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Carlow County - Ireland Genealogical Projects (IGP TM)


Hacketstown Brass Band
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Hacketstown Brass Band

1875 - c.1895

Written by Patrick M. Byrne

Hacketstown Brass Band (Mr. O 'Connor in centre with bowler hat)

On a fine sunny Sunday morning in early Jane 1875 a cavalcade of horse drawn open carriages, men on horseback and horse-drawn carts passed through the still sleeping village of Hacketstown shortly after first light and were observed by five or six hardy locals who were up and about at that hour.

Two of the carriages contained what looked like piles of shining gold treasure. but were in fact the shining instruments and drums of the Tullow Brass Band who were on their way to Glendalough for a day of music and marching in the national interest.  That evening as the Angelus was ringing in Hacketstown the band on their way back were coming in through Rathnafishogue and they arrived on the square in the village around 6.20 p.m. to be greeted by a crowd of excited and locals and their Priest, Rev. Fr. Delaney and of course it was suggested that maybe the band would like to play a few national airs, which they did; it is said that in fact they played for about two hours and aroused great interest and were loudly cheered by the local inhabitants.

After the Tullow men had left for home, and before the crowd had moved away, Rev. Fr. Delaney took the opportunity to address the assembly now standing before him in high spirits; he spoke for about ten minutes and at the end of the speech he put to them the question, "Should we try to form a Brass Band of our own here in Hacketstown?" and some of the people shouted back, "God bless you, Father, you're the man for the job" and all those assembled approved of the suggestion.

At all Masses on the following Sunday Rev. Fr. Delaney announced that he was calling a meeting to discuss the formation of a Brass Band and he invited all those interested to come along and air their views on the subject, and it was said that he also invited the ladies to come along and give their opinion as well. There is no record of where this meeting was held, but we know that approval was given and a committee was formed to oversee the raising of funds for the project.

The committee members were as follows: Rev. Fr. Delaney, Pierce Butler, Edward McDonald, Edward Kealy, Nicholas O'Toole and last but not least was the only female member, Mrs. Garrett O'Reilly.

The committee had to decide how to extract money from the hard pressed locals so that the musical instruments and drums could be purchased in Dublin. They decided to try the simplest method of getting money quickly and that was to hold a local collection. This collection was held over a four week period and they collected the mighty sum for those days of 155 - 10 - 3 . It was made up of donations of 5 -0 -0 from a few local farmers and businessmen, and the shillings and pence of the local workmen, right down to the old man who gave a halfpenny.

The brass instruments were now purchased. They arrived in Hacketstown towards the end of August 1875 and 15 trainee bandsmen were soon practising three nights a week, as well as marching practice every fine Sunday after Mass. They cut quite a dash, dressed in green sashes and French-style green kepis (caps), as they paraded round and round the village.  The names of the original fifteen bandsmen were as follows: Dinny Kehoe, J. Carroll, Hugh Kenny, J. Byrne, Ed. Whelan, T. Shannon, Jim Hutton, John Lyons, J. Kenny, T. Donnolly, Andy Kavanagh, Joe Hutton, J. O'Brien, Mick Reilly and P. Kenny. The committee and band members now decided that the band should have a name and after several meetings to debate the issue they agreed to call it "The St. Laurence O'Toole Brass Band" and the pennant that was carried in front of the band was green and bore the initials "S.L.O.T.B.B." in gold embroidery.

The band members were now giving very good renditions of the many tunes they had learned and practised, and as Autumn and Winter turned to Spring they would assemble on the village square on fine Sunday evenings to entertain the local inhabitants, and their playing was very much appreciated by all those who heard them. It was round about this time that the letters of the pennant began to attract the attention of the local characters and "Quare Fellas" who of course put the letters together and they spelled SLOT. Now in the local dialect of the time, e..g. a door was pronounced "dure," so SLOT became "SLUT" and so they acquired the unfortunate nickname of the "Hacketstown Sluts'" Brass Band. The nickname however was dropped quite quickly after it was roundly condemned by the priest from the altar on two successive Sundays, and it would only come to surface occasionally when some of the local wideboys were mingling with the crowd e.g. after Mass on Sundays.

