“THERE is great fellowship and there is a great community aspect,” says Fred Walker, who is the president of the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association Northern Ireland.
Indeed, that sense of togetherness combined with the, well, simply wonderful tradition that is pipe band music, is just one reason why Fred, who is originally from Hillsborough but lives in Newtownabbey, is deeply devoted to the whole scene.
But he confides another attribute of the culture that he feels is praiseworthy and should be recognised.
“One thing about the pipe bands is that we have orange and green, here and on the contest field - we can set an example and definitely the people should appreciate that,” he says.
“Even at the time when the Troubles were at their worst we carried on, we went down south and they came up here. We carried on and didn’t let it interfere.”
To say that the pipe band scene is inclusive would be an understatement.
The RSPBANI is affiliated with around 15 fellow pipe band associations all over the world - from Germany to Canada - and has within its own ranks 12 branches based in the United Kingdom.
“We are the largest branch in the RSPBA - in fact we reached the magical 100 bands in the 1980s,” says Fred, although today the local branch represents around 70 bands, comprising of roughly 3,000 members. It remains the biggest branch of the Scottish Association in terms of membership and is indeed one of the largest pipe band organisations in the world in its own right.
With its headquarters based in Lisburn, it is responsible for a variety of functions, including organising all of the Championship Pipe and Drum Major contests which take place in the Province, promoting the culture and advancement of pipe and drums music, and providing a teaching facility.
The branch is divided up into four sections - Co Antrim, Co Down, Mid Ulster and Fermanagh, with each section operating with a full structure of office bearers. Members of each section meet regularly throughout the year. and each one has an Annual General Meeting.
If you check their website, you will note that the branch’s ‘mission’ is to maintain, preserve and increase member bands’ and individuals’ musical excellence; ensure that every child in Northern Ireland has the opportunity to experience and learn piping, drumming and drum majoring, ensure that infrastructure is in place to allow local talent to thrive, to involve more people in this particular brand of art and culture, and to promote NI as a centre for piping, drumming and drum majoring talent.
Indeed, in a nutshell, as Ray Hall, who is the chairman of the RSPANI tells me, the ultimate aim is to “make Northern Ireland the best place in the world to live as a pipe band enthusiast.”
But first of all, I’m keen to find out a little more about the history of the Association.
Formal gatherings of pipe bands in Northern Ireland for the purpose of competition date back to 1912, when the NI Bands Association regularly held indoor contests.
“At the end of the Second World War, there were pipe bands forming all over the place,” says Fred, who himself joined Legacurry Pipe Band when he was 17 as a drummer, and began travelling to an annual bands competition at the Ulster Hall in Belfast, where pipe bands came together with silver and flute to compete.
“Needless to say, the pipe band night was the biggest of the night. We thought that really, pipe bands were more suited to outside arenas on grass.”
In 1945, the Northern Ireland Pipe Band League was formed.
“At the monthly meeting in 1950, on October 10, there was a notice of motion from Ballycoran Pipe Band Second by Eight, that the league bands become members of the Scottish Pipe Band Association,” says Fred.
In order for this to happen, there needed to be interest from at least 10 bands - and there was, namely from, as Fred recounts, Ballynahinch, Ballycoan, Sydenham, Waringsford, St Joseph, Eighth Belfast Memorial, Duke of York, Raffrey, Boardmills and Rasharkin.
“Officers were nominated and these included the president, James A Faulkner, chairman Edward McVeigh, and secretary Tom Hart,” continues Fred.
“We also enjoyed a visit from the SPBA officials, president Councillor McLean, and secretary Donald McIntosh, and they were so pleased with the way the branch was functioning that they allocated the European Championships to Belfast in 1953. These were followed by the Worlds of 1956 and 1962.
“The first Ulster Championships were organised and took place in the Showgrounds in Ballymena on Saturday May 5, 1951. There were four grades, namely Junior First, Junior Second, Intermediate and Open, with an entry of 19 bands. It is also worth noting that we had an entry of 59 bands for our 40th Ulster championships in Donard Park, Newcastle, on August 24, 1991.”
Fred tells me that amongst the other Branch organisations which belong to the Scottish Association are Ayreshire, Drumfries and Galloway, Fife, Lothian and Borders, Midlands, North East England, and North of Scotland.
And some of the worldwide pipe band associations affiliated with the Scottish Association include Alberta Society of Pipers and Drummers in Canada, Eastern United States Pipe Band Association, Netherlands Pipe Band Association, the Pipe Bands Association of Scandinavia, and the Pipe Bands Association of South Africa. That affiliation means they can compete in both the World and other major Championships. The World Championships, held at Glasgow Green every August, is the RSPBANI’s biggest event in their competing calendar, which runs from May until the end of August.
As mentioned, the branch here in Northern Ireland involves itself heavily in other things as well as competition. One man very much at the helm of that is Ian Burrows, its project manager.
“My role also includes administration, working with local councils to promote pipe bands and health and safety,” says Ian, who is from Lisburn and a member of Drumlough Pipe Band.
One major project the branch has involved itself in is the Cross Border Orchestra of Ireland.
“We supply the pipers and drummers,” he says, explaining that the Orchestra is made up of young people from all over Ireland, and has travelled to many countries on tours.
It was established in 1995 as a peace initiative and has been very successful in its own right, having performed for the likes of the Queen and Mary McAleese.
The other major project set up by the RSPBANI is its school, which came into existence in 1979, with the aim of instructing pupils in the practical and theory elements of piping and drumming. With around 240 pupils on the books - from all ages - the School operates out of five centres across the Province - Ballymena, Banbridge, Cookstown, Enniskillen and Londonderry, every Saturday.
“Next year we’re hoping to work in partnership with other organisations, and try to promote other events,” adds Ray Hall, the branch’s chairman, and a regular on the piping scene since he was 11 years old.
He reinforces Fred’s message that it is “completely cross community”, and has “a very good reputation.”
“We draw a lot of people to our events, for example in Portrush, 20,000 people would come to the North West Championships; it’s at the end of the year and people enjoy it. It’s one of the things we are proud of.”