The Shannon Rovers
The Shannon Rovers Credit: angela netherland mcbride/creative commons attribution

Ah, the middle o’ March in Chicago. Time to warm our winter-weary hearts watching the first green of the season flow under the Michigan Avenue bridge, and hark to the distinctive whine of the bagpipes—like the drone of a giant hive of alien insects—on Columbus Drive.

That would be our very own Shannon Rovers Irish Pipe Band, stepping off in the Saint Patrick’s Day parade, which they invented back in the 1950s and have led ever since. Now 60 strong, the Rovers started out as a fife-and-drum corps in 1926, switched to bagpipes in 1932, and rapidly became the city’s unofficial musical mascot, playing for every mayor and nearly every major event from the Century of Progress to a visit from the Polish pope. Last March they squeezed their bags at the White House. And this year, when Celtic Fest Chicago moves from September to Mother’s Day weekend (May 8-9) and from Grant Park to Millennium Park, the Rovers will be playing in the Pritzker Pavilion, along with the headliners.

They’ll apparently be the only pipe band so honored—all others will play in front of the Bean. And that’s unfortunate, says Bill Currie, who’s been Celtic Fest’s expert adviser on pipe bands since the first one in 1997, because the Rovers are “a good show band” but a “lousy” example of what the Great Highland bagpipe can do.

“Bands like the Rovers help to perpetuate the American understanding of bagpipes as a droning, cacophonous din,” says Currie, when the sound of a properly tuned and played pipe is “sweet” and “consonant.”

This is heresy, and it has cost Currie dearly: After 14 years on Celtic Fest’s citizen advisory committee, he’s out.

The Celts were around before the Roman Empire, and their mainly Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Cornish, and Breton descendants are spread across the globe. Currie’s an American Scot. Born and raised on the south side, he’s a former Chicago Tribune reporter who took up the Great Highland pipe at the age of 30 and found a passionate connection with his roots. (Ben Joravsky wrote about him for the Reader in 2005, when despite his valid busker’s permit he was ticketed as a public nuisance for piping on Michigan Avenue.) His post-Trib-retirement gigs have included a three-year stint at a newspaper on the Isle of Skye, which allowed him to continue his study of Celtic music in what he calls the “mecca of the Great Highland bagpipe.”

Currie has raised money to perpetuate Irish music, cofounding a couple nonprofits dedicated to that purpose, including one that helped establish the Academy of Irish Music of Chicago at the Irish American Heritage Center. He also helped produce the Chicago Highland Games—which started in 1982 when, he says, Mayor Jane Byrne (whom he served briefly as deputy press secretary) didn’t want to give the impression she was favoring her own people by supporting an Irish festival. He thinks this pattern prevails today and is the reason why Chicago, with its strong Irish heritage, holds a Celtic Fest but not an Irish Fest.

The Chicago Highland Games’ six-year run in Grant Park ended when the money ran dry. (They’ve been continued by the Illinois Saint Andrew Society, which produces them in Oak Brook.) According to Currie, they brought some of the world’s best bagpipe bands to Chicago, where they competed and were ranked by expert judges and had a positive effect on the quality of local playing. When the city was creating Celtic Fest, Currie was asked to join the advisory committee and compile a list of half a dozen pipe bands that should be invited to play. In the interest of fairness and quality, he says, the fest has always created its roster from bands that participate in competitions and are willing to “stand up in front of judges.”

“The Shannon Rovers don’t compete,” Currie says. But after more than 80 years of close association with a strongly Irish political power structure “they have clout, and every once in a while I’d ask them to come in, just to keep the peace.” To his recollection, they’ve played at the fest two or three times. This year, when an invited band unexpectedly dissolved, Currie says he thought of putting the Rovers in the open spot. He placed a call to them, but wound up offering the gig to a new group of pipers made up of Chicago police and firefighters. When he finally connected with Rovers manager Brian Giblin a few days later, Currie told him it was too late. Giblin “really went off on me,” Currie recalls, and “we both got kinda hot.” When Giblin insisted that the Rovers “are the premier band in Chicago,” Currie says, he lost it. “Listen, you’re a lousy pipe band and that’s it,” Currie says he told Giblin. “Then he told me I’d be hearing from the sheriff.”

That strange threat never materialized—and Giblin denies making it. But a week later Currie did get a call from Megan McDonald, executive director of the Mayor’s Office of Special Events, who Currie says took him to task for “talking to people like that when you represent the city of Chicago” and insisted that the Rovers were a wonderful band. Currie says he told her he represents a committee trying to preserve Celtic music and dance. As for the Rovers, “I had to say to her they aren’t a wonderful band. They’re a show band. They play the Notre Dame fight song. And that isn’t what I got involved in this festival for.”

According to Currie, McDonald replied that “the Shannon Rovers will be in Celtic Fest, and they will be on the mainstage in the Pritzker Pavilion.” Then he and she agreed that he’d leave the committee.

“Clout permeates a lot of things in the city besides jobs and contracts,” Currie says. “This was a clout thing.”

McDonald says the city appreciates the committee’s hard work, but “it’s not [Currie’s] decision who performs, it’s ours.” Currie not only offended the Rovers, she says, but complained that Special Events is “running the festival into the ground,” ruining it by moving it to Millennium Park and to Mother’s Day weekend. McDonald maintains that the Millennium Park location will save the city money on setup and operations and increase attendance, as it did for Gospel Fest, which made the move three years ago. (The country and latin music festivals are also being moved to Millennium Park this year.)

According to Special Events, an estimated 120,000 people attended Celtic Fest in 2009, and the programming budget was $120,000—$5,000 more than it is this year. The total budget for 2009 was $500,000; for 2010, it’ll be $315,000.

McDonald says that this year—as diminished city budgets have forced the cancellation of the Chicago Outdoor Film Festival, Venetian Night, and the July 4th fireworks in Grant Park—the move is a lifeline. The Mother’s Day date, she adds, will let the city use Saint Patrick’s Day to promote the fest.

Giblin declined to comment on the flap, saying only, “If we’re good enough for the President, we should be good enough for Chicago.”   v

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