Military top brass: Meet the conductor of the army’s Southern Brigade band

At the age of 17, Brian Prendergast followed a long family tradition of finding a career in music through the army. He’s now the Cork-based conductor of one of the defence forces’ best bands, writes Richard Fitzpatrick.

Military top brass: Meet the conductor of the army’s Southern Brigade band

CAPTAIN Brian Prendergast always had a grá for playing music. When he cast around for a job as a musician in 1980, the Defence Forces School of Music was the obvious choice. He was following a well-worn path by family members. Three uncles, his father who spent 46 years in the army band, as well as Prendergast’s brother all carved careers from the same route.

Prendergast was 17 years old when he arrived in Dublin to train at the army’s School of Music in Rathmines. “The Defence Forces School of Music were taking what we’d call ‘boys’,” he says. “They were called ‘Boys Company’, aged from 14 upwards. We got guys who were playing in local bands. Fellas who joined up with me from Cork played in the Mayfield Band, for instance, or the Cork Butter Exchange Band or Barrack Street Band.

“They came to Dublin basically to become professional musicians so they were trained as soldiers. It was like an apprenticeship. We joined the army, but we were non-combatant so none of our guys learned to use weapons.

“When I joined up, I just wanted to play music. It was only later when I developed as a musician that I took an interest in arranging and conducting, and the other side of music. I feel thrilled and privileged to end up being the conductor of the band.”

Prendergast spent a quarter of a century as a band member — as a euphonium player and a principal bassoonist — in the Band of 1 Southern Brigade, or the Band of the Southern Command as it used be known, before being commissioned as an officer. He was appointed conductor of the band in 2007.

There are currently three army bands in the Defence Forces. In Prendergast’s Southern Brigade — which was posted to Cork in 1926 and is the longest-serving unit in Collins Barracks — there are 30 band members; 25 in the Band of 4 Western Brigade, who are based in Athlone; and 38 in the Army Number 1 Band, which is located at Cathal Brugha Barracks, Dublin.

The bands have hectic itineraries. Each band has programmes of recital and concert work. “We have an education programme for schools as well. Some of the guys in the band would have seen the band in a school setting, which sowed the seed for them becoming professional musicians with us,” says Prendergast.

They also have numerous military parades and state occasions to fulfil, from state funerals to visiting heads of states. Marquee events include the arrival of American presidents John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1963) and Barack Obama (2011); Pope John Paul II’s engagements in 1979; and plans are afoot for next year’s papal visit. For Prendergast, the 1916 centenary celebrations and Queen Elizabeth II’s receptions in 2011 stand out.

“Last year, doing the 1916 event in Dublin where we had soldiers marching down O’Connell Street gives me a sense of pride because it showed the Defence Forces in a very positive light. The band had such a huge involvement in those parades. It was one of those events that was close to my heart.

“To be at the forefront of the queen’s visit was special. I sometimes say to the band members: ‘How close we are to historical events.’ The queen’s visit was one of those events where you could say, ‘I was there.’ Our band played outside the English Market in Cork on the day of her visit here. The warmth and the welcome she received stood out.”

One of the Army Band’s defining traits is its endurance. If there is an injury to a band member — a broken finger, say, or an illness — there is no facility to bring in a hired hand for a day, as would happen with a regular concert orchestra if a player got sick.

“If a fellow does go down, we manage quite well,” says Prendergast. “I might know a guy is missing, but from a performance point of view, most of the audience mightn’t spot that we were missing somebody.”

Foul weather is another imposter that has to be dealt with. For President Cearbhall Ó Dalaigh’s state funeral in March 1978 in Sneem, Co Kerry, the army band members got such a drenching that some of their uniforms shrunk.

“You might have to march quite a long distance in the rain or the cold or biting winds, but it still has to be done,” says Prendergast. “That’s the nature of the beast — outdoors work in all weathers. We get the other side too. I remember doing parades in Saumur, France, and it was the opposite — the heat was unbearable. We had to march around in uniform for four or five days.”

Early starts are a feature of the work, too, if, for example, the band has an engagement in Galway at 8.30am it means leaving Cork around 6am.

“The early-morning starts and the travel are hard on the system,” he says, “but it’s more than compensated for — doing a job most of us like doing. It’s very difficult to find a job where you’re performing music in this country professionally unless you either go down the route of teaching or playing in a function band. We’re some of the lucky ones.”

Fritz Brase — the future Nazi who founded the army bands

WHEN the Irish Free State’s army chief of staff General Richard Mulcahy went looking for someone to head up the new Army School of Music, he hit on a German composer and conductor named Wilhelm Fritz Brase or ‘Brassy’ Brase, as he became known.

Brase was prolific in his role. He landed in Ireland in March 1923. He was taken to the Curragh Camp in Co Kildare and shown an old stable to work from. He reared up, and was given a building in the barracks, which the Board of Works renovated. Within two months, he had patched together a performing band for its first recital, and later established three additional army bands by 1928 as well as six pipe bands.

Brase was infamous for trying to establish a branch of the Nazi Party in Ireland around 1935 — which was prevented by the Defence Forces high command. “He was told to cease and desist,” says Captain Brian Prendergast, conductor of the Band of 1 Southern Brigade.

Brase was also famous for his arrangements of Irish folk airs. “They were fantasies of Irish music. They have a kind of Germanic tinge to them. There’s a Wagnerian use of harmony. They still stand the test of time,” says Prendergast. Brase retired in 1940, owing to ill health. He died a day later.

Charity Concert

Cara O’Sullivan
Cara O’Sullivan

The Band of 1 Southern Brigade will play with Cara O’Sullivan at St Fin Barre’s cathedral in Cork in aid of St Luke’s Home, next Wednesday, Nov 29. Tickets €30 from Irish Examiner Office, Oliver Plunkett St, Cork.

More in this section