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Reed all about it: the story of Ireland’s oldest band

Reed all about it: the story of Ireland’s oldest band – In this article, Shane Adlum delves into the history of Ireland’s oldest brass and reed band. A history that mirrored the country and city that gave birth to it.

Ireland has an incredible and unique musical history. From traditional music to chart topping pop bands, from rebel songs to rock bands selling out stadiums worldwide, we have certainly made our mark on the history of music. Right here in Dublin 8 is a band that has contributed to not only the history of music in Ireland but has played their role in the history of the country. “A lot of people don’t know the history of the band and it’s huge; the history of St James’s Brass and Reed band is huge”. These are the words of Tom Tyrrell, musical director of St James’s Brass and Reed band. I sat down with Mr Tyrrell to discuss the incredible history and all things concerning Ireland’s oldest band.


The band was formally established in1800, although there are records of them dating back as far as 1737. While no one knows for sure how the band was formed it is believed to have been started when two local bands, the tanners and the weavers, joined together and called themselves St James’s band. At the time a lot of industries such as tanning, tobacco, spinning and silk weaving were thriving in the area and workers would form their own bands. Initially it was a brass only band but as reed instruments, such as clarinets and saxophones, were invented and improved they were gradually introduced into the band.

With so much history and tradition behind the band some believe they are the oldest in Europe, but Tom says “I couldn’t say we are the oldest in Europe but we are definitely the oldest in Ireland by a long way”. Some British military unit bands could date back to the 1700’s so it is likely some of them may be older but St. James’s band are certainly the oldest in Ireland and are amongst the oldest in Europe.


You can’t look back over Irish history without seeing the bands navy uniforms. Every major event appears to have been accompanied by the music of St. James’s Brass and Reed band. They led the cortege for Michael Collins, played at the Hill of Tara when Daniel O’Connell attended and they were at the Rotunda in Dublin as the Irish Volunteers were founded in 1913. Parnell declared them Ireland’s finest band after they performed for him at Avondale, they also later played at his funeral.  They attended the funeral of O’Donovan Rossa where Pádraig Pearse made his famous oration. There was a lot of security at the O’Donovan Rossa funeral and the press were not allowed to attend but band member Thomas O’Reilly managed to get a photograph of the occasion. The band still has the original photo and it is currently on loan to the museum in Kilmainham.

Perhaps one of their most significant contributions to Irish history came when they played the funeral of Thomas Ashe. Tom tells me with great pride that “At the Thomas Ashe funeral the band played, for the very first time, a piece of music called The Soldier’s Song, which became the Irish national anthem.”  It was the then conductor Percy B Carver who first arranged the song, originally written by Patrick Heeney, for band and it was this version which went on to be the national anthem as we know it today. The original score for that is also on loan to the museum in Kilmainham.

The band also played a hugely significant role in the proclamation being read out at the GPO on Easter Monday 1916. The Proclamation was printed in the basement of old Liberty Hall but the printing press was too loud and the British soldiers on duty would have heard it and put a stop to it. Three men, Michael Mallin, George Geoghegan and Thomas O’Reilly, got together and decided to put on a concert to drown out the sound and St James’s band was more than happy to oblige. Had it not been for the music provided by the band that day the proclamation may not have been printed. Luckily the proclamation came out and history was made but that wasn’t the end of the story. A few years later the British armed forces interrupted band rehearsals and arrested the band in its entirety and brought them up to Richmond Barracks before transporting them across to Arbour Hill. People say they spent a week locked up but the truth is they were jailed overnight and no charges were ever made. The reason for the arrest was said to be “playing music not becoming of the king”, which has to be one of the strangest reasons for an arrest I’ve ever heard.

During the Rising several members of the band swapped their instruments for guns to fight with the Irish Volunteers and the Citizens Army. Two of whom, Thomas O’Reilly and George Geoghegan, gave their lives for the cause.

A more recent bit of history saw John Gannon enter the Guinness book of records for being the longest serving band member in the world. John joined St. James’s Band on the 22nd of March 1936 and he spent more than 81 years as an active member. Sadly John passed away a few months before his hundredth birthday but he will never be forgotten for this amazing record which I’m sure will stand for a long time. Tom described John as a “great, great character” and he will always remember him fondly.


Currently the band has around 35 members and they are always on the lookout for new people to join. “We never refuse a member, we give everyone a chance”. Ideal candidates would have experience playing as part of a group because playing with a band like this takes a greater level of discipline than playing on your own, but all are welcome to try out. In 2005 the band moved into their fantastic new band hall at Mount Brown. They rehearse every Wednesday evening and Sunday morning all year round. They play all kinds of occasions from parades and parties to funerals and they also perform at a lot of charity events too.

One important part of Mr Tyrrell’s job as musical director is to choose the music they play. “When someone asks what music do you play? I say from Bach to the Beatles” Tom jokes, but in truth their repertoire extends even beyond that. He describes himself as a classical man with Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn being some of his favourite composers but he also loves to include more contemporary pieces for performances. Some fantastic movie scores can be heard coming from the practice room such as the Greatest Showman, Pirates of the Caribbean, plenty of John Williams as well as the Bare Necessities from the Jungle Book. Modern pop songs such as Happy by Pharrell Williams and rock classics like Deep Purple’s Smoke on the Water and Eye of the Tiger by Survivor are also given the brass and reed treatment by the band. With such a wide variety of songs in their arsenal I asked if Tom had a personal favourite to perform. “They’re all favourites, by the time I get them all rehearsed they drive me around the twist, but they’re all great”. The music they choose for each engagement always depends on the event and the audience. Younger listeners may prefer film soundtracks because they recognise the songs whilst others may prefer classical music or even something they can sing along with. Luckily the band has a repertoire that can cover any occasion.


Tom left me with a final message for people, “anyone who has played an instrument and given it up should go back and they might get the appetite for it again, it happens to a lot of people”. Tom’s love of music is clear to see and he is keen to see others enjoy it too; the band is in good hands with him at the helm.

St James’s Brass and Reed band are linked to so many historical events that it’s hard to tell the history of the country without them. Yet the story of the band is not as well known as it should be. There is over two hundred years of proud history and tradition attributed to the band and they will continue to provide the soundtrack to major events for years to come.

One Response

  1. Gabriel Morrin says:

    My mothers maiden name was Maher and she spoke before she died that her father John Maher was in the St. James band and as he was a cooper in Guinness I thought the name of the band was associated with Guinness Brewery. She did mention the band played at many events. I was looking through a new book called Old Ireland in Colour 2 and I saw a photo of the band playing at the funeral of O’Donovan Rossa .He lived in the Coombe and later in Crumlin.So I am looking to see if he played the clarinet in 1915 and therefore if yes it appears he is standing next to the St James Banner at the funeral of O’Donovan Rossa. He was in his mid thirties and had a moustache.It would be fantastic if there was a record on him somewhere
    Many Thanks
    Gabriel Morrin

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