The Late John Headon
My generation will remember John as “Big John”, the big man who marched with the Wolfe Tone Brass and Reed Band playing the base. He was an imposing figure, his height making him immediately identifiable in the many photographs taken of the band over the decades - and then the big broad smile… There’s the word “big” again and for generations of youth who learned to play music through the band, the genial giant certainly made a big impression.
Former pupils and parents contacted Tom and Niamh Headon after the funeral to say how they appreciated his patience and encouragement as a teacher in latter years.
John’s dedication to the band is unquestionable; he joined as a youth of fourteen and until his death in April, remained an active member and was serving the role of President. Coincidentally, his son Tom joined at the same age – albeit under the ‘persuasion’ of his late father – and remains a member today, never having regretted being bitten by the music bug.
John was born to Mary and Tom Headon of Chapel Street; Mary was an O’Toole of Lamingstown, Broadleas and Tom hailed from Sillagh. Tom was a widower with children Dennis, Joe and Tom (Kate had died young), from his first marriage. The love of farming was as deeply imbedded in John as was his love of music; it was always his aspiration to move back up to the farm at Broadleas and happily he did.
Tom Headon snr. passed away when John was a mere three years of age, leaving Mary to raise three children – Annie, Pat and John. For young John, walking the cattle from the yard at Chapel Street up to the farm at Broadleas before and after school was like saying his daily prayers and the only grief it caused him was when the flooding near the Old Schoolhouse prevented the herd from getting through.
Hard work never bothered him; in his time, he served as relief postman, joined Kildare County Council in his twenties, using the horse and cart before tractors and vans were available to crews. From the family home on Chapel Street, he ran a coal yard for years. In the the mid 1970s, he was appointed a Water Works Overseer with the Council covering a wide area from Castledermot to Ardclough to Brannockstown to Blessington and this was pre-mobile phones and email.
“There wasn’t even the two-way speaker system then” remarked Tom. “He would often be just back in from a call when there would be a message to go back out again – the flash-lamp got a lot of use in those days with up to 20 phone calls at home and no answering machine!”
“My father was the first person I ever saw with a mobile phone and it was a massive looking thing, about the size of biscuit barrel, with an ariel the length of a fly fishing rod! You couldn’t afford to buy them then, only to rent them and the battery was huge.”
Despite enjoying his time with the Water Department, John was not sorry to retire in 1996 as it gave him time to indulge in other passions – namely the brass and reed band and farming!
For Michael Kelly, the late John Headon was one of the central figures of the band. “John was one of the people who kept the band going through good years and bad, right up to the day he died. He totally believed in the ethos of the band, that “nothing was to be disposed of, until something of equal value to the band had replaced it.” Therefore, no musical instruments were disposed of, until a new one replaced it.
He was passionate regarding the implementation of the bandhall as a local facility and how right he was; today, the ‘new’ bandhall hosts underage and adult dramatic and musical presentations, bowling, weekly badminton to over 70 children, Irish dancing and has facilitated the community playgroup, planning meetings etc.
The original building of the bandhall was sheeted in 1939; we ran concerts, raffles and card-drives during Monsignor Browne’s time to upgrade the hall. It was extended and a new stage put in. For years, the cinema brought in revenue until it was moved to the parish hall. For a time, the bandhall housed a printing works but eventually it fell into dis-repair.
Under John’s leadership, a major fundraising drive was initiated and plans for a new hall incorporating two music rooms began; it was John’s foresight at this stage that the hall be designed to provide a community facility. He dealt with everything from the planning application and sourcing Government grants, to fundraising, making house-to-house calls for the non-stop draw.
His whole life he was the backbone of the band; from his days as a player – he started out playing the cornet, then an E Flat horn, the baritone and finally the base – he marched and travelled the length and breadth of the country with the band and in latter years, was one of our most patient and dedicated tutors, teaching newcomers the recorder.
Coincidentally, John was also involved in the dramatic society as was his good friend, the late Paddy Monaghan. The group performed in the Kildare Drama Festival and others.
I refer to the late Paddy Monaghan above; Paddy used to visit John occasionally after second mass on Sunday; indeed, John once joked that despite the fact he didn’t take sugar, he went through two bags a week catering for the many welcome visitors who crossed the door on Chapel Street!
