Why UK pipers keep marching back to Wexford
SCOTTISH style pipers from an English city have found an enthusiastic audience for their music in an Irish county. The men and women of the Northfield Caledonian Pipe and Drums were back in Wexford last week, performing at parades on St. Patrick's Day in both Wexford and Enniscorthy. They have been regulars since 2003.
Tartan clad band leader George Sands – his Renfrewshire accent still very much in place after decades living in the English midlands – is committed to returning again in future: 'We play the Scottish tunes and they seem to go down very well in County Wexford. We keep coming back to Ireland because the people here keep asking us.'
The link with South East was forged when former band member Tony Collins persuaded the Northfield Caledonian to play in his native Kilmore seven years ago. Though Tony has since moved on, his former colleagues have found Wexford in March so congenial that they have come back almost every year, with a break in 2009.
This time, they broke with tradition and stayed in Enniscorthy rather than Wexford, bringing a travelling party of six pipers and six drummers as well as supporters. The line-up included three generations of the Sands family, with George joined by his son Robert and grandson Robert junior.
They arrived hot foot from their own St. Patrick's parade in Birmingham which took place the previous weekend in a city that has strong and enduring Irish connections. With tens of thousands of spectators out to watch, the 'Brummy' event is reckoned to be the third biggest celebration of Ireland's patron saint in the world, behind Dublin and New York.
But George Sands is very impressed by the more homely Wexford and Enniscorthy versions, not least for the way that hundreds of children are mobilised to take part. And he found that there were so many onlookers this year that his band almost had to march in single file at times as the streets were so crowded.
The two parades are different in character, with Wexford having a relatively flat route while the hills of Enniscorthy demand a pause for breath at the top of Weafer Street. The band members still had enough puff left at the end of the march last Wednesday to join their friends of the Ballindaggin pipe band for a combined version of 'Scotland the Brave'. The musicians needed plenty of stamina as they and their instruments were on call throughout their five day stay: 'It's a working holiday,' commented George Sands after appearing at venues that included the Bellefield G.A.A. complex and a wedding reception at the Riverside Park where they were staying.
They responded to a call to perform outside St. Aidan's Cathedral before the Anúna choral concert on Friday night. Plans to take the Wexford Bullring by storm on Thursday were rained off but they were well received as they played instead in several nearby public houses. Enniscorthy public houses were also on the itinerary, including Doreen's in Slaney Street, a tiny venue for so much decibel power.
The Northfield Caledonia was formed in 1988 and has its base at the former Rover car works in Longbridge. According to drummer Robert Sands, their Irish expeditions are greatly enjoyed: 'It's a brilliant atmosphere over here – and that it why we like coming.'