War, peace & pipes

Army bagpiper Michael Connell stirs emotion in military troops and in Irish pub crowds

Pipes have a mystical ability to get a crowd worked up, says Reno bagpiper Michael Connell.

Pipes have a mystical ability to get a crowd worked up, says Reno bagpiper Michael Connell.

Photo By David Robert

Foley’s Pub was very, very loud the weekend night I first heard bagpiper Michael Connell pipe. Muscular, with arrow-straight posture and a military-style haircut, the kilt-wearing piper broke out his pipes and began to play, walking slowly through the crowd. The dozens of people who had been laughing, talking and drinking instantly silenced themselves and turned to stare. The jukebox music could no longer be heard, even if you were standing by a speaker. The high, steady, breathtaking wail of the pipes enveloped the whole bar.

Connell told me later that bagpipes were banned in Britain in 1746 because of their mysterious ability to stir emotion, particularly during wartime.

“You’re enabling constant, steady music, whereas with any other wind instrument you have to stop and take a breath. With the droning, it just kind of stirs people. They were used to incite men to fight and to instill fear in the enemy [in Scotland until World War I]. And it did, too. Pipes were the only musical instruments to be outlawed in England.”

Connell tells the story of an Scot who was arrested in the 1700s because he played the pipes.

“He tried to use the excuse that it was just an instrument. The English courts charged him with treason and hanged him. No [Scottish] Highland Regiment has ever been raised [to battle] without the bagpipes, and no Highland Regiment has ever been marched to battle without the pipes. Therefore, it is an instrument of war. After I pipe, I’m always told how it stirs [troops] and motivates them.”

Today, the bagpipes are for Connell an instrument of war, but of peace, too. Connell, who comes from a long line of military men and distant Scottish heritage, is a training NCO—Non-Commissioned Officer—in the Army, as well as the state piper for the Nevada Army National Guard. He plays at a number of Army functions, including change of command ceremonies, funerals, retirements and weddings. He’s also in a local pipe band and gives piping lessons—he’s even teaching his 8-year-old daughter to play.

Connell has a varied musical history that spans about 27 years. He’s played the five-string banjo, the mandolin, the saxophone and the harmonica. On the bagpipes, he’ll play everything from jigs to military-style marches. He sometimes even pipes with local punk/ska band Sucka Punch.

Depending on the occasion, Connell might pipe on his actual bagpipes—which produce the overwhelming sound I heard at Foley’s that night—or his shuttle pipes, a smaller, more up close and personal version of the bagpipes that emits the same sort of sound, but at a lower register.

But no matter the occasion, Connell will probably be wearing his kilt.

“I’ve got everything from formal wear to fighting gear. I wear kilts more than [my wife] wears skirts. They’re very comfortable. I wish it were more socially acceptable. I’d wear one every day.”

In or out of his Scottish guise, Connell says he’s more than comfortable with his life right now. A husband, father of two and nine-year resident of Reno, Connell says he loves his family life, location, job and pastime.

“The Army and piping are my two favorite things. I love it. I couldn’t be happier—happier in my work, happier with my free time."