Blowing the trumpet for our lost brass bands

Hillsborough Brass Band from the 1950s
Hillsborough Brass Band from the 1950s

A Queen’s academic is appealing for Ulster families to search their attics and family photo collections to share prized photos of their ancestors performing in brass bands.

Professor Michael Alcorn, head of the School of Creative Arts at Queen’s, is hoping to retrieve artefacts, instruments, uniforms or anything connected with brass bands in Ireland between 1850 and 1970.

Professor Michael Alcorn hopes to gather enough material for an exhibition

Professor Michael Alcorn hopes to gather enough material for an exhibition

He said he hopes the research project, led by the School of Creative Arts, “will reveal the untold story of the brass band movement”.

Professor Alcorn said while there are less than 40 brass bands in Ireland now, around the turn of the 20th century “there were 300 and more throughout Ireland”.

“Many people got involved in bands through their church,” he added. “There is an assumption it was a mainly unionist pastime but the Hibernians and a lot of the temperance organisations who started bands were from both unionist and Catholic organisations.

“In Kerry there were an enormous number of bands because of a very strong temperance movement and although there wasn’t much money bands were set up in almost every town and village.

“Although brass instruments weren’t that expensive at the turn of the century when they started to be mass produced.”

The academic, who is trying to build up “an early picture to capture the stories of contemporary people and their band memories”, said he hopes to eventually have an exhibition to “give people a real sense of what it is all about”.

He said he wants to concentrate on the 1850 to 1970 period as “it is pre-internet and before the information people have on that time is lost”.

“Everyone reading this will know someone somewhere who played in a brass band,” he added.

“There is a big oral history to the brass band movement as well. There are people who are quite elderly who I am interviewing now about how they got into it – and how their parents and grandparents also got involved.”

He said in their heyday “brass bands playing were quite an event which were documented in local papers for people to see”.

“I can see five or six years work in this project which is pretty exciting,” he added.

He said the information will help form a comprehensive archive and will include a major museum exhibition of materials, a permanent digital archive of resources, and an oral history project focusing on older generation musicians.

For further information on the project visit www.brassbandsireland.org or contact Professor Alcorn at Queen’s University on 02890 975534.