Pipe Major of St. Laurence O’Toole, to the pipers of Achill.

During the 90’s the bands grew in numbers and improved in standards, mainly due to the fact that three of the bands celebrated their 50th anniversaries. In the early years of the millennium, the Tonragee Pipe Band was formed and during the early years of this decade many Achill bands competed at All Ireland Fleadhs.

The St. Finnaun’s Band was formed in 2004 to compete, but it did not continue, due to work and study commitments of the members at the time. However, many members of the St. Finnaun’s Band are now members of the Achill Pipe Band and the experience gained by those young people over those years with St. Finnaun’s is invaluable to the Achill Pipe Band.

What makes a Pipe Band?

The bands of Achill are appreciated by many, but what elements come together to create the unity of sound we all appreciate so much?

The Pipers

The most common pipes played in Achill bands are the Great Highland Bagpipes (Bagpipes) with a rare set of Irish Warpipes (Warpipes) to be seen. But what’s the difference? To the general public, not a bit, but one is Irish in character and origin while the other is globally played.

Bagpipes comprise a number of key elements. Air is blown through a blowpipe to fill a bag held under the players arm and when pressure is applied, air flows to the chanter which makes the music, and the drones which hum in harmony, compliment the chanter sound. This is where the difference comes in to play. Your standard bagpipes have three drones (a bass and two tenor drones) while warpipes have two drones (a bass and a tenor drone). Thomas Kelly of The Dooagh Pipe Band is a rare exponent of the latter.

The Drummers

The Drum Corps comprises two sections, the Snare and Tenor. The Snare Drummers are the ‘show people’ of each band, practicing their art with as much enthusiasm as necessary to compete in volume with their piping brethren. They provide the unique ra-ta-ta-tat and volume one can only love. The Tenor section provides the visual artistry to delight, and coupled with a lively bass drummer, add much to a bands ensemble; sometimes called ‘TomToms’ or ‘Flourishers’, but always a key part of a pipe band.

The Drum Major

More often referred to as ‘The Staff’, the Drum Major is seen to the fore of a band, wielding a mace with authority, keeping the band in line. Not every band has someone in this position, but it can be an inspiring sight to see a ‘staff’ person approaching with martial authority followed by a wall of musical sound.

The Flag Carriers

The musical ensemble of all of the above is often fronted by some of the most ornate banner flags to be seen in a parade setting. These are borne by volunteers from each village that freely give of their time to help the bands they hold dear. For anyone that has been in Achill on a typical wet, windy March day, you know the struggle these hardy individuals face and each, to a person, do so with a smile on their face, their demeanour and enthusiasm indicative of the strong community spirit involved in Achill Pipe Bands.

The Uniforms

Pipe bands, as a rule, conform to a uniform approach, both musically and visually, and with few exceptions, the uniforms conform to a standard.  Today a black Argyl jacket and waistcoat, tie, Glengarry hat, kilt, sporran, socks and brogues are standard fare. Dooagh Pipe Band retains a shawl and white spats as the exception to others, who have adapted to global trends, while Pollagh Pipe Band opt for a green jacket and Balmoral hat.


(This was only my second competitive outing with the band and we won best pipes and 3rd place overall. A proud day for the parish)


There are two schools of thought, colour versus conformity! The former is more elaborate but can often be hard to source while the latter is more readily available. The generosity of the local Achill communities keeps each of the bands on the road and unfortunately, cost can be a key factor for many bands. The lofty busbys of Keel Pipe Band in the past and martial tunics worn by many offered visual delights but as in all other matters of society, progress waits for no man ... or band!

The Bands

One parish, six bands. The five village bands, Dooagh, Pollagh, Keel, Dookinella and Tonragee are the foundations on which the tradition is built. Friendly rivalry is at the core of inter band relationships as much as any sporting rivalry or competitive spirit the world over.

The pride of each band member in going one better than the next village, having a nicer set of tunes on Saint Patrick’s Day, having a large turnout, are all keys ingredients in what makes the Achill pipe bands’ phenomenon unique.

The Achill Pipe Band

The Achill Pipe Band was established in 2007 with a view to competing in recognised pipe band competitions. Although there had been a strong tradition, as detailed above, up to this point, the next logical step was to compete at the highest level possible, something not easily done due to financial and geographical constraints.

Pipe Major Conor Molloy and Drum Sergeant Owen McNamara took the helm at that time and continued the work of developing the band, the tradition and the musical culture. In a short space of time, the band achieved the status of Grade 3B and to this day members still strive to be the best that they can be.

Key to this is the Achill School of Piping and Drumming, an initiative to teach young and old the tenets of each instrument with the hope that students will progress to membership of the band. On a broader basis, there are significant benefits to the wider parish pipe band community, as students take what they learn back to their village bands.

St. Patrick’s Day

March 17th holds a special place in local’s hearts. Tradition is what it is all about. Bass drummers sound reveille at dawn, awakening locals from their slumbers and setting many a dog barking. The breakfast is taken and uniforms put on. Many a piper will tune the drones outside their own homes, awakening those neighbours that might have been fortunate enough to miss reveille. They then meet at different points before congregating at Pollagh Church for 9 o’clock mass. That of course means 9’ish or a bit later depending on when the bands arrive and the priest’s patience is often tested, but never to breaking point ... yet!

After mass, the bands play and handshakes are exchanged. ‘Happy St Patricks Day’ is exchanged as enthusiastically as ‘Merry Christmas’ in December. Then, we have the nearest thing to a parade, as the bands make their way to Dookinella Church for 12 o’clock mass. The same route and tradition followed for over a century.

Dookinella follows the same pattern as Pollagh but after each band has played, weather permitting, all five bands come together for a ‘mass band’. Such a cacophony of sound you will travel to hear. Musically, it may offend the purist, but visually, it is a sight to behold as they make their way to the Crossroads Inn in organised chaos. A true spectacle! At this point the day ends for some, but each band then returns to play through their own villages and entertain the communities upon whose generosity they depend so heavily.

The Future

Seventy three years since Keel Pipe Band marched into Pollagh Church, the pipe bands of Achill have established a tradition centred on the community, with a focus on social inclusion. People from all walks of life come together as one to celebrate and play music.  

As in every such initiative, a combination of youth and experience is key. The Achill School of Piping and Drumming, coupled with teaching at a local band level, provide the bedrock to preserve and develop a unique tradition we have come to appreciate and is the envy of many!

‘Mol an óige agus tiocfaidh siad!’

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Pipe Bands in Achill have been a large part of my life for the last 32 years and I count myself lucky to be part of this living tradition. I am currently involved with three and when not thinking about Achill Island Property thats how I pass my time. This was an article I was asked to write about the pipe band tradition in Achill a few years back. Hope you enjoyed it.


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