A student stands in the Performing Arts room of Thomas Hall, chatting with a friend about an upcoming trip to Ireland his family has planned for this December. It will be his tenth visit.
Another walks in wearing an emerald-colored Trinity College Dublin t-shirt as a closet door is opened to reveal a hidden Irish tricolor and a sign reading “Warning: Kilt Check Ahead.”
St. Patrick’s Day is more than six months away. Yet anyone walking across the fifth floor of Thomas on a Thursday evening might think they are instead on Fifth Avenue during the middle of March when the Manhattan College Pipes and Drums Band begins practicing.
“It’s sort of the heart of the school in a way, everybody thinks of the pipe band when they think of Manhattan College,” Rich Janniello, the band’s drum instructor, said.
Janniello has been with the band for more than 11 years, helping to teach the challenging cadences and beats that accompany the bagpipers’ signature Celtic sound.
Unlike the majority of the band, he is not an alumnus of the college—Janiello graduated from nearby rival Fordham University (a fact that many of the band members are quick to remind him about).
A unique organization on campus, the Pipes and Drums Band is made up of alumni, current students, faculty, staff and a few self-described “friends of the college.”
Since 1981, the group has kept the traditions of Irish music alive by playing in festivals and parades ranging from Pearl River to The Rockaways. While marching down Fifth Avenue with a contingent of Manhattan College supporters each St. Patrick’s Day is certainly their flagship event, the band has also played in parades as far away as Naples, Florida and Dublin, Ireland. Averaging about eight parades each March, the month is the group’s busy season with the numerous performance fees providing much of their annual funding for uniforms and equipment.
“March is wild,” Tom McCarthy, the college’s director of alumni relations, said. A piper since he began as a student at the college in 2002, McCarthy now also serves as the band’s moderator.
Last year he was interviewed by television personality Carson Daly when the band performed on “The Today Show” the morning of the New York City St. Patrick’s Day parade. While occasionally he must act as the band’s spokesman, his role usually consists of leading practices and booking events for the group, led by band director Mike Hogan, class of 1991.
Hogan’s late father Robert, class of 1975, first helped found the band back in ’81. The elder Hogan was a member of the Emerald Society’s Pipe and Drums Band of the New York Police Department. He worked with the late Brother Kenneth Fitzgerald, moderator of the Gaelic Society on campus at the time, to start the band from a small group of interested students.
Described by current members as a “fraternity” and a “family” the band has grown to be much more than just a collection of musicians. It has fostered marriages and countless friendships.
“There are friendships that go back years,” drummer Dan Burke, class of 2008, said. “It’s an excellent network and age isn’t really an issue,”
Band member Jack Carey, 81-years-old and a member of the class of 1956, is living proof.
Carey was a professor at the college, coach for both the baseball and swim teams, as well as a previous moderator for the band. It was only last spring that he gave up playing the bass drum, but he still is a regular attendee of practices and parades.
“81 is old,” Carey said. “I’d like to give it [the bass drum] to one of the students to take over, because they enjoy it so much.”
Most of those students have prior experience playing either the pipes or drums before joining the band, often learned from relatives as they keep up with Irish-American family traditions.
Experienced musicians are always welcome to join the band. However, this year offers a unique opportunity for any student to get involved—even someone who has never picked up a drumstick or blown on a bagpipe.
Every two to three years, the band offers open recruitment to all those interested in joining. Musical instruction, a uniform and even instruments are available for those students willing to put in the time to practice and perform. All those interested are required to attend the band’s upcoming recruitment session and practice in Thomas Hall on Thursday, September 17 at 7:30 p.m.
While McCarthy expects a significant turnout, the group of novices quickly dwindles as cuts are made and people realize the work involved in becoming part of an award-winning group.
“It’s not all about partying and parades, it’s a very a serious instrument,” McCarthy said.
Still, as the current members greeted each other with warm smiles as they drifted into the Performing Arts room last Thursday, it was hard to remember that the gathering was a band practice and not a family reunion.