Donegal island pipe band celebrates its US links

The Arranmore Pipe Band will delight hundreds as part of the Emerald Isle Irish Féile on Lake Michigan's Beaver Island this weekend.

A large proportion of the County Donegal island's population have trekked halfway across the world with their instruments to take part in the festival.

It will be the first time they'll be involved since the féile's inception four years ago.

Although the isles may be physically separated by the wild Atlantic Ocean, the inextricable bond between both goes back centuries.

The largest inhabited island in Donegal, with about 500 residents, Arranmore is situated just 5km (3.1 miles) from the county's rugged west coast.

Its isolation proved difficult in the 1840s as the Famine devastated Ireland, with many deciding to move to the States.

More than a million people died across the country and another two million emigrated as a result of potato blight and exports of food to Britain.

Before long, some found an island with strong fishing and farming traditions, similar to their own.

Strong connections

Jerry Early, who acts as a representative of his home of Arranmore on Beaver, said Irish immigrants came in their droves to build a massive community on the American island.

"A lot of the names here are Gallagher, Boyle, Gillespie, Callaghan," he told BBC News NI.

"I suppose what happened back in that time is that Arranmore was just pretty much transported out to the little piece of heaven out in Lake Michigan.

"They took it on, took it over and made their life here - so much so that by the turn of the century there were up to 500 direct descendants from Arranmore living out on the island."

On Arranmore, up until the 1970s when the last fluent Irish speaker passed away, islanders spoke only in their native language.

For the last 25 years, Mr Early has acted as the go-to man to connect his home and Beaver Island.

Crucially, he was part of the 50-strong team that set out to twin the two islands back in the early 2000s, a physical reminder of which can be found in the form of a monument on Arranmore's Lough Thoir.

He is delighted to see the links forged by his ancestors have only strengthened over time.

"The links have grown stronger and it’s really, really cool to see my kids and the younger people from both islands are very, very close," he said.

The younger generations are preserving those strong bonds for their future children to enjoy, Mr Early added.

Pipe band dream

In a bid to bring islanders of both nations closer, an invitation was extended to Arranmore's pipe band to perform at Beaver Island's annual celebration of Irish music.

The person who was instrumental in tying it altogether, Mr Early said, was pipe master Alec Brown.

Mr Brown had made Arranmore his home some 10 years ago and led the pipe band to new heights, including to the Aviva Stadium to play the Irish national anthem.

However, in July, just weeks out from the féile, Mr Brown died suddenly after performing in a pipe band competition in Newtownards, County Down, devastating islanders.

"It was a really, really difficult time for us as a community because we lost Alec so suddenly - and his leadership - he was so central to the whole visit," Mr Early said.

As they grieved, Mr Early said he and another organiser, Hugh, approached Mr Brown's brother Tam to see if he would fill the leadership gap.

"Without hesitation, Tam said he owes the Arranmore people for all the empathy and all the sympathy, and how they accepted Alec into our community and that he would fulfil that role," he added.

"He very kindly offered to come and, I suppose, be in that leadership role.

"In memory of Alec, we decided we can’t let all of his hard work go to loss or get side-tracked."

The féile is not all that will be celebrated.

Six months ago, Mr Early was informed he would be inducted into the Beaver Island Hall of Fame to cement the conduit role he has played over the last quarter of a century.

'Fomo is real'

A trip to Beaver Island is not for the faint hearted.

Mr Early's journey entailed a trip from Arranmore to Dublin, a flight to Chicago, another to Traverse City in Michigan and then a one-hour car journey, topped off with a two-and-a-half hour ferry ride across Lake Michigan, the third largest of North America's Great Lakes.

"It’s certainly not like the trips from Belfast down to Donegal," he joked.

"To be here you have to want to be here.

“I would say 50% of the people want to be here because of the whole significance of the links, and I said the other 50% want to be here because they’re afraid they’re going to miss out on all the craic, which is the most Irish thing of all.

“Fomo (fear of missing out) is a real thing."