Celtic Junction Arts Review

One Man’s History with Brian Boru Irish Pipe Band

Jim Tarbox

Drum Major Jim Tarbox

I first encountered the Brian Boru Irish Pipe Band when I was in high school, in 1967 or ’68, at the Emmetsburg, Iowa, St. Patrick’s Day festivities. I grew up in Fort Dodge, about 70 miles to the southeast, and played bass drum in the Fort Dodge Lanciers Drum and Bugle Corps; a few of my siblings were in the corps, too. Emmetsburg’s March 17 parade was always our first of the year. Our uniforms were green and white, it was only a 90-minute bus ride away, and they could station us at the local high school (far enough from downtown to keep us – for the most part – out of trouble) to change into our uniforms, feed us cold hot dogs and warm soda after the parade, and send us back home. The way the day evolved, I would later learn, was something less than conducive to the well-being of a bunch of mostly teenagers from out of town.

One of the pipers in the Boru at the time, Ted Tonkinson, is a shirt-tail relative – his then-wife is my mom’s cousin. He’d make it a point to seek me out before or after the parade to say hi and make sure we each knew the other was there. I’m not sure what that availed him, but I’m sure he would report back to Fort Dodge that the Tarbox kids were OK.

A handful of years later, I was working at the St. Paul Pioneer Press on the copy desk when I got a phone call from Ted. He and some fellow Boruvians, as band members are affectionately known, had formed a spin-off group because some of the younger guys in the band wanted to compete in piping contests and this handful – there were only six others – didn’t.

“Hey, Jim,” he said. “You want to play in the St. Pat’s Parade?”

I was a bit leery of the invitation. I’d lived in St. Paul for only a year, I figured my showbiz career was over, and I knew exactly nothing about bagpipe bands. But he was insistent, so I asked what would be involved.

Jim Tarbox in the 1970s. Image courtesy of Jim Tarbox

“We’ll play in the St. Pat’s parade in downtown St. Paul,” he said. “Then in and out of a couple of bars, and you’re done. It’s only one day, and we really need a bass drummer. We’re not looking for a long-term commitment.”

That was 1975.

I can’t say I’ve been in the band for all of these following years consecutively; I worked nights at the newspaper for several years, took a couple of years off to go to grad school back in Iowa, took another couple of years off to play in a drum corps in Chicago. But I always stayed in touch with the band, and they always welcomed me back whenever I showed up. Somehow, I’ve earned some seniority with the guys – and now gals.

Brian Boru Irish Pipe Band logo
Brian Boru pipers circa 1963. Courtesy McKiernan Library’s Charles Russell Brian Boru Irish Pipe Band Scrapbook Collection

The Boru was already 10 or 12 years old when I got involved, still playing the bass drum. I learned that in the early ’60s, a trio of guys who were interested in playing the pipes approached John Ford, director of the Macalester College Pipe Band, about taking lessons. In what might have been a dodge to get out of working with rank amateurs, he told them the school’s equipment was for students only, but if they acquired their own pipes, he would consider giving them lessons. He also knew they didn’t give these things away – even today a high-quality set can cost somewhere north of $5,000, though those usually go to more accomplished pipers. An inexpensive set of plastic beginner’s pipes can be had for less than $1,000. In any case, the three attained their pipes and returned for their lessons. And so the seed of the Brian Boru Irish Pipe Band was planted.

Most piping students begin with an even less-expensive “practice chanter,” on which they will play for up to a year learning to master just the fingering and breathing elements of playing the pipes. (After all, how many thousands of dollars’ worth of trumpets and trombones are collecting dust in closets because students lost interest in learning to play?)

Patrick McCormick and son at Boru 60th Anniversary Party

The stated mission of the Brian Boru Irish Pipe Band – named to honor the 11th-century Irish king Brian Boru, who is credited with ending the domination of the High Kings in Ireland, defeating the Vikings, and who died in the decisive 1014 Battle of Clontarf – is to preserve and advance Celtic piping, drumming and dancing. To that end, the band offers introductory lessons provided by playing members. For information, contact the band at its website: brianborupipeband.com.

Pipers in uniform line up at CJAC during their 60th Anniversary celebration

Over the succeeding 60 years, more than 100 men and women have donned the band’s distinctive uniforms – based on the Irish military pipe band’s uniform – that feature the saffron kilt, black tunic and black cabeen (beret) with green plumes. A number of band members also wear an original brass “IV” button from the uniforms of Irish Volunteer units involved in the 1916 Easter Uprising. (The buttons were found and provided to the band by the Ireland-based brother of long-time Boru drum major Emmett McCarthy.) Brian Boru officers are recognized by the red sash worn across their left shoulder.

Traditionally, Irish kilts are solid green-, brown- or saffron-colored, though there are Irish-affiliated tartan patterns, too. Each county in Ireland has a dedicated tartan, and like their Scottish brethren, many families do, too. In fact, each of America’s armed forces has a dedicated tartan, as do many of the states, including Minnesota.

Over the years, the Boru has played with such luminaries as the Chieftains (see that and other performances on YouTube), bands Blink 182 and Green Day, and any number of local performers, both traditional musicians and others. The band also performs at weddings and funerals, in addition to a variety of civic and official functions around the Midwest.

Family, friends, and fans of the Brian Boru Irish Pipe Band gathered at CJAC to celebrate their 60th Anniversary on August 27th, 2022

Who could have guessed all those years ago that in time I would become the drum major of the Boru, and would find myself leading the band down the main drag in Emmetsburg, Iowa?!

Emmetsburg, Iowa St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Image courtesy of Jim Tarbox

So the next time you hear the pipes approaching, take a moment to take in the history and pageantry. And as they near, give out a shout of “Fág an Bealach” (fog a BAH-luh) – Clear the Way! – even, and especially!, if it looks like the band is heading for a local bistro. A good time is sure to entail.

All images from the Brian Boru 60th Anniversary Party are courtesy of the McCormick/Zehr family.