Mention the Iona campus of the mid 1960’s to an alumnus and most will recall a fairly sedate, all male school at which the Irish Christian Brothers provided a no-frills, but solid education, mainly to day commuters from New York City and its close environs. Most Alumni of this period will recall that the academic environment was challenging and vigorous, that neckties were de rigueur and that a friendly and collegiate atmosphere prevailed.
Looking back at this time period from the perspective of twenty-five years later, historians and sociologists most likely would focus on the monumental societal changes that occurred over the ensuing years and the fact that many of these changes took root during this period.
It thus may appear ironic that also during this period, the idea of a college supporting a bagpipe and drum band came to a fruition on the Iona campus. However, when viewed in the microcosmic world that was and is Iona, the idea of such a band seems almost inevitable, if not logical.
Iona College was founded by the Irish Christian Brothers in 1940 to provide a classical, Christian education to student s seeking a well-rounded education. Included in this group frequently were the children and grandchildren of immigrants to this country. Just as the native Irish saint- St. Columba- and his brother saints established a center of learning on the Island of Iona in the sixth century which served as a beacon of enlightenment throughout much of early Christian Europe, the New Rochelle campus of Iona attracted many first generation Americans who viewed higher education as the promise and hope of the American dream. With this connection to Ireland, and to many of New York City’s Irish-American neighborhoods, it is not unusual then that the Gaelic Society became the largest student organization on campus. It also was not unusual for members of the Gaelic Society to consider a bagpipe band, when they decided to organize a school band.
Early Band History
While the history of the pipe band itself is shrouded is some mystery with each generation’s members adding ballads, legends and folklore, to be passed down by word of mouth to successive generations (not unlike the passing of history in pre-Christian Ireland) the following is known (the author wishes to apologize in advance to any slighted parties- any misstatements are purely inadvertent.). The Iona College Gaelic Society in general, and Jack Dooley ’66 in particular, provided the initial impetus behind the band’s formation. The student newspaper – The Ionian – of March 30, 1966 reports that Jack Dooley and other interested band members met at the Rathskeller, a popular Bronx establishment, in September 1965 and had the band’s first organizational meeting. On the recommendation of Brother Charles B. Quinn, Jack Dooley contacted Joe Brady, Sr., an Iona alumnus from the class of 1953 who was the Pipe Major of the Yonkers Kilty Pipe Band at that time, and arranged for Mr. Brady to begin instructing the new recruits. According to The Ionian, the original piping students were Jack Dooley, who became the band’s first Pipe Major, Pipe Sergeant Jim Reilly, John Gilmartin, Brian Geary, TomMcCarthy, Art Fournier, and Charlie Smith. Jerry Allen headed the drum section, as Drum Sergeant and Phil Saccomanno, John Travers, Jimmy Collins and Jimmy Rynne constituted the band’s first drum line. Bill O’Neill and Bill McCoy rounded out the corps as bass drummers. Joe Brady, Sr., in addition to serving as instructor, also played with the band for many years. Joe’s children, Joe, Jr. ’77, Vincent and Jeannie, ’88, also played with the band before and during their tenure at school. Joe Brady, Jr., later served as Pipe Major.
In keeping with Iona’s proud Irish-American spirit, the band’s first tunes were "The Marine’s Hymn” and "The Minstrel Boy.” With these tunes under their belt, and others soon to follow, the band began intensive preparations for their March 1966 official debut. In January of that year, the band ordered its first uniforms with the assistance of Brother Leo Downey, who was the school’s Vice-President, and Mr. Joseph Mahoney, then Director of Development. Band members used Brother Downey’s office to place the necessary telephone calls. Since this was before the advent of facsimile machines and overnight express mail, band members arrived at school at 5:30 am so they could talk directly with the kilt makers in Glasgow, Scotland. This personal contact expedited the uniform delivery. The band members agreed upon the MacLean of Duart tartan for their kilts since this was the predominant tartan used by residents of the Island of Iona. The band’s shoulder patches and bass drum were emblazoned with the insignia, written in Irish, which identified them as members of the Gaelic Society.
