An Irishman’s Diary on how the Garda Band took the US by storm

‘Ireland On Parade’ – a tour to remember

In a two-month tour of the US and Canada in 1964 they played Madison Square Garden for five nights and entertained thousands upon thousands in Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit and as far west as Dubuque, Iowa.

In a two-month tour of the US and Canada in 1964 they played Madison Square Garden for five nights and entertained thousands upon thousands in Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit and as far west as Dubuque, Iowa.

 

Approximately 50 years ago this week, an unlikely group of musical superstars returned in triumph from their first and only tour of the US and Canada. Beatlemania and Greenwich Village were in full swing, with the Velvet Underground to follow. The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem were influencing Bob Dylan and nailing a flag to the Billboard 100.

But these returned conquistadores were, of all things, the Garda Band. In a two-month tour of the US and Canada they played Madison Square Garden for five nights and entertained thousands upon thousands in Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit and as far west as Dubuque, Iowa.

For the tallest garda in the force, the story began on traffic duty in Dublin that March. An order came through and 6ft 6in Garda Matt Cosgrave was dispatched down to the Eamonn Andrews Studios out of the blue, where veteran producer Fred O’Donovan auditioned the imposing and photogenic policeman to lead the band on a tour he was planning – Ireland On Parade.

By the time they departed in September 1964, O’Donovan had assembled the Garda Band, singers Patrick O’Hagan and Mary Sheridan, the Tara Boys’ Band and the O’Connell Girl Pipers in a programme that would include familiar, traditional fare such as When Irish Eyes Are Smiling and The Foggy Dew.

A non-musician, Cosgrave was to be the drum major. As his newfound bandmates rehearsed away under conductor Supt Joachim Moloney in the Phoenix Park depot, Cosgrave marched up and down learning drill steps and mastering the tricky task of throwing the staff into the air and catching it in time with the music. He dropped it but once, on an unsuitably small stage in Boston.

As the public face of the band, he also had extensive promotional duties that included modelling an impressive new uniform before “honorary patron” minister for justice Charles Haughey. Cosgrave also appeared at social events and on the cover of the official tour programme, gazing into the middle distance with the Parnell Monument in the background.

To the touring musicians, the America they were stepping into was romanticised by TV and film, and the many emigrant experiences of friends and relatives. Shortly after they landed, their first engagement was at the World’s Fair in New York, marking a particular moment in American space-age optimism before Vietnam and civil rights shattered the illusion. As they played the “city that never sleeps”, back home things were altogether sleepier.

Travelling by Greyhound bus from city to city, America unfolded before their eyes. It’s said that legendary political heavyweight mayor Daley of Chicago offered to arrange a new life in the Windy City for any band member who wanted it.

O’Donovan had tapped into a lucrative niche – Irish America was thriving, and generations from across the waves of migration came out to see the show. Some would give the bandsmen money, remembering the poorer Ireland that they or their ancestors had left. Some musicians bumped into emigrants from their native parish. For others, it was a unique chance to meet relatives they would ordinarily never see again.

Further tales to tell the grandchildren were collected in Washington, where a daughter of President Lyndon Johnson gave them a guided tour of the White House and explained the restoration instigated by Jackie Kennedy before her Irish-American husband’s recent assassination. After two months of playing and marching in front of packed houses, none took up Daley’s offer of asylum, if he ever offered it. Their final scheduled performance was in Baltimore on November 12th, and the flight home awaited.

In a storied career O’Donovan would go on to chair the RTÉ Authority, be credited with saving the Gaiety Theatre and become a near-legendary figure in Irish showbiz. He would share decades of friendship with Haughey, who as minister for justice had been instrumental in arranging the tour to the US.

But on the band’s return to Dublin Airport, Haughey’s replacement Brian Lenihan extended the welcome home. It was a short-lived one. The Garda Band was disbanded the following year, apparently to honour a commitment to provide 20 new squad cars for the force – a hiatus that would last seven years. Plans for future tours would come to nothing, and the band has never been back to the US.

A return to traffic duty was a far cry from standing ovations in Madison Square Garden.