Irish Pipe Bands Were Divided – but Also United by the All-Ireland Championships

We conclude the article on the oprigins of pipe band associations and competition on the island of Ireland. Pictured below are the Robert Armstrong Memorial Pipe Band in 1966. The band won the All-Ireland Championship nine times – 1966, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976 and 1977.

Almost certainly the contact that the Fintan Lalor and the other Dublin based bands such as St Laurence O’Toole had with the Scottish bands at the Cowal will have had some bearing on the formation of the Irish Pipe Band Association in 1939.

It came about following the co-operation of bands operating within the Gaelic League when they were performing as massed bands at events in Phoenix Park and Croke Park. A preliminary meeting was held shortly after which resulted in seventeen Dublin City and County bands joining.

According to an article on the IPBA website about the Emerald Girls Pipe Band from Dublin, the IPBA was based at the offices of the Gaelic League, 14 Parnell Square, Dublin, where meetings of the Leinster Branch were held for many years. 

Meanwhile over in Scotland, having set up a Northern Ireland Branch, the SPBA was very keen to see the IPBA affiliate as well so they delegated NI Branch Chairman Eddie McVeigh to attend a meeting of the IPBA with the intention of encouraging them to join up. It is not known why but this did not happen until 1956 when the IPBA’s twenty six bands became affiliated. These included four Irish bands who were already direct members of the SPBA. These memberships now lapsed. 

It is interesting to note the Scottish Pipe Band Association’s reaction to the formation of the Northern Ireland Branch. It gives some idea of its ambitions.

They considered it to be a major coup because of the number of bands it would bring to their organisation which at its height in the 1960s was over 100. In its two decades of existence the SPBA had brought itself to a position of considerable power and influence within the pipe band movement and it is obvious that expansion outside Scotland was now on their agenda.

This view is endorsed in an article written by its President William McLean in the SPBA Pipe Band magazine in which he commented 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’.

Such ambitious thinking is further endorsed by a comment in the same publication some months later which suggests that the SPBA saw the NI Branch as a means of bringing the IPBA into the fold.

At its Annual General Meeting in Glasgow on the 5th January 1950 the SPBA officers were praised for having brought about the formation of the NI Branch and the inauguration of a NI Branch Pipe Band College.

In response the officials indicated that they would not be satisfied until the many fine bands in Eire formed another branch and united the country under one banner – the SPBA. This did not happen.

While this portrays what was ultimately a divided pipe band community in Ireland, the reality for the last 75 years has been completely different. The catalyst for that changing was the creation, in 1946, of the All-Ireland Pipe Band Championships.

This was one of the greatest and perhaps least recognised cross-community events on this island and it stands as a testament to the true friendships that have been built up over the years.

The Championships came about following a wartime competition held in Dromara, County Down, for which the Fintan Lalor from Dublin accepted an invitation to compete. The friendships that were made that day led to the idea of an All-Ireland competition. 

St Laurence O’Toole, winners of the 2019 All-Irelands

Throughout the 1950s, and for many decades beyond, the NI Branch contest schedule would include at least one or maybe two dates when its bands would travel to take part in IPBA contests. This indicates that, since most IPBA contests were held on Sundays, there was actual co-operation to arrange these dates for a Saturday to suit the majority of NI Branch bands. 

Also IPBA bands travelled regularly to play at NI Branch band and solo events and this continues to the present day. Much of this co-operation came about through the All-Ireland Joint Administrative Council which was formed in 1953 to organise the All-Ireland Pipe Band Contest and the All-Ireland Solos, a separate event held each autumn.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s we also see piping, drumming and drum major tutors travelling at weekends to teach IPBA bands and over time players have come North or gone South to play in bands. 

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the All-Ireland Championships and we were hoping to travel to Swords Castle outside Dublin at the start of July to celebrate that milestone. At the time of writing this has been postponed with the hope that it can be rearranged for August or perhaps September.

1 thought on “Irish Pipe Bands Were Divided – but Also United by the All-Ireland Championships

  1. I have many fond memories of listening to great Irish bands in the 60’s and 70’s at Cowal, including Finton Lalor, Robert Armstrong Memorial and St Patricks Donaghmore, and others….. which were trailblazers for the many great bands of the modern era which followed (RUC, FMM, SLOT). Its an Irish history to be proud of.

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