Fifes and Drums

Jenny Cathcart mines 'the richest vein of flute music in the world'

If you want to tap the richest vein of flute music in the world, you go to Ireland’

‘The flute bands of the Dutch Royal Marines or the Danish Life Guards put on a brilliant display. The Middlesex County Volunteers in Boston play the widest range of tunes, many dating from the American War of Independence. In the fife and drum have become an integral part of village folk music traditions. But the Irish have set themselves apart because they play orchestral flutes and complex part music.’

Major Richard Powell (military music expert).

Three major international competitions are held in annually:

  • The World Flute Band championships are held at the Ulster Hall in Belfast on the first Saturday in October. In recent years the champions have been from Ulster. (Ballygowan, Ballyloan, Ballywalter and Ballyclare Flute Bands)
  • The Own Choice Contest is held each February in the Ulster Hall, Belfast
  • The Limerick International Bands competition takes place on St Patrick`s day.

All flute bands evolved from a military tradition. The Corps of Drums led soldiers in the British Army from 1748. Irishmen joined up in garrison towns such as Limerick , Cork , Waterford , Wexford, Dublin , and Londonderry , and learned to play the fife and drum. When they came out of the army they formed civilian flute bands and the tradition has flourished until the present day.

During the first world war, Corps of Drums bands marched soldiers through the battlefields of Europe , for transport was much scarcer than in the second world war.

Tunes with names such as ‘1914’, ‘Grandcourt’ and ‘Coeur de Lion’ date directly from that period as do the well known ‘It`s a Long Way to Tipperary’ and ‘Killaloo’. The so-called 'March King', W H Turpin, who has 88 tunes to his name, composed ‘Danny from Bandon’ which was first played by the 16th Irish Division. ‘White Chateau’ was composed by William Blithe, who after the war returned to Belfast to conduct the Amateur Flute Band.

Today the largest concentration of flute bands is in the north of where the Corps of Drums tradition has been kept alive by Orange Lodges who call on flute bands for their Twelfth of July parades.

Nonetheless it is important to note the contribution made to the tradition by bands such as St Malachy’s in Armagh and individual flautists like Jimmy McGurk who composed some of the most famous marches including ‘Cambrai’, ‘Le Ancre’ and ‘The Menin Gate’. The Rosses Flute Band in Donegal, which thrives to this day, was formed when potato gatherers travelled to in the picking season and brought back tunes they learned from Scottish bands.

The internationally renowned flautist, James Galway, learned to play the flute with the 39th Old Boys Flute Band in Belfast . The recognised expert on Irish Flute Bands is Pastor Alvin Mullan, who was born in Cookstown into a long line of fife and drum players. The Mullan family boast that they fought in every major battle from Waterloo to World War II. Pastor Mullan`s grandfather served in India and fought in the Boer War. His father played in the Killymoon Conservative Flute Band while Pastor Mullan himself learned to play the flute at an early age but chose to be a drummer.

Today he lives in Enniskillen where he keeps a collection of two hundred flutes, an assortment of drums and a wealth of archive material and photographs about the Corps of Drums tradition.

In July 1998, Pastor Mullan assembled flute players from all over the north of to travel with him and his son, Alvin Junior, to and where they played at commemoration ceremonies for the Battle of the Somme at Ypres and at the Menin Gate in Belgium.

The oldest in the group was 93 year old Donald Sloane whose father was killed on New Year`s Day 1917 at the Battle of Arras. On their return, the band recorded a collection of First World War tunes on a CD entitled From the Somme to Ypres , a Musical Journey.

Jenny Cathcart