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A Different Kind of Green: WCU band finds cultural connections in Ireland

Western Carolina University’s Pride of the Mountains marching band performs in Dublin, Ireland, on March 17, 2024. WCU photo Western Carolina University’s Pride of the Mountains marching band performs in Dublin, Ireland, on March 17, 2024. WCU photo

Western Carolina University’s Pride of the Mountains marching band recently returned from its first trip across the pond, where it was invited to perform in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Dublin, Ireland. 

Unlike any other trip the band has taken before in both scale and location, it’s a first for the program and many of its students. 

Ireland is similar to Cullowhee in many ways, with lush mountains dotting the countryside and rainy skies hanging over it, but there is at least one thing different.  

“Even driving in the countryside,” said band director Jack Eaddy, “it’s almost like it’s a different color green.”  

Funding the flight

“It took a lot of heads together,” Eaddy said of the planning process. “We want to be able to provide the best experiences for our students. That’s why they come to Western, to be a part of the Pride of the Mountains. We work hard to be innovative in the things that we do. I think this trip is a big part of that innovation.” 

In its infant stages, taking a trip to Ireland involved many conversations with the band directors, upper administration and even Chancellor Kelli R. Brown.

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“It really was asking, not just asking permission from upper administration, but also having more of a conversation,” said Matt Henley, assistant band director. “We got this invitation, we would like to do it, and these are the reasons why.” 

Traveling with such a large group is no small feat, especially when some students have never been far from home — students like junior clarinetist Alexandria Lankert. Lankert has been with the band for two years and was determined to raise the $4,000 to be able to go to Ireland.  

“To raise the money for this trip, I can’t say it was easy,” she said. “I took up a whole summer’s worth of work in order to gain as much money as I could.”  

Determined to make ends meet, she also applied for a scholarship through the university which granted her an additional $1,000.  

“I had to show a newfound determination to go on this trip. If I really wanted to have this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I would have to change in order to get it done,” Lankert said.  

Henley also had unique insight into the funding and planning process. 

“When we agreed to do it, obviously we knew we would be eating a large financial burden,” said Henley. “So, letting the students know first so they can plan plenty of time to raise money was important.”  

Henley added that although they had already received the invitation to perform in Ireland three times, what was important was choosing the best time for the program and for the students. 

“It’s a very expensive trip, probably running around $1.2 million,” he said. “When you really look at the $4,300 a student is paying, they couldn’t really go there and do all we’re going to do for that amount of money by themselves.”  

Flying drums 

A trip like this is not without other challenges.  

“Just physically getting our students around over there and being able to get in and out of places with that many kids is going to be a challenge,” Henley opined prior to the trip.  

Eaddy believed that many of the students would be nervous, especially those who are first-time travelers.  

“I think after we get through the takeoff people calm down,” Eaddy said. “But I think that’s a part of the college experience and a big part of why we’re doing a trip like this.” 

One of the main hurdles, in Henley’s opinion, was getting the large instruments and large groups of students into Ireland. Flying drums, tubas and other large instruments is like checking a large piece of expensive luggage.  

“Working with these airlines that aren’t necessarily used to working with groups like us, it’s difficult for them to even understand,” said Henley. 

Transporting the parade banner and the various drum cases was yet another struggle. Because the parade banner pole is so long, the band had to manufacture one that would fold up and could be put inside a flag bag for protection. The carriers for the drums had to be broken down all the way, and then packed into other cases to be reassembled when they arrive in Ireland. 

Though Henley was concerned with the physical logistics of how instruments and people will get to Ireland, Eaddy was most concerned with making sure that everyone and everything makes it onto the plane.  

“Just making sure all the instruments get on the planes and everyone has packed accordingly is the biggest thing,” Eaddy said.  

“It’s just nutty stuff that you never really have to think about usually when you’re driving by bus,” said Henley. “It’s like seven different flights in all. Most of them go into different places, like flying from Atlanta to Germany and then to Ireland and then ones flying from there to Heathrow Airport in London and then to Ireland.”  

