Throughout the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s the band were regularly featured on BBC Northern Ireland Radio programmes such as ‘Ulster Band’. In 1974 they were invited to perform in a BBC television programme entitled ‘The Rock of Fergus’ along with The Pattersons folk group and harpist Deirdre O’Callaghan. It was one of a number of television appearances throughout this period. The band is pictured above 1974/75 at Carrickfergus Castle.
The band gained the nickname RAMS and this name was used in the title of an LP they released on the Homespun Record label in 1975 entitled ‘The RAMS at Fergus Rock’. It sold some 3,000 copies in the first week after release, netting the band 65p per copy with the proceeds going towards new uniforms costing £5,000. At the end of the 1977 season Tommy Geddis was enticed to take over as Pipe Major of the newly formed McDonald Memorial from Dromore.
No matter who was going to follow in the footsteps of Pipe Major Geddis, they were going to face a difficult challenge and over the next decade the band made a number of appointments of talented pipers and experienced leaders either from within its ranks or having previously played in the band. Unfortunately for each of them, things were made considerably more difficult by a number of significant issues namely:
- Terrorist activity within Belfast discouraged players from outside the city joining the band
- The emergence of bands such as Cullybackey, Graham Memorial, McNeillstown, Pipes and Drums of the RUC and later the Field Marshal Montgomery were now all in the market for the limited number of top quality pipers and drummers available
The first to take up the P/M challenge was Harry Stevenson (1978 – 1981), a long-time band member and former Ulster and All Ireland solo piping champion. Harry took on the role for the 1978 season onwards.
During his tenure the band were 1978 All Ireland drum corps champions, 1979 Ulster band and drumming winners and they also won the 1981 Ulster drum corps title.
In 1980 the band were placed sixth at the Scottish Championships in Edinburgh. The band had remained in a commanding position gaining numerous local contest wins in an era dominated by Cullybackey led by Pipe Major Graham Lamont and Leading Drummer Bobby Rea.
Pipe Major Enoch Kirk took on the RAMS position for the 1982 season when their only major success was lifting the All-Ireland drumming title. At the end of season the band approached former Pipe Major Tommy Geddis who had stepped down from his role with the McDonald Memorial due to health reasons.
Alas his final tenure would be tragically short. Whilst preparing the band to compete at the Col. Saunderson Memorial Pipe Band’s Mini Band contest in Portadown, he collapsed and died. A memorial service was held in St. Aiden’s Parish Church, Sandy Row, Belfast, on Sunday 7th August 1983, with the service being conducted by the Rev. Stanley McDowell who had been a piper in the RAMS under Tommy.
The former Pipe Major of the 29th Old Boys Pipe Band agreed to step into the position on a temporary basis to help the band compete in the second half of the season.
The band’s next appointment was Pipe Major George McFetridge, a former member, who had led the Syerla band for a number of successful seasons in Grade 2. He held the position for the 1984 and 1985 seasons and while the band competed regularly and figured in the prize lists, their only significant success came when they won the All Ireland drumming in 1985.
There is little evidence that the band made any competition appearances in 1986, however a big effort was made to get them back into competition. It was decided that it would be better to step down to Grade 2 which is where they competed in the 1987 season under the leadership of Pipe Major Ian McClean. Sadly this would turn out to be their swansong.
It would appear that the band’s committee did make considerable efforts to keep it going, however they were eventually forced to admit defeat and sometime later it was announced that they had folded and that all instruments and uniforms were to be sold with the proceeds to go to charity.
People often ask what tartan the RAMS wore. Over the years they wore the McLean of Duart, Ancient McLean and Red Gordon tartans.
In addition to a consistently high standard of piping the band always had a strong drum corps led by some of the leading drummers of their eras such as Jackie Seaton, Kit Reynolds, Charlie Rea, Jackie Doran, John Rea, Billy Dunlop and Billy Barnham. Check out these pictures:
It is interesting to note that five members of the band, Jackie Seaton, Stanley McDowell, Frank Gibson, Tommy Fittis and Brian Chambers, went on to become pastors or ministers of religion.
While the Robert Armstrong Memorial Pipe Band, like their great rivals from the era St Patrick’s Donaghmore, have disappeared from the piping scene, they are still remembered fondly and considered by many to have been at the vanguard of propelling Northern Ireland’s pipers and drummers onto the world stage.
Internet searches still reveal copies of their ‘The RAMS at Fergus Rock’ recording available for purchase, and the 4/4 March tune, Robert Armstrong Memorial Pipe Band, composed by James Wark, Strathclyde Police, is still played.
- I would wish to place on record my thanks to Harry Stevenson for his assistance in the production of this history and his support and encouragement with regard to a number of my research projects. Read the earlier excerpts in this series starting here.