Around 2 p.m. on St. Patrick’s Day, a group of 16 kilted musicians are packing up their instruments in a storage room beneath Shawn O’Donnell’s Irish Pub. They are members of Snohomish County Firefighters Pipes &Drums, and they just finished their first of six appearances scheduled for the day.
“We got 20 minutes till the bus leaves,” one of the firefighters announces. “We gotta be out there in 10.”
Across the room, a drummer with a dyed-green goatee huddles up with a bandmate. They’re wondering if it’s possible to play a quick set for a lady in a wheelchair who wasn’t able to see them play in the second-story restaurant. She’s eating down the hall in the buffet room with a handful of other people.
“Do we have a piper?” the man with the green goatee asks.
Pipes blare. They have one now.
“Quarter of!” a woman’s voice calls out to the room. It’s Janet Jaeger, a drummer who recently became the president of the organization.
“It’s quarter of? We gotta leave!” someone says, scrapping the idea.
“It’s 1:46 right now,” Jaeger says. “That’s OK, go in and play the set.”
A bagpiper and three drummers hustle through a narrow hallway and into the buffet room. Jaeger follows behind, scooping up a plate from a stack of clean dishes. “I’m gonna grab some corned beef before I pass out!” she says.
The quartet performs three songs, marching out during the third and falling silent as they squeeze back into the cramped hallway.
“We have to go to the bus, like right now,” one of them says.
Snohomish County Firefighters Pipes &Drums was formed in 2007. The drummer with the green goatee, a driver from Fire District 7 named Ryan Englund, was there from the start.
“We weren’t practicing as a group, we were taking private lessons with an instructor, taking private lessons at his house,” Englund said. “We were kind of inventing the wheel at that time, leaning on the other regional bands.”
The other regional bands are made up of firefighters in Seattle and Bellingham. A Northwest Firefighters Pipe Band Association brings them all together.
The history of firefighter pipe bands in America goes back to the 1800s.
“Back on the East Coast, when the police and fire service first started, there was a lot of Scottish and Irish immigrants that had those jobs,” said Dave LeDuc, a piper who claims his ancestors fought with William Wallace. “That’s where the tradition of pipes and drums comes from.”
Above all else, LeDuc says the music is a way to honor past service and remember the fallen. This is done by performing at memorials and funerals; the regional bands all learn a certain number of standardized ceremonial pieces so they can come together and play after line-of-duty deaths.
“Our primary goal is to be able to do a mass band memorial and do it well, for fallen firefighters or police officers,” Englund said.
In the meantime, the Snohomish County pipe band stays fresh by making the rounds every St. Patrick’s Day. This year they started with a lunchtime performance at Shawn O’Donnell’s, followed by stops at Piccadilly Circus in Snohomish, Scuttlebutt Brewery in Everett and A Very Taki Tiki Bar &Grill and Engel’s Pub in Edmonds. Nine hours after they began, they returned to Shawn O’Donnell’s for an encore.
Before entering a bar, the band began playing outside and marched in mid-tune, each member carving out a spot within the claustrophobic crowd and securing it for the duration of the set. (Every bar was likely packed past capacity, though if fire codes are to be broken it’s probably best to break them in the company of firefighters.)
They played two sets of four songs at each bar, with a break in between to grab a bite and raise money for a raffle. The setlist was mostly the same from bar to bar, though there was the occasional improvisation. During the lunchtime trip to Shawn O’Donnell’s, for example, the band set their pipes and drums aside to sing “Happy Birthday” to a patron named Jay Merzlak, who was turning 29.
There are 16 members in the Snohomish County pipe band, five who play highland bagpipes and 11 who play either bass, snare or tenor drum. All of these members are said to have been “kilted,” which means they have mastered a repertoire of eight songs and passed tests in music and marching.
The kilted bunch come from different departments around the county. In addition to the time commitment, they pay $50 a month for instructor fees. Money from T-shirt sales, gigs and donations pays for travel and those ornate red-and-black uniforms, which cost $2,500 apiece.
Leading the band is pipe major Chris Stablein, a driver from Fire District 7. At a certain point during each St. Patrick’s Day set he stood on top of a chair as he played, much to the delight of the crowd, and he leads the band in parades.
On the executive side is Jaeger, the new president. She keeps the band organized by hollering at them when it’s time to go, or giving them permission to play a special set. A battalion chief in Fire District 7, Jaeger is also involved with community outreach and deciding how the band will give back. Right now they donate to the Firefighter Cancer Support Network.
“This is one of the best ways to connect with our public,” Jaeger said of playing on St. Patrick’s Day. “We get to see them, talk to them and get out there. That’s probably my favorite thing about it.”
In addition to the 16 members in the spotlight, there are a number of Snohomish County firefighters who practice every day in hopes of one day being kilted. They’re known as “recruits” — firefighters who play pipes or drums but aren’t at the level of public performance yet. They sold T-shirts and badges during the St. Patrick’s Day festivities.
One of these recruits is Bill Ekse, who’s been practicing the pipes for four and a half years. He’s been with Snohomish County Fire District 7 since 1998.
“I’ve never played an instrument before, so it’s very challenging,” Ekse said.
His desire to be involved with the band goes back to 9/11, when Fire District 7 raised $190,000 for the widows and family members of fallen firefighters. Ekse flew out to New York for the memorials.
“During the funerals, we watched the pipes and drums go by — what it meant to the families. That is when I said I would do this,” he said.
Back at Shawn O’Donnell’s at 9:30 p.m., the band gets into formation and climbs the staircase for its final set of the night. They march past a long line of people waiting to get into the bar, a drunk few slurring insults. The grandparents and toddlers from the lunchtime set have made way for a young, noticeably intoxicated demographic.
One face is familiar: Jay Merzlak, who the band had sung “Happy Birthday” to at lunch, is near the back of the line.
“I got kicked out earlier!” he says proudly, then turns and asks the person standing next to him if they have ever met before.
Inside, an increasingly buzzed crowd drinks Guinness as the epitome of the St. Patrick’s Day experience unfolds: bagpipes blaring in a bustling Irish bar. Along the back wall stands one of the band’s youngest recruits, a 20-something firefighter who fidgets with an excitement that hasn’t wavered after nine hours and five venues. One of the pipers had convinced him to come out for St. Patrick’s Day last year and now he’s back again.
“I started playing the pipes three weeks ago,” he says, gazing wide-eyed at his kilted peers.