History: Paddy Donovan, the Man who Transformed Pipe Band Drumming

Eighty years ago this year pipe band drumming started its great leap forward. The man behind it was an Irishman by the name of Paddy Donovan. In this article Allan Chatto charts the life and times of a man whose influence on the drum corps is still felt today………

Paddy Donovan in 1949 one of the last pictures to be taken of him in uniform

At the Cowal Games, Dunoon, Scotland, August 1939, the massed bands stood waiting for the announcement of the results of the Open contest, the then World Pipe Band Championship. Then: ‘1st City of Glasgow Police, 2nd Glasgow Corporation Transport, 3rd Edinburgh City Police – and the winners of the World Open Drumming Champiopnships, the Fintan Lalor Pipe Band from Dublin.’

A great cheer went up, and for the Fintan Lalor’s Leading Drummer, Paddy Donovan, it was probably the greatest thrill in a lifetime of dedication to drumming and percussion.

But let’s go back to the beginning and see how Paddy got started. Despite his character, simple and unassuming as it was, he developed an expertise in the art of drumming that in time took the marriage of pipes and drums to a new dimension of concordance.

By Allan Chatto OAM

Previously the drum had tended to be a glorified metronome for beating time, and perhaps in some minor way, assisting rhythm and expression.

Paddy, during his involvement with the pipe band movement from 1932 till 1950, created a new era in drumming with the arrangement of scores to suit each particular tune.

Using rhythm to its fullest, with subtle dynamics together with syncopation and a complexity of beatings, he gave a new ensemble effect to pipe band performance.

His warmth of character, ready friendship, and readiness to assist all, from the beginner to the most accomplished leading drummer, was always appreciated in his native Ireland and in Scotland and by the many drummers he corresponded with all over the world.

Paddy Donovan was born in the fair city of Dublin in 1892. Of adventurous disposition, in 1907 he enlisted in the famous Connaught Rangers Regiment (88th), and commenced his military career as a drummer boy with the 2nd Battalion, drumming having captured his fancy since childhood.

After three years service he was discharged, but in 1915 during WW1, re-enlisted in the Royal Field Artillery, serving till the cessation of hostilities in 1918.

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At this stage Paddy was probably not not very interested in pipe bands as drummers tended to play fairly rudimentary and nondescript beatings offering little scope to one with initiative and imagination such as Paddy.

But he began to study music theory and for many years used his talents with various dance bands in the Dublin area together with playing in a number of flute and drum bands, notably the successful O’Connell Flute and Drum Band. Later Paddy was to have an association with the Dublin Symphony Orchestra as a percussionist.

During the mid 1920s developments were starting in pipe band drumming in Scotland, firstly with the publication in 1922 of ‘A Collection of Highland Bagpipe Music and Drum Settings’ by Pipe Major William Gray and Drum Major John Seton of the City of Glasgow Police, and then with the progressive innovaters such as Drum Major AD Hamilton and Jimmy Catherwood.

D/M John Seton

By 1930 technique and playing and the composition of scores had improved greatly and so, rather late in life, Paddy Donovan was suddenly attracted to the pipe band movement and thereafter decided to concentrate all his efforts in that direction.

Probably the most important event in his career to that point was when he was approched by Fintan Lalor to become their leading drummer and instructor.

The Fintan Lalor band was started in Dublin in 1912 by Robert de Ceour, ably assisted by his close friend John Hanratty, with, I believe, some financial assistance from the Transport and General Workers Union.

The band was very successful but alas, in 1916, it was disbanded. Efforts were made to revive it and a year later this was achieved. Further progress came in 1920 when Pipe Major Alex Meikle began teaching them. Alex had been a prisoner of war in Germany and on demob married a Scots girl living in Dublin.

Fintan Lalor Pipe Band

The ‘Fints’ were successful throughout the 1920s and in 1932 and ’34 swept all before them. Plans were made to visit Scotland with P/M Meikie drilling the pipers and Paddy Donovan the drummers. He used the opportunity to exploit many of his new and exciting ideas about pipe band drumming.

In 1934 at Cowal the Fints created something of a sensation coming second in the drumming, just half a point behind the winners. Successive appearances there added to their prestige. They were the first band from Eire to win prizes in Scotland. The climax came with winning that World Drumming title in 1939.

