Brass Eternal – An Irishman’s Diary about Ireland’s oldest band – the St James’s Brass and Reed

They were in Glasnevin Cemetery for O’Donovan Rossa’s funeral.

They were in Glasnevin Cemetery for O’Donovan Rossa’s funeral.

 

We were talking here yesterday about an Irish bandmaster’s influence on the Japanese national anthem. But by coincidence this week, I have also been learning about an extraordinary Dublin marching band which, among many other things, played a key role in establishing popular acceptance for Amhrán na bhFiann.

In fact, to judge from their back story, the St James’s Brass and Reed are a mass-musical equivalent of Woody Allen’s Zelig – they appear have been involved in every major event of modern Irish history. The big difference is that, unlike Zelig, they didn’t have a chameleon-like ability to blend in with any cause.  

On the contrary, from a very early stage in their development, they nailed their colours to the mast of Irish nationalism. They were, arguably, the musical wing of the revolution. Which is why, their continuing presence in the neighbourhood aside, they form a major sub-plot in a 1916 exhibition currently showing at St James’s Community Hall, Dublin, just up the road from Guinness’s.

By common consent, St James’s Brass are the oldest band in Ireland, and maybe also in Europe. They were formally established in 1800, but evidence suggests they had been active as far back as 1737.  In any case, from the mid 19th-century onwards, wherever green was worn meaningfully, they had become a first-choice musical accompaniment.

They performed at Daniel O’Connell’s monster meeting in Tara. They played at the funerals of the Manchester Martyrs.

They helped campaign for Parnell when he won a seat in Meath in 1874, and later performed for him at Avondale, where he declared them Ireland’s finest band.

In due and melancholy course, they played at his funeral too.

But when the centenary of the 1798 Rebellion set the tone for a renewed militancy in Ireland, followed quickly by the Emmet commemorations of 1903, they were there as well.  

Another decade on, the Irish Volunteers were founded at Dublin’s Rotunda. And sure enough, according to newspaper reports, “St James’s Band occupied the balcony, playing national airs”.

Two years later, naturally, they were in Glasnevin Cemetery for O’Donovan Rossa’s funeral. Among those identifiable in a famous photograph of the event is their colourfully-named bandleader, Percy Beechwood Carver, who was doubling at that time as orchestra leader in the Bohemian Picture House, Phibsboro.

Although marching music in Ireland had long been influenced by the British military, whose members tended to join local civilian bands in their spare time, it had by now evolved to be integral to the rising nationalist fervour.  

In O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars, Peter Flynn describes the emotional effect of one such performance: “I felt a burnin’ lump in me throat when I heard th’ band playin’ The Soldiers’ Song, rememberin’ last hearin’ it marchin’ in military formation with th’ people starin’ on both sides at us, carryin’ with us th’ pride an’ resolution o’ Dublin to th’ grave of Wolfe Tone. ”  

Maybe that was the St James’s Brass too. Either way, according to a history of the Army School of Music 1922 - 1940 (written by Capt Joseph J Ryan), the aforementioned bandmaster was to have a big influence on how that ballad came to national prominence.

Inter alia, Ryan chides O’Casey for perpetuating the “popular but incorrect” use of the apostrophe in the song’s title, which was intended to refer, more poetically, to just one soldier. 

But he adds: “It was the then conductor of St James’s Band, Percy B. Carver, who first arranged Patrick Heeney’s The Soldier’s Song for band, and it was this version that engendered popular acceptance [for it] as the national anthem.”

But before that came the Rising, when at least half a dozen of the St James’s musicians put down their instruments and took up guns with the Citizens Army and Volunteers. One of these was George Geoghegan, who died on the roof of City Hall. Another was Tom O’Reilly, killed at the GPO.

In later years, the band returned to its earlier role, playing at the funeral of Thomas Ashe in 1917. That may have been where Carver’s version of The Soldier’s Song got its first public airing before a large audience.  

But of course there were many other military funerals ahead then.

And at a time of bitter national disharmony, the St James’s B&R appear to have been a unifying force, honouring the dead on both sides in the Civil War, most notably at the funeral of Michael Collins.