By John Fitzgerald
The day of reckoning arrived: the launch of the new-look St. Patrick’s band and its treasured corps of Majorettes. On Sunday, December 19th 1971, Thousands of people lined the route to St. Mary’s Cathedral. They awaited the band’s much-heralded arrival at the historic place of worship. Dr. Birch, Bishop of Ossory, was due to celebrate the 12 O’ Clock Mass and the band would provide the accompaniment of sacred music and Christmas carols.
It was a cold, windy morning in the City. But delighted citizens quickly forgot their shivering bones and sneezing when the band appeared. The gold braided new uniforms of the members drew whistles of admiration, and the martial tunes uplifted even the most downhearted among the teeming crowds.
But it was the vision of ineffable beauty, angelic precision, choreographic brilliance, and sheer class of the majorettes that cast a spell over the awe-struck spectators. This was Ireland’s first ever Corps of Majorettes and they were here, in the heart of Kilkenny.
Their shining mini-skirted uniforms, white boots and plumed head dresses wooed the starry-eyed onlookers. As they marched in step behind the band, they added a new colour and exuberance to a frosty winter’s morning, vanquishing all thoughts of inclement weather with their colourful display of skill and martial prowess.
Flags flew and batons twirled. A carnival atmosphere developed along the band route. The Mayor of Kilkenny and the entire Corporation attended the Mass and complimented the band on its performance. The City fathers found it difficult to concentrate on their prayers with the unaccustomed presence of Majorettes in the church. But they knew God, in his infinite wisdom, would forgive them a passing glance or two at the women.
Clerics too forgot their priestly vocations for an hour or so when the ladies paraded into the church. His Holiness the Bishop forgave them. “Sure nobody’s perfect” he quipped, slapping a worried Man of God on the back with a knowing wink.
Sean Holland conducted the band that day and his wife Claire was in charge of the Majorettes.
The band went on to win plaudits from all over the world for its performances. It had to keep up with a phenomenal number of bookings and enquiries. It featured on an RTE programme, further enhancing its status, and scooped numerous awards countrywide, thanks in part to the aesthetically pleasing and imaginative drill techniques of the Majorettes.
The first Majorette leader was Claire Holland, a strict disciplinarian who set the women on the road to success. Next came Catherine Ryan, a Kilkenny Vocational teacher who introduced the women to a few new drill routines. Claire Larkin was the third leader. A renowned step dancer, Claire was equally famed for her beaming smile that charmed the hearts of young and old alike.
The men and women of St. Patrick’s Brass Band will be remembered with great fondness in Kilkenny. With their sweet melodies and soul-stirring marches, they turned frowns into smiles and sadness to joy. Oppression and challenge they took in their stride.
The band was the heart and soul of “The Village”, as much a part of Kilkenny’s proud heritage as the Castle or the black and amber jersey.
(Pictures show: The Majorettes and the band lead Bishop Peter Birch to City Hall to receive the Freedom of Kilkenny. Some prominent band members…)