Cross Border Orchestra of Ireland. Background to Cross-Border and European links.

A major cease-fire was announced in 1994 by the IRA and Loyalist paramilitaries. Following the announcement, the idea of a cross border orchestra was first muted in St. Louis Girls Secondary School, Dundalk. It should primarily be a peace initiative and a means of uniting young people from different backgrounds and traditions, through the medium of music. The hope was that, in addition, it would raise the profile of the St. Louis School and other schools who might join; and it would help improve the image of Dundalk town which was then known as “El Passo”. Mr. Gerry Berrills was Acting Principal in St. Louis at the time and was very supportive of the initiative.

A store of good French and German string instruments which had been purchased by the St. Louis Sisters in the 1950’s had unfortunately fallen into disrepair. After some fund-raising, these were renovated at a cost of £3,500 Irish punts. Instrumental teachers were recruited and approximately 40 St. Louis students began to learn a musical instrument.

Links were initially established with Abbey Christian Brothers Boys Grammar school in Newry, Co. Down. There were approximately 40 boys in the Abbey Orchestra who played mostly Brass and Wind instruments. The St. Louis Abbey Grammar schools link was very successful and demonstrated the great potential of cross border and cross community cooperation. After writing to 219 Protestant schools in Northern Ireland, two schools agreed to become part of the project. These were Wellington College, Belfast and Banbridge Academy. Links were fraught with many difficulties from logistical problems to parental opposition. However, this only served to highlight the importance of the project and strengthened resolve to keep it going. At this point there were approximately 140 young people in the CBOI.

In 1997, through the European Socrates Programme, the CBOI established links with choirs from the Kallio School of Performing Arts in Finland (3rd level education institute), and the ********** primary school in Liberec, Czech Republic, (1st level education institute). Legendary Irish Music Educator Gearoid Grant was invited to conducts the CBOI. Both choral groups visited Ireland for concerts in the Dundalk Institute of Technology and the National Concert Hall, Dublin. 140 members of the CBOI toured to the Czech Republic and Finland where they gave a key-note performance of ‘Finlandia’ at the Culture Hall, Helsinki.

In 2000, the Departments of Education North and South honoured the CBOI by inviting them to be the focal point of their Millennium project ‘DOORS – Life Long Learning’. CBOI toured Ireland and performed in all major towns and cities. Schools from these towns and cities were also invited to provide acts for these very special concerts. By the end of 2000, links with Wellington College and Bainbridge Academy collapsed due in no small way to the huge burden of extra-curricular work and pressure on the teachers involved.

PHOTO: CBOI and the South Ulster Youth Orchestra and Band. Rehearsals in Drumcree. 300 musicians participating.

Despite this, establishing and fostering cross-border and cross-community links remained the central mission of the CBOI, and in 2001 new links were established with the South Ulster Youth Orchestra and Band. At this point, there were over 300 young musicians involved in the project. Rehearsals were held in Drumcree and in St. Louis Secondary School, Dundalk. However, St. Louise was a Catholic school and this was seen by many as reason not to attend rehearsals or be part of the project. Determined that this wouldn’t be a barrier to any young person, the CBOI moved its base to the Dundalk Institute of Technology which offered huge support to the Orchestra and was multi-denominational so no young person would feel it necessary to excluded themselves from the project on grounds of religion. At this time, the Department of Education sanctioned full time leave for Sharon Treacy-Dunne to manage the CBOI.

At Christmas 2003 the first mini Peace Proms held at the DkIT with choirs from two local Dundalk schools participating. In 2014 the first Peace Proms (called Rhythm of Life) was held in the DkIT, conducted by Prionnsias O Duinn (then lead conductor with the RTE Concert Orchestra). Twelve choirs from Primary Schools in the North East participated in the event which was a huge success and resulted in many more schools requesting to be involved in subsequent events.

In 2005 the link with the SELB ended. By now young people who were not in any of the participating schools/groups were continually requesting membership of the Orchestra.  At this point, CBOI opened its doors all young people with particular emphasis on border counties north and south.

PHOTO: Altnaveigh House Pipers and Drummers

CBOI’s efforts to foster cross border and cross community links continued to be of primary importance and so in 2006 CBOI sought to establish links with Altnaveigh House, Newry. 

NOTE: On 17th June 1922 the IRA raided the small unionist community outside Newry. The incident is known in history as the Altnaveigh Massacre. Protestant houses were reduced to ashes and five members of the Lodge were taken from their beds and shot. Many suffered terrible injuries. This event outraged the entire Protestant community of NI and still does. The Protestant community in Newry remains very polarised.

After almost a year of negotiations facilitated by the North South Ministerial Council, and the Department of Foreign Affairs, links were established. The musicians at Altnaveigh House were made up of Bagpipers and Drummers, including Lambeg Drummers. CBOI commissioned a set of 5 works for Orchestra and Drum and Pipe Corps which highlighted Protestant Culture. These were premiered at Dublin Castle in a special concert hosted by then Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dermot Ahern. In 2008 the link with Altnaveigh House collapsed.

Meanwhile, Peace Proms was continuing to grow and it was very important to the CBOI to try to ensure that schools and children from both communities in Northern Ireland were involved in our project. Every effort was made to this end, for example, in 2007 discussions held with former UDA members as a means of trying to get children from their community involved in our work. That year, 60 children schools in the Unionist community (along with many more from other communities and areas) participated in a Peace Proms project with the CBOI culminating in a concert at the Waterfront Hall, Belfast.

In 2009 1,600 children from Northern Ireland participated in huge cross community Peace Proms project culminating in concerts in Belfast and Derry. The Department of Education in Northern Ireland give recognition to CBOI by sending an endorsement to every participating school in Northern Ireland

Peace Proms continued to grow and develop and became an essential musical and cultural education resource for more and more Primary Schools each year. Form doing two major Peace Proms concert each year (usually in the Helix Dublin and the Waterfront Hall, Belfast), CBOI moved in the arena venues in 2014 to facilitate the large number of schools who wished to be involved in peace Proms choirs. In 2016, CBOI expanded Peace Proms to Liverpool. Now in 2020 over 600 schools almost 35,000 children actively participate in Peace Proms each year. Approximately 6,000 participate in Peace Proms Northern Ireland with a 50/50 representation from Catholic and Protestant communities. CBOI performing largely in Arenas: Echo Arena Liverpool, SSE Arena Belfast, Simmonscourt Arena RDS Dublin, Limerick University Sport Arena, Galway University Sports Arena, and Waterford Institute of Technology Sports Arena.


1996 UK. 75th Anniversary of the British Federation of Music Festivals, Warwick.

1998 Czech Republic

2000 Finland

2002 California- 8 cities

2004 California – 8 cities

2005 USA. Carnegie Hall and Boston Symphony Hall

2007 USA. Chicago Symphony Hall and Boston Symphony Hall

2009 USA. Lincoln Centre, New York

2009 Rome. 400th Anniversary of the Flight of the Earls.

2010 World Trade Expo in Shanghai, China.

2012 UK. Royal Albert Hall

2014 USA. Carnegie Hall

2016 USA. White House. Ensemble