The man from God knows where is now about to enter the scene and he did so on a dull Sunday afternoon as the band members were drawn up in front of the sundial on the village square and about to perform their usual recital; this quaint looking individual wearing a top hat, cravat and swallow-tailed coat, and walking in his bare feet came strolling in the Baltinglass road with a stick across his shoulder and a bundle on the end of it. He enquired from some women he met in Bridge Lane if this was Hacketstown and was there a newly formed brass band here. The women answered, "Yes" to both questions and told him that the band was about to start playing on the town square. His next question was "who was in charge of the band?" and the women told him that when he got to the square he should ask for Andy Kavanagh or John Lyons.

When he reached the town square the band was already in full tune, so he kept his distance until they finished. He then asked a man named Jack Disney would he be good enough to point out John Lyons or Andy Kavanagh to him and so Jack Disney showed him where Andy Kavanagh was standing. The stranger introduced himself to both Andy Kavanagh and John Lyons and told them he was a bandmaster and could read and compose music, that his name was O'Connor, and if given a chance he could prove his worth in less than a month. John Lyons asked him how he found out about the Hacketstown band and he replied that a tramp ballad singer at Dunlavin Fair spoke about them. John Lyons and Andy Kavanagh told Mr. O'Connor that they would discuss the matter with their committee the following evening and they would give him its decision on Tuesday.

On Monday evening the band committee met and after a prolonged discussion they decided to give Mr. O'Connor a chance to sharpen up the band by teaching the bandsmen how to read music and to march in step. This was to be the start of an almost twenty year association between Mr. O'Connor and the St. Laurence O'Toole Brass Band in Hacketstown.

It appears the band now went from strength to strength and was in big demand in the surrounding towns and villages and always accompanied by Mr. O'Connor in his bare feet and wearing his trademark top hat and tails and carrying in his right hand his conductor's baton.

The Bandmaster was always addressed as "Mr. O'Connor" when people spoke to him personally, but when he was talked about among themselves he was affectionately known as "Aould O'Connor", and on fine Sundays after Mass when a large crowd would have gathered and the priest had gone home some of the wide boys in the crowd would shout out, "Where's Aould O'Connor today?" and their friends would chant back, "He's off playing with the Sluts again" and a ripple of laughter would move through the crowd. Now as everyone knows there were always Go-Boys out for a laugh at somebody else's expense, but by this stage Mr. O'Connor had become a well-respected member of the local community on account of his work with the band.

The sundial was located on the square in Hacketstown about two paces out from a narrow clay footpath that passed in front of what is now the Pharmacy and it was here that the band always formed up to play for the townspeople. Dinny Kehoe, the big drummer, was the man that always ended up with his back to the sundial and if the day was warm he would remove his cap and hang it up (as he would say himself) on "Cromwell's Nose," which was of course the brass shadow-casting device called a gnomon on the dial. Mr. O'Connor would now take his place on top of a small wooden porter barrel and give his instructions to the band, wave his baton and the music would start to the loud cheering of the assembled crowd.

In every village and every town in any year or century you care to pick you are sure to find a drunk looking for trouble and one night after band practice such a man approached Mr. O'Connor and said, "What brought you here to be the boss of the band, and you not knowing music from slop water, and only I'm a decent man I'd tell you where to go." Mr. O'Connor fixed him in his gaze and replied, "A decent man did you say, sir? Why, in the short length of time that I have been here I have quickly come to the conclusion that you, my good man, are as free from decency as a frog is from feathers." Needless to say that drunk never bothered him again. There were two Euphonium players in the band and while one of them lived in the town, the other lived in the country approximately 1 miles out. Now this man had no transport of any kind and so he went everywhere on foot.

Each bandsman was responsible for his own instrument and so they took them home with them after each session. Our country friend was getting a bit fed up of carrying his euphonium 2. miles to and from every event and so he devised a plan; he resurrected an old rickety wooden wheelbarrow with a solid wooden wheel and into this he placed an armfull of straw and on top of this, in regal splendour, sat the euphonium, all ready for its journey into town. Shortly afterwards the local cornerboys christened its owner "Buglebarra" as he arrived at every band event, even if there were dignitaries present, pushing the barrow containing his beloved euphonium.

