By Quincey Dougan
In the ancient world musicians performed together and travelled between the early City-States to take part in festivals and other commemorations, a practise that evolved and became more structured when adopted by early armies in the 1700’s.
Large numbers of troops moved best when in a regular formation and a drum beat aided that.
But these early ‘bands’ were also used as field music, a means of controlling troops on the battlefield by giving signals primarily using drum, bugle and fife.
Eventually however a separate ceremonial function emerged.
Bands composed of field musicians performed marches, played patriotic music and added to occasions such as military funerals, and it is from these ceremonial Corps of Drums and Military bands that the modern marching band as we know it came.
The formation of the Orange Order in 1795 and its first 12th of July Celebration the following year, was the birth of the modern parading tradition in Ireland.
Given the strong Military lineage in the Country it was inevitable that these early parades mimicked military practise, using drum, fife and drum or bugle and drum to keep and maintain both a regular marching time and formation.
The logical progression was the introduction of a full band ensemble akin to the ceremonial military band, and by the 1830’s Brass and Flute bands were being introduced (the oldest marching band in Ireland today is Londonderry’s Churchill Flute, formed in 1835).
The practise slowly increased right up to the 1870’s and Pipe, Flute, Silver/ Brass and Accordion bands accompanying Orange Order parades was a common feature of rural and urban Ireland by the turn of the 20th Century.
At this stage and prior to the Second World War band membership was composed almost exclusively from the ranks of the Orange Order, but after 1945 this began to change.
Perhaps stimulated by the increasing expense and work of maintaining a band, many slowly became independent of Orange Lodges.
Bands now were recruiting members outside of the Orange Fraternity, managing their own finances and taking part in many more events outside those organised by the Order.
A new turn in the development of bands came in the 1960’s, when the combination of an increasing number of bands (as many as 700), combined with the large amount of independent bands saw the birth of the outdoor band competition and parade.
These band only events were both occasions to showpiece uniforms, marching and discipline and music, allowing them to be seen by their contemporaries and also compete for trophies.
The launch of these band parades added even more to the independence of the band ‘scene’ from the Orange Order, and also allowed bands to become much more of an icon in their own community’s – a visible expression of an area that local people could support and be proud of.
The late 1960’s and the increasing political tensions in Northern Ireland were to introduce a new element to Ulster’s bands that has stayed with it and become a fundamental element today and one unique in the world.
During the period many young people felt their national and cultural identity was under threat and were searching for a way to express it, and perhaps by virtue that the Orange Order was perceived to be an organisation for the older generation, initially these teenagers joined existing bands.
Joining a band was quicker and easier than joining the Loyal Orders and Flute bands being the most numerous type of band were largely the beneficiaries of this influx of membership.
With the arrival of this young and primarily male membership to bands, also came characteristics common to that generation, namely increased volume, colour, commitment, vibrancy and assertiveness.
These elements along with eagerness to play /parade immediately to demonstrate their strong feelings saw the birth of a new style of band.
‘Thundering’ drums, shrill flutes and the fact that blood was a common sight on Bass Drums because they were being beaten with such energy, saw this new style of marching music given the name ‘Blood and Thunder’.
Many existing bands began to change to the style as their membership changed, but also new bands sprung up and gave new use for the names of Orange Lodges they had grown up with, ‘Sons of Ulster’, ‘Defenders’ and ‘True Blues’ being adopted as the name for many.
By the late 1970’s Blood and Thunder bands made up almost half of all bands in Northern Ireland, and today they account for just over half with over 300 Blood and Thunder bands active.
Despite the political turbulence in the Country, the band scene continued to develop and during the 1980’s and 1990’s the band specific parades and competitions began to increase in number, with Loyal Order events now only a small amount of the annual work for the vast majority of bands.
Particularly in the 1990’s the competition band scene was very strong and very competitive, and slowly was largely responsible for the raising of standards across the entire scene.
The 2000’s has seen the growth of a new element in the form of indoor events and competitions, largely used as social and fundraising functions, in 2013 indoor events were almost as numerous as parades.
Today in Northern Ireland there are over 660 bands encompassing Melody Flute, Blood and Thunder Flute, Silver, Accordion and Pipe, and the movement and styles have been exported around the world including Scotland, England, Canada and Australia.
An ever developing and growing scene, the Ulster Marching Band movement can count itself as one of the most vibrant and unique cultural and musical groups in the world.