Stuart Letford reviews ‘Bagpipe Brothers’

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Bagpipe Brothers by Kerry Sheridan was published in paperback in 2006. It’s taken three attempts for me to finish it. There are two reasons for this: 1) given its subject matter ­– the four pipe band members, all firemen, who played at the funeral of every colleague who perished in the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center – it is a difficult read; and 2) the author’s inaccurate writing and use of clichés irked somewhat.

Originally, I read the first 105 pages in one sitting. This was back in 2007 shortly after the book was published. In 2016 I revisited the book in order to write a review for the Piping Times. I managed three quarters of the book on that occasion. With this month being the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, I gave it another go. It remains a difficult read but the author’s writing can maybe be forgiven a little. This was her first book and it began as an assignment while studying journalism at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. We can only hope she has gone on to improve her research skills.

Bagpipe Brothers is quite a book and quite a read. 343 firemen – sorry, firefighters – died in the Twin Towers attacks and the Fire Department of New York’s Emerald Society Pipe Band played at their funerals. Every one. They played either individually or as a band, over the period of two years. One member of the band, Durrell Pearsall, was among the 343 who were killed while another, Vinny Brunton, was a fire captain and brother of a band member. Brunton’s body has never been identified while Pearsall’s body lay in the rubble for six weeks before being found and dug out by the band’s Drum Major, Liam Flaherty.

We learn that the first time the pipe band played at a firefighter colleague’s death in duty was in 1968 and that since 1980 the band has played at colleagues’ deaths regardless of whether or not it was in the line of duty. At the time of 9/11, there were 70 members of the band. Just over a year after the attacks, the author was allowed to shadow the band members for a year in order to capture their stories, angst, culture and accounts of body recovery. Overall, she has done a very good job.

As Sheridan notes, sometimes, the band piped a funeral procession into one church then raced, under police escort, to a second church to pipe in a second funeral, then raced back to the first to play as the casket was carried out. “On one such day, there were 19 memorials and two funerals. Sometimes, they played at a memorial for a firefighter whose remains had not been found then days or weeks later again donned spats and kilts and tunics to play at a funeral for the same firefighter, a body part having been identified. That happened 65 times.”

Members of the Fire Department of New York’s Emerald Society Pipe Band playing at the 20th anniversary commemorations earlier this month.

The author reports that the band was obliged to play at two separate memorials for one firefighter, one arranged by his ex-wife, one by his girlfriend.

Sheridan is good – gripping, even – when she concentrates on the band members’ struggle to bring peace both to the families and to themselves amid the endless round of funerals. Her detail on the days after 9/11 and on four individuals in particular is absorbing. Her reporting contains no clichés.

When she writes of the instrument and its culture she is, however, all over the place and cliché-ridden. There are far too many misinformed and lazy passages about the “Irish” heritage of the great highland bagpipe. The slightest bit of research would have put the author right on that score. The Irish gave the world many wonderful things but they didn’t give it the Great Highland Bagpipe. The clue is in the name. Neither did the Irish give the world pipe bands. I won’t insult the intelligence of Bagpipe.News readers further by pointing out where pipe bands originated. Early in the book she writes of the instrument’s “base drone”. This is corrected further on but it’s a fundamental that should’ve been picked up by a decent copy editor or proofreader. Also, Sheridan uses the nauseating word ‘skirl’ too often for my liking. Incredibly, two pipers helped her with the book. Presumably, they never read it prior to publication.

While I may quibble – it’s part of the job – over details such as the instrument, its history and culture, the author has captured the feelings of these pipers and drummers who went through this brutal and horrific episode. Kerry Sheridan deserves credit for bringing their story to our attention. Her book gives an insight into the band members and what they went through. They played 445 memorials and funerals in all kinds of weather. They got through it and deserve our respect and admiration. Seemingly, when it was over, everyone let out a little sigh of relief. You will, too, when you finish the book. If you can forgive the grating piping passages, this is a very good, if difficult at times, read.

Bagpipe Brothers (Rivergate Books, 2006) can be purchased on Amazon.