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The stirring wheeze wafts on the breeze in south Forest Park – a melancholic drone evoking Celtic nostalgia. “Scotland the Brave” melts into “Green Hills of Tyrol, the Battle is O’er,” which merges into “The Battle of the Bridge at Perth.”
Bryan Jirsa, age 17, is playing his bagpipes in The Park again.
“It’s nice to get out in the big open space and practice,” he said.
Jirsa, who lives down the block in the family home of his parents and seven home-schooled siblings, practices almost daily in the late afternoons in front of the Park District Headquarters, weather permitting. He’s become a bit of a local celebrity as the neighbors go about their business in the afternoon.
“Every so often this guy walks down my street playing bagpipes,” posted a Forest Parker on YouTube. “I don’t know much about what it takes to play bagpipes, but he sounds good to me!”
Sometimes Jirsa is dressed in full piper garb: a plaid kilt (the Stuart tartan), sporran pouch, a cap with badge, and long tassled knee socks with a black antler-handled sgaindubh (or sock knife) tucked inside.
These are the accoutrements he wears when he plays with his pipe band, the Chicago Scots at the Highland Games in Springfield, or when he performs as a piper-for-hire at funerals and other occasions, or when he plays for cash on Madison Street.
“I went out on St. Patrick’s Day this year, playing up and down [Madison Street] and people were giving me tips.” Sometimes he’s joined by a brother and sister who play drums for the Chicago Scots.
After six years of playing piano, Jirsa heard about the bagpipes at a young men’s night at Calvary Memorial Church. Something stirred in his one-eighth-Scottish soul: He’d been researching his mother’s Scottish descendants who came to North Carolina in the 1720s. Patriarch Hugh Jackson Shannon possibly came from the peninsula of Kintyre – made famous in the only song featuring bagpipes to hit the top 40, “Mull of Kintyre” by Paul McCartney and Wings in 1977.
“Something about the sound made me think it would be a good idea to try the bagpipes,” he said.
But the instrument is not cheap – a set of pipes can cost more than $1,600. Jirsa went to a Scottish shop in Summit and bought a Chanter, a pipe played with a mouthpiece.
“It’s a lot quieter,” he said.
He also found a book, and then a teacher – Fr. Scott McCawley at Immaculate Conception in Elmhurst, who learned the pipes in college at West Point.
“He’s the first younger student I’ve had who really progressed and kept at it,” said McCawley. “With the bagpipes, you either love it or hate it; there’s not much in between.”
Jirsa got a nod from fate when his father’s employer, the late Pastor Glen Kehrein of Circle Urban Ministries in Austin, pulled him aside and gave him $200 toward his pipe purchase. “He told me he thought it was a noble pursuit,” said Jirsa. Kehrein died soon after of cancer. “I was honored to play pipes at his funeral,” Jirsa said.
Since then, Jirsa’s been working on group and solo piping projects, including the classical piobareachd. He’s advanced up the ladder to the second beginner level and won “champion supreme” in his class in solo-piping at the Springfield Highland Games. All music is memorized – some of the pieces with variations and trills can last for 25 minutes. “There’s nowhere to put a music stand,” Jirsa joked.
His research indicates that the pipes began in Egypt and possibly came to Britain (and northern France) with the invasion of Julius Caesar, 54 B.C. After the English defeat and annexation of Scotland in 1764, the pipes were used in British military regiments, which traveled all over the British Empire. That’s how his Chanter pipe got to be made of African blackwood.
“The pipe was formerly made of local woods like holly, but the British army traveled all over the world and they collected exotic hardwoods to make their instruments.”
Jirsa said he’s looking forward to majoring in bagpipe performance at Monmouth College, where there’s a special scholarship for pipers.
“I just love the sound. It’s a unique instrument and not many play it.”