Happy 70th Birthday to the Northern Ireland Branch

By Gilbert Cromie

This week marked the founding of the Northern Ireland Branch of the RSPBA 70 years ago. Happy birthday! What a journey it has been. On Saturday 30th April 1949 a meeting took place in Belfast which legendary Northern Ireland pipe band administrator Eddie McVeigh regularly referred to as ‘the best day’s business ever done for piping and drumming in Northern Ireland’.

The previous evening three Scottish Pipe Band Association officials, William McLean (President), RC Whitelaw (Secretary) and William McKay (Treasurer), had flown in from Renfrew Airport to Nutts Corner which was then Northern Ireland’s main airport were they were met by NI Pipe Band League officials Mr Norman Bradley (Secretary) and Mr David Nelson Jnr (Assistant Secretary). 

The purpose of their visit was to inaugurate the NI Pipe Band League as the Northern Ireland Branch of the SPBA and the first such Branch outside of Scotland. 

At the meeting the following afternoon the SPBA representatives promoted their organisation with specific emphasis on establishing a local Pipe Band College and they also used the opportunity to promote its Pipe Band magazine having secured local agents in Matchett’s Music Shop (Wellington Place, Belfast) and Curry’s (Great Victoria Street, Belfast). 

It was reported that there were twenty-two member bands in attendance and the first elected officials were President: David Nelson Senior (Dromara Highland), Chairman: Eddie McVeigh JP MBE (Ballynahinch), Vice Chairman: George Milligan (Duncairn), Secretary: Norman Bradley (Dromara Highland), Assistant Secretary: David Nelson Jnr (Lifford Highland). (It is interesting to note that Eddie McVeigh’s grand-daughter Lorraine Ronaldson is today the President of the Co. Down section of the RSPBANI and a Director of the parent body.)

Committee: WH Shannon (East Belfast), Michael Magee (St Joseph’s), Samuel Walker (Prince of Wales), WJ Gregory (Ballycoan), Robert Boyd (8th Belfast Memorial), J Leonard (29th Old Boys ), J Reid (Cullybackey) and R Kidd (Carnmoney).

Others added or coming on as replacements during the year were WHR Wood (Ballycoan), J Bowman (Sir Henry Wilson), R Bowers (Annahilt) and George Finlay (Boardmills – I think this is the forerunner to Field Marshal Montgomery). 

The local branch meetings were held at 113 Great Victoria Street, Belfast, at 6.45pm on the last Saturday of each month.

Seventeen months later at a NI Pipe Band League meeting in September 1950 ten of the bands present voted to leave its then parent organisation, the Northern Ireland Bands Association (which to this day administers Accordion, Brass and Flute Bands). The SPBA NI Branch, the organisation that we have today, came into being in January 1951.

The late Tommy Millar writing for the Ulster-Scots Academy in 1993: ‘With the advent the new Branch, drumming classes were held right away, under a big name in Scottish percussion in those days — Drum Major Alec McCormick — with the result that 29 participants received certificates in the first examination taken by Northern Ireland Branch pupils.

‘Piping instruction was not neglected in the formative years of the fledgling movement here. Pipe Major Donald MacLean spent some time in the Province instructing the pipe majors of the initial intake of member bands.

The late Tommy Millar, the man who through his broadcasts on BBC Radio Ulster and his newspaper columns did so much to promote Northern Ireland’s pipe band movement

‘Progress in membership build-up was fast and spontaneous, and the growth, enthusiasm and administrative capability was rewarded by the parent body in Glasgow.

‘The ‘mandarins’ of Washington Street designated a major championship outside Auld Scotia for the first time in the Association’s history, the Europeans held at Balmoral Showgrounds, Belfast, in 1953.

†’If there were any doubts or inhibitions by the hierarchy in Glasgow that its newest member branch couldn’t ‘stand on its own feet’, these were finally dispelled after the ‘Europeans’, the administrators in Ulster never looking back after that red-letter day!

‘As a mark of the respect and confidence which the new branch had at headquarters, the Association designated two even bigger honours on its newest and fastest-growing branch — the 1956 and 1962 World Championships, also held at the spacious Balmoral Showgrounds.

‘Since those formative years, Northern Ireland bands have travelled to the mainland — notably for the Worlds and Cowal Games events, and were not long in making their presence felt in the lower grades. In 1970, the now-defunct Robert Armstrong Memorial Band, under the late, lamented Tommy Geddis, won the Grade 2 World Championship at Aberdeen and were subsequently elevated to the big league — Grade 1 — along with St Patrick’s from Donaghmore in Co Tyrone led by Scot Tommy Anderson. This band, sadly, is also no longer with us.

Robert Armstrong Memorial Pipe Band in 1966. As well as being crowned World Grade 2 Champions in 1970, the band won the All-Ireland Championship nine times – 1966, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976 and 1977.

‘As the standard improved, in later years the RAMS and St Pat’s were joined by Cullybackey (which was the first Ulster band to make the play-offs in the old-style Grade 1 format), McNeillstown, Graham Memorial, RUC, Upper Crossgare, Field Marshal Montgomery and, most recently, Eden from near Omagh.

‘Always there, or thereabouts in the ever-increasing exodus to the five major events on the mainland, the ‘balloon’ finally went up — as all true Ulster-Scots well know — in August of last year with domination in practically all the ‘big ones’ by Ulster bands.

‘Yes, the centre of global pipe banding was, unbelievably, Ulster, with the Field Marshal Montgomery completely monopolising the scene — Scottish, British, Cowal, World, runner-up in the European, and culminating with the title of Supreme Champion of Champions. They were ably supported with high placings by the large contingent of Ulster bands over the other grades.

Today the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association Northern Ireland Branch oversees pipe band competition throughout the Province, representing approximately seventy pipe bands and over three thousand individual members.

MacNeilstown, the current World Grade 4A champions

As Tommy mentioned the branch has produced many, many World Champion and major winning bands, no less than Field Marshal Montgomery from Lisburn the current World Champions, MacNeilstown current World Champions in 4A and Gransha in 4B plus of course World Adult Drum Major Champion Emma Barr.

The branch recently hosted the Ulsetr Solo Piping and Drumming Championships which included a qualifier for the World Solo Drumming and of course Ulster is this year again the venue for one of the RSPBA’s major championships, the UKs, to be held at Lurgan on June 15.

In addition the branch continues to run a very healthy education programme with hundreds of pipers and drummer benefiting from expert tuition and a comprehensive exam programme.

Yes, the branch has come a long way since those gentlemen met that delegation at Nutts Corner all those years ago. I think they would have been proud and more than satisfied with the way things have developed. A happy birthday indeed.

  • The Northern Ireland pipe band calendar kicks off a week tomorrow May 11. Check out the full slate of events here.

Posted in News   

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *