The rehearsals and seemingly endless fundraising are finished. The bags and bassoons, the toothpaste and trumpets, the piccolos and passports, are packed. After more than a year of hustle and the embrace of an entire community, the Fort Mill High School marching band leaves behind biscuits for Blarney.
The kids always say it best, and Bryanna Sanders, a 16-year-old trombone player, provided the brass: “We’re going to Ireland!”
More than 150 students in the band, plus another 250 parents and teachers, leave Wednesday to march in Sunday’s Dublin St. Patrick’s Day Parade. This is not playing at halftime of a home football game in little Fort Mill – this is the biggest parade in the country where St. Patrick’s Day comes from.
More than half a million people will line the streets of Dublin for the parade. Millions more will watch it on television and the Internet. Plus, the parade is actually a band competition, with entries from all over the world. The Lord Mayor of Dublin himself invited the Fort Mill band as one of just eight American bands.
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One of those eight is those Yellow Jackets, reigning 2012 Class AAAA marching band champs, from Fort Mill, S.C., U.S.A.
Yet this is where U2 and at least one of the One Direction guys come from. This is Ireland.
So surely these kids are nervous.
Not a chance.
“Excited – this is cool,” said one of the two drum majors, Sawyer Bengtson.
“Awesome,” said the other drum major, Tyler Mumford.
This trip of a lifetime is going to be too much fun for these coolest cats in all of York County to worry about contests and spectators and an entire country watching them march by.
“We’re representing our state and country, but hey – we are going to kiss the Blarney Stone!” said Eliot Teal, a trumpet player.
In Fort Mill, big trips for the state’s best bands are a big deal. In 2011, the Nation Ford High band played the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade in New York, and the Fort Mill High band years ago played Macy’s and the Rose Parade in California. Fort Mill High’s marching band has won more than two dozen state titles over the years.
But Ireland is a foreign country. Ireland is across the ocean. Ireland means money to get there and stay and eat. And Fort Mill’s band is not the football team at some college run by a multi-millionaire coach with deep-pocketed alumni and boosters for buddies.
The cost per person was going to be at least $1,700. The generosity of Fort Mill – the people – took care of that.
More than $120,000 was raised by the band and its boosters in what was called “Dollars for Dublin,” starting in December 2011. Kids and parents raked leaves and hauled scrap metal and baked cookies. Businesses and corporations donated thousands of dollars to help families pay for this trip.
“For so many of our students, this is the trip of a lifetime,” said Chad Pence, assistant band director. “Many of them have never been on a plane, let alone been to a foreign country. The generosity of so many has been great. And the kids – they worked so hard to get to this day.”
The group from Fort Mill is so huge four planes will carry all of the people and equipment and instruments. And the logistics of dealing with 150 kids in a foreign country for weeks has been staggering: Every kid needed to get a passport, the right clearances and authorizations.
Tuesday afternoon, a tuba player named Luke Abrigo rushed into the band room at the high school with his last form.
“My first time on a plane, my first time in Ireland – it’s gonna be great!” Abrigo said.
Yet because this is not just a sightseeing trip but a real competition on one of the world’s largest stages, band practice went on right through Tuesday. Pence held class like a drill sergeant running Marine grunts through a swamp.
“Do not sway, heads up, formation, ready ... ” Pence commanded, and the kids did it all, played the music, and dreamed of Ireland.
One of the songs they will play?
“Irish Melody, and it will be great,” said Bengtson the drum major who will be in front of the whole big group.
When the prize is a trip to Ireland, and a huge parade, and the band is from Fort Mill, there are no slackers.
The parade is the culmination of the trip that lasts through next week, but this trip will take in much of Ireland – a country about the same size and population as the state of South Carolina.
The students will see many of Ireland’s great sights: the Cliffs of Moher, Blarney Castle where the garrulous can kiss the Blarney Stone, Bunratty Castle and a medieval feast. Then the capital, Dublin, for the most Irish holiday of them all.
Briana DiMaria, 18, even has family from County Cavan in Ireland that she will meet.
“Their name is, wait – Kelly,” she said.
Of course she has family named Kelly to meet on the trip. Lotsa Kellys to meet in Ireland.