Northern Ireland’s Pipe Bands Return to Action

Toward the end of May 2021 the NI Executive announced that bands could undertake static outdoor practices (although no singing was allowed) and this was embraced enthusiastically by the majority of the country’s seven hundred bands.

Week by week individual bands or band forums were showing photographs of bands at practice in all sorts of environments from car parks to farm yards in order to stick to the rules. Pipe bands were very much in evidence many of which had not undertaken practices, contests or parades since the end of the winter of 2019. 

By Gilbert Cromie, Northern Ireland Correspondent

When limited band practice and parading was permitted in the summer of 2020 a small number of bands played through their communities. A small number of pipe bands also did this while others performed outside their own halls in town or villages or went to local nursing homes to perform for the residents who at the time were in total lockdown.

On Remembrance Day a small number of pipe bands were engaged while pipers and drummers were at their most conspicuous playing for the NHS workers each Thursday evening.

In March 2021 the RSPBA NI decided that it would not organise any contests and as the early summer progressed it became obvious that the majority of the Grades 1 and 2 bands wouldn’t be practising or performing even at community events although I now understand that at least one intends to be present at the RSPBA NI Branch Pipe Band Festival in Bangor in September.

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In June the Campbell College Pipe Band (pictured top) was very prominent in the East Belfast area playing at local primary schools and nursing homes as well as College events. It was noticeable that they had good numbers and in full highland dress too.

In County Down the Down Academy Pipes & Drums reported that they were practising in the Grounds of a local hotel in Ballynahinch and later that they had taken part in an event at Campbell College in their new County Down tartan which was effectively their debut.

Band parades play a prominent part in Northern Ireland’s cultural activity which at its peak in a normal summer can involve up to a dozen being organised across any weekend. None were possible in 2020 however when the permitted participation numbers increased to 500 in June 2021 and then 1000 in early July they increased dramatically.

Down Academy debut their new tartan

Organised by individual bands as fund raisers they are generally dominated by accordion and flute bands, however it has been noticeable in the country areas that pipe and silver bands are more prevalent than in previous years. In recent weeks a massed pipe band took part in the Garvagh Cancer Committee charity parade in County Londonderry. At the end of August a NI Centenary event in being held in Banbridge which will feature massed accordion, flute, pipe and silver bands.

The traditional Twelfth parades were smaller in size than usual but considerably more numerous as a results of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland’s decision to limit them to a District basis which led to over one hundred parades taking place. This resulted in larger than expected attendances and as the majority were filmed by spectators and posted on Facebook/ YouTube it was possible to gauge the pipe band involvement. I think around eighty participated the majority of which would be non- competitive.

Health issues or concerns resulted in some bands having smaller than usual numbers while it was noticeable that others had increased membership while the overall standard of playing was quite good. It was encouraging to see some former contest bands that had disappeared from the scene back on the road while there was one new development band making its debut and a few others returning to action after some time out. 

Such a large number of pipe bands taking part in these and other similar events still to take place over the summer will give our instrument / reed makers and suppliers much needed business. Thankfully during the pandemic they not only were eligible to receive assistance from furlough and business aid but also benefit through a Covid-19 Resilience Grant administered by the Ulster Scots Agency and which was embraced by the majority of the bands from throughout the community. 

The absence of any competitive action other than the parades described previously has been a big blow to our many top accordion, flute, pipe and silver bands and this has been compounded by many of the local Councils abandoning their summer concert programmes for a second year in a row. This has removed both the incentive for regular practice and the income that bands would have received for the concert appearances.

The Belfast International Tattoo which was cancelled in 2020 is going ahead at the SSE Arena over the weekend of the 3rd and 4th of September and in addition to a number of Territorial Army pipe bands who are taking part the McDonald Memorial and Tullylagan bands have been engaged and are busy practising as is a troupe of our drum majors.

  • To be continued.

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