In 1880 the Parish Priest of the time was Rev. Fr. Patrick McDonnell and he decided to put a clock in the church tower and retire the sundial, and so he asked the band if they would be willing to help him to raise some funds towards this worthy cause, which they willingly did on numerous occasions. There is no record of how much they collected for this project, but the word was that it amounted to a tidy sum and the clock was installed in 1881. There was an old man living in the town at the time and every time the new clock struck the hour he would take off his hat and say, "God bless Fr. McDonnell and the band, only for them we wouldn't know the night from the day."

The band's Nationalistic attitude, choice of music, and attire did not go down very well with a small number of Church of Ireland people who had to pass by them on their way to evening service and so we find the following: George Thomas Watson, incumbent of Hacketstown, wrote a letter to the office of the Chief Secretary of Ireland on April 22nd 1878, giving his address as "The Glebe, Hacketstown." He complained that, "A band of persons dressed with green scarves and green caps paraded the streets of the town playing discordant music to the great annoyance of those who were on their way to evening service." A police report signed by Constable George Redding is attached to the file in the National Archives in Dublin; this report stated that ten or twelve members of the band had played in Main Street between 4 and 5 o'clock, then proceeded to a moat at a distance of one mile. They caused no obstruction; they did not go near the Church and no complaint had been made to the Police.

On Sunday September 28th 1879, Parnell visited Hacketstown and after lunching with the Parish Priest Rev. Fr. McDonnell he addressed the people in the Main Street. He was on his way to a monster Land League meeting in Tullow. The Carlow Independent on October 4th reported, "The Hacketstown Brass Band, headed by their efficient committee, met Mr. Parnell a short distance outside the town and after cheering lustily they played a very choice selection of airs." Although not mentioned in this report, the band is said to have led a procession of over 1,000 farmers to this monster meeting in Tullow and became quite famous as a result.

January 28th 1881

Sixteen people were prosecuted at Hacketstown Petty Sessions for "groaning" Colonel Dennis, a local magistrate, who had been hearing a case in which Thomas Byrne was being charged with taking forcible possession of a property from which he had been evicted. The case against the sixteen people was adjourned for a month and the Carlow Independent of January 29th reported, "a brass band, which was surrounded by a large and enthusiastic crowd, played outside the Parish Priest's house and the defendants were cheered, as were also those who took part in the defence."

March 28th 1884

John Lyons of Ballykillane and Nicholas O'Toole of Scotland, Hacketstown were re-elected to the Shillelagh Board of Guardians and came home that night to a great celebration of victory in Hacketstown. "The Brass Band followed by an immense crowd bearing oil barrels marched through the streets playing National Airs." (Nationalist, March 29th 1884).

Seven years now pass by before the band is mentioned in the papers again and many of the older bandsmen have retired and have been replaced by younger, fitter men, who are better able for a day's marching.

July 2nd 1891

Parnell came to Hacketstown from Carlow, campaigning for his candidate in the Carlow By-election, Mr. Kettle. "Mr. Edward Harrington, M.P., and the local band received the Member for Cork outside the town and a large assemblage accompanied the party to the town square, where after an interval for luncheon, the meeting was held." (Carlow Sentinel, July 4th 1891)

Somewhere between 1891 and 1895 a difference of opinion occurred between the younger and older members of the band with the result that the younger members and their supporters took charge. However it only lasted about two years after that before they disbanded. Mr. O'Connor had now lost the love of his life and they say he left Hacketstown shortly afterwards, heartbroken, by the same road he had first come in. I suppose we can imagine that he was hoping to find another fledgling brass band on which he could lavish his expertise. As he walked off into the sunset the band he loved and spent so much of his time with was soon to be rapidly forgotten; he himself is barely remembered in a rhyme composed by some local scribe who put pen to paper and wrote the following:

The Hacketstown Band
Has got so grand
They wouldn't come out to play;
They sold their brass
To buy a Jackass
To draw Aould O'Connor away.

 Source: Carloviana 2011 N0. 60. Pages 69-71

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2001 County Carlow Genealogy IGP

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