The tradition of bagpipes played at fire department and police department funerals in the United States goes back over 150 years. When the Irish and Scottish immigrated to America, they brought many of their traditions with them. One of these traditions was the Great Highland Bagpipe, often played at Celtic weddings, funerals and ceilis (dances).
It wasn’t until the great potato famine and massive Irish immigration to the East Coast of the United States that the tradition of the bagpipes really took hold in the fire department. In the 1800’s, Irish immigrants faced massive discrimination. Factories and shops had signs reading “NINA” – No Irish Need Apply. The only jobs they could get were the ones no one else wanted – jobs that were dirty, dangerous, or both – firefighters and police officers. It was not an uncommon event to have several firefighters killed at a working fire. The Irish firefighters’ funerals were typical of all Irish funerals – the pipes were played. It was somehow okay for a hardened firefighter to cry at the sound of bagpipes when his dignity would not let him weep for a fallen comrade.
Those who have attended a funeral where bagpipes were played know how haunting and mournful the sound of the pipes can be. The most famous song played at fire and police funerals is Amazing Grace. It wasn’t too long before families and friends of non-Irish firefighters began asking for the bagpipes to be played for fallen heroes. The bagpipes add a special air and dignity to this solemn occasion.
Bagpipe bands, represent both fire and police, often have more than 60 uniformed playing members. They are also traditionally known as Emerald Societies after Ireland – the Emerald Isle. Many bands wear traditional Scottish dress while others wear the simpler Irish uniform. All members wear the kilt and tunic, whether it is a Scottish clan tartan or Irish single color kilt.
Today, the tradition is universal and not just for the Irish or Scottish. The bagpipes have become a distinguishing feature of a fallen hero’s funeral.
Since the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the deaths of 343 FDNY firefighters, the tradition of bagpipes and honoring the fallen has swept the country. There are now more than 20 fire service bands in the Northwest (Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Canada) and 5 fire services pipes and drum bands in Idaho alone.
In October of 2008, then Firefighter Tony Chance arranged a piping school at Meridian Fire Department in conjunction with a local citizen band The Boise Highlanders. With piping instruction from Pipe Major Ron Lopez, the band was not quite yet formed, but off to an amazing start. In June of 2009, many of the instruments began to arrive, including 8 sets of personalized and custom McCallum Bagpipes from Glasgow, Scotland. In August of 2009, Meridian Firefighters Pipes and Drums performed (very nervously) at their first public showing at The Meridian Firefighters Salmon BBQ. Members played in khaki shorts and black band t-shirts because they hadn’t been able to raise enough funds for a proper Scottish uniform or kilt. After that performance and some fund raising efforts, the band was able to purchase kilts made by USA Kilts at a price of nearly $500 per kilt. The band sports the Firefighter’s Memorial Tartan which has a red background and black, green, and gold threads. The rest as they say is history!