Deenihan’s childhood memories of the GAA, akin to countless others in rural Ireland, centred around the family wireless on a Sunday afternoon, the soft tones of Mícheál O’Hehir and that momentary pause. A sporting nation drew collective breadth. Cue a chorus of wind and horn instruments; trumpets, flutes and clarinets working in perfect synchrony, accentuated by the beat of the four drummers... the arrival of the Artane Boys Band.
Star of the County Down, Molly Malone and Scarborough Fair into every sitting room in the country and for those fortunate enough to be present in Croke Park, taking in the spectacle was as important as the game itself.
“The Artane Band is just so much part of the GAA,” asserts the former Kerry footballer.
GAA President Liam O’Neill recalls his first visit to Jones’s Road in the summer of 1963, the two teams involved he can’t quite put his finger on, the music however, has rung in his ears over the ensuing 50 years.
“If you close your eyes and think of the Artane Band what comes to mind are fine summer days, big events, expectation and happiness here in Croke Park,” he says.
“They say happiness is expectation bordering on realisation. The moment the band finishes the national anthem, the realisation the two teams are in the final hits home. That moment is the happiest point of the day when big games take place at Croke Park.”
Deenihan concurs. His relationship with the band reached a new level on August 10, 1975. No longer was he connected to the Artane Boys through an old wireless or a far off seat in the Hogan Stand. This was uncharted access, up close and personal.
“The march behind the band was at the end of the warm-up. You did your warm-up and that walk behind the band was really critical to the whole warm-up. It settled everyone down, it got everyone into the zone,” he notes.
“You knew you were close to the game. One man it affected hugely was Páidí Ó Sé. Paídí used not walk behind the band, he developed a kind of a prance. Tony Hanahoe would swagger behind the band. Different people would have different mannerisms behind that band. It says a lot about how they are thinking about the game. Sometimes when you see someone walking around behind the band quiet loosely and enjoying themselves, usually they are the people who come out and play the best.”
The Kerry defender was just another figure in a long line of sportsmen who stood sentry behind the mass of red and blue since their first appearance on Jones’s Road in 1886.
Brother Alphonsus Hoope is the man responsible for the Artane Boys Band, a Christian brother from Armagh who converted from Presbyterianism to Catholicism many years earlier. Formed in 1872, the band made its debut two years later.
“Their first foreign tour was to the London Exhibition in 1884 and the link to the GAA was established shortly after,” explains Brother JK Mullan, a member of the band’s board of management.
“It is a long and established link and the association between the two has strengthened over the decades and, indeed, centuries.”
Like all successful organisations the Artane Band has had to change with the times, the most far reaching being the formation jointly by the Christian Brothers and the GAA in 1998 of the Artane School of Music Trust.
“Everyone involved certainly wanted it to survive,” notes legendary commentator Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh.
“Money at the time wasn’t that plentiful. In 1990 or thereabouts a lay board was appointed. I was on it and Pat Guthrie was chairman. Pat Quigley was PRO. Liam Mulvihill came on board as did Frank O’Rourke. John O’Connell had been working with Coca Cola since 1970 and they helped out with sponsorship. The idea was to collect a lot of money to refurbish the band. The GAA put in a good bit of money and there were golf classics galore. It has been thriving ever since.”
Ó Muircheartaigh was keen to influence change through his position on the board and there was one area in particular where he was determined to wield reform. Since its inception in the early 1870s, the band comprised of male musicians only. It was high-time the girls shared centre-stage. Ó Muircheartaigh, however, couldn’t have envisaged the resistance his suggestion would meet.
“I remember one meeting, now I wasn’t ejected, but if there was a Ceann Comhairle there I would have been,” he laughs.
“I suggested that it was time that ‘Boys’ be removed from the band title and it be renamed the Artane Band and I could see the day when girls would be there in Croke Park. I got no seconder and was ruled out of order for the next few meetings.”
Brother Mullan fared significantly better in his attempt to gender neutralise the band, the presence of then President Mary Robinson behind him as he purported the idea working very much to his advantage.
“My opportunity came when I was invited to the graduation ceremony one year in Artane. I dared to say that part of my vision for the band was that I would be at an All-Ireland in Croke Park and I would look out at the band leading the parade and I would see girls and boys in the band. I got an almighty ovation. The pièce de résistance was that Mary Robinson was present. When she got up, she said that she shared my sentiment. There was an even bigger clap.”
In 2002, girls were permitted to don the red and blue uniform.
Con Hogan, chairman of the Artane School of Music Board of management, surmises that the band, through its affiliation with the GAA, has not only woven its way into Irish society, it stands as an iconic branch of our culture and heritage. Emigrants will tell you of their delight to find a pub on All-Ireland final Sunday, the sight of the Artane Band leading around the respective teams serving somewhat to fill the void for home.
Tony Doherty, a staff member at the school, got a true sense of what the Artane Band means to ordinary GAA folk when accompanying the young musicians stateside in 2009. The association was in the midst of celebrating its 125th anniversary when the Boston GAA club invited over the band to mark the occasion.
“There were so many people who couldn’t come from America because of their status and weren’t going to be able to be part of the celebrations at home as a result. So they wanted to know would a little bit of Croke Park, a little part of the GAA, go over to them instead, to help them celebrate.
“On the Friday of their national final weekend I met a man who had driven from San Francisco all the way across America with three hurlers in the back of his car to be there because they couldn’t fly home to Ireland because of their status. That man shed tears on the side of the pitch when we saw those three lads marching behind the band. Something we don’t appreciate because we do it all the time. It is routine for us, but for that man it was the happiest day of his life. He was back home, in a sense.
“It brought home for us how important the band is. We get out onto Croke Park maybe 15 times in a year and we don’t appreciate enough the effect we have on people. I remember being in Tarbert once and a man hanging out the window on the phone to his brother in New York. ‘Guess who is marching down the street right now in Tarbert?’ he shouted. It is the memories.”
Doherty featured as a clarinet player in the band in the early 1980s and remembers vividly the heated decider of 1983.
“Galway’s Brian Talty, who was my PE teacher in St David’s Artane at the time, was involved in an incident or two that day with Brian Mullins. I was delighted to be there, to lead around my heroes, to be part of that day, to be part of the spectacle.”
A more recent Artane graduate and yet another Dublin and clarinet enthusiast, Conor Donoghue, points to the Sundays when sky blue jerseys dominated the Croke Park landscape.
“Games involving Dublin were always amazing in terms of atmosphere. It’s only when you’re actually on the field that you can appreciate how much of an atmosphere a sell-out crowd can make in Croker.
“One of my favourite memories would have to be when our conductors would insist on taking us down right in front of the Hill any time Dublin were playing to play Molly Malone. You’d have almost everyone of them singing it back at you. At the end of the day that’s what you’re out there to do, it’s to try and entertain the supporters.”
Entertain they most certainly have.