“The music of the pipes is ethereal, mystical, and primordial,” said Peigi Mulligan, pipe major of the the Woodstock Fire Department’s bagpipe band. For two decades, the band has played and marched with the firefighters in parades, but this Fourth of July will be their last. “Memorial Day parades are shorter, and we might keep doing those,” said Mulligan, “but the Fourth is a long day.”
Mulligan, who has played bagpipes for over 35 years, has now reached the age of 64, as has her husband, Pat, the band’s bass drummer. The drum is huge, and the pipes, made of black walnut, are heavy. “We’re both still able to play,” said Peigi, “but we won’t do parades. It’s our time to stop.”
The other members of the band are content to work at what would be considered level one of the five levels of competitive piping, and none of them are prepared to take over Peigi’s leadership role. She commented, “I respect any player who’s willing to be the best they can be at whatever level, as long as have they have an honest appreciation of the art. We might play easy music, but we play as in time and in tune as we can.”
Half-Scottish herself, Peigi finds the pipes to be an important connection to her heritage. When she was a child, the family would spend Sunday afternoons with either her mother’s Italian family or her father’s Scottish parents. They went to the Scottish Festival and Games on Long Island, and she heard people speaking with a Scottish brogue.
Then her parents separated, and she moved upstate with her mother, losing touch with her Scottish grandmother. In 1972, when Peigi was tending bar in Kingston, Al MacDowell, Sr. and Peter Wagner walked in with their bagpipes. “The sound reawakened that missing part of my childhood,” she recalled. A few years later, she heard the Amerscot Highland Pipe Band, which was practicing in Kingston at the time. “I began the bagpipe journey. My bones knew it was part of me, my soul knew. I went to the world championships a couple of times, and when my feet touched the ground in Scotland, I knew it was home.”
She played for several years with Amerscot, then met Donald Lindsay, who teaches in Hunter every summer at his Invermark College of Piping and Drumming. “Through Donald,” she said, “I have been more than privileged to be taught by and become friends with some of best pipers and drummers of the world.” Meanwhile, she played at Woodstock Pub on St. Patrick’s Day and at Ed Balmer’s famous cider-pressing parties.
In the mid-nineties, when Peigi and other local pipers could no longer commit to the heavy schedule of a band, they decided to play together more informally. A friend with the fire department offered the use of the firehouse as a practice space and in return asked them to play at parades for half the usual fee. “The payment just covers our expenses,” she said, “but nothing gives me more pride than to help support the fire department. And they are proud to have their band.” She is also an honorary member of the Woodstock American Legion, as piper for their honor guard.
Most of the members of the fire department band soon moved away or stopped playing, so Peigi and Don Donahue began to teach local people. Many of those students are still playing. Band members include Woodstock chiropractor Chris Donohue; Patricia Manfrates Swanson, a librarian in the Saugerties school district; and Tina Van Voorhis, a seventh grade science teacher in Saugerties. Part-time members are two Irish pipers, Maurice Whelan of County Tyrone and Tom Corbett of County Cork.
Two of Peigi’s students have gone on to play with the world championship-winning Scotia Pipe Band in Albany. Another student, 20-year-old Michael Brako, participates in Revolutionary War reenactments with grandmother, who is part Native American. He incorporated piping as a member of the Black Watch regiment.
Bagpipers also play benefits and funerals, which Peigi will continue to do. Her pipes were heard at the funerals of Rick Danko, Alf Evers, and Sonia Malkine. Some people find the tones of the pipes help with the grieving process. One Irish-American acquaintance refused to have bagpipes at the ceremony when his wife died, saying the sound was too sad. When he heard Peigi play at another funeral, he realized he’d make a mistake. Since the woman had died on the Fourth of July, Peigi met with her family at the gravesite on the next Fourth and played the pipes.
“For that moment,” she said, “you’re part of the family.” The three drones, the tall pipes that carry the background tones, end in a cup shape at the top. “The air swirls around and is released, so you’re going up to God. I go to the church service too, so the person can enter my bagpipe before I play at the burial.”
John McSweeney of the New York City Fire Department played with the Woodstock band for a while. He performed at many of the 9/11 funerals. Peigi said, “They made sure every fireman who died that day had pipers and drummers. There’s a long history of bagpipe bands in fire departments.”