Firstly a very Happy New Year to all the Piping Press readers and all pipers, drummers, drum majors and administrators everywhere. 2019 marked the 70th anniversary of the Northern Ireland Pipe Band League (then affiliated to the North of Ireland Bands Association) becoming the first N.I. Branch of the Scottish Pipe Band Association.
This affiliation was the brainchild of pipe band pioneers such as Eddie McVeigh (pictured above) Tom Hart, William Wood, Tommy Graham and ‘Kit’ Reynolds to name but a few whose main aim was to improve the standard of piping and drumming in Northern Ireland by accessing the SPBA’s tuition programme and forming a Pipe Band College – which it did with PM William Wood as its first Principal. They achieved their goals with tutors coming over to run courses to prepare pipers and drummers to take the accredited examinations of the time.
For the SPBA this union gave them a glimpse of what they could achieve with the then SPBA President William McLean commenting in the Pipe Band magazine of the time ‘that as he sat on the platform at the meeting in Belfast in 1949 he thought to himself ‘here it is at last, the World Pipe Band Association is now being born’. In the years that followed the NI branch would raise it band member numbers to over the 100 mark on several occasions however that has been decreasing and the numbers competing today is falling to a worrying extent.
As I write I am aware of some bands that will not be competing in 2020 due to membership issues, not to mention other non-competing bands who are really struggling to get members and this is despite the amazing amounts of money that is being put into the teaching of piping, drumming and drum majors in schools as reflected by the Ulster Scots Agency’s programme from which 239 pupils received Foundation Certificates in 2019.
I raise a few questions and a few things for all of us involved to some extent or other in the pipe band movement to think about:
Is there a lack of connection between these classes and local bands in the area in which they are being held, bands to which the young people might be encouraged to join?
Do the officials of local bands actually know that such tuition is taking place in their area? Is anything being done to establish bands in Belfast which has little or maybe no pipe bands at all now, even with a population of 300,000.
Obviously the pipe band movement today could never reach the heights of the 1950s and 1960s with regard to band numbers, but it most certainly could restore itself to at least ‘steady the ship’. Is this the responsibility of the RSPBA NI Branch, its branches or its schools? Is it the responsibility of the Ulster Scots Agency?
I will close with one concerning thought from the past which should not be repeated. In the 1960s and 1970s many NI schools became involved in a music programme which promoted the playing of brass instruments, and indeed I believe it continues to this day. The brass band movement thought they were ‘on the pig’s back’ with all the potential new members but no connection was made between local bands and the music programme and within two decades the number of brass bands had reduced considerably.
Now to my look back at 2019. It year started out with the award of an MBE to former RSPBA administrator Mervyn Herron in the New Years’ Honours List for services to the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association. He would receive his award at a ceremony at Holyrood Palace in July.
In mid-January the RSPBA NI Branch County Down Section held a seminar entitled ‘What is Ensemble?’ led by respected RSPBA adjudicator Alan Ronaldson and other experts which was well attended. At the end of the same month a reception was held in the Parliament Buildings, Stormont to honour the 2018 World Champion bands and individuals who were Field Marshal Montgomery, McNeillstown, Gransha, Drum Major Emma Barr and drummers Samuel Hanna and Adam Montgomery.
This was the same venue in June for the Ulster Scots Agency’s annual graduation for young pipers, drummers and drum majors when 239 pupils from 39 different tuition classes across Ulster received their Foundation Certificates, which are accredited by the Ulster-Scots Agency and RSPBA NI Branch. They were presented by Michelle McIlveen MLA who hosted the first such event in 2012 for 28 participants.
Two of the biggest non-competition events of the year were the Kids with Cancer Charity Event in Cookstown which will take place again this year in the local Royal Hotel on Saturday 22nd February 2020. The other was the sell-out St Laurence O’Toole Pipe Band Concert in Armagh on Saturday 9th February 2019.
James Warnock the pioneer chanter and reed maker celebrated his 100th birthday. Jim was born into a farming family on the outskirts of Cookstown on 18th July 1919 and like his brothers he followed his father into farming as well as sharing his interest in piping by joining Tullylagan Pipe Band which in the 1930s under Pipe Major Tommy Green won the NI Championships four times. He started his business James Warnock Reeds in the 1960s and the rest is history.
It was perhaps not one of the Field Marshal Montgomery’s most successful seasons, however for Pipe Major Richard Parkes, MBE it was a memorable year as he received Honorary Doctorates from both the Queens University and University of Ulster.
Northern Ireland drumming adjudicator Sandy Steele’s long service to the pipe band movement was recognised by RSPBA Adjudicators Panel which he has been a member of since 1995.
At the Annual General Meeting of the RSPBA NI Branch the only change to the officer team was the election of Mark Hasson to a place on the RSPBA Music Board. NI Branch President Winston Pinkerton made presentations to the representatives of three of its member bands namely Ballyboley, Cullybackey and Hollymount who had each celebrated their centenaries this year. Presentations were also made to Marching and Deportment Adjudicator Robert (Bertie) Young to mark his retirement and young drummer Jamie Coffey to mark his achievement of winning Juvenile Section 3 at the World Solo Drumming Championships 2019.
Another band to notch up their 100th anniversary was Gilnahirk who are hoping to return to the competition arena in 2020. While four NI Branch bands chalked up ten decades of existence the Down Academy Pipes & Drums which is based near Ballynahinch made their first public appearance just before Christmas. Enrolled in membership in the NI branch, they hope to make their competition debut in 2020.
