Ballycoan Part 2 – From Small Beginnings, A Decade of Dominance for the Band

Ballycoan were definitely on their way and the 1950s were to see a decade of unprecedented success for them, winning, as they did, the All Ireland Championship band title on no less than seven occasions and the drumming on six. Pictured above, P/M William Wood receives the All Ireland Senior Trophy in 1951.

But before we get to that terrific run of success, let us firstly go back a few years. In August of 1945 at the County Down Royal Black Preceptory demonstration, the ‘Coan’ were one of nine bands present who agreed to reform the NI Pipe Band League and it eventually came to fruition some months later. 

By Gilbert Cromie, Northern Ireland Correspondent

At the Mid Down Contest Committee event in Dromara in 1946, they are recorded as winning the Intermediate section while in the same year they were also placed first in the Senior Grade at a contest in Ballynahinch.

Later, in November 1946, they played at the 29th North of Ireland Band Championships held in the Ulster Hall when they were placed second out of the thirty bands that took part in the Junior Grade. All bands played the test piece, The Burning of the Piper’s Hut. 

It is interesting to note that out of the bands that competed that evening seven, including Ballycoan, were taught by members of the Dromara Highland Pipe Band (which tied for second place in the Senior Grade), namely Sam McManus (Alexander Memorial, Waringsford and Saintfield) and his sons James (Annahilt and Ballynahinch) and Victor (Drumlough). 

Progress through the grades was rapid thereafter for Ballycoan with wins in the Intermediate grade in 1947 and then in the Senior Grade in both 1948 and 1949. They also won their one and only NIBA Open March contest in 1948.

In 1949 the NI Pipe Band League sought and gained SPBA Branch status, the first from outside Scotland. The prime motivation for the ‘League’ was getting access to the SPBA Pipe Band College who would organise piping and drumming classes.

Ballycoan are top of the bill

Later, in a newspaper interview ahead of the 1956 World Pipe Band Championship, Pipe Major William Wood explained that the rapid development of the pipe band movement in Northern Ireland had been due to the establishment of a Pipe Band College.

He specifically highlighted that in the decades before the World War II the success achieved by County Tyrone bands, Cookstown and Tullylagan, had come about through the engagement of former Scottish pipe majors and this illustrated the importance of proper tuition.

Ballycoan’s members embraced this tuition wholeheartedly with drumming taking centre stage at the start, and the band’s drummers, Kit Reynolds and James Brown attaining the Advanced Drumming Certificate. Pipe Major Wood would be one of the first pipers to gain the Elementary Drumming certificate and he also became the Principal of the first NI Branch Pipe Band College when he hosted Pipe Major Donald MacLean in his home for the thirteen weeks of the course.

The 1950s were a decade of dominance for Ballycoan and would see a rapidly expanding Northern Ireland pipe band scene too with more and more bands being formed and many of them seeking to compete. Equally an assortment of organisations sought to hold competitions as fund raisers, initially under NIBA and then SPBA rules.

Ballycoan got in on the act early with what was an exclusively pipe band event in July 1950 which was quite obviously based on the Cowal Games model. 

The band’s brilliant trio of drummers: Bobby Rea, Jackie Seaton & Kit Reynolds

Later in the year they were one of the ten bands that voted at the NI Pipe Band League’s October meeting to break away from the North of Ireland Bands Association and become a standalone SPBA NI Branch.

Indeed it was their representatives that proposed the motion. As the Northern Ireland pipe band movement moved into a new era competitively Ballycoan was undoubtedly the band to beat in Ireland taking over the All-Ireland champion’s title from the hitherto all-conquering Fintan Lalor. 

Ballycoan’s first Senior All Ireland band title came in 1951 and they followed that up with other wins in 1952, 1953, 1955, 1956, 1957 and 1959. In addition to that they lifted the drum corps titles in 1950, 1951, 1953, 1954, 1955 and 1957. Seven Ulster titles were also secured in 1951, 1952, 1953, 1954, 1956, 1957, 1959 accompanied by drum corps titles in 1952, 1953, 1957, 1958 and 1959.

  • To be continued. Read the first excerpt in this history here.

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