By Susan DeGrane

John Doyle stops his van in front of a brick two-flat at 6:30 on a Thursday evening. Doyle and his 26-year-old son, John Jr., are joined by Luke McCabe, a 76-year-old former machinist who emigrated from Belfast in 1953. McCabe takes a seat in the back and begins tapping a small circular practice pad with a pair of drum sticks. As the van takes off, the younger Doyle picks up his sticks and practices on his left knee.

Doyle is a Chicago police sergeant. His son is a drummer in a rock band. McCabe is retired. Ordinarily these men might have little in common, but now they’ve got a common pursuit: band practice.

The 60-strong Shannon Rovers Irish Pipe Band usually rehearses at an Edgebrook community center, but tonight they’re meeting at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont, where they can play their instruments while marching. They need the practice before participating in both the South Side Irish and downtown Saint Patrick’s Day parades. “Those two parades and this practice are when you see the most members of the band getting together,” says Doyle.

The rest of the year the Shannon Rovers split into groups of six or eight, for smaller engagements such as weddings, fund-raisers, community festivals, and political events. Bill McTighe, the band’s manager, books nearly 400 jobs a year.

A weekend may hold three or four brief appearances. That’s because “bagpipes are an entertainment specialty,” McTighe says, “not like a typical wedding band that plays all night. Sometimes 10 minutes of bagpipes can seem like an eternity, sometimes 30 minutes is not enough. How long we play really depends on the party. The trick is to go up to that line, not to go over it.”

The Allstate Arena’s Skyline Room spans half a football field. There’s a bar with a beer tap and a soda fountain. The space is done up in Allstate’s corporate colors: white walls with electric blue carpeting.

Shortly after seven, the Rovers begin to trickle in. Some help themselves to beer; others have brought their drinks in coolers. Most are Irish Americans, with names like Connelly, Conroy, McLaughlin, Murphy, O’Hara, Ryan, and Sullivan. But some have their roots in Poland, France, and Germany. For several years a Jewish physician played in the band.

The Shannon Rovers started in 1926. Mayor Richard J. Daley was a fan. Once he flew with the band to Atlantic City to meet LBJ and Bobby Kennedy. “When we were scheduled to play at the 1968 Democratic convention, the Secret Service said we couldn’t go in there,” recalls Barbara O’Hara, who began playing bagpipe with the group 40 years ago. “The mayor said, ‘These are my people. They’re coming in.’ So we just went right in.” O’Hara says the old mayor’s son is less partial to them: “I probably shouldn’t say this, but he seems too concerned about being politically correct.”

Members range in age from 12 to 70-something. Many are police officers, firefighters, plumbers, electricians, city employees, and their children. Playing in the band provides a modest second income, but for most it’s a hobby and a means of socializing.

It nonetheless consumes a lot of time and effort. “It’s a lot harder than you might think to play the bagpipes,” says Don Ellwood, a retired Chicago fire captain. “I didn’t know you had to read music.” It usually takes at least three years to master the instrument, but Ellwood, who began playing at 57, cut the time to one year. “At the fire station I had my own room. I practiced at home and at work.”

Practice and performance involve separate musical instruments. Holding a slim flutelike instrument, Ellwood explains, “You learn on the practice chanter, which has all the same holes as the bagpipe.” But it’s much quieter and less strenuous to play. Performing on the bagpipe entails inflating the bag, which is held under an arm, and applying pressure.

Noreen Loftus joined the group in high school. She even came home on breaks from Northern Illinois University to play with the band. That’s how she met Danny Boyle, a bass and tenor drummer, and the two eventually married. “We have four kids now,” says Loftus. “It’s been a nice hobby to share.” Among current members, at least five marriages have resulted from men and women meeting in the band, she says.

A lot of members are related. Loftus also has two brothers-in-law in the band, and Mary Kate Doran’s brother Patrick plays the snare drum. Mary Kate, 23, is offering spare reeds to everyone checking the drones on their bagpipes. As pipe major, she’ll monitor the overall quality of the playing tonight and advise individual members on areas for improvement. Before the band begins in earnest, Patrick teases Mary Kate with “Hello, Mom.” She fires back, “I’m not Mom!”

For parades, the players wear green plaid kilts and formal jackets. They help each other drape plaid sashes over their jackets. Then there are the special touches: broaches, horsehair sporrans that hang from their waists, and brightly colored flashers on their stockings. A few carry daggers, called sqian dubh, with ornately decorated sheaths in their socks. The band spends $2,700 per uniform, which includes an additional black tuxedo-style jacket for weddings as well as white shirts for summer performances.

Gloves are impractical, so harsh winters have posed challenges to those needing nimble fingers. In 1997, it was 14 degrees on the day of the South Side Irish Parade. Below 20, bagpipe reeds dry out, and the drones, or pipes, stop emitting sounds.

Thanks to a parade-route change, Doran and others voice concerns about the wind chill this coming Saint Patrick’s Day. To avoid construction on Wacker Drive, the parade has been moved closer to the lake, from Dearborn to a five-block stretch of Columbus, from Balbo to Monroe.

The Rovers assemble in nine rows of four. There are 24 pipers, nine snare drummers, two tenor drummers, and one bass drummer. Doran seems pleased by the numbers, though clearly some members are missing.

At first, the Great Highland bagpipes sound like a huge swarm of bees. They were originally used to lead soldiers into battle. Soon their tone goes up an octave or two. The noise is overwhelming in the enclosed space. The snare drums create a racket like hail on a tin roof. David McHugh keeps time by striking the bass drum. The Plainfield electrician smiles with glee, flailing his arms at the drum that’s strapped to his chest. With each heavy pulse, 36 left feet strike the blue carpet.

Danny Sullivan of Tinley Park is the drum major. When he drops his silver mace, the band stops playing. “This was a productive practice,” Doran says almost an hour later.

McCabe has spent the night instructing five youngsters in drumming. On the ride home, he remarks, “When you teach people, you can tell in six or eight weeks whether or not they’re going to make it. It’s all in the practice.” Then he adds, “You don’t get called a Shannon Rover until you make the grade.” John Doyle’s license plates say it all: Rover IM.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.