The AGM of the Irish Pipe Band Association witnessed a watershed moment when the association’s long-serving and much respected president Con Ó Conaill stepped down after 47 years in the service of the pipe band community.
Con was born and reared in Ballymurphy, Innishannon, Co Cork. As a youth, Con showed himself to be academically talented winning a scholarship to secondary school.
By Brian McMahon
After school he worked in the retail trade before entering the nascent tourism industry in Ireland where he was to leave a lasting legacy.
Con started in 1967 in Kerry as a tourism development officer and later tourism manager for the county, before being appointed CEO for the regional company in 1987 responsible for the Cork & Kerry region. Con was based in Cork City until he retired in 2002.
Con also worked in tourism on a national and all Ireland basis being involved with entities such as the Northern Ireland Tourist Board.
Con was an accomplished Irish dancer and accordion player and during the 1960s performed and toured with folk groups and traditional set dancing groups both in Ireland and on the continent. Throughout his life, Con has been heavily involved in Irish language and cultural matters , including the Pan Celtic organisation and ‘Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann’.
Con was greatly influenced during his younger days by his tuning in to a BBC Radio Scotland interview held by Fred MacAulay, head of the BBC Gaelic, with a Ned Maddrell, the last native speaker of Manx Gaelic. Con felt at the time that it was a great pity that nothing was being done to help the survival and promotion of all the Celtic languages.
In 1970, Con put together an outline Celtic Festival programme with Celtic Languages being at the core as a requirement for all singing competitions. Con announced that he would go ahead on his own and try to organise a Pan Celtic Week for 1971. This he subsequently did.
Con’s memory of his first official contact with pipe bands happened at the opening of the first Pan Celtic Festival in Killarney in May 1971. At an enlarged festival the official opening featured a parade led by St Finbarr’s Pipe Band of Cork. The involvement of pipe bands seemed a natural development at the time as three of the Celtic nations had strong pipe band traditions (Ireland, Scotland and Brittany).
Con’s next involvement with the pipe band scene was when he was invited in 1972 by Polig Monjarret, President of the Breton Pipe Bands Association, who was attending the Pan Celtic Festival, to visit Lorient with the Irish delegation.
For the following eleven years, Con organised the representation and travel arrangements for the Irish participants in Lorient, including of course, pipe bands.
The first band competition at the Pan Celtic Festival was held in 1973 with 15 bands participating and strong support for the festival by the IPBA has continued to this day. The band competitions continued until 1983 when it was decided to reinvent the competition as a solo piping and drumming event. The Pan Celtic solos have since become important of the IPBA calendar and it attracts a strong entry from north and south of the border and indeed from Scotland.
Con’s first attendance at an All-Ireland Pipe Band championship was in Tralee in 1974 and that was followed two years later by the championships in Rathcoole, County Dublin, where Con was on the lookout for Irish bands to travel to Lorient. Since 1976, Con has attended all of the All-Ireland Pipe Band Championships except for 2003 when he was recovering from an operation, and again in 2023, due to ill health.
Con has put on record the honour he felt at being elected President at the AGM of the IPBA held in November 1976 and then to be repeatedly re-elected until his retirement. He has on many occasions expressed his appreciation of the many friendships and support he has had from all those associated with pipe bands, and particularly the support and respect from all the national executive committee members throughout the years.
In Con’s first year as president in 1977, the RSPBA NI president was W J S Shilliday (RSPBA NI President from 1976 to 1978) and he has fond memories of all who served as RSPBA NI Presidents.
During his time as IPBA President , Con oversaw many important changes and developments within the organisation. One of his first tasks was a new constitution. He proposed that each branch would elect two members to sit on the executive with four further members elected from the floor at the AGM. This was accepted and the constitution was adopted. Con has since overseen many modifications and updates to the constitution and his opinion and guidance on constitutional matters has always been very valued within the membership of the IPBA.
In the 1980s Con arranged with RTE (the Irish national broadcaster) to have piping on a folk music programme. RTE were of the opinion that pipe bands were not suitable to play in the broadcasting studio, so a mini band from the Black Raven Pipe from Lusk, County Dublin, recorded with great success.
In 1992 Con went to the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in Brisbane as a guest of honour of the Queensland Irish Association. The association organised a pipe band reception and he was given a live interview on Australia’s national radio. The following weekend he was invited by the Melbourne Pipe Band to lead their St Patrick’s Day parade alongside the Irish Ambassador to Australia.
Con has been a wonderful servant to the pipe band scene in Ireland for the past 47 years. Everyone who has ever served with him on the National Executive of the IPBA will say it has been a great privilege to work with him over the years.
His vast knowledge of procedures, pitfalls, protocols, etc. has been invaluable to the IPBA during his tenure. No matter what the problem was, Con always provided the calm voice and the wise voice at the table.
We have been so fortunate to have a man of his calibre as our President for so many years. We can never thank him enough. Undoubtedly, Con will continue his association with the IPBA in an honorary capacity and he will continue to advise and assist in any way he can.