RSPBA NI Branch competitions: The local competition season got underway with the County Down Championships at Newtownards Airport which, despite reservations, proved to be quite a good venue. The trend towards fewer bands competing was arrested to some degree, however the absence of Grade 1 bands is affecting spectator attendances.
The RSPBA NI Branch competitions for 2019 took place at Newtownards (County Down), Enniskillen (County Fermanagh), Cookstown (Mid Ulster), Stormont (City of Belfast), Antrim (Antrim & Newtownabbey Borough), Ballymena (All Ireland), Newcastle (Ulster), Moira (Lisburn & Castlereagh) and Portrush (North West).
Field Marshal Montgomery lifted the County Down Grade 1 title that day however due to them making very few local appearances. including a withdrawal from the Moira Contest due to the expected bad weather which didn’t materialise, the PSNI would end up as the Champion of Champions.
In Grade 2 Closkelt continued their climb up the ladder with a strong showing and that ended with them being promoted to Grade 1 at the end of the season. Their nearest challengers were Ravara who put in a strong challenge particularly at the All Ireland were they took the title.
In Grade 3A it was Quinn Memorial that was the most consistent over the season however St Mary’s Derrytrasna won the big prizes particularly at the RSPBA majors and this has led to them being promoted to Grade 2. Sadly it is understood that the Quinn Memorial and the IPBA’s Thiepval Memorial will not be competing next season.
In Grade 3B McNeillstown continued their upward move and they and their nearest challengers, World Champions Tullylagan, will play in Grade 3A in 2020. Augharan were dominant in Grade 4A winning on five occasions with only Cullybackey and Kildoag making any significant challenge. Augharan and Cullybackey will play in Grade 3B next season.
Broughshane & District won on four occasions in Grade 4B and were also All Ireland Champions, however they just scraped over the line in the Champion of Champions race with Mountjoy and the William Kerr Memorial running them close.
The Ulster Champion of Champions bands and drum majors were as follows: Grade 1: PSNI (Band, Bass Section & Drums), Grade 2: Closkelt (Band & Bass Section), Ravara (Drums), Grade 3A: Quinn Memorial (Band, Bass Section & Drums), Grade 3B: McNeillstown (Band & Drums), Tullylagan (Bass Section), Grade 4A: Augharan (Band), Gransha (Drums) & Cullybackey (Bass Section), Grade 4B: Broughshane & District (Band & Bass Section – shared with Carlow), Mountjoy (Drums). Drum Majors: Lauren Hanna (Senior), Jamie Cupples (Juvenile), Benjamin Walker (Junior) and Carys Graham (Novice).
Success in the RSPBA Major Championships was as follows: Grade 2 – Closkelt (British, UK, Scottish and Band RSPBA CoC) and Ravara (Best Drum Corps at Scottish & Worlds and Drum Corps RSPBA CoC); Grade 3A – St Mary’s Derrytrasna (British & UK including Best Drum Corps at UK and Band RSPBA CoC); Grade 3B – McNeillstown (UK) and Tullylagan (Worlds); Grade 4A – Augharan (UK) and Cullybackey (Scottish).
IPBA bands that had successes were as follows: Grade 1 – St. Laurence O’Toole (British & UK also Best Drum Corps at British, UK and Worlds);
Grade 3A – St Joseph’s Clondalkin (Scottish & Worlds and Best Drum Corps at the Scottish and British); Grade 4B – Carlow (UK including Best Drum Corps).
Drum Majors : At the local competitions Lauren Hanna was the Adult Champion of Champion pipping Emma Barr to the title while James Kennedy who had a poor local season lifted two RSPBA majors in his first season in the senior section. In the Juvenile section the leading competitor was Jamie Cupples with World Champion Kathy Hunter and Kathryn McKeown the nearest challengers.
The Junior section champion was Benjamin Walker who made up an amazing amount of ground on Louis Anderson who had established a good lead at the half way mark. In the Novice section Carys Graham, having finished second at the County Down in the first contest, won every event thereafter to become Champion of Champions.
At the RSPBA Major competitions the domination of the Drum Major prizes continued unabated as follows: Adult: Emma Barr (UK and RSPBA CoC), James Kennedy (European & Scottish), Juvenile: Kara Gilmour (Scottish Fire & Rescue) who won the European and Scottish is also from NI. IPBA drum majors that had successes were as follows: Juvenile – Kathy Hunter (British & Worlds); Junior – Louis Anderson Scottish, British, European, UK and RSPBA CoC).
Solo Piping: The first senior title of the season went to James Frazer who won the Ulster while in September Ashley McMichael won yet another All Ireland. In the season concluding NI Piper of the Year the winner was Scott Wallace. All three champions, not surprisingly, play for the Field Marshal Montgomery.
Another of their band colleagues Ryan Cupples Menendez had a number of successes throughout the season including lifting prizes at some events in Scotland during the summer.
Drumming: County Antrim man Stephen McWhirter lifted his 10th World Adult Solo Drumming title (this win being an unprecedented ninth in a row). In second place was another Northern Ireland man, Gareth McLees, while the other local winner was 10 year old Jamie Coffey in the Juvenile Section 3 (under 14). Gareth also became All Ireland Champion and he followed that up by taking second place at the World solos. The Ulster Champion and winner of the NI Branch Worlds Qualifier was Christopher McNichol.