Then newly purchased pipes and drums arrived in February 1966 and the recruits commenced practicing in earnest for their initial public performance. Finally, March 13, 1966, a cold, damp Sunday arrived and the band assembled on South Broadway in Yonkers for the Yonkers St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Although some of the band’s uniforms were still enroute from Glasgow, the band stepped out proudly and received tremendous support from the parade’s spectators. Four days later, on a clear, sunny day, the Iona College Bagpipe Band proudly led the Iona contingent up Fifth Avenue in the New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade and their participation in similar parades and numerous events continues to the present.
The band modeled itself along the same lines as many other pipe bands. The Pipe Major, Pipe Sergeant and Drum Sergeant were responsible for musical selection and band deportment. A faculty advisor served as liaison with the college administration and provided necessary administrative support. One primary objective of the band was to ensure that the band remained a student-run organization drawing upon the active participation of matriculated students. Since the learning curve on pipes and drums can be fairly extended before a player is sufficiently proficient in both musical and marching rudiments, and due to the relatively short period (i.e. four years in most cases) during which band members would attend Iona, these factors additional burdens on fielding a qualified band. This problem was further exacerbated by the need for most students to work after school, on weekends and during school breaks. To help shorten the learning curve, and to provide a pool of experienced players who, in turn, would teach other students, an innovative scholarship program was implemented. In 1971, then Pipe Major Kevin O’Rourke Moore met in New York City with John A. Mulcahy, an international industrialist who was an avid supporter of Iona. Mr. Mulcahy recognized the vitality and accomplishments of the Iona Band and in order to ensure its continual vitality, presented Pipe Major Moore with a check in a sufficient amount to fund two full piping scholarships. The college administration continued the scholarship program and later expanded it to provide a drumming scholarship. The list of beneficiaries of these scholarships over the years is extensive. This program, as well as the dedication of many key players, allowed the Iona Band to flourish and is one of the primary reasons why the Iona Bagpipe Band is the longest running student controlled pipe band in the Eastern United States.
In compiling a list of the hundreds of performances, which the band gave over the last quarter century, it is difficult to identify the most memorable. The vast majority of these performances could be classified as fairly routine. Yet, some of these "routine” jobs, e.g. the countless charitable fund raisers at local parish dances, the performances at hospitals such as New Rochelle Hospital or Willowbrook in Staten Island are perhaps the most personally rewarding to the band members. Certain performances do come to mind such as when the band played with entertainers Bob Hope, Paul Anka and Diahann Carroll in 1968. In 1972, the band members played at the college gates on North Avenue for President Nixon who was on a campaign swing through New Rochelle. Later, they played for California Governor Jerry Brown and Jesse Jackson’s 1988 campaign. In 1970, the band started a tradition which continues to the present when they performed at the Gaelic Society’s then novel, fall and spring Ceili’s to benefit the children of Appalachia and Derry, No. Ireland. The band also performed at Irish Solidarity Day in New York City for a number of years and also played on Irish Night at Yankee Stadium. The band rooted for the success of the Iona Gael’s basketball teams and played at New York’s Madison Square Garden when Iona beat Louisville to advance to the NCAA tournament. When Iona upset Penn at N.C State in the first round of the NCAA tournament, the Iona Pipe Band was there to show its support. Band members played at most home games of all Iona sports teams. Later on, they performed for the Dalai Lama on campus, and were featured on news programs aired on CBS-TV and NBC-TV. Band performances at the numerous groundbreaking ceremonies for tne Iona facilities over the years became ever more frequent as Iona expanded along both sides of North Avenue. Perhaps one of their proudest moments was when they led the Iona contingent in the 1981 St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York City and performed before that year’s Grand Marshall—Iona’s own Brother Charles B. Quinn. More recently, in 1988, the band performed and took first place in the San Antonio, Texas St. Patrick’s Day Parade and, in 1989, led the Washington, D.C. St. Patrick’s Day Parade. In 1991, they took second place out of 48 pipe bands in the New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade. In all these, and their countless other performances, the band members presented themselves as ambassadors of good will on behalf of the Iona Community. One annual on-campus event, which features the band, is the performance before the commencement exercises at which all band members perform. After the band performs, graduating band members join their fellow graduating students in the shadow of Spellman Hall and receive their diplomas, many still wearing their kilts under their cap and gowns. These seniors then become part of the folklore and pass on their own legends. It is these stories, and the Iona Band’s men and women feature in them, which collectively tell the true history of the band.
"History is but a fable agreed upon” - Napoleon