IF YOU take a walk near Dominic Street in Cork on Wednesday evenings, the sounds of various musical instruments being tuned and warmed will be carried to your ears on the chilly night air. ‘Da Buttera’ are in rehearsal.
The Cork Butter Exchange Brass and Reed Band have been peforming this ritual in various forms since the 1840s, putting hundreds of talented musicians through their ranks, and earning a status as one of their home city’s most respected bands.
Of that lengthy history, current conductor Herbie Hendrick has been present for an incredible 65 years of it. Now into his 80s, Herbie’s interest in band music came from sitting in a rehearsal room, watching his father play french horn with the army band. However, Herbie’s father wasn’t so keen on him and his brother Finbarr following in his footsteps.
“My father was earning whatever he was getting in the army, which wasn’t great. He didn’t see any future for us but my brother and I were still very keen.”
At 16, Herbie worked for an engineering company called Pulvertats. He and another young work colleague decided to join the Butter Exchange.
“He lasted about a week and I’m still here. That was in 1952.”
Herbie then joined the army, aged 18. “Where I was working [Pulvertats], you’d be thrown out of work at 18 years old because they would have to pay you a man’s wage.
“You didn’t have any choices when we were kids. If your father wasn’t a tradesman, you didn’t get a trade.”
Herbie completed his basic training and was then chosen to study at the Cork School of Music and began playing the cornet with the army band.
After becoming quite an accomplished musician in his early years with the Butter Exchange and the army band, Herbie and his brother jumped aboard the exploding showband scene in the early 1960s.
They enjoyed stints with such bands as The Dukes, The Regal and Pat Lynch and the Airchords.
“We played all around Ireland and England and we did a stint in America… That’s what we wanted, myself and my brother. We were known as ‘Cork’s Everly Brothers’. His name was Finbarr but we called him Barry. My name was changed to Bob so that we’d become known as ‘Bob and Barry’.”
Towards the beginning of the 1970s, the showband scene began to wind down as musical tastes began to change and discothèques were opened.
Herbie couldn’t stay away from Da Buttera and re-joined in the 1970s.
That decade was a momentous one for the traditionally all-male institution. Around 1978, band-member Mick Lynch approached the committee about a talented young clarinettist he was tutoring.
They agreed she should be allowed join. And so Trish Harrington became the first official female member in 1978.
Within 12 months of joining Da Buttera, she played clarinet in her first official gig with the senior band on December 16, 1978, aged 13.
“There was another woman who used to play with the band a long time ago, a Miss O’Connor. Women were not allowed to join the band but there are one or two pictures of her sitting in on engagements but she was never a member. But it’s important to talk about her too because she was around before me”.
Trish admitted that she was not fully aware of the significance of her membership but that she does remember getting her long hair cut short so she would blend in more.
“I was shy back in those days and it was a hard thing to do but 95% of the men in the band had no problem with it and accepted me. Maybe they saw that this was the way forward.”
Trish explains that she and Herbie have seen many versions of Da Buttera from the 1970s to the present day.
“Going through the different phases, you think, ‘there couldn’t be a better band than this gang’, but, there is,” says Trish. “The next gang are every bit as dedicated and as committed as the last crowd were. People who are in bands are in it because they want to be. They have a love and passion for it. We’re all here because it’s like our family. We’ve gone through many families down through the years.”
Indeed, Trish’s own daughter Ciara also played clarinet in the band, while her son Ronan played the drums.
Those not familiar with brass bands might reach for comparisons to a sports team in terms of how all the members work together. Not so, says Herbie. “The way a band works is completely different to a team. You can usually replace someone on a team because they are all playing the same sort of thing, let’s say, they are all playing football. But, everyone in a band is doing something different at the same time. All those individuals have to be co-ordinated and have to co-operate a lot more than, say in a soccer match, where you get a fella who thinks he’s good and he tears off down the field. If you look at a score of a piece of music, it’s like a jigsaw puzzle and everything has to fit into place” says Herbie, whose son Ian is also a longterm band member.
The music played by Da Buttera has changed since its formation in the 1840’s. Herbie says it is important for a band to move with the times.
“We once played a lot of overtures and operatic selections. If you looked at one of our old programmes, you’d see an awful lot of music that you won’t hear anymore. Nowadays, you’ll find that brass bands play a lot of pop music. You have to please your players and your audience. I find, that if the audience don’t recognise the tune or if the piece isn’t tuneful, you’re wasting your time playing it.
“There is no point in being elitist. You do get elitist musicians but they are codding themselves and limiting themselves. Some people regard pop music as a lower echelon of music, but it’s not because there is a way of playing that some classical musicians can’t get to… there is a style of playing that you have to develop within yourself to be able to play and express music.”
Da Buttera also have a junior band and offer free tuition and instruments to students. Da Buttera’s members are adamant that the band will continue far into the future.
“The band will always be here, without any of us,” says Trish. “But the band will never be the same without any of us. The kids today don’t realise what they are in and how far back its history goes. I think the men of the beginning didn’t realise that we were going to be here talking about them today.”