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August 26, 2004
Reprinted courtesy Northeast Times

By William Kenny, Times Staff Writer

Mary Grace Moffit never liked wearing her skirt. Her little sister wore one, and even her father did, too. She even admired her dad when he donned it. But little Mary Grace feared what her peers might think if they saw her wearing one. Besides, hers never fit her right, anyway. She always had to bunch it up around her waist, and even then it kept falling down.

That was close to 10 years ago. Mary Grace was barely knee high to a grasshopper back then. She’s 20 now and has no problem with the skirt, although — technically speaking — it’s not a skirt at all, but rather a kilt.

And as one of three members of her Tacony family to play the drums in Philadelphia’s Emerald Society Pipe Band, she proudly parades through city streets and outlying towns and even on foreign soil extolling the virtues of an ancient pastime and representing its hip new generation of participants.

Mary Grace, 19-year-old sister Diana, and father Ed Moffit will don the kilts again on Sept. 25 and 26 when they participate in the annual Irish Weekend festivities in North Wildwood. Following an exhibition with other pipe bands on the earlier date, they will march in a parade along Surf Avenue on the latter date.

Ed Moffit, whose grandparents were born in Ireland, was the first of the clan to join the band in 1981. He plays bass and snare drums. Mary Grace, a snare player, and Diana, a tenor player, together followed in his ‘bootprints’ about 15 years later.

For them, learning the instruments proved difficult. But that was nothing compared to the fear of wearing one of those pleated, saffron-colored kilts in public. "It’s embarrassing as a kid," Mary Grace confided during a recent interview in the Moffit home. "It’s like, ‘Oh, my friends are going to see me in my kilt.’ Now, I’m proud to walk around in it." "Since the movie Braveheart, it’s cool to wear a kilt," joked Ed Moffit, adding that blue face paint is not a requirement to perform with the Emerald Society Pipe Band.

Rather, the main ingredients are a willingness to learn the bagpipes or drums; take part in parades, competitions and private shows; and perpetuate a musical tradition that some historians have traced back to the Roman Empire.

The 25-piece Emerald Band, sponsored primarily by the Philadelphia Emerald Society as well as the Ancient Order of Hibernians, sticks to more modern versions of the genre that evolved in the Irish and Scottish countryside and spread with immigration throughout much of the western world.

Their repertoire includes a mix of Irish and Scottish standards, as well as a few American patriotic songs such as God Bless America and Yankee Doodle Dandy — allowing members to honor both their Irish and American heritage.

For the Moffits, that means an opportunity to explore their own family heritage, too. In addition to annual St. Patrick’s Day parades and all of the related activities in their home country — which some might argue have very little to do with real Irish heritage — both young women have accompanied their father overseas twice for the All-Ireland Pipe Band Championships in Kilkenny.

"I’m participating in my heritage doing this," Ed Moffit said. "And it gave our children the opportunity to see the land where their great-grandparents came from," added Rosemary Moffit, Ed’s Italian-American wife.

"They visited the place where the Irish famine took place," Ed said. They also got to see Kilkenny Castle, one of the most famous in Ireland, and to take part in some fierce musical competition.

"They’re more competitive over there. It’s like a religion for them," noted Diana Moffit. In the Moffit home, it’s getting to be a pretty big tradition, as well, starting with the family patriarch. "I’ve been playing drums since I was fifteen years old, and I play the flute," Ed Moffit said. "I’ve always been interested in music, and I was always interested in my Irish roots."

Formed in 1973, the Emerald Pipe Band was still a relatively young group when Ed joined. As the band grew, so did his youngest two daughters.

Despite her apprehensions about the costumes, Mary Grace is the one who came up with the idea of making it a family affair. Or, as Diana explained it, "It was actually her fault."

"My parents always encouraged music, and I’d see my dad in kilts and stuff at parades," said Mary Grace, who studies art education at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art. "I was just going to school (at the time). I wasn’t involved in anything, really."

"She was like, ‘I don’t want to do this by myself,’" added Diana, who will enroll at Temple this fall.

Though female members were not new to the mostly male band, there weren’t any other young girls.

"They were only (around) ten years old, and the average age of the band was in the forties," Ed Moffit said.

Still, with a lot of hard work, they persevered, practicing every day for a year before they were good enough to take part in performances. "I wanted to prove to the band that I could do it," Mary Grace said.

In turn, the band welcomed them wholeheartedly. Today, Mary Grace even plays lead snare on occasion, while Diana, as tenor, is the center of attention with her twirling mallet technique.

Many other families in the band have followed the Moffits’ lead, too, with multiple generations joining the group. The Taylors, Waltrichs and Tobins all come to mind. "I’ve seen bands that are fifty percent family (related)," Ed Moffit said. "That’s part of the tradition of pipe bands. In Europe, they grow out of these little villages in Ireland and Scotland."

"That’s how they keep the band going," Rosemary Moffit said. It’s a good way to keep the family going, too. "For me, as a father with two daughters in the band, it’s been a great experience to do this with them," Ed said. "It’s given us an opportunity as a family to be together."