Centenary celebrations for Hollymount Pipe Band anniversary

Centenary celebrations for Hollymount Pipe Band anniversary

6 February 2019

THERE’S a saying around these parts by those who know — ‘there’s two things you can’t get away from, farming and pipe bands’.

Born just after the ending of the Great War in 1919 and reformed after World War Two in 1945, Hollymount Pipe Band is marking its centenary this year.

It was the first pipe band formed in the Lecale district and sadly, it is the only one remaining out of eight.

While the faces have changed over the years, there’s one thing that hasn’t and that’s the deep-rooted family connections between its members over the decades. 

Despite the advert of streamed TV box-sets, the internet and smart phone that increasingly take up much of our spare time, family ties between the generations remain strong here.

In 1981, there were six father-son combinations playing in the band which practices at Hollymount Orange Hall on the Woodgrange Road just outside Downpatrick.

Today, within its 24-strong ranks, aged from three years to 77, are four father-child relationships with lead drummer Ronnie Steele going for the record with three of his four young daughters in the band. 

Sammy Strain is the band’s elder statesman. He has a proud direct lineage to the band when it first started out 100 years ago. His great-uncle, James Strain of Woodgrange, was the band’s first pipe major.  

He also has pipes dating back to the early days of the band, a much-prized piece of heritage along with the framed photographs of former pipe band members and lodge members which line the walls of the Orange Hall. 

James Strain was taught by the band’s first piping instructor, William Maxwell from Newcastle, who used to travel by train to Tullymurry on the Ballydugan Road and then arrive by bicycle or horse and cart to the hall.

Sammy, who joined the band when he was seven, says, as do other members, that his introduction into the pipe band world was a natural extension of his family life.

“It was actually my cousin who taught me the pipes even though my father Sam was pipe major at the time,” he said.

“I joined in 1948 and played my first Twelfth in Newcastle in 1950 when I was nine. At that time I was playing what’s called a three-quarter set of pipes.

“I can’t remember being asked if I wanted to join but as my great-grandfather was one of the first members, it was just in the family. It was just handed down, it was taken for granted, more or less, that you were going to learn the pipes.

“When we started out, there really was nothing else so the band was number one. It’s difficult now to  keep a band going with so many other things for the young ones to be doing, so how we managed to keep a band going 100 years, I do not know.”

From head to toe, it can cost from between £750 to £1,000 to kit out an adult pipe band member in full uniform and around £300 for child members. 

The uniform has always represented a major investment — in addition to practice and competition time— for any member. 

In his history of the band on its 75th anniversary, Sammy recounted the lower end of a quotation given for a new uniform in 1925 coming in at 13 pounds 12 shillings, which is equivalent to around £580 today. 

The retired farmer has been with the band during the worst and the best of times.

“We went through a lean period in the late Eighties and we weren’t contesting then. We started contesting in 1957 and then again about five or six years ago,” he said.

“The best time of the band I can recall was in 1996 when I retired as pipe major. My cousin, Francey Strain, took the band over and as we had a lot of young ones then, those were the best years up until 2000 where we went to the World Pipe Band Championships in Cowal and we were upgraded three times in that time.”

The best of times for Hollymount was when they came runners-up in their grade 4B at the World Championships on their first entry into the competition. 

Ronnie Steele recalls: “We were very nearly not going but decided at the last minute so it was a real rush to try and book the boat and to find somewhere for us all to stay.”

Hollymount achieved their biggest achievement to date on one of the blackest days in Northern Ireland history — the day of the Omagh bombing on August 15,1998.

While the band continued throughout the 30 years of the Troubles, it emerged unscathed, according to Ronnie, who adds: “Through all the Troubles we had never any bother down here; we never missed anything out.”

Another strong family connection belongs to pipe major Sam Gill – whose maternal uncle is Sammy Strain. His two sons, Jack (10) and seven year-old Charlie, are in the band. When the 52 year-old isn’t at the band or at work as a mechanic, he continues to perfect his skill as a former world ploughing champion and the winner of the NI title for 10 years. 

“My father, Raymond, played in the band as did my twin brother, David, who now plays for Drumlough Pipe Band.

“When I joined at the age of eight, it was just a matter in those days that after my father came home from work and got a bit of dinner, he would have say, ’Right, I take you up to the band’.

“Sammy Strain taught me the notes on a blackboard whereas now you have the likes of Ronnie’s daughter, Christie, who records me on her phone playing and she practice.”

Ronnie shares his love of the band with daughters Christie (9), Ashley (7) and three year-old Megan. No doubt his youngest, one year-old Alexandra, will be drafted in a few years time. 

Piper Ryan Green, who used to play for the former Seaforde and Woodgrange Pipe Bands, has also introduced his 10 year-old son, Matthew, while piper Robert Neill plays alongside his 10 year-old daughter Laura.

Sometimes the pull towards piping and Hollymount misses a generation. However, the family influence remains strong as in the case of siblings Jessica and Thomas Watson, whose great grandfather, David Stranney, was in the band, although their parents weren’t. 

But the members know that keeping the band going for the next generation is an even greater challenge today than it was 100 years ago.

They are delighted that it currently has 13 members aged 10 and under in the band. 

Apart from marching in the annual Twelfth celebrations, the main activity for the band is performing at local concerts where it has raised more than £12,000 in recent years for charities.

Sam Gill says that the next big push, once some of the younger members are ready for it, will be to start competing in contests again, although they know it may take some time to reach their former 3B grade. 

“There’s still a hunger to try and get the band to be as good as possible. The problem we have — and any band will tell you the same — is trying to keep the young ones interested because if you don’t, they will leave,” he added.

“Bands like ours are often recruitment bands for other larger ones but we would dearly love to see more experienced band members joining Hollymount and passing on their experience to the next generation.”