Arriving to a water cannon salute from the Northern Ireland Fire Service, the Philadelphia Police & Fire Pipes & Drums band is on the ground in Ireland, and getting set for the thrill of a lifetime.
Philly Police and Fire is the only foreign band invited to take part in one of the official commemorations of the 1916 Easter Rising, to be held Easter Monday in Ashbourne, County Meath.
Thirty members of the band, all cops and firefighters, are making the trip, said Philly paramedic Mark O’Donnell, the band master, music director and pipe major, in an interview Thursday, just a few hours before the band’s departure out of Newark.
The band last traveled to Ireland in 2012 to take part in ceremonies honoring the 150th anniversary of the Dublin Fire Brigade. “We did a parade down O’Connell Street and took part in a tattoo at Dublin Castle,” O’Donnell said.
Not ones to let the grass grow under their spats, the band started thinking about their next trip fairly soon after the last one.
“We said we would come back in four years,” O’Donnell said. They looked at the calendar and saw that 2016 would be the Easter Rising centennial. “We realized that 2016 would be a good time to come back.”
Since then, the band investigated all of the activities scheduled to happen in honor of the Rising and its tragic heroes, and they made a lot of phone calls. Their hard work paid off with an invitation to be the only band, not just from the United States, but from outside Ireland, to take part in the festivities. “It is just such an honor that we were asked,” said O’Donnell.
The Easter Monday event in Ashbourne is one of four taking place throughout Ireland on that day. There will be a re-enactment of the Battle of Ashbourne, which took place between April 24 and 30, 2016, along with the unveiling of a plaque and a wreath-laying. The event will be televised by Ireland broadcaster RTE.
The band will take part in several other events. By the time you read this, the band will have taken part in a reception hosted by the Lord Mayor of Dublin. On Saturday, there will be a memorial and parade at the Garda Station Crumlin, a suburb of Dublin, in honor of New Jersey State Trooper Sean Cullen, 31, who died after being struck by a car March 8 on I-295 in West Deptford.
“He was actually born in Crumlin,” said O’Donnell. “We’re doing a memorial there for his Irish family.”
The band will also play at a memorial in County Meath for Garda detective Adrian Donohue, who died in the line of duty, shot by a gang holding up a credit union in January 2013.
On Sunday, there’s a parade in Longwood, County Meath, a tiny town with just under 1,400 inhabitants. “It’s a cute little parade,” said O’Donnell.
On Sunday, the band takes part in the official ceremony. And after that, O’Donnell said, band members can hang up their kilts. For the rest of the 12-day trip, the band will tour Armagh, Belfast and Derry in the North. O’Donnell’s people are from Derry.
But without doubt, band members are always going to remember the part they played in the commemoration of the Republic Ireland’s seminal event. O’Donnell doesn’t know for sure, but he suspects officials chose the band because of Philadelphia’s connection to the Rising and ultimately Ireland’s independence. They’ll never forget their last trip, O’Donnell said, but this one chapter in the band’s history is really going to be something.
“We thought that was going to be hard to top,” O’Donnell said, “but this is amazing.”