Surprisingly, in our quest to find signs of the living, breathing "12 Days of Christmas" icons right here in our midst, the "Eleven Pipers" were among the easiest to track down, with the Aquidneck Island-based Ancient Order of Hibernians pipe and drums corps being such an active and highly visible group that performs in many of the most high profile parades throughout the northeast year-round, especially in March for St. Patrick's Day.
And—what luck!—this particular band of kilt-sporting men and women also come with at least "Twelve Drummers Drumming," so here's where our holiday trail of cheers ends.
Many Middletowners have likely encountered the AOH while enjoying any number of local parades in Newport and neighboring communities, as well as at the Bristol Fourth of July Parade, South Boston St. Patrick's Day Parade, New York City St. Patrick's Day Parade and more. The Irish Catholic pipe and drum corps is based out of Newport with 30 members from throughout Aquidneck Island and all over Rhode Island. To learn more about the order's national and local history, click here.
About 60-percent of the Hibernians are pipers, while drummers make up the remaining 40-percent. The group also includes a Color Guard, Chieftan (who manages the group, books performances and arranges logistics, among other things), as well as a Drum Major and Pipe Major, who lead the group, keep the beat, and oversee the musical aspects of rehearsals and managing the song repertoire.
The instruments feature the Highland bagpipe, Scottish war pipes (which are recognized as being higher and longer), and drums such as snare tenor and base drums.
Chieftain J.L. Sullivan, also one of three founding "plank members" and a retired sergeant from Newport Police Dept, has been playing "the pipes" for more than 15 years now, he said, but noted that many of the members came to the group without having ever played an instrument before.
"You don't need to have any musical experience. A lot of members didn't know anything about it when they joined," said Sullivan.
The group is open to men and women and there are no age restrictions, so children and teens capable of playing can participate too, said Sullivan.
In fact, besides a willingness to learn, practice every Tuesday and abide by an ethical "code of conduct" that includes being law-abiding citizens and respectful of the order, there are few other requirements.
"You don't have to be a Hibernian, you don't have to be a Catholic, and you don't have to be a musician to join, noted Sullivan. "Members become sort of public figures—we're out at the parades and civic events and other things all the time. So we ask that members conduct themselves with dignity and uphold certain standards and follow certain rules of the order. For example, you can't wear the Kilt at Halloween or disrepect the kilt, and no bar brawls or anything like."
The group has members from all walks of life and professions, from surgeons to police officers, student and teachers. They practice every Tuesday night at St Augustine's Church on Carroll Ave in Newport.
Newcomers looking to play the drums start out learning on a drummers' pad and eventually move on to playing real drums. Aspiring bagpipers begin learning the mechanics of finger play on a $75 practice chanter, a long black flute-like instrument as you'd imagine the Pied Piper to play.
"They practice on that and get good enough at that, and at some point we'll say, 'Hey, good job, now it's time to go get your pipes."
Bagpipes themselves run anywhere from $1,500 and upwards of $5,000 and $6,000,said Sullivan.
Why so pricey? The reed instrument consists of four parts, explained Sullivan: The bagpipes "drones" (tall pipes), made of African blackwood; The bag itself, usually made from "an animal bladder" although more makers nowadays are using better sythentics; The blowpipe mouthpiece; And the chanter, the pipe manipulated by the fingers.
The non-profit AOH typically gets about $1,500 per appearance and all the money raised from parade and other performances goes right back into mainly travel expenses, musical instruments, and the uniforms, said Sullivan.
Each kilt is hand-made by a local woman and the uniform usually runs between $500 to $700. The kilt is made of wool with a "very unique saffron yellow and comes with a "dark Irish green jacket."
"The kilt we wear is saffron yellow and it's that color for a reason. Back in England, Catholics were forbidden from wearing that color, " explained Sullivan. "If the kilt is solid, it's usually Irish and if you see plaid, that usually means a Scottish group."
Despite its mere four years in existence, the Hibernians certainly have put in an impressive number of miles.
For St. Patrick's Day in March, they play everywhere from Newport to New York City and Boston, and anywhere in between.
"During the busy parade seasons, we can do up to 18 performances in 30 days," said Sullivan.
Most parades ranges from two to three miles in distance, with others like South Boston up to five miles.
The group typically marches in 25 parades per year.
They also are able to arrange for members to play at funerals, weddings, graduations and other special events.
In the New Year, the Hibernians are scheduled to play at O'Brien's Pub in January as a fundraiser for visiting nurses. They're also gearing up to launch a membership drive in January and February as they hope to grow their pipe and drum corps from 30 to 50 members.
"That would be an impressive pipe band!" said Sullivan, excited for the New Year ahead.
Their other long-term goal is to purchase their own bus to help dramatically reduce travel costs to their parade engagements year-round and put those costs savings back into further development of the group, new instrument and equipment, uniforms and more.
As for the "12 Days of Christmas" song, you likely won't hear the group playing that any time soon, as the group hardly ever plays Christmas tunes.
Sullivan explained, "You know what's funny about Christmas music? It doesn't come across well on bagpipes. Irish bagpipe music is very proud, very brave music. It would sound too somber for what you'd expect from the lighter Christmas music."
For more information about our local pipers and drummers, or to find out about the Ancient Order of Hibernians' upcoming membership drive, visit their website here.