Joe McAdam, 1923-2022
The following eulogy was written and delivered at the funeral for Joe McAdam on April 6, 2022, by Paul Herron. We thank him for sharing his story of this unsung hero of Northern Ireland piping and drumming with pipes|drums readers.
By Paul Herron
The term legend is thrown around too easily these days, but in the pipe band world, Joe McAdam was beyond a legend. He was a giant.
Originally from Dromara County Down, Joe learned the pipes under the tutelage of Sam McManus at Dromara Highland. Joe would have played in that successful band and one that competed in the inaugural All-Ireland Championships in 1946 and that won the competition in 1949. He also had success as a solo player. But around the late 1950s, Joe was invited to take over the reins of the Ballynahinch Pipe Band and so began a lifelong project and where he indelibly left his mark.
Whenever you mention Ballynahinch to someone with a background or an interest in pipe bands, Joe McAdam is always the first name that comes to mind. In certain walks of life, only a few special people are widely recognised by their Christian name only. Joe was someone that fell into that elite list.
To be a pipe-major in a successful competition band, you need to be a master of many skills. First and foremost, you need technical ability and an ear for sound. You need to command respect and have the ability to keep players calm when the band is called forward to the white line. Joe had all of those skills and more, but it was as a tutor and mentor that Joe stood apart from his peers.
Back in early 1970s, through the late pipe bands administrator from Ballynahinch, Eddie McVeigh, Joe was introduced to another pipe band legend, the great John K. McAllister from Shotts & Dykehead Caledonia. At that time, Shotts were the number one band in the world and Joe and John K. hit it off and developed a life-long friendship. John K. invited Joe over to North Lanarkshire to stay with him for a week and to observe how this successful band was run at close quarters. Joe felt very privileged and was like a sponge and brought back with him the rudimentary skills he collected from John K and he applied them with great effect in the years that followed.
Growing up in the provincial town in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and ’80s, life wasn’t always easy and money was tight. But for a few lucky ones, we had something that money couldn’t buy. We had a bagpipe tutor on our doorstep who was without any shadow of doubt world class. Joe’s guiding hand touched many of our young lives and he became a father figure to all his students.
He taught most of the young players from Ballynahinch from his little terraced home after coming home from work each day at Purdysburn Hospital. His dear wife Bessy often bringing his dinner to him which he would eat on his lap while putting four or five young students through their paces.
With his unique repertoire of hand-written exercises, Joe churned out solo piping winners on a regular basis. Howard Walker, Paul Herron, Andy Presho, James Gibson, Wesley Irvine to name a few, and of course the most decorated of them all, Ian Jess.
Back in 1971, so confident was Joe about Ian’s ability, he took him over to Glasgow as a 13-year-old to play against the top juvenile pipers at a prestigious Scottish Pipers Association event in Glasgow. It didn’t work out for them on that particular visit, but one year later they went back and returned to Northern Ireland with the Currie Cup, a trophy that had previously never left the home of piping.
Back in those days as a solo piper, when Joe brought you into the competition hall at your allotted time and sat in the front row and told you to keep your eyes fixed on him keeping the beat throughout your performance, you knew you were in safe hands.
As young impressionable lads growing up in during the Northern Ireland troubles, Joe widened our world and brought the band and the soloists over the border to play in All-Irelands.
But Joe’s natural habitat was in the band hall on practice nights. Back in the 1970s and ’80s, on winter nights with the smell of the paraffin oil and burning reed wax and the condensation dripping down the walls, there was no hiding place for any player around the table in those marathon practice chanter sessions. In his unique style, he got each one of us to play the part on our own and put you back over and over it again until you played it flawlessly. Joe also had a great sense of humour and was blessed with the skills of a mediator with an ability to defuse occasions when tempers were sometimes raised.
As young impressionable lads growing up in during the Northern Ireland troubles, Joe widened our world and brought the band and the soloists over the border to play in All-Irelands. He would always advise us to show the utmost respect for everyone we met and deference to the traditions of our neighbours in the Republic. During a period when the language of some firebrand politicians may have been aimed at further dividing the two communities on this island, no one that played under Joe McAdam for Ballynahinch could ever have gone down that road. Looking back at it now, politically you could say he was way ahead of his time.
Joe was held in high regard as a tutor. Not only was he pipe-major of Ballynahinch, but he was also in demand for other local bands such as Legacurry, Drumlough, Glassdrummond, Annsborough, the Frank Rainey, and I am sure there are more. Even though first and foremost he was our pipe-major, we never knew where he was outside of our own practice nights. Whoever wanted his expertise, Joe always had the time and was happy to help out.
The band that won Grade 2 at the World’s that day by a country mile were nearly all home grown and taught by Joe.
The highlight of Joe’s piping career as pipe-major was when he won the All-Ireland Grade 1 in Lisburn in 1967. Then again in 1982, when under Joe’s heir, Ian Jess, they brought Ballynahinch to the World Championships that year in Glenrothes, Fife, and came home as Grade 2 champions. In the modern era, successful pipe bands recruit their pipers from all over the country, often taught by different tutors. But back in 1982, like the Glasgow Celtic team in 1967 who were the first British team to win the European Cup, the band that won Grade 2 at the World’s that day by a country mile were nearly all home grown and taught by Joe. It was an immensely proud moment for him.
Joe sometimes clashed with the administrators in the Pipe Band Association and, amazingly, for all his knowledge and success, he never sat the exams to become an adjudicator and the RSPBA never relaxed the rules to ask him to be a judge for their competitions. This is a role he would have excelled in, but Joe kept his own scores when listening to competitions and was sought out by pipe-majors from the top Grade 1 bands, such as Richard Parkes, Terry Tully and Frank Andrews, to hear what Joe thought of their performances and to find out where they could improve.
However, as pipe band members will know, at the grand finale of every competition before the results are announced, the massed bands strike up together and play “The Battle’s O’er” once through. Sadly for us all here today, Joe’s battle is finally over.
If I can end with a short poem by Robert Burns that could have been scripted for Joe.
An honest man here lies at rest,
As e’er God with his image blest:
The friend of man, the friend of truth;
The friend of age, and guide of youth:
Few hearts like his, with virtue warm’d,
Few heads with knowledge so inform’d:
If there’s another world, he lives in bliss;
If there is none, he made the best of this.
Joe, it was a privilege to be part of your team for each and every battle.
Thank you so much for the memories.
Stand easy Pipe-Major.
Paul Herron was a piper with the Ballynahinch Pipe Band and a student of Joe McAdam, whose funeral was on April 6, 2022, at Edengrove Church in Ballynahinch. Paul Herron lives in Dublin.