Belfast Telegraph

Nelson McCausland: BBC NI marching bands series a significant role in affirming the importance of Ulster-Scots

Whether they are flute, silver, pipe or accordion, bands play a vital part in cultural life here, writes Nelson McCausland

There are around 100 pipe bands in Northern Ireland, who compete in competition regularly
There are around 100 pipe bands in Northern Ireland, who compete in competition regularly

Last week I was invited to a preview of a new three-part BBC Northern Ireland television series entitled The Band. It is about marching bands and most of the audience at the preview was made up of members from bands featured in the programmes.

We heard from some of those involved in the production of the series and then we saw the first instalment, which was broadcast on BBC Two Northern Ireland on Sunday night and is still available on the iPlayer.

It was impressive, and I think everyone in the room was impressed, both by the programme and by the bands featured.

I was interested then to see what reaction there would be on social media after the programme had been broadcast and was pleased to see that the response was overwhelmingly positive, indeed enthusiastic.

The series reminds me in some ways of a BBC Northern Ireland television series about Silverbridge GAA club in south Armagh. It was titled Gaelic Passions and was broadcast back in 2003.

Gaelic Passions was warm and empathetic and it reflected the passion and skill of the players, as well as the sense of community, identity and pride — some of the things we saw in the marching bands.

Back then I suggested that BBC Northern Ireland commission a similar short series about marching bands, and it is a suggestion that has been repeated many times since then.

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It has taken a long time for the idea to take root, but finally it has happened, so “well done” to BBC Northern Ireland.

There are around 600 marching bands in Northern Ireland, with the largest number being the flute bands, followed by the accordion bands and then around 100 pipe bands, with a smaller number of silver bands.

This means that every week throughout the year there are somewhere in the region of 20,000 people learning and making music in band halls, Orange halls and church halls.

Of course, on top of that we have to remember, as we saw in the programme, the others who support the bands in many ways, including the mother whom we saw driving her son to the weekly practice.

This was a programme that spoke about passion, pride, skill, family, community and identity and it was positive and affirming.

The current series of The Band has been supported through the Ulster-Scots Broadcast Fund (USBF). I have a particular interest in the USBF, but not just as a member of the USBF committee.

It was back in 2010, during political negotiations at Hillsborough Castle, that I pressed the case for an Ulster-Scots Broadcast Fund.

There was already an Irish Language Broadcast Fund, and we had seen the impact which it had made.

The case for an Ulster-Scots Broadcast Fund was made, and it was a compelling case, to which the Government responded.

Programmes such as The Band demonstrate the value of that fund.

I didn’t really follow the Oscars, which seemed to dominate the media over the past weekend, but I did note a comment made by one winner, who said that when a community of people is featured in a film it “lets them know that their stories are worthy”.

Another interviewee referred to the importance of reflecting “other stories” and I do hope that the current short series will usher in a new era in how BBC Northern Ireland covers marching bands.

They are an important part of the cultural wealth of Northern Ireland and score well as regards both participation and performance, yet they are often overlooked.

Their stories are just as “worthy” as other stories; their events are just as deserving of coverage and their identity is just as deserving of affirmation.

There is a cultural dimension to a shared and better future in Northern Ireland and BBC Northern Ireland, as our national public service broadcaster, has an important role in delivering that shared and better future.

So, thank you to BBC Northern Ireland for The Band.

I am looking forward to the rest of the series, as are many others, and when it is over, can we consider what more can be done to continue reflecting this aspect of our cultural diversity?

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