This post could also be entitled: I’m Singing a Version of Amazing Grace at Church This Morning and While Procrastinating my Rehearsing This Past Week I Researched the History of Amazing Grace and the Bagpipes as They Apply to the Fire Service. But that’s an awfully long title, don’t you think?
If you’ve ever had the misfortune of attending a fire service or police funeral, you may have heard Amazing Grace being played on the bagpipes. Other songs can and have been played but Amazing Grace remains the most popular pick for the funerals of our fallen protectors. I wondered why. The history of the bagpipes and their use in fire (and police) service funerals is interesting.
I learned the history over at Lonestar Piper. Basically, in the 1880′s when the Irish immigrants were experiencing horrible discrimination in the country, they couldn’t get jobs. A sign that read “NINA” in the window of a factory or store meant, “No Irish Need Apply.” As such, they were left to work the dangerous, dirty jobs that no one else wanted: fire service and police work. Back then, it was common to have several deaths on each fire. As such, their funerals were typical of other Irish funerals at the time and the bagpipes were played. Today, as the site says, “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.” Again, that site has a very nice write up about the history and I encourage you to read it.
Interestingly, a man named Tim Birr is working on a documentary about bagpipes and the fire service entitled, none other than, Amazing Grace. While it doesn’t seem to have been released yet, the site Fire Pipes and Drums has links to many of the existing fire pipers. The book Bagpipe Brothers by Kelly Sheridan features FDNY and the aftermath of 9/11. As Tim Birr pointed out, there’s not a real tell-all about the history of the bagpipes other than minor blurbs here and there on the web. I’m hoping the documentary is finished sometime soon. I know we’d love to add it to our video library.
The song Amazing Grace remains one of FireDad’s favorite hymns. And mine. When choosing a song to sing this summer, I bumped around a couple of ideas. I rested with singing this song for various reasons. It’s an emotional tune for me, even without the history of the fire service wrapped around it. While I don’t think my version is as haunting as the sound coming from this video, I acknowledge and honor those for whom these pipes sing. This particular video honors Billy McCarthy (Boston Fire). (Rest in Peace.)
We’ve been lucky, I’ll admit. While we’ve attended military funerals, tears sliding down our cheeks as the notes of Taps rang out, we haven’t yet heard the bagpipes play for a fellow firefighter. We hope, of course, that when we finally do it will be at the celebration of a long life well-lived and not due to an on-duty death. Until that time, we will continue to hold the history of the bagpipes close to our hearts as well as the old favorite hymn.
(I hope I make it through the song this morning…)