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27 March 2008 Edition

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Republican bands marching on

AS THE Strategic Review into Parading in the North raises the possibility of a new code of conduct for loyalist and republican bands An Phoblacht interviews a veteran band organiser and asks what is the future for republican flute bands today.

By Robbie Smyth

BY THE TIME you read this, the Belfast Martyrs Republican Flute Band will be gathering for one of its twice-weekly practice sessions. Over the Easter weekend, the band played at seven different events, travelling from Roddy McCorley’s in West Belfast to other commemorations in the city and as a far south as Meath.
Bill Groves, one of the Martyrs’ organisers and a member of different bands for 20 years, spoke to An Phoblacht last weekend for half an hour in the middle of a busy touring schedule that would put some of the world’s so-called hard-working rock bands to shame as the Belfast Martyrs are young, unpaid volunteers, giving up their free time week in, week out. They are not just playing at commemorations and a host of local community events but can be the hub of the republican community and are also perhaps the most visible face of republicanism on the streets today.
Bill jokes that some of the band members were jaded, not from the hectic schedule of the Easter events but from a weekend also spent putting up bunting, flags and posters for the Belfast Easter commemorations – and leafleting too!
Forming a band is not cheap. When I ask why, the answer is simple. Flutes come at £70 to £100 a time. A piping band has to find over £600 for each set of pipes. Then comes the drums: £400 for a new drum and up to £600 for a bass drum. That’s not counting the uniforms, which can run to £350. And don’t overlook finding somewhere to practice. Finally, there is transport (the Belfast Martyrs meet their own expenses), not jets or luxury limousines but hiring a bus to entertain us at Bodenstown last year cost them £400.
There are just 20 republican flute bands in Ireland; 20 years ago there was nearly double that. “The wider republican movement has taken the bands for granted,” Bill Groves says, explaining that the amount of work the bands put in is outstanding and bands will travel the length of the country to facilitate republican events, commemorations, rallies, marches, festivals and so on. Despite this, it often comes across that the organisers are doing the band a favour rather than the opposite being the case. If you have been to a commemoration or rally, it is the band that provides the backbone to these events, which without flutes and drums would be anaemic, drab affairs.
There are not enough bands in Ireland, according to Groves, who tells An Phoblacht of the range of positive spin-offs that come from having a successful local band in your community. The bands, he says, create “a positive social circle, which takes members away from the temptation of anti-social behaviour and creates a sense of shared camaraderie”.
Band members who are often part of Ógra or Sinn Féin view themselves as playing an integral part in modern republican activism. Band members have “an intense pride in what they do and constantly strive for perfection in their performances”.
One thing that is clear about the republican flute bands is how they have changed and developed along with republican struggle. Most of the bands playing now have origins that map the last phase of the struggle, starting up in the 1970s, 1980s and even more recently. A very few have links back to the Hibernians but most are new entities borne out of the more recent conflict. Bill Groves says, “Bands are always changing: as the politics changed, we changed,” and he cites examples of the names of bands changing, the uniforms and, most crucially, the musical influences that spread across a diverse range of sources going from the Irish Brigade to Simon and Garfunkel!
Now with a strategic review into parades as part of the Good Friday Agreement, republican bands are working to move again, in a way that will grow bands as part of Sinn Féin’s development across the island. Talks on forming a band alliance have been underway to find a common ground to develop republican bands in all areas through simple co-operation on accessing funding and other forms of assistance.
The question of the uniforms and other symbols on drums has been raised in the unionist community so I ask Bill about the origins of the uniforms in republican flute bands. He said that, in the 1970s and 1980s, young republicans looked up to the IRA in a romantic vision of the soldier in struggle and that the evolving fashion of camouflage trousers, boots, beret and sunglasses were a relatively cheap option when it came to bands short on funding and from poverty-stricken neighbourhoods creating a uniform. “But if we are engaging with loyalism and want them to change, we have to change too.”
“Without bands,” Bill says, “the commemorations will lose some of their impact and other events will lose some of the energy that republicanism should be about. And so we need to build on the strength and wealth of experience that is out there right now. We still need to give young people a role in republicanism and the flute bands are the starting point for this.”
Though small in numbers across the island, the band movement is still vibrant. A quick internet search will show any number of performances on YouTube. Then there are band websites – Éire Nua’s being very slick – and then there are an endless amount of Bebo, MySpace and Facebook pages with photos and videos of band members proud of their band identity and affiliation.
Throughout the interview, Bill Groves returns to two themes: the positive role bands can play in the lives of the young members and the communities they come from, and his core message that, ‘We need bands more than ever.’

An Phoblacht Magazine


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