On the shoulders of giants 

With fundraising completed, flying drums packed and students impatiently waiting at the terminal, all that is left is the performance. According to Lankert, it will have all been worth it. 

“This trip is important to me because it gives me the knowledge and experience of culture in other countries,” she said. “I take it as time to grow as a person. Not a lot of people get this opportunity, and I want to make the most of it while I am there. This trip means the absolute world to me.”

Henley also recognizes what an impact this could make on the students. Henley, a previous member of the band and a key mind in planning the previous Pride of the Mountains trip to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, has seen firsthand how a trip like Ireland can have a positive effect on a student. 

“I firmly believe that this can change a person and in positive ways,” he said. “Going and seeing other cultures, other people that think differently than you, experience life differently than you. It can really change a person for the better when they return home and just realize there’s a lot more out there.” 

Neither of the band directors could have seen a trip of this magnitude on the horizon after the Coronavirus Pandemic in 2020. Though Ireland caught Henley by surprise upon the arrival of the invitation, Eaddy recognizes it as just another expected advance for the Pride of the Mountains. 

“We try to be innovative with everything we do in POTM. We’ve done Macy’s and we’ve done the Rose Bowl, we’ve done all these big things,” said Eaddy. “I thought the next logical thing would be for us to go international. This parade is one of the largest in the world and they love American bands and the pageantry and artistry that goes along with it. It’s just going to be magical.”  

Henley recognizes that past achievements of the band have paved the way for their current reputation.  

“We would not be doing this today if it were not for the work and the sweat and the blood of literally hundreds and thousands of students that have come through the program over the past many years,” he said. “Without their work elevating the program every year we wouldn’t be here. We definitely stand on the shoulders of giants.”  

Feeling lucky 

Despite the difficult logistical hurdles leading up to the trip, once the plane landed, it was smooth sailing under misty morning skies.  

Though Eaddy says that Irish and American cultures are very similar, there is just a different feeling about being there. While in Ireland, students were able to do sightseeing trips and experience the local flavor. One of the many excursions the students took was to perform at Kilkenny Castle for an audience of both locals and tourists.  

For one student, Caileigh Coval, the performance was life-changing.  

Coval, a freshman, has been with the Pride of the Mountains for a year. Before the performance even began, she could feel a difference in the attention from the crowd, most of whom were school-aged children. 

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Caileigh Coval, in her first year at Western Carolina University, meets a local student at Kilkenny Castle in Kilkenny, Ireland. WCU photo

“While warming up, there was a group of older school kids just staring at everyone in awe, at what we were doing. It was amazing to have that impact on people,” said Coval.  

It only took moments after the band began playing for the audience to catch on and sing along to popular football classics like Bruce Channel’s 1959 hit “Hey Baby” and “Flowers” by Miley Cyrus.  

While performing, a large group of young girls caught Coval’s eye. They were part of a class from a local school in Kilkenny and they cheered the color guard on and begged their teacher to be able to join them. It didn’t take long for Eaddy to get the message and ask if the kids wanted to participate.  

“The group of girls got very excited about that and started copying all my movements,” Coval said. “They kept calling me over and over going ‘Miss Caileigh! Miss Caileigh!’ My heart was so full and completely blown away at what was happening.” 

In Coval’s opinion, part of the enjoyment came from seeing the young girls broaden their horizons.  

“I absolutely love watching the joy on their faces when they achieve something new. The kids definitely seemed to have a blast getting to come and perform with us,” said Coval. “All of them came up and gave me a huge hug at the end, telling me they didn’t want to leave.” 

To her, that meant she had done her job well and inspired the young girls.  

“This experience made me feel so full of love and gratitude for my activity and the fact I got to spread the love of what I do with the next generation,” Coval said.  

Not only did she have an impact on the kids, but Coval also felt an emotional connection to their willingness to try something new — just as members of the band did in traveling across the ocean to share their talents internationally. 

“I feel we really made an impact on those kids,” said Coval. “I left Kilkenny Castle with much more than just a good performance, but a reminder of why I do what I do and gratitude for the little moments in life.” 

Abigail Quinn is a senior at WCU majoring in communication and a member of the Pride of the Mountains color guard.  

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