By John Fitzgerald
St. Patrick’s band found itself on the receiving end of the RIC’s last banton charge in Kilkenny. It was on St Patrick’s night (ironically) that, at 7 p.m. a huge force of police, and troops in battle gear, took up positions in front of the theatre. On the opposite side of the street, crowds had gathered; unaware that the night’s performance had been outlawed. The patriotic among the discontented onlookers decided that resistance was in order.
But it was the band that again led the way. Jimmy O’ Reilly, the St. Patrick’s Band conductor, and fellow bandsmen, stopped off at Statham’s Garage to collect a supply of stones. These were distributed to the angry folk facing the military cordon outside the theatre. The crowd burst into a bawdy verse of the Peeler and the Goat, which enraged the RIC men. Before the police could react to the singing of this highly subversive song, Jimmy threw the first stone.
His aim was sure. The stone struck and shattered the glass panel over the theatre door. Others followed his example. A shower of stones descended on the ring of steel. Pandemonium resulted. The soldiers fired shots in the air and police baton-charged the crowd. Fierce hand to hand fighting engulfed the City.
Thankfully, the dark days of the Tan War came to end with the Truce and Treaty. Military barracks nation-wide were handed over to the new Irish Army. Kilkenny Volunteers had their day of glory on February 7th 1922… and who better than the men of St. Patrick’s Band to lead them into the Promised Land?
Willie Cody of Inistioge was in charge of the band on that memorable day. Marching up Parliament Street at the head of uniformed soldiers of the New Ireland, the band played O’ Donnell Abu, to rapturous applause and cheering from hundreds of Smithwicks Brewery workers lining the footpaths.
In High Street, there was barely standing room in the streets as the band inched forward amid great celebration. Thousands hummed The Wearing of the Green when the band struck up that tune upon entering Barrack Street.
In the barracks, British soldiers saluted the volunteers and St. Patrick’s Band as the Tricolour was hoisted there for the first time and the Union Jack was lowered in what had been a stronghold of Tan tyranny.
The band played Abhrain na bhFiann.”Twas worth all the baton charges”, one band member remarked as the British military detachment moved out of the barracks to board a ship for England.
From day one, the band supported GAA activities. In the early years it played in Murphy’s field on Kilkenny’s Freshford Road where a string of hurling and football events were staged. Heavy rain at some of these matches failed to dampen the enthusiasm either of the teams or the band.
One of band’s founder members was the legendary Jim Nowlan. He proved a nifty baritone player. Jim served a twenty-year stint as national GAA President and, as mentioned elsewhere in this book, had Nowlan Park named after him.
The band provided the musical backdrop to the official opening of Nowlan Park. The first major game played there was the 1928 hurling semi-final between Dublin and Cork. The band met the teams at the railway station to treat them to a hearty Kilkenny welcome.
From the year of its formation, the band made a point of always turning out to welcome home the Kilkenny team after All-Ireland finals…win, lose or draw. It certainly made its mark following the triumph of both senior and minor teams in the 1972 showdowns in Croke Park.
The band had an engagement in Tralee on the day and had to move fast to be back in Kilkenny to greet the conquering heroes. Hearing the good news from Dublin, the band chairman had a large black and amber flag hoisted on the roof of one of the busses…
(Pictures show: a presentation to the band in 1981 and the Fenian Commemoration parade in 1967)
To be continued…