Ballycoan were the first band from Northern Ireland to travel to Scotland to pit their skills against the best. When the first SPBA World Championships were held in Edinburgh in September 1947, Ballycoan was the only band from outside Scotland that competed.
They returned to the Worlds in 1948 and then in 1949 when they won the drumming in Grade 3. This indicates that the band were members of both the NIBA Pipe Band League and the Scottish Pipe Band Association over these years.
The Cowal Games also proved to be a happy hunting ground for the band with their first success coming in August 1950 when they won the Benmore Shield receiving the trophy from Mrs Clement Attlee, the wife of the then Prime Minister who was visiting the games.
When the band was attending this event the members would arrive in Dunoon on the morning of the contest after sailing overnight from Belfast to Glasgow and then having to leave Dunoon early before the results were announced to get the train to Glasgow to catch the Belfast boat.
When the band won the Benmore Shield only Pipe Major Wood was present to collect the trophy however his friend Pipe Major Albert Sleith of Newmills and District Pipe Band offered him the opportunity to parade the trophy through Dunoon with Newmills which he did.
In 1954 it was an Irish ‘one/two’ with Fintan Lalor winning the grade and Ballycoan lifting the Hamilton Shield for best drum corps whilst Pipe Major William Wood was awarded the medal for the best dressed piper.
They won the Grade 2 drumming again in 1955 and in 1956 they went one better when, although designated as a Grade 3 band, they played up in Grade 2 to take first prize and lift the Harry Lauder Shield.
At the World Championships in 1951, in Edinburgh, they were placed second in Grade 3 a quarter of a point behind the winners Allandale [see Piping Press March 15, 2021] while at the European Championships staged in Belfast in 1953 they were placed fourth in Grade 1 and third in Grade 2.
It is worth noting that the 1950s also proved a very successful period for solo pipers and drummers within the band. Pipe Major Wood lifted two All-Ireland and one Ulster Solo title, while Jackie Fern who emigrated to South Africa in the late 1950s, won three All Ireland and four Ulster titles. Ballycoan drummers Jackie Seaton and Kit Reynolds each won All Ireland titles with Reynolds also lifting the Ulster titles on five occasions.
On to the ‘swinging 60s’. Miniature band competitions became very popular in then and at the start of the decade Ballycoan promoted what was a very innovative version of the format. This ‘play as you please’ version encouraged bands to move away from MSRs and play their own choice of music lasting between 5 and 7 minutes.
A novel feature of the competition was the inclusion of respected BBC Music Producer Havelock Nelson as the Entertainment Adjudicator something quite common in accordion, flute and brass band competitions today.
Ballycoan’s domination of the Irish scene was challenged by a number of bands in the early 1960s, bands such as the Belfast based 29th BB Old Boys and Robert Armstrong Memorial – and a resurgent Fintan Lalor. While they were no longer getting things their own way in the All-Irelands they were holding their own locally, with Pipe Major Wood leading them into the decade with Ulster title wins.
These were in 1960, 1961 and 1962, while the drum corps secured All Ireland successes in 1960 and 1961. At the second World Championships held in Belfast in 1962, a Ballycoan Junior band won the Novice Grade which was confined to Irish bands.
Pipe Major Wood moved to Australia in 1963 and Sandy Cumming took over until 1967. During his tenure the band won Ulster titles in 1965 and 1966 with the drum corps winning this award in 1963, 1965, 1966, 1967.
Pipe Major Hugh Acheson then led the band for a few years until 1970 when the Ulster title and the All-Ireland and Ulster drumming titles were won in 1968 along with the NI Branch Champion of Champions title.
In this period a number of the band’s drummers were extremely successful in solo competitions, with John Rea winning an All- Ireland title in 1965 and Ulster titles going to Kit Reynolds in 1961 and 1962 and Bobby Rea, who won the first of his World solo titles in 1965, winning again in 1966.
The 1970s: The early years of the decade were not great for the band, however after a few seasons it returned to the competition arena in Grade 2 with Pipe Major Jimmy Johnston at the helm.
There followed a number of successful seasons with Ulster titles coming in 1973 and 1975 while the drum corps won All Ireland titles in 1973 and 1976 and Ulster titles in 1973, 1975, 1976 and 1978. In 1973 the drum corps won the drumming prize in Grade 2 at Cowal, while in 1976 they won both the World band and drumming titles.
That same year the band made a recording entitled ‘World Champions’ which was produced by Peter Lloyd and released on the new Glen Records label.
After the 1976 season the band suffered a significant loss of personnel which included Pipe Major Jimmy Johnston departing, however Pipe Sergeant Brian Rea stepped into the void and took over the leadership and was able to keep the band in operation.
- To be concluded. Search ‘Ballycoan’ for earlier excerpts in this history.