ADRIAN RUSSELL: Marching to a winning tune at Croker

THE same way you know it’s a general election night when Brian Farrell wears a carnation in his lapel, so too the rich sound of the Artane Band heralds a landmark day in Croke Park for many of us.

Despite playing a prominent role in the ritual of the GAA’s red-letter days — providing the soundtrack to the build-up, setting the early tempo in All-Ireland finals with the parade, leading the national anthem — these teenagers ultimately slip away sotto voce from the biggest stage.

On Sunday they’ll lead Kerry and Cork around the pitch before the neighbours row again; so, what’s an All-Ireland final day like for the Artane Band?

I filed out for a day to find out.

11.45am: The band members trickle into the stadium, under the Davin Stand, while it’s still Sunday morning to prepare for a long day of the Ladies football finals.

They chat casually, more still thumb silent instruments while Head of Musicianship of the Artane School of Music, Tony Doherty, starts to get organised. “It’s a big operation, but all the kids know their jobs and they’re very disciplined and good at what they do,” he says.

12.30pm: As legendary pianist Fats Waller answered when asked to describe what jazz was: “Lady, if you don’t know, I can’t tell you.” So too, the bold, lush sound of these kids – many of whom are in jazz groups in the school — is unmistakable.

It’s time for the band’s — and my — first appearance on the hallowed turf, leading out teams for the Mini Game during the interval in the Junior championship decider.

We emerge onto the pitch through the Muhammad Ali Gate — named after the legendary pugilist who walked down this tunnel to face Al Blue Lewis in 1972.

The Drum Major, 16-year-old Mark Donohue — essentially the captain, if Doherty is the manager — leads the musicians and the teams towards Hill 16 in the shadow of the Cusack Stand, provoking wild reaction from the supporters.

“It is a good buzz leading these teams around the pitch but you do get used to it after a while,” says Mark.

“It’s something else, especially when you’re standing waiting for the parade of the teams on All-Ireland final day — it’s incredible — the noise is deafening. The parade is great because you get a great reaction from the crowd and parts of the stands wake up when the teams come towards them,” he adds.

It’s certainly woken me up. My ears are bleeding.

2pm: Lunch, a brass band marches on its stomach. The boys and girls of what was formerly, of course, the Artane Boys Band mix easily, enjoying their well-earned rest with sandwiches, cola and sausages. Aideen Kerins, a 15-year-old from Raheny explains that it didn’t take long for the fairer sex to breathe fresh air into the institution.

“It was tough enough for the girls coming in,” she says, “they had their own traditions and ways of doing things and then we turn up … and that was all gone!”

Just like the cocktail sausages.

2:45pm: Peter Falk — the actor best known for his depiction of Lt Colombo — says he takes out his glass eye when weighing himself, such is his attention to detail. Tony Doherty too, it seems, always has ‘one more question ma’m’.

Deep beneath the stands, as the intermediate final action is forged in the Croker kiln above, his band is gathered with professional singer Niamh O’Shea to rehearse the national anthem one more time.

3.20pm: Mark Bagnall, a 15-year-old trumpet player remembers the trauma of first entering the Coliseum. “Going on now is like second nature but I’ll never forget the first time — I was shaking!” I know what you mean. The noise is cranked to 11 as we re-emerge for the senior showpiece and the crowd reach fever pitch.

3.45pm: Word reaches us pitchside, in the moments before the throw-in, that Brian Cowen won’t be joining us, as was planned. That probably affects no one really apart from the cabinet colleagues he’s apparently holed up with in Dublin 2, and the Artane Band. The rehearsed Taoiseach’s salute is quickly changed for another tune on the hoof. A lot done, more to do, though...

3.58pm: Today may see the curtain fall on another long GAA season at HQ for the band but soccer and rugby internationals will keep them togged out for months to come. With Giovanni Trapattoni’s men facing crucial qualifiers, the band have already begun practicing the visitors’ anthem. “We started early,” says the drum major, “you have a lot of work there to make sure the other team actually recognise it. We don’t want to start an international incident.”

Now they strike up Amhrán na bhFiann again but a seemingly nervous singer goes on a solo run with the first few lines, racing away from the band. But pros all, it’s not long until we’re as one.

4.50pm: As the second half unfolds above, the band are clocking off after another efficient display, punctuating the days that many will remember forever, but is merely a day at the office for these brass necks. None will hang around to see Valerie Mulcahy hit more of the right notes for Cork in the Ladies Football final. “We get to see bits and pieces of the action,” says Shane Folan, 15, with his euphonium tucked under his arm, “but it’s a long day and you just want to go by the time you’re done.”

I’m done too. Without having played an instrument all day, I feel out of breath and as tired as ‘Blue’ Lewis after being turned into 6ft of lumps by Cassius Clay in front of the Hogan Stand. Aideen Kerins says she and her trombone-playing colleagues “are the baseline — it’s pretty unglamorous I suppose – but we bring depth to the sound.”

The same could be said of her bandmates; a day in Croker resonates deeper with their presence.


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