Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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The Artane Band at the Flat Lake Festival

It will, without doubt, be one of the proudest days in the history of Scotshouse. Next weekend (14-16 August 2009), residents of the enterprising Monaghan village will be treated to the spectacle of Ireland’s most famous brass band marching through its street. The Artane Band are performing as part of the eagerly awaited Flat Lake Literary and Arts Festival which takes place in the splendid grounds of nearby Hilton Park that weekend. And it’s all thanks to pop star Lily Allen who is footing the bill for the band’s performance.

Lily first became acquainted with the Artane Band when they filled the prestigious opening slot at the Oxygen Festival on that particularly soggy July weekend. Collaborating with synth-pop duo The Brilliant Things, the Artane Band warmed up the crowd with a repertoire that encompassed everything from old Irish airs through rapid funk to songs by Michael Jackson and Abba.

Lily Allen, who also played Oxygen, was greatly impressed by the band which, for many, is synonymous with big match days in Croke Park. She has even suggested she might ‘do a number with them’ at the Flat Lake.

Jiving with Lily Allen is a long way from the Artane Band’s rather cheerless beginnings. Its origins go back to 1868 when Queen Victoria signed into law the Industrial Schools Act. This established a series of special ‘schools’ to care for ‘neglected, orphaned and abandoned children’ across Ireland.

In response to the act, the Christian Brothers purchased Artane Castle in north Dublin, with 56 acres, and converted it into a school, replete with workshops, dormitories, a chapel and an infirmary. St Joseph’s Industrial School, the largest in Ireland, opened its doors to the first 150 pupils on 28 July 1870. They were generally orphans, destitute and miscreants. Some had simply been rounded up for the crime of skipping school. Within seven years there were 700 boys at the Artane. It operated until 1969, during which time over 15,500 boys were effectively incarcerated there. And, as the Ryan Report (or Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse) confirmed, it was by no means a happy time for many of them.

The school’s first manager was Brother Alphonsus Hoope, a Quaker convert from Armagh with a passion for music. In 1872, he founded the Artane Boy’s Band, believing that those who learned how to play bugles, trumpets, drums and such like would be better equipped to master other disciplines. Their first major performance was before the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) when he visited the school in 1874. Twelve years later, the band gave the first of its famous GAA performance at the North Circular Road. It was cutting edge stuff and the Artane was universally hailed as a pioneering institution, much as we would probably hail anyone today who took 700 troubled kids from the streets of Rio or Mexico City and taught them how to read and write.

By the 1960s, the Artane Boy’s Band was one of the best-known institutions in the Republic. A highlight of every big GAA match at Croke Park was the sight of the Artane Boy’s marching out from under the Hogan Stand, setting the crowd alight with the beats and whistles of their stirring airs. They performed for Presidents Kennedy and Nixon. When Bing Crosby came to Ireland, the Artane Boy’s welcomed him at Dublin Airport. Their nationwide tours were broadcast on RTE radio. In May 1962, the band went to the USA and performed in New York and Boston. Everywhere they went, the scarlet and navy uniforms of ‘the biggest little band in the world’ were greeted with loud cheers of support. Many of its members went on to play in the Garda Band.

However, behind the scenes, darker forces were at work. In July 1962, as the band returned from the USA, the Artane’s chaplain, Father Henry Moore, produced a private report on school. In it he warned Archbishop McQuaid that ‘the band is the only worthwhile achievement of the school’. Father Moore’s report depicted the Artane as ‘a drab, dysfunctional and monotonous place with institutionalized cruelty and inadequate facilities’. Although the report ultimately prompted the closure of the Artane, its findings remained in private hands.

The Ryan Report acknowledged that the Artane Boy’s Band was simply ‘the public face’ of the school. While on tour, band members stayed with local families and consequently each boy was carefully instructed in the social graces. ‘Members of the public would have been reassured’, the report continued, ‘when seeing the boys performing that they were receiving good care and education, but in fact the band did not represent the reality for most boys in Artane.’

As Sam Dowling put it in his play ‘Lovelost’, ‘no All-Ireland was complete without the Artane Boy’s Band, drilled to turn on a penny … togged out to perfection, shining shoes, shining uniforms, shining faces, not a bruise to be seen ‘cos you didn’t get beaten on the face if you were in the band’.

According to the Ryan Report, band members escaped much of the abuse inflicted on other Artane boys, although the late Br Joseph O’Connor, a former bandleader, was revealed as one of the key offenders.

The band’s recent history is considerably more positive, not least since they opened up to include girl members too, thus becoming the ‘Artane Band’.[i] They have played for Bill Clinton and performed on the video of U2’s ‘The Sweetest Thing’; drummer Larry Mullen played with them for three days but left when they insisted he cut his golden tresses.

And now, fresh from Oxygen 2009, the Artane Band will launch the third annual Flat Lake Festival in Scotshouse near Clones, Co Monaghan. Their presence is timely as one of the central tenets of this year’s Flat Lake is a debate, to be hosted by screenwriter and playwright Shane Connaughton, about the GAA and the traditional rapport between sports and art.

Lily Allen’s role is straightforward. The Artane Band were invited to the Flat Lake. They said they would love to perform but could not afford the trip. The Flat Lake asked the GAA if they could cover the cost. The GAA did not reply. Flat Lake founder Kevin Allen asked his niece Lily if she would foot the bill. She said she would.

As Monaghan author Pat McCabe, the Flat Lake’s co-pilot, observed during the week, the sight of the historic Artane Band marching through Scotshouse will be an event remembered for generations to come.

Allen and McCabe dreamed up the famously laid-back Flat Lake Festival in 2007, seeking a festival where ‘high-brow, low-brow and no-brow’ could converge as one. There are no main events as such although those who witnessed Seamus Heaney reading in a candy striped Big Top last summer might disagree.

Past highlights include the X-Tractor Talent Show (where the prize was a walk-on part on ‘Fair City’), the Best Lie Competition, the Barry McGuigan Band, and a Welsh choir singing the ‘Pat the Baker’ theme. One of the finest events was the auctioning of forty anonymous paintings, one of which was a spin by Damien Hirst. When the identity of the Hirst was revealed, its buyer returned it to auction, raising €95,000 which went on to form the basis of the Flat Lake Arts Fund.

Amongst those on the menu for next weekend’s festival are authors Giselele Scanlon, Dermot Bolger and Eoin Mcnamee, singers Shane McGowan, Gavin Friday, Jack L, Jinx Lennon and Paula Flynn, actors Stephen Rea and Pat Kinevane, and DJs Cillian Murphy (yes, him) and Poppy Lloyd. There will be round the clock cinema action and a plethora of curious events such as Karaoke with Sheep, the 30 Second Disco, Toss the Sheaf and Poetry on Horseback.


[i] In 1969 the Artane Band was moved to the old refectory, with its previous building becoming a primary school. The headquarters are situated alongside St. David’s CBS on the what was once the grounds of the infamous boarding school. The school building remains today, with its playing fields surrounded by a double fence.