Ulster Notes: Shankill Amateurs Pipe Band and a Bands v BBC Dispute that Ended in Court

I was interested to read the extracts from the May 1936 issue of the Piping & Dancing’ magazine which Piping Press featured recently and in particular the item relating to the ‘Ulster Notes’.

The North of Ireland Bands Association formed in 1907 exists to the present day. In its heyday in the 1940s / 50s it had a membership of 250 bands. Pipe bands joined it in 1911 and remained in membership until 1957, but not all left to join the SPBA when the Northern Ireland Branch came into being in 1951.

I enclose a photograph of the Shankill Amateurs Pipe Band [top] which I think is from around the 1950s or early 1960s. As far as I can ascertain this band was in existence from the 1920s and may have originally started out as a flute band as I have found reference to a Shankill Amateurs Flute Band entered in the North of Ireland Band Association Championships of Ireland competition in 1911.

The pipe band was in existence into the 1970s and competed with some success reaching Grade 2 in the mid 1960s. Notable achievements as a band included winning the Ulster Grade 3 Championship in 1959 while their drum corps was crowned All Ireland Grade 4 Champions in 1958 and Grade 2 Ulster Champions in 1963, 1965 and 1966.

Broadcasting fees

The author of the ‘Ulster Notes’ refers to a dispute over fees for broadcasting and the absence of pipe bands, or indeed any local bands, playing on the BBC Northern Ireland radio station.

BBC Northern Ireland Radio began broadcasting from 2BE (the call sign allotted to the Belfast station of the British Broadcasting Corporation) on 15 September 1924 from facilities in Belfast’s Linenhall Street. 

(NB: According to the history of Ballycoan Pipe Band their bandroom at Purdysburn had originally been one of the former huts from which the BBC NI station had broadcast before the new Broadcasting House in Ormeau Avenue was built.)

From 1924 the winners of the various senior sections at the annual North of Ireland Bands Association Championships of Ireland contests would be invited to broadcast on BBC Northern Ireland radio and amongst the pipe bands that featured in these early years were Cookstown, East Belfast, Sydenham and Tullylagan. Solo pipers who also broadcast were William Hope, Mickey Magee, Tommy Green and James Steenson.

Tullylagan pictured last year. They were early broadcasters on BBC NI

In the mid 1930s it seems that a considerable amount of dissatisfaction had developed amongst the membership of the North of Ireland Bands Association (the organisation that represented accordion, brass, concert, flute, military and pipe bands) regarding the level of fees being paid to the local bands and especially the limited opportunities that they were being given. 

As this problem was developing through 1935 at least one meeting took place between the NIBA and the BBC with a view to improving the situation. However it appears that this did not go well and turned into a slanging match between a Lt. Geary, the Director of Music for the Royal Artillery, a regular adjudicator at NIBA contests, and Mr Godfrey Brown, the Director of Music at BBC Northern Ireland. 

This was an era when communication was carried out by letter and it appears that quite a lot of correspondence was winging about between the various parties particularly regarding the standard of the Northern Ireland Brass Band and the ability of its conductor Mr Godfrey Brown.

It seems that this band was being used regularly by BBC NI thus reducing the broadcasting opportunities for the local bands. The NIBA through their Secretary Mr Charles Rollins had sought the opinion of Lt Geary on this band and his views to say the least were less than complimentary. In the early part of 1936 things had very quickly got out of hand and eventually materialised into a libel case ‘Geary v Brown’.

It was heard in the Belfast courts over a fortnight in February/ March 1937 with a considerable number of witnesses being called and quite a lot of correspondence having to be produced.

There was a lot of public interest in the case to such an extent that it was covered by newspapers in every part of the United Kingdom. It has to be said that the reports contained quite a lot of humour which would have provided considerable amusement to the readers. In the end the Jury found in favour of Lt Geary on three counts of libel awarding him £10 and Mr Brown on one awarding him £5.

This of course did not resolve the NIBA’s complaint, and on Wednesday 28th April 1937 they staged what was effectively a protest concert in the Ulster Hall, Belfast. Their newspaper advertisement invited the general public to ‘come and hear the music that the BBC denies you’. 

The matter was eventually resolved by the intervention of the Northern Ireland Prime Minister Sir James Craig who won concessions for the bands. This led to the winning bands in each section of the NIBA’s Championship of Ireland contests being given the opportunity to broadcast. This continues to the present day with the NIBA bands broadcasting on an annual six part series entitled ‘Listen to the Band’.

Local pipe bands were to benefit as well, and even after they left the NIBA in 1950 to form the SPBA NI Branch the leading bands in every era would be invited to broadcast regularly as they do in the present day on the ‘Pipes and Drums’ programme presented by RSPBA drumming adjudicator Mark Wilson who succeeded the late Tommy Miller.


Posted in News   

Leave a Reply

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