We are the Shannon Rovers Irish Bagpipe Band. Since 1926, the Rovers have been a cultural fixture in the Chicagoland area. From parades to politics, weddings to funerals, generation to generation, the Shannon Rovers have been there through it all, bringing the passion of Irish music with them.
The Shannon Rovers “Club” was organized in 1926 by Tommie Ryan and a group of Irishmen, most of whom emigrated from Ireland in the 1920’s, an historical period in Ireland. This was a period that included the occupation by the ‘Black and Tans’, the assassination of Michael Collins, the formation of the Irish free state, and the subsequent civil war in Ireland. They arrived in the United States in time to experience the great depression, as reflected in the minutes of a meeting held in 1930, which states that “the Shannon Rovers Club was organized for the promotion of Irish music and to help members who are in distress to run dances and social affairs to finance these objectives”. It’s been over seventy-five years since these proud Irishmen, then calling themselves the Shannon Rovers Fife and Drum Corps, first stepped off to lead a great parade. The year was 1926 and the place was newly opened Gaelic Park on 47th street. For the first six years, their fife and drum music was heard at every Irish gathering in the city. They attracted new members and became one of the most popular marching bands in the midwest. One of the highlights of the early years was a 1928 performance for the Democratic presidential nominee, Alfred E. Smith.
In 1932 the band switched to bagpipes, which are referred to in Ireland as the warpipes. Since the warpipes stirred up the Irish in battle, they were legally defined as an instrument of war under British law, and to play the pipes during the time of the Penal Laws was a capital offense.
Since its founding, the Shannon Rovers have performed in thousands of local, national and international events. Their unique sound has welcomed distinguished visitors from all over the world to our wonderful city and touched the hearts of thousands with stirring traditional Irish music including marches and gentle Irish airs. While there have been many high points during the colorful history of the band, including an appearance at the 1933 World’s Fair, one of the most exciting was the opportunity to play for His Holiness Pope John Paul II during his first visit to Chicago. The Rovers have also had the privilege of playing for many of the U.S. Presidents starting with Franklin D. Roosevelt.
In 1952, the Shannon Rovers organized the first West Side Parade. It assembled in Garfield Park and marched on Madison Street from Hamlin Avenue to Laramie. It was the beginning of an annual tribute to St. Patrick that would eventually include participants from every community in the city. Today it is recognized as one of the greatest parades in the country. The band’s first “annual” trip to Ireland was made in 1932 – aboard the S.S. Columbus, followed by a second visit in 1968. In 1982, the Rovers competed for the first time in Ireland’s Fleadh Cheoil, then held in Listowel Co. Kerry. The band placed first. They returned to the competition in 1994. This time it was held in Clonmel, Co. Tipperary and the band took 3rd place. In 1996, the band returned to the Fleadh Cheoil, which was again held in Listowel, Co. Kerry and played to a second place finish.
One of the Shannon Rovers’ proudest traditions has been leading Chicago’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Beginning with the crowning of the St. Patrick’s Day Queen in February through the month of March, the Rovers play over 125 events. However, nothing compares to stepping off to lead the Parade. The excitement of the crowd is contagious. The kelly green decorations lining the parade route always seem to brighten even the most overcast of parade days. Everyone loves a parade, but leading the greatest parade in the country is really something else again. Even the most veteran of Rovers share the enthusiasm of the crowd on this special day. This great city has carried on the tradition since the first annual St. Patrick’s Day parade on State Street in 1956. The Shannon Rovers Irish Pipe Band have stepped off every parade since then and are proud to be a part of that tradition. In 1980, the Shannon Rovers visited Australia to lead Sydney’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade and returned to Chicago in time to lead Chicago’s Parade – that’s right, two St. Patrick’s Day Parades in opposite corners of the world within a 24 hour period. The most emotional Chicago St. Patrick’s Day parade was a memorial, in 2002, to the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. The parade was dedicated to Father Mychal Judge, Chaplain of the New York Fire Department and the thousands others who lost their lives in the attack. The parade was attended by President George W. Bush.
In 2009, the Shannon Rovers added another sitting President to the list of dignitaries they have had the honor to play for when they were invited to play at the White House, on St. Patrick’s Day, for President Barack Obama.
On Memorial Day weekend 2013 the band played for Irish Actress Maureen O’Hara at the John Wayne Museum in Winterset Iowa. Then, in November 2015, the band was requested to play at the funeral and burial of Maureen O’Hara in Washington D.C. at Arlington National Cemetary which was a real honor.
The original purposes of the band are still maintained. The band plays traditional Irish music almost exclusively. The origins of many of the tunes are lost in antiquity. Centuries ago words were added to many of the melodies and these words provided the names of the tunes as we know them today. The band’s signature set, ‘Garryowen’, ‘O’Donnell Abu’, and the ‘Wearing of the Green’ are ancient Irish melodies with words that were composed in the 1700 and 1800’s, some of which chronicle events in the 1600’s. More recently Garryowen was made famous in this country by Thomas Meagher’s Irish Brigade in the Civil War and later by George Custer’s Seventh Cavalry. The band also maintains it’s original purpose of helping those in need. Members freely volunteer their time for all types of civic and charitable events. More than 500 individuals have played the pipes and drums as Shannon Rovers over the years. Today, the band is made up of seventy plus pipers, drummers and color guard. Membership has passed from generation to generation and includes plumbers, social workers, bankers, lawyers, electricians, doctors and celebrities to name but a few. It’s a mix of people who enjoy each other’s company and genuinely work hard at putting together the best performance possible. For most, the band has become an extended family with friendships that have endured for decades. The common thread that seems to hold it all together is the genuine love of traditional Irish music.