For Santa Claus, the busiest day of the year is Christmas Eve. For the members of Celtic Cross Pipes and Drums, that day is St. Patrick’s Day.
The pipe band’s engagements for Saturday and Sunday are ambitious.
“We not only do the parade in Peoria, but when it doesn’t conflict, we also do the Normal, (Illinois) Sharin’ of the Green parade,” said Kari Garman, recruitment chair for the band. “We typically do a number of gigs on St. Patrick’s Day.”
The group will play at a variety of area venues beginning at 11 a.m. on Sunday. Celtic Cross will begin St. Patrick’s Day by splitting, with half of the band performing at West Dublin Pub at 507 Court St., Pekin, and the rest of the group playing at W.E. Sullivan’s Irish Pub in Peoria Heights. The members will then reunite for more engagements in Peoria before splitting up again in the late afternoon.
“We’ll do Bloomington-Normal engagements on Saturday as a whole band,” said Garman. “On Sunday, we’ll do Peoria engagements as a whole band until around 3:30 (p.m.) or so. Then the band will split and about half will go back to Bloomington-Normal to do those gigs, while the other half will play our remaining Peoria gigs.”
Celtic Cross is a pipe band that plays traditional Scottish and Irish bagpipe and drum music. The group originally formed in the 1960s as the Morton Highlanders, said Garman. When the Morton Highlanders began practicing in Peoria, they changed the name to the Peoria Pipe Band. Another move to Eureka and a merger with the Bloomington-Normal-based pipe band Prairie Thistle prompted another name change.
“I think it was the move to Eureka that prompted the change of the name to Celtic Cross Pipes and Drums so it wasn’t aligned with any particular central Illinois town,” said Garman.
Celtic Cross consists of members from all over central Illinois. Tazewell County is represented by bagpiper Brian Sutton of Pekin, and by bagpier and recruitment chair Garmanpiper and quartermaster Rob Preston, and drum sergeant Andrew Lockwood, all of Morton. Membership tends to fluctuate, but typically, the group consists of 14 pipers and four or five drummers. Cross-training within the band’s ranks is not unheard of, with pipers who can drum in a pinch and drummers learning to play the bagpipes.
Garman remembers getting her call to the bagpipes from the very ensemble she would later join.
“My grandparents lived in Morton, and I went to Morton schools,” she said. “I’d be taking a walk of an evening when I was in junior high, and on certain evenings, I could hear the sound of the pipes coming from somewhere. I thought it was the most beautiful sound I’d ever heard. I couldn’t quite nail down where it was coming from, but as it turns out, that’s when the Morton Highlanders were practicing in Morton. When I grew up, had my family and got them down the road a bit, I thought I’d really like to learn to play the bagpipes. Unbeknownst to me, I actually sought out the band that I’d heard on those walks.”
Although Garman anticipates that the members of Celtic Cross will have a chance to rest after a hectic St. Patrick’s Day weekend, they will not have a chance to become complacent. Competition season officially begins on Memorial Day weekend. As part of the Midwest Pipe Band Association, Celtic Cross must prepare for competitions throughout the Midwest, and it has past accolades to live up to.
“We’re the 2018 Grade Five Grand Champion Supreme band,” said Garman. “We actually have gotten it seven times over the life of the band. There are different grades of pipe bands. They range from grade five, which is kind of the entry level for competition, all the way up to what’s called open class. There’s five, four, three, two, one and open class piping. Open class piping is typically for the premier pipers in the world, and they’re typically soloists out of Scotland. Grade one is for some of the finest pipe bands in the world. We have a balance of seasoned members and newer ones.”
Throughout the year and competition schedule permitting, Celtic Cross is available for functions ranging from funerals and veterans’ events that call for a single piper to festivals where nothing short of the entire ensemble would be adequate.
“We perform anywhere someone wants us,” Garman said. “A lot of people think that, whenever we play, we’re donating our time and doing it for free. We usually are not. Our engagements are typically paid engagements. What we earn our money for are things like equipment for the band or expenses for competitions, which are often quite far away. Even though we typically all work day jobs unless we’re retired, we do earn money for the band’s use. We do donate our time now and again. For example, Rob (Preston), if he’s asked to play at certain veterans’ affairs, will certainly do that.”
For more information on Celtic Cross Pipes and Drums, visit www.celtic-cross.org.