New York City fire department Capt. Liam Flaherty learned to play the bagpipes from a fellow firefighter so he could perform with the FDNY's storied pipes and drums band. But even after a year of practice he still was sort of shaky.
"It's not an easy instrument," said Flaherty, assigned to special operations at the nation's largest fire department. "It's a simple instrument, but it takes a technique that's difficult to master. We have a huge dropout rate. We hold free classes where a hundred guys will show up, and four remain."
Flaherty is the drum major for the FDNY "Emerald Society" Pipes & Drums, which bills itself as the largest bagpipe band in the country with more than 85 members.
The group is celebrating its 50th anniversary on Saturday with a party at Citi Field, including a full performance as well as dancing, dinner and speeches by members.
"It's an honor to be part of this," Flaherty said.
The group started in 1962 and practiced for 11 months before making its first appearance, at the Emerald Society Dance, with 12 bagpipers, three snare drums, one tenor and one bass drum.
It has grown to more than 60 bagpipers, 18 snare drums, four tenors and four bass drums. Members buy their own bagpipes, which can cost from $1,000 to as much as $15,000. The drums are paid for by the band's treasury, according to its website.
The group is in demand: It often performs in two or three places a day, at weddings, or leading parades and memorial services with the familiar trill of the snare and the whine and drone of the bagpipes. Band members have traveled to New Orleans for Mardi Gras and performed in California, South Carolina and other states. A small group competes around the country.
The group's highest calling, Flaherty said, is to play in the line-of-duty funerals for a fellow firefighter. Following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, when the 343 firefighters were killed, the band played at more than 450 funerals over two years. Once, band members were at 24 funerals in one day, Flaherty said.
"We just shot guys all over the tri-state area," Flaherty said. "We sent two guys here, two guys there. One ran a mile down to a second church to play and then ran back for the other ceremony."