Northern Ireland Open Accordion Championships: Organiser of major competition says membership of marching accordion bands has surged 20% in five years

Marching accordion bands have seen a surge in membership of around 20% of people, seeking lively social interaction since the pandemic, it has been revealed.
Aughafatten Accordion Band from Broughshane, led by Moira McKee, on the stage ready to play at the festival.Aughafatten Accordion Band from Broughshane, led by Moira McKee, on the stage ready to play at the festival.
Aughafatten Accordion Band from Broughshane, led by Moira McKee, on the stage ready to play at the festival.

So says Clyde Johnston, founder and organiser of the Northern Ireland Open Accordion Championships, which he describes as now the biggest accordian festival in the British Isles.

He is freshly enthused by the feedback from the 25th championship, which took place on 17 February in the Hilton Hotel in Templepatrick and attracted over 170 entries.

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While many attending were from the marching bands tradition of Northern Ireland, he was also delighted to once again welcome competitors from the Chilton School of Music in Co Cavan, and Trudy Maguire's and Gerry Kelly’s Accordion Schools from Co Meath. There were also other entries from Co Donegal, England and Scotland.

Knockloughrim Accordion Band from Maghera in the Rehearsal Room at 9am.Knockloughrim Accordion Band from Maghera in the Rehearsal Room at 9am.
Knockloughrim Accordion Band from Maghera in the Rehearsal Room at 9am.

But the surging membership of NI bands has also been increasingly evident, he says.

And one key reason has been the central part being played by social media.

"The peak years of marching accordion bands would have been the 1980s, when it was really strong and then it went into the doldrums a wee bit," he told the News Letter.

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"But now it seems to be coming back a lot. I think social media has a lot to do with it, because there wasn't as much interaction between the bands before that took off.

"But with social media, the bands are all getting in touch with each other. There's now an Ulster Accordion Bands Facebook page.

"The bands on it would meet up maybe every couple of months just to play over tunes that they all know, maybe 70 or 80 people."

He estimates that marching accordion band membership across Northern ireland has increased by around 20% in the past 4 or 5 years

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In counties Armagh, Fermanagh and Tyrone the increase has been especially noticeable.

The social media momentum began, he said, when bands used to rehearse together by Zoom during the pandemic.

"They posted their online rehearsals on social media and that affected other people who also began to get interested.

"Some people were returners who had been members before and were coming back.

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"But I think some others who joined up were looking for more of a social outlet after the pandemic."

"It is really the social side of it all that people are more into now."

A major popular event at the end of his annual festival, he says, is the "massed band".

This sees all the bands present at the festival invited to play two or three tunes together.

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"They really enjoy it because it is more relaxed than the competition in various categories. There is no pressure because it is just a bit of fun. It is a great way to round off the championships every year.

"I have had quite a few people say to me, 'I hope that the mass band is on this year because that's what we really enjoy'."

Another more recent development are the less formal "gather ups", usually held in Orange Halls.

These can see some 70 players from around 16 accordion bands meet up for a social event where they all play together.

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"This is a new development - it's just having a bash. It has been going on for about a year now and they have had four meetings."

Such gatherings first began with flute bands, he notes, and have had a similar effect of re-energising that sector also.

Another factor which may have encouraged the surge in membership, he believes, has been the BBC One TV series 'The Band' which featured bands such as the

Mavemacullen Accordion Band from Tandragee. Part of their appeal, he suggests, may have been because that particular band had a lot of young members, combined with a young leadership team.

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While the accordion bands have always been there, he also detects a rising desire to engage in competition.

"At our latest championship there were two bands competing for the first time ever - one from Londonderry city and another from Kilkeel."

His championship also attracts high quality competition from the Republic of Ireland, which he notes has two or three accordion schools, which are more focused on classical music and graded examinations. Known as accordion orchestras, they do not march, have no links with the loyal orders and have the strongest presence in Co Meath and Co Cavan.

Clyde is now putting a call out to accordion marching bands to register now for next year's festival on 8 March, again at the Hilton Hotel in Templepatrick. Applicants should contact him on [email protected] or 07882456 880.

Date for your diary: Ulster Accordion Bands, Cultural And Historical Day: Ten bands will appear, starting at 11am on Saturday 6 April at Saint Columba's Parish Church Hall, Portadown, Co Armagh.

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