Centenary Will Recapture Golden Years Of Band Music

PLANS to celebrate the forthcoming centenary of Newry’s once-famous St Joseph’s Brass and Reed Band and its legendary conductor, Terry Ruddy should soon be afoot. They would be based at St Joseph’s and Independent (Indo) Club in Kilmorey Street, where its inspiring spirit has been kept very much alive!

Of course, the Newry region has been prolific in its marching bands, including the Thomas Davis, Altnaveigh and Bessbrook A.O.H. Pipe Bands; St Catherine’s and Hunter Moore Brass and Reed: Camlough and Rostrevor I.N.F., Newry Amateur and Warrenpoint St. Peter’s G.A.A. Silver Bands, etc.

Tribute should also be paid to such band-leaders and conductors as Tommy Mulligan, Sean Crawford, Paddy Burke, Anthony Fitzpatrick, 'Neily' McCann, Jackie Preece, Eddie Sherry and John McAleenan (Wolfe Tone Accordion Band).

Sadly the frontier city, despite its tradition, can now boast of only one marching band, the Thomas Davis Pipe Band. Newry’s Easter Commemoration Parade is now only lead by an outside Sinn Fein Band, while the once-proud St Catherine’s Brass and Reed Band has been converted to a “Concert Band.”

But All-Ireland titles are still coming to the South Down and South Armagh area, especially in Youth Accordion competitions. Recently St Brigid’s Band from Jonesboro celebrated their triumph, being presented with gold medals.

And the band, whose tutors were Tommy Martin, John Convery, Mrs Siobhan Rice and Ciaran Murphy, will be travelling to Disneyland Paris, representing Ireland in the St Patrick’s Day Parade.

Of course, the Mayobridge Youth Accordion Band have already scored three-in-a-row All-Ireland victories, while Whitecross and Cullyhanna, etc. will be keeping their fingers crossed, for future victories.

Originally based in the Church Street area of Newry as a Flute and Drum Band in the 1880’s, success came quickly to St. Joseph`s, winning the All-Ireland Championship in 1887 and coming second in 1892. The coveted double occurred in 1897, collecting the Championship of Great Britain title at Manchester, having come second two years previously.

But a very special occasion occurred in 1891, when the frontier town played host to the “uncrowned King of Ireland,” Charles Stewart Parnell. Newry’s main street was festooned with flowers and bunting, as well as banners bearing such slogans as “Ireland’s greatest and noblest son,” “Newry is true to Ireland and Parnell,” and “The spirit of Mitchel and Martin is with Parnell.”

The local St. Joseph’s Flute and Drum Band was given the honour of leading a mass parade of bands and supporters through the town. At their head was a vehicle carrying Parnell and leading nationalists.

But, saturated by so much success, members of St Joseph’s Band felt their incentive was being blunted. So, in 1908, they switched to become a brass and reed band, and moved to the Independent Club in Kilmorey Street.

With its new title, the Newry combination won the Brass and Reed Championship of Ireland in 1912, snatching the title from the famous “Ireland’s Own ” Band, repeating the feat in 1924 and 1928.

But most prestigious prize came in 1923 when, competing against Britain’s most famous combinations, the band from the frontier town won the Championship of Great Britain at Belle Vue Gardens in Manchester. Never before had a band from Ireland won the blue riband of British bands!

That triumph was hailed with a tremendous ovation from the vast audience. And the musicians were invited to participate at various functions throughout Britain. Hosted by the Irish Democratic League, a gala concert was held at Liverpool, and the newly-crowned champions were feted by cheering crowds, during a victory parade through the city.

On return to their hometown, the heroes were greeted at Edward Street Railway Station by a huge crowd of well-wishers. By chance, bandsman Paddy Burke, was a ticket-collector at the station. Fog signals were detonated as the train approached, and other bands in the area led a triumphant parade through the town.

Newry Urban Council passed a Resolution of Congratulations to the conductor, Cllr. Terry Ruddy and all the band members on their “magnificent achievement.” And congratulatory messages poured in from near and far.

Among the well-wishers were the Harland and Wolff Brass and Reed Band; Lisburn and Portadown Temperance Silver Bands; The Salvation Army Band; Warrenpoint National Band; Newry’s John Mitchel and St. Bridget branches of the I.N.F.; Newry AOH Division; Sir Thomas McArdle and Garnet Holt, J.P.

St Joseph’s Brass and Reed Band was very popular nationally, invited to appear at various events all over Ireland. And they were honoured by playing live music on Radio Eireann when the station first went on the air.

‘Point organist and choir-master, Sean Crawford recalled that occasion, when the vocalist was Frank Gallagher. He wrote: “The broadcasting station was a large business premises on Hill Street, whose windows almost reached the ground. The sun had been shining all day and the heat within was tropical.

“The band members sat in their shirt-sleeves around their gifted conductor, Terence Ruddy. Beside him was a large tin full of water with a cup beside it, - `Handel’s. Water Music’ would have been appropriate.

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© Fabian Boyle 2001-2008