Words and pictures by Darren Crawford
After a grand total of 40 years together and with many a mile covered, Ballykeel Loyal Sons of Ulster flute band celebrated their 40th anniversary last weekend.
The Ballymena Guardian caught up with a few of their members to hear their stories of how it all started for them.
Rodney Bamber and Peter Parkhill recall the night the Ballymena Young Defenders folded.
It was while they sat with five or six others on the steps of the Protestant hall that someone piped up .. ‘sure we’ll start our own band’ and from those remarks the Ballykeel Loyal Sons of Ulster wheel went into motion.
They remember holding the practice in the Ballymarlow Orange hall and would frequently parade up and down the drive in front of the hall before turning out onto the main line and up towards Wardlow Road where they marched back and forth to the ‘white gates’ and back.
Rodney was the first bandmaster and once things got going the reins were handed over to Davy Richmond and Peter Parkhill to take the band forward.
They organised many fund raising activitoes and remember holding a cake sale in the old fairhill where alot of the Ballykeel residents supported through baking and buying.
Each band member was given a card to raise funds for their own uniform. These activities helped the band raise funds for 30 flutes at a cost of £360 and later a new bass drum and side drums were purchased.
Despite being mad keen to get on the road in 1982, they decided to hold off and put more practice in over the winter months with tunes like Every Other Saturday, Lily O, Abide With Me and Mud Hut not forgetting a couple of country numbers like Annie’s song and Lay the Blanket on the Ground.
Rodney recalled that the old BYD tunes were only about two lines long.
“You just repeated them so you could learn about three tunes a night!” he said.
When the time came round to the new marching season in 1983, the band uniform was light blue shirts, navy tie and grey trousers.
The late Mrs Wilna Surgenor probably made sure everyone’s uniform fitted to a tee and if not she would have turned trouser hems up or down on her sewing machine.
The dedication took place at the shops in Ballykeel 1 but the band met at the school car park and paraded down where the Rev Ian Paisley dedicated the band and its uniforms from the back of a flatbed lorry that Ballykeel resident Willie Tennant got from his work.
On their first 12th parade they led Newmill LOL 222 at the Glengormley demonstration where nearly every members got their head shaved for the occasion.
The founder members remember going to Derry Day for the first time and the first bass drummer Donald Herbinson carrying the bass drum round the whole parade and not leaving it down.
When he finished the parade the blood seeping through his shirt where the straps were cutting into him.
Other big memories for Rodney and Peter were the Tercentenary parade in Belfast and the Black Saturday parade in 2002 where the old boys joined together to form a massive band and with the large crowd on the streets they felt the hairs standing on their necks.
The one rule that sticks in their minds was if you missed three parades you were out.
John Rock t used to stand at the door of the bus and tick everyone’s name off as they got on.
“You needed to have thick skin while on the bus because the slagging was mighty,” says Peter.
“We had many a great time and made many friends over the years and sadly some of those are no longer with us, it was like a band of brothers.”
Peter says that the band was full of larger than life characters but admits that starting the band was the easy part it.
“It was the likes of Davy Richmond, Keith Bruce and others that had the hard bit of keeping it going.”
Keith Bruce, better known to everyone as Brucie was handed the reins of band master in 1990/91.
He recalls: “Oh boy, the roller coaster was about to start. At the beginning of the 90s the band membership seemed to be decreasing and fresh blood was hard to attract.
“Looking back I think we said that every year but I do believe that the heavy burden of attending 50 or 60 parades per year was becoming a lot to deal with.
“There was no great challenge stepping in to run things, it was much like the previous number of years but then things where about to change. I asked Dino Gilmour, an ex Cullybackey pipe band drummer, to come to practice to see if he could help us tidy up some of the drumming.
“Paradiddles, heavy and lights, mummy daddies, these phrases started to become a weekly norm.
“We had 8 drummers and after a few weeks this turned into 3 drummers! It was almost panic stations.
“At this point it would have been very easy to abandon ship but we stuck at it as those that stayed with the band where starting to realise and see the improvement.
“I had to start drumming to help the numbers as well as look after the music end of things - it was difficult but it simply became the new norm. I always loved the music end of the band, finding new tunes, trying to alter the arrangement to suit the style that we were trying to achieve.
“We were always proud to go out with new pieces of music never heard before within the parading scene and this was going to be what Ballykeel were known for.
“Probably the same as everyone I have had some great memories like playing in a sold out Ulster hall was a highlight when we were the first blood and thunder band to be asked to play at the Newsletter event in 2009.
“Releasing our music as recordings with Full Blooded Thunder 1992, Crebilly Road 1999 and Pushing Boundaries 2014.
“Another highlight was when we laid a wreath at the Enniskillen war memorial where so many where murdered that fateful day in 1987. It brought a tear to the eye as the youngest member of the ranks laid the wreath, very moving.
“Overall I have been involved with the Keel from 1983 -98, Keel old boys 99-06, back to the young band 05-2011, old boys 2018 and ongoing. I still like to arrange tunes for the main band and keep searching for the next wee gem.”
Present day bandmaster Robert Thompson joined the ranks in 2012 before taking over as bandmaster in 2017.
After having spent a short time in Ballycraigy Sons of Ulster. Robert was learning to drum from 7 years old and in his youth he was a side drummer in the pipe band scene with Cullybackey and Antrim pipe bands.
Anyone wanting to join the band will receive full tuition and the practice is every Monday night at Ballymarlow Orange Hall where learners practice between 7 and 8pm and full band practice is from 8 to 9.30pm