It is an unusual feat for a bagpipe band to celebrate almost 50 years of existence, but then it was an unusual man who founded the band.
Born in Glasgow, Scotland of Irish parents (his mother from County Down; his father from County Donegal), Sean McGonigal spent part of his youth in Ireland. As a young man, Sean won a scholarship to the Scottish Master Painters and Decorators Academy, and in 1929, took his expertise as a sign painter and emigrated to the United States. Sean opened his own business as a sign painter shortly following his arrival, settling in Kearny, New Jersey.
It wasn't long before Sean became involved in organized piping, an interest that would consume the rest of his life. In 1933 he helped to form the Brian Boru Pipe Band as well as assisting other beginning pipe bands state wide. In 1949, Sean founded a pipe band that he wanted to be different than any that had gone before. He chose St. Columcille to represent his ideal - the unity of the Gael. Sean wanted St. Columcille to represent all who were proud of their blood and heritage and the band was no sooner formed than it was out making it's first appearance in October, 1949 in the Holy Name Parade in West Orange, New Jersey.
Sean's interest was not limited only to bagpipes. He had great interest in different cultures and a love of foreign tongues. In addition to being fluent in Gaelic, Sean also spoke German, Yiddish, French. Italian, Spanish and several American Indian dialects. His vast knowledge of the history of the American Indian qualified him as a contestant in the $64,000 Dollar Question, the popular 1950's quiz show. Sean's expertise in American Indian heritage allowed him to become a member of various Indian organizations, including the American Indian Congress and the Arrow Society .
During the Kearny Memorial Day Parade, in 1965, while leading the John F. Kennedy Pipe Band, a group of young pipers and drummers organized by Sean, he collapsed to the ground. He was later pronounced dead at West Hudson Hospital.
"the Chief has died, but is not dead..."
His son, J. Patrick McGonigal, had taken on the duties of Pipe Major while his brother James performed the duties of Drum Major. James no longer performs actively with the band but is still a major force of support and guidance. Pat was for years Pipe Major Emeritus, a title well earned and appropriate for his continued dedication and service to this organization. A piper for more than 60 years, he was also an instructor at the College of Piping in New York City. He passed away in 2003, not long after his beloved wife, Mima. They are happily together in Tir na Nog.
Sean and Patrick‘s spirits are still leading the band. Joseph P. McGonigal Jr., son of J. Patrick, has been with the band for many years and has held positions from Drum Sergeant on up to Pipe Major. Joe is the musical director and mentor to the band. Joe has also played with Grade II City of Manchester Pipe Band, but devotes much time to St C's. Joe also provides tutelage to the Governor Livingston High School Pipe Band, Berkeley Heights, NJ. He, and many of the McGonigals, are quite well known, locally, and in the piping, Scottish, and Irish communities.
Joe is joined in the band by many more of the family:
Sean McGonigal, brother of Joe, is currently Pipe Major and director for the Grade III band. He is leading the band through another growing phase for the band, with high hopes for the future.
Kevin McGonigal, brother of Joe, is a piper, teacher of piping, and also a strong Bass drummer.
Mike McGonigal, brother of Joe, is a piper and director of Dress and Deportment.
Maura McGonigal Des Londe, sister of Joe, played snare drum with the band in past years.
Bill Burt, Joe's cousin, is a piper.
Eamonn McGonigal, son of Kevin, is also a piper.
Lorna and Katie McGonigal, daughters of Joe, both play the tenor drum and pipes.
Robert Smillie, nephew of Joe, is a active piper in the Grade III band.