These visits to Scotland brought Paddy into contact with all the leading drummers of the day and after each contest there would be a session where scores would be exchanged and new ideas discussed. A keen letter writer, Paddy also corresponded with drummers such Allan Bradford in Canada.

When the then SPBA started their individual solo championship from 1935 onwards many of the contestants played Paddy’s drum score arrangements; they seemed to have that ‘something extra’.

As I said, winning the Worlds drumming in 1939 was the highlight of Paddy’s career but that same year war intervened. Throughout those difficult times Paddy continued to correspond with all the leading drumming lights of the day

Paddy remained with the Fintan Lalor for 15 years continuing with the innovative approach that had caused such a stir in Scotland. In 1946 he was on the committee that helped establish the new All-Ireland Pipe Band Championships.

For some reason Paddy left the Fints in 1947 to join the St Laurence O’Toole band playing with them until 1949 when, shortly after appearing with them in Belfast at the All Irelands, he fell ill. Paddy Donovan passed away a few months later on January 9, 1950. He was only 58.

He was mourned by all who knew his genial personality or who had been touched by his infectious enthusiasm for perfection in drumming. The Irish Pipe Band Association inaugurated a perpetutal trophy in his memory, the ‘Paddy Donovan Trophy’, to be awarded each year to the champion drummer at the All-Irelands.

Though Paddy wrote a great number of drum scores in his lifetime most have not survived. D/M John Seton in his tutor ’50 Years Behind the Drum’ (1954) did include four of his scores including one for the 2/4 march the Highland Wedding, the same score the Fints played when they won the World title in 1939.

I will conclude with the words of that other great pipe band drummer and innovator, Alex Duthart: ‘Of all the drummers I have known perhaps Paddy Donovan was the greatest’.

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12 thoughts on “History: Paddy Donovan, the Man who Transformed Pipe Band Drumming

  1. In 2009 the band from New York I was traveling with were competing at the Worlds, with the tune Paddy Donovan. The band dinner was at the Old Bridge Inn in Bridge of Allan. Found out that Michael Donovan was a grandson of Paddy’s. As the band was sans instruments, they ‘sang’ the tune for Michael. A memorable moment, made even more special as Donald Lindsay was with us.

  2. The singer/songwriter Bobby Watt told a lovely story about meeting Alex Duthart on a bus travelling to a piping contest.
    Bobby asked Alex who his hero was and Alex replied Paddy Donovan. He then proceeded to whip out a tin whistle and play a lament he had composed upon hearing of Paddy’s death. This inspired Bobby to write a song about the time Paddy’s band (Black Ravens?) were robbed of 1st prize.
    Anthony Donovan.

  3. Paddy is my great grandfather. Thank you for writing such a wonderful article. It’s great to have stories like this to pass on to my own kids.

    1. Megan may I ask who your father and grandfather are?
      My father was Joe Donovan and his father was Paddy Donovan.
      …yours sincerely, Anthony Donovan.

  4. This was such a lovely article. Paddy is my great- grandfather and I was able to share this with my dad who had never seen this before. He and my grandfather are legends in the family and started a long line of drummers.

  5. Hello Rob, thanks for this article. I was shocked when I saw the band photo. In the middle of the back row is Dominic Creaghan, a drummer. I played with “Dom” with Calgary’s Clan McBain Pipe Band. I remember going to his home to have tea and talk about things in the pipe band world. I was a pallbearer at his funeral.

    Ken Rogers, Calgary

  6. Thank you for the information on Paddy’s life, Allan. I remember Alex speaking of him and his innovative scoring, many times, always with a delighted twinkle in his eye. I still play the lovely 4/4 march he wrote in his honour. And when I play it I can hear Alex’s beatings in my head !Simply wonderful to learn about his life and drumming background, that Alex so admired. Beautiful memories…..

  7. I will also confirm Alex Duthart’s esteem for Paddy Donovan. The first year he attended the Balmoral School in Greensboro, North Carolina, he pretty much affirmed what has been outlined in this fine article.
    Some might be surprised to know that Alex actually composed a snappy march and named it “Paddy Donovan.” Although Alex wrote a fine drum salute for Max Rayne, I don’t think he wrote a pipe tune for anyone other than Paddy Donovan.

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