Many homes in Ballymore proudly hang pictures of the Wolfe Tone Brass & Reed Band taken at former Corpus Christi Parades, Easter Monday Ceremony (‘non-partition’ parade) field days, GAA championship finals, gymkhanas, Punches town Parades, Walking Sunday etc. One of the more familiar photographs was taken at the opening of Scoil Mhuire in 1953, the late Jack Twaite proudly leading the lads and of course, the imposing figure of “Big John” unmistakable.
Other occasions the band performed included marching Pat Buckley, winning jockey of the Aintree Grand National in 1963, from Naas into Two-Mile- House; the inauguration of Jack Boothman as President of the GAA – the band led Jack into Blessington; meeting the Bishop on arrival to Ballymore for Confirmations, official switching on of the Christmas lights/ arrival of Santa and of course, Christmas morning after mass.
It’s the local appearances I remember so vividly – the festival parade, the field day and Christmas morning in the Churchyard, the band looking so smart in their navy, gold trimmed uniforms.
Those uniforms tell their own story – in 1963, the Garda Suiochana changed their uniforms so John, along with other members, sourced surplus Garda uniforms, dressed them with gold braid and chrome buttons, added a musical lyre to the hats – and the ‘new-look’ band was complete! Even in later years, during the 1980s, when a lighter material was used, a similar design and overall look was retained.
It was 1967 that John married Eileen, nee Dowling of Brittas and their only son, Tom was destined to eventually join the band and continue the tradition. Whilst admits he was ‘persuaded’ to join, he remains a member today, loves it and played last Christmas outside the Church, much to the delight of the ailing John.
“My father had great patience; I worked with him (Tom also works with KCC Water Dept); played in the band with him and lived with him – if he put up with me for years, believe me, he had great patience! He was a great father and a good friend and I’m happy that his final years were spent here at Broadleas where he has always wanted to be.”
Their mutual interest in the band saw father and son travel to Worchester, Massachusetts and Holly Oak, Conneticut and around Ireland until sadly, the band could no longer sustain a marching element. Tom, like his dad, plays base and bears a striking resemblance to the early photos of his father.
For Tom’s wife, Niamh, John was an easy patient and he revelled in the view of the land from the kitchen window – only 2 miles up the road but he used to laugh and say it took him 30 years to get there! He had excellent memory and loved to talk about the history of Ballymore, the factual and the invented. He always praised his former neighbours on Chapel Street, never having fallen out with neighbours on either side.
For years, John was on the graveyard committee and held the key to the gates; he loved to bump into Bobby Grattan and Eddie Whelan there and go back over shared memories.
Sadly, Eileen died in 2001 so John became a more frequent visitor to St Mary’s.
John had been an alter boy as a child, a Minister of the Eucharist for years, collected at mass, was a lifelong pioneer and was involved in several associated fundraising drives – eg presentation to Fr Dunphy, Monsignor Browne’s headstone and was a Papal Steward for the Pope’s visit in 1979.
A film crew shooting in Maynooth chose John for a particular scene whereby they wanted a band member to take a slug of whiskey– whilst it was his physique that drew the crew’s attention, the other band members thought it amusing that the pioneer was selected and had no hardship in downing the cold tea for the scene!
For Michael Kelly, it was John’s modesty that made him stand tall: “He didn’t wear his deeds on his sleeve; he did a lot of good turns for people but never spoke of it afterwards and many people referred to this at the funeral.
Apart from his work with the band, he contributed to the dramatic society years ago, the church, was a member of the Fine Gael party – a good friend of Paddy Malone and Gerry Sweetman, was a member of the graveyard committee and his door was always open to anyone.”
Undoubtably, it is John’s contribution to the Wolfe Tone Brass & Reed Band that he will be best remembered.
An anchor man over the years, he has been a performing member, Trustee, Secretary, Chairperson, President and Teacher – each role equal in importance. There is even the story that once, when the rest of the band failed to appear at a booking in Blessington due to transport problems – John, along with two other members marched down the street and honoured the booking!
A wealthy man is a man who lives as he wants to and the late John Headon spent the last few years ‘rolling in clover’ so to speak– on the land at Broadleas, living with his son Tom and daughter in law, Niamh; father and son both continuing their love of music and the brass & reed band, John with plenty of genuine friends and remembered fondly by many ex-pupils and fellow members.
Big John, the late John Headon, may he rest in peace, amen.