We conclude Gilbert Cromie’s excellent article on the origins of the RUC pipe band, now the Police Service of Northern Ireland Pipes & Drums. Read Part 1 here..
Newly promoted, success in Grade 2 for the RUC was not easily achieved. The main challengers were the re-formed McDonald Memorial and the McNeillstown, Syerla and Dromara bands. But the RUC did manage wins at the Ulster, County Antrim and County Fermanagh Championships, as well as a first place at Cowal.
1981 brought a whole new focus and level of achievement for the band with the outstanding success of winning all five of the RSPBA’s Major Championships together with wins at the All Ireland, Ballyclare, County Antrim, County Fermanagh, Heart of Down, Mid Ulster, Ulster and NI Branch RSPBA Champions of Champion titles.
The band was promoted to Grade 1 in 1982 coming into the grade at a time when Northern Ireland was particularly strong at this level with St Patrick’s Donaghmore, Robert Armstrong Memorial and Cullybackey the leading contenders – although all three would fade as the decade progressed.
The Graham Memorial and McNeillstown bands were on the rise too and toward the end of the decade Field Marshal Montgomery would emerge and dominate, challenged only by the emergence of St Laurence O’Toole from Dublin as the main local opposition over the last two decades.
Many will be surprised to learn that the RUC band only ever won the All Ireland title once, in 1985, and the drumming title in 1987, 1989, 1993 and 1995. However this was due to security considerations which meant that they could never compete in the Republic of Ireland and therefore only played in nine competitions which included missing the event at Rostrevor in 1997 as a result of a protest at their entry.
Due to this impediment a true reflection of their strength is better shown by their success in the Ulster Championships against the same opposition. Here they won six titles in the 1980s, including five in a row and thirteen drumming titles up to 2000. They and the other bands had to play second fiddle to the Field Marshal Montgomery through the 1990s, although their drummers remained the equal of any.
At the RSPBA major competitions the RUC band came second on a number of occasions including four seconds out of the five majors in one season behind the all-conquering Strathclyde Police. At the Worlds in the early 1980s they had a 5th and a 6th.
Pipe Major Nat Russell emigrated to Australia after the 1986 season where he took on the Victoria Police Pipe Band and led them to Grade 1 World Championships success in 1998. Back home he was replaced by Pipe Major Ian Jess who led the band from 1987 through to 1991 during which period the band made a CD recording as part of a series entitled ‘Pipe Bands of Distinction’.
He was followed by Pipe Major Lenny Browne who was at the helm for the 1992 and 1993 seasons. Pipe Major Mark Faloon led the band from 1994 to 1998 and he was followed by William Irvine in 1999. Tony Sloane led the band for its final two competitive seasons 2000 and 2001.
The Drum Corps over the years were led by Billy Dunlop, Bobby Rea, Paul Turner, Andy Scullion and Gary Corkin and attracted some of the finest drummers in the country to its ranks. They were extremely competitive and amassed regular prizes both locally and nationally.
The quality of the corps is supported by the fact that they won eight RSPBA major championships and a number of RSPBA Champion of Champion titles making them one of the most successful pipe band drum corps ever. Their major wins were at Cowal (1993, 1998 and 2000), the Worlds (2000), British (1996 and 1997), European (1995) and Scottish (1990).
Throughout their existence as the Pipes and Drums of the RUC, during some of the worst times of the ‘Troubles’, the band enjoyed enormous support amongst the community who, apart from appreciating the standard of their musical performance and all round turnout (they rarely failed to lift the style and appearance/ marching and discipline prize), respected the dangerous job that the police in general had to do.
Indeed the occasions when piper Freddie Russell, who had lost his legs in a car bomb, was handed his crutches as the band left the competition arena, provided a timely reminder of the dangers that police officers faced.
It must also be borne in mind that the Royal Ulster Constabulary, apart from finding itself in the middle of a conflict situation, was also involved in a battle for its reputation and the successes of its Pipes and Drums along with their soccer and rugby teams provided very positive publicity.
The Pipes and Drums were fully supported by a number of the force’s Chief Constables, most notably Sir John Hermon who held that position from January 1980 to May 1989. He was a regular attender at contests both locally and in Scotland and was Chieftain at a World Championships in the 1980s.
Pipes & Drums of the PSNI
On the 4th November 2001 the Royal Ulster Constabulary had its name changed to the Police Service of Northern Ireland. In March 2003 it was decided to close the official PSNI military band down in order to release up to 40 full-time officers back to policing duties. This resulted in the Pipes and Drums becoming the duty band for passing out parades and other such events.
In 2009 the Pipes and Drums of the PSNI returned to the local competition scene in Grade 3 under Pipe Major Colin McClelland. In 2012 the band secured wins at three RSPBA majors (British, European and Scottish) which led to their promotion to Grade 2. In 2016 under P/M Robert Cupples the band almost eclipsed the 1981 success of the RUC band when they won four of the Grade 2 RSPBA majors but lost out to Johnstone on ensemble preference in the Worlds Grade 2 final.
Promotion to Grade 1 followed in 2017 and Pipe Major Cupples led the band for a further two seasons. The position of Pipe Major is currently held by David Rennie who was appointed to the role for the 2019 season. Robert Smith (now Bass Drummer with the Field Marshal Montgomery) and the present Drum Sergeant Brendan Megoran have led the drum corps since its return to competition.