When Columcille (Lat. Columba) (521–597), the Irish-born missionary roamed the countryside of Ireland, and finally Scotland, spreading the word of Christianity, he was driven to unite all Celtic peoples under a single tradition, a single ideal.
It was in the tradition of uniting the Gaels that Sean McGonigal formed Saint Columcille's United Gaelic Pipe Band in 1949, joining with other pipers and drummers who also believed strongly in this tradition. The meaning of the phrase "United Gaelic," which was the core of the bands tradition then, and still is today, has come to signify not only the unity of people of Celtic heritage, but the unity of all people, regardless of ancestry. Dedicated to this idea of unity, the members of Saint Columcille have formed a bond that extends beyond any ethnic or religious barriers, and has endured throughout the band's history. It has been the tradition of the band to hold true to the ideal of "United Gaelic," attracting individuals who all share a common love of the music that is at the soul of Celtic heritage. It is the result of this tradition that the ranks of Saint Columcille have swelled with individuals from all manner of backgrounds since the band's founding, individuals who all share a love of the music. It is that passion that has kept the spirit of Columcille alive by continuing his tradition of unity and that is expressed in the band's motto "Onward with the Music of the Gael!"
Sean McGonigal (1910–1965), founder and first Pipe Major of the St. Columcille United Gaelic Pipe Band was born in Glasgow, Scotland of Irish parents, (his mother, from County Down; his father, 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 after 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 statewide. In 1949, Sean founded a pipe band that he wanted to be different than any that had been seen before. He chose Saint Columcille to represent his ideal—the unity of the Gael. Sean wanted St. Columcille's to represent all who were proud of their blood and heritage and the band was no sooner formed than it was out making its 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 Gealic, 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 for the $64,000 Question, the popular 1950s TV 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 1965 Kearny Memorial Day Parade, 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. Since then, Sean's memory and mission has been carried through the band by his son Joseph "Pat" McGonigal, his eldest grandson Joe, Jr., and currently his youngest grandson Sean.