Bagpipe player part of St. Patrick's Day tradition at Baltimore Highlands pub

Bagpipes make St. Paddy's Day special at Baltimore Highlands pub

While many patrons enjoy the annual St. Patrick's Day celebration at Shannon's Pub and Grille in Baltimore Highlands because of the food, drinks and people, there is one attraction each year that makes the event a little extra special: the bagpipe player.

"I've never seen a bagpiper anywhere else but here — he's been here since you opened," said bar regular Bob Lauver to pub co-owners Steve and Shannon Armenis on March 6.

The bagpipe player has become a St. Patrick's Day fixture at the only Irish-themed bar and restaurant in the Baltimore Highlands community.

As the restaurant begins preparing 250 pounds of corned beef and cabbage for next week's celebration, Chris Spagnolo is tuning his bagpipes, which he will play at the restaurant from 5 to 7 p.m. on March 17.

Spagnolo, 24, is a music major at the nearby University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He has been hired to play the instrument at the Irish pub each year since he was 17.

He learned to play in middle school from Charles Henry, an award-winning bagpipe player who teaches at Loch Raven Pipes and Drums, he said.

"It's unique because there aren't as many people playing it as a concert band instrument — it's not something offered in school," Spagnolo said. "It seemed like an opportunity I might like, so I started taking lessons."

Shannon Armenis, who is Irish, said she was excited when her Greek husband decided to open an Irish-themed bar and name it after her.

Steve Armenis is the former owner of Zeus Cafe, a 24-hour Greek diner that operated in Fell's Point before it closed.

"He decided the hours were too much, and wanted to open something closer to home," Shannon said. The couple live in Catonsville with their three boys.

Her father, Bill Kearney, said when Steve found the location on Annapolis Road in Baltimore Highlands, he thought the neighborhood's residents would be more likely to frequent an Irish pub style restaurant than a Greek one.

Shannon said she and her husband opened the restaurant March 6, 2008, just before St. Patrick's Day.

She decided to hire a bagpipe player because her family often did for special occasions and funerals, she said.

She originally emailed Henry, Spagnolo's music teacher at Loch Raven Pipes and Drums, seeking him, Spagnolo said.

"He couldn't do it, so he asked if I wanted to," said Spagnolo, who also plays the saxophone, clarinet, drums and a number of other instruments.

The Lutherville resident played the gig, and has been part of the celebration ever since. It's become a family event, he said, as his parents, sister, uncle and grandmother come to the restaurant to watch him play.

"They've always taken care of me — they embrace me and my family," said Spagnolo, seated at a table in the restaurant as chatter at the bar grew louder.

Spagnolo, whose mother is Irish, said he has always celebrated the holiday with family.

"It's become a family affair — like a big party," said his mother, Lisa Spagnolo, whose heritage also includes some Scottish ancestors.

His family always celebrated the holiday when he was growing up, Spagnolo said.

"My grandmother would hide coins in certain places, like a leprechaun left them for you — it was just always something fun, and it does represent the Irish roots that I have," Spagnolo said.

They would also make a traditional Irish feast of corned beef and cabbage, Lisa Spagnolo said.

The holiday, which began in Ireland as a Roman Catholic feast day for Saint Patrick, turned into a celebration of Irish culture when the Irish emigrated to the U.S. in the 18th century, according to History.com. The first St. Patrick Day parade was held in New York City on March 17, 1762, and featured Irish soldiers who were serving in the English military, the historical account said.

Today, St. Patrick's Day is celebrated throughout the world with parades, pub crawls and Irish food.

When Shannon's first opened, the celebration was planned the weekend before the holiday like at other Baltimore area restaurants, she said.

"But then we realized that this neighborhood comes out on the actual St. Patrick's Day," Shannon said. "We changed that and our celebration is always the day of, although we run our specials the weekend before."

It is the pub's busiest day of the year, Shannon said.

"It's nuts in here — it gets so busy," Shannon said.

"Everyone looks forward to it — especially this young man," said bartender Jackie "Queen Bee" Leek, glancing at Spagnolo, who was clad in a blue and green kilt and shamrock tie.

The week before Shannon and her father, a retired United Parcel Service employee, deck out the restaurant in green to make the atmosphere more festive for the occasion.

"We go big or go home when it comes to decorations," Shannon said.

Both sides of her family — Irish and Greek — come together to prepare for the event, Shannon said.

"St. Patrick's Day has become sort of a family day," Shannon said. "We've had my aunt doing dishes downstairs, we've had my cousins bussing tables."

Steve Armenis's mother, Angeliki Armenis, makes the corned beef and cabbage each year, the couple said.

"She's Greek, but she makes the best corned beef and cabbage I've ever had in my life," Shannon said.

Lauver, who plans to be seated in his regular spot at the bar, next to his wife on St. Patrick's Day, agreed.

"Mamma can cook," Lauver said.

Spagnolo said it's the Armenis family's hospitality that makes playing the gig fun each year.

"Unless I'm deathly ill or physically unable to play, I'll be here for a long time," Spagnolo said.

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