Portlaoise’s accordian band march on to the future

Bandmaster, treasurer and teacher, Peter Smith has dedicated a lifetime to St Joseph’s Accordian Band. He told reporter Lynda Kiernan about their future plans.

Bandmaster, treasurer and teacher, Peter Smith has dedicated a lifetime to St Joseph’s Accordian Band. He told reporter Lynda Kiernan about their future plans.

Portlaoise’s St Joseph’s Accordian Band are a familiar sight at parades, openings and charity events for over fifty years.

In their smart navy uniforms with gold braiding, based on those of airline pilots, they play such favourites as ‘Minstrel Boy’ and ‘O’Donnell Abu’, everywhere from the Top Square in Portlaoise to New York and Nashville.

As other marching bands have fallen by the wayside recently, Bandmaster Peter Smith feels the key to their survival lies in their efforts to attract members. The fact that they provide instruments, uniforms and lessons for free is a big part of this, as well as the occasional trips abroad.

“There are six bands gone now, the old guys are gone. They didn’t bring the band anywhere, that’s why we travel. I feel the band need to travel to get experience” he said.

In 2004 they went to New York, marching down 5th Avenue in the St Patrick’s Day Parade. In 2005 and 2006 they played in England. They visited Nashville, Tennessee for Independence Day, 2008, marching in honour of the Irish killed in the civil war, and even performed in Elvis Presley’s Graceland.

The thirty strong group, who range in age from 10 to 85, play a winning formula of waltzes and marches on button and piano accordians, with drums and the odd triangle. They perform at events throughout the midlands, and use the proceeds for their trips abroad. This year they accepted an invitation to the historic city of Prague for a week long St Patrick’s Festival, and raised over E19,000 to take 46 members, including majorettes on the trip. Family members who joined them paid their own way.

The band played twice daily in two Irish pubs, performed in Wenceslas Square for St Patrick’s Day, went on a river cruise, visited the many churches and viewed Terezin concentration camp as part of their trip.

“Prague was a great experience for all the members. It stands out, it was so safe and clean, and full of trememdous history. We were sorry to let our own parades down but it had been seven years. Next year we hope to travel to England, but we will be back for all the parades at home,” promised Peter.

Peter has been a member since the band started 52 years ago, and bandmaster for the past 20 years. He is one of several who are devoted to it, including the O’Brien family who make up several members.

“Paddy Connell is still our chairman at 88 years, and still has great interest in the band. Dick Sykes our President is also a great member. We would like to offer our condolences to the Brew family, as our longtime member Billy Brew passed away some months ago. He was one of our longest serving members, over 50 years, may Heaven be his bed,” he said.

The band are holding an open day on Sunday June 26 from 3 to 5pm at their bandroom off Grattan Street (behind FBD office). All are welcome to come along.

“We are starting a campaign for new members. We are also introducing tin whistle into the band for the first time. We are hoping to get eight members from age groups 11 to any age,” said Peter, adding that ability to play is preferred but teaching will be given.

“To put eight tin whistles into the band will cost us E5,000, including uniforms. But we think they will add to the band. Band member Sinead Winter will train them, and thanks to her we are now on Facebook. We would like to thank everyone who supported our recent church gate collection. Our suits cost E400 each and accordians are E2,100, just to let people know where the money goes. It’s totally voluntary, no-one gets a penny, It’s an institution,” he said.

Training is on Tuesdays from 7 to 8pm, and every second Sunday, 2 to 4pm.