And the band played on…

By John Fitzgerald

On the eve of the 1884 Manchester Martyrs parade, the police decided to nip the Kilkenny band’s planned seditious behaviour in the bud. RIC Head Constable Meek went to the band hall to warn that any parade that year would be decisively broken up and dispersed. Reluctantly, the band called off its anticipated outing.

Parades for the following four years were low-key and without incident, but all hell broke loose at the 1888 event. St. Patrick’s band spearheaded a long column of protesters. The music came to an abrupt halt in Upper Patrick Street when a strong police cordon blocked its passage.

Simultaneously, the Workingmen’s Club Fife and Drum Band had entered High Street from Walkin Street, only to meet an equally determined line of constables. Pitched battles erupted all over the city. Stones and bottles greeted batons, and blooded flowed in the streets. The main force of police was at the Town Hall. People darting out of the network of laneways showered them with missiles and then melted back into the shadows.

The band remained a thorn in the side of the RIC for decades. It backed anti-eviction protests, including ones staged outside the homes affected. In February 1889, the band turned up to offer moral support to political prisoners due to arrive at Kilkenny Gaol. Crowds gathered around the platform at the railway station to await the prisoners.

When the train pulled in, a huge cheer went up. The protesters jeered at police assembled under the Railway Bridge. Then St. Patrick’s band headed towards the gaol at the head of a torchlight procession. The police blocked this as it neared the prison. Scuffles followed, and a major riot ensued that enveloped the entire city.

In Stephen Street, band members were badly beaten with batons, and the big drum was damaged when an RIC man kicked a hole in it. The parade dispersed amid further chaotic scenes. Police and marchers nursed their wounds, and scores of people ended up in hospital.

Later that week, an irate local, John Brennan, walked up to a constable in High Street whom he thought had smashed the drum during the parade. A heavily built man, he caught the constable and heaved him through Gregg’s window. He was immediately arrested by other RIC men and thrown into the lock-up under the courthouse.

Sixteen men were charged in relation to the riots and the judge, in summing up the case, laid the blame for the disturbances on St. Patrick’s Band. Of those charged, two later became prominent band members: Matt Darcy; its gifted euphonium player, and Tom Ryan, grandfather of the band’s Centenary Year chairman.

In December 1890, St. Patrick’s led a group of bands that welcomed Charles Stuart Parnell to Kilkenny. It played outside the Victoria Hotel- where the Munster and Leinster Bank later stood. Ten months later, it was present at the funeral of the great agitator.

Throughout the turbulent period leading up to the 1922 Truce and Treaty, the band was in thick of the political drama that unfolded across Kilkenny City and county. It accompanied Sinn Fein candidate W.T. Cosgrave to several big rallies during the 1917 by-election to give backing to his electoral bid.

And the band hall on the Kells Road was raided almost twice weekly from the day the War of Independence got underway. The RIC and Tans loved to tear the old hall apart whenever they felt the need to retaliate for rebel activities.

The band was at the centre of the last RIC baton charge in Kilkenny, which occurred, ironically, on St. Patrick’s Night. The police issued a proclamation banning a Gaelic League concert in the city theatre on the basis that it might provoke a “breach of the peace and promote disaffection.”

(Picture shows the band at Nowlan Park in 1949)

-John Fitzgerald

To be continued…


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