Bealnamulla brass instructor

Story by Adrian Cusack

Wednesday, 6th April, 2011 5:00pm

Bealnamulla brass instructor

Gerry Lacey

At first glance the 1979 Papal Mass in Knock, the inaugurations of Presidents Robinson and McAleese, and the Athlone performances of Chipperfield's Circus wouldn't appear to have much in common.

However one factor which they share is that they were all occasions at which ex-Army Band member Gerry Lacey performed during a long and varied career in music.

The Bealnamulla resident first picked up an instrument at the age of ten and he went on to become proficient in the trumpet, trombone and French horn.

He retired from the Army nine years ago and is currently involved as a music instructor helping to generate interest in brass instruments among young people in the midlands.

A native of Carlow, he started out by playing with a local youth centre band before joining the Army school of music in Rathmines, Dublin, as a teenager in 1974.

After he had trained for two years a vacancy arose for a trumpet player in the Army Band of the Western Command in Athlone. Gerry was enlisted to fill this vacancy and so he moved to the town in 1976, at the age of 18.

He was not the first from his family to join the Army Band. His brother Frank was already based in Athlone with the band when Gerry joined in 1976. His brother Tommy, who is deceased, played with the band of the Southern Command, while another brother, Peter, played with the Garda band.

"Being in the Army was a good career. We travelled a lot and saw a lot over the years," commented Gerry. He said when he first came to the midlands the lead trumpet player with the band, Derry O'Neill (RIP), was a mentor to him. "He took me under his wing and showed me the right way to play. I owe a lot to Derry - everyone looked up to him."

After settling in Athlone Gerry married a local woman, Catherine Egan, and the couple had four children: Emma, Ian, Shane and Shona. Emma, the eldest, was married last year.

Gerry went on to become the lead trumpet player with the Army Band. Over the years the band played at many high-profile events and functions.

"We played at the Papal Mass in Knock in 1979. We were very close to Pope John Paul II, just a few feet away from him. We played at several Presidential inaugurations, and for Heads of State from all over the world. It seemed that we were playing in Áras an Uachtaráin nearly every second week," he recalled.

Another landmark occasion was a performance given by the band at Birmingham Symphony Hall. That visit was made possible by the peace process in Northern Ireland, and it was one of the first trips to England by an institution of the Irish military in the aftermath of the Troubles. Gerry would also go to Dublin Castle with other trumpet players from the band to regularly perform fanfares there.

Not every moment was memorable, of course, and he said there would often be times when the band would have to wait around for several hours before playing a 10-minute gig.

One of the more colourful performances occurred when Chipperfield's Circus came to Athlone. "The circus had a problem with their band - the band had a falling out with circus management and walked out," he explained.

"So a representative of the circus was then sent to the Army barracks and he happened to meet me there. I got five lads together and we played four or five gigs at the circus. They even wanted us to go travelling with them after that, but of course we couldn't."

Gerry said the music played by the Army Band progressed as time went on. "In the old days we used to play a lot of heavy, classical music but as time went on lighter music, as well as music from movies and things like that, was introduced."

The band has helped to enrich the music scene in the midlands, he said. "There are many great characters involved in the music scene in Athlone, too many to mention by name, and a lot of them are ex-Army Band guys who are still involved in teaching music locally."

Gerry enjoys listening to Glen Miller-style Big Band Music and he was involved in a local group which played this genre in the 1980s, The Lakeside Big Band.

He retired from the Army in 2002, and in recent times has been working to help develop brass instrumentation in different areas of the midlands. Through Westmeath VEC he is a brass instructor with the Midland Youth Orchestra in Kinnegad. He is in the process of trying to get a brass section going with an orchestra that was recently re-formed by Barbara Dowling at Our Lady's Bower in Athlone.

Gerry teaches 29 youths for one day a week in Bunclody, Co Wexford, and he is also now heading up the brass section of the Roscommon County Youth Orchestra, which is preparing for a debut performance in Roscommon Arts Centre on May 28.

He has been the brass section's tutor since November last and has been teaching 17 young people aged 10-16 from the greater Ballaghaderreen area.

Teaching music to young people is something Gerry enjoys greatly. "I love working with them. I love to see the benefits - to see kids playing. With the group in Ballaghaderreen I can't wait for the concert to come up because they've learned a few tunes, they can now play them fairly well, and they're all reading music. It will be a while before they can stand on their own, but they're coming along." He has also recently held brass demonstrations at schools in Portlaoise in order to help generate interest in the instruments among children.

"I'm trying to promote brass in the midlands because in previous years brass instruments were left behind by a lot of orchestras and instructors. There's a lot of ground to be made up. But music is now reaching a very high level in the greater Athlone area, and in the midlands in general. There are a lot of great people involved in it, and the potential that young people have is starting to be fulfilled."

Outside of music Gerry enjoys going swimming. A keen follower of Carlow GAA, he would love to see his native county's team lining out at Croke Park in an All-Ireland final, though he admits that ambition might not be achieved for a few years yet!

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