Church Music in Ireland

When perusing old Irish Catholic newspapers and archives from before Vatican II, one thing that always strikes me is the constant and industrious efforts made by Irish clerical musicians, and even secular musical organizations (eg. Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann), to promote and improve the standard of Sacred Music, particularly among schoolchildren. I’m beginning to suspect that the established narrative of this subject that prevails on the Catholic blogosphere has little (if any) basis in the historical reality. For example, yesterday I was checking out the notices for the months April, May and June in the 1939 Irish Catholic Directory and took note of some of them:

April 26 — Over 2,000 schoolchildren took part in the Liturgical Festival of the Archdiocese of Tuam held to-day. The Festival, which is under the patronage of Most. Rev. Dr. Gilmartin, Archbishop of Tuam, and Most Rev. Dr. Walsh, Bishop of Cela, was held for the first time last year with the idea of bringing Tuam into line with the Liturgical Movement inaugurated by Pope Pius X.

Eighty two choirs, nearly 30 more than last year, took part in the Plain Chant examinations, which were held in five halls.

The competitive element has been completely eliminated from the examination. There are no cups or prizes, as the promoters feel that this is the best means of restoring the Chant among the people.

The Festival opened with Pontifical High Mass, celebrated in the Cathedral by the Bishop of Cela, and at which the Archbishop presided. The singing, in which all the children took part, under Rev. J.G. McGarry, D.D. [see here – shane], was particularly impressive. Mr. Philip Dore, M.A., B.Mus., F.R.C.O., presided at the organ.

The adjudicators were Rev. J. Fennelly, C.C., Donnybrook, Dublin [see here – shane]; Rev. Patrick Mallon, C.C., Monaghan; Rev. J. Delaney, C.C., Gloucester Street, Dublin; Rev. C. Sherin, Kilkenny, and Mr. Dore.

Following the examination, his Grace the Archbishop presented certificates of merit to each choir.

May 3— Three thousand school-children took part in the Liturgical Festival of the Diocese of Meath, which was held in the Cathedral, Mullingar, to-day. Practically every school in the diocese was represented.

May 18 — Sixty choirs, comprising over 1,500 children, took part in the Liturgical Festival which was held at St. Macartan’s Cathedral, Monaghan, to-day.

May 20 — About 1,500 children, drawn from every part of the diocese, sang at the High Mass at Cavan Cathedral to-day at the opening of the Kilmore Diocesan Liturgical Festival.

June 3 — The Liturgical Festival was opened in Limerick to-day, when a choir of almost 3,000 children sang at Solemn High Mass in St. John’s Cathedral. Sixty choirs took part in the Festival tests. Certificates were awarded to all choirs which attained a standard of efficiency according to their grade.

June 5 — The annual competition of the Bishop’s Shield for Gregorian Chant was held in Kilkenny to-day. Seven choirs, comprising some hundreds of children, competed for it.

Most Rev. Dr. Collier, who presided, presented the Shield to the winners, St. Mary’s Cathedral Scola Cantorum, Kilkenny, who were conducted by Herr J.A. Koss, and congratulated the choir and the conductor on their success.

Rev. C.J. Sherin, Diocesan Director of Sacred Music, addressing the competitors, said it was a source of much pleasure to him to note that Gregorian Chant in the diocese had in a few years made such progress as they had witnessed.


Posted on November 29, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. One doesn’t have to go back as far as 1939. In 1985 I remember chancing upon a school Gregorian Chant competition in the Pro Cathedral in Dublin. Several school choirs were taking part, and the Cathedral was packed to capacity. The pieces being presented were of considerable complexity, and the standard of the singing was exceptional. I remember Fr Jeremiah Threadgold introducing the various choirs. They were competing for the Archbishop McQuaid cup! As far as I know this competition no longer exists. I wonder what happened the cup?

  2. Most interesting, Father. I do like the name of the cup!

  3. My mother regularly took part in chant competitions in the 1930s, held in Armagh cathedral for school (and adult) choirs from the Archdiocese. They didn’t actually sing in the parish church, which had a large regular choir of men and boys, only in the convent chapel and at special events for children where the regular choir wouldn’t be present. Their high point was taking part in the Mass at the Eucharistic Congress in 1932 with thousands of other children. They performed lots of other music beside chant, of course.

    The music was certainly of high quality as the parish church organist taught them, who was a professional musician (a Belgian who came to Ireland after WWI) of international standard, who also composed his own Mass and motet settings. He kept the music in the parish church up to a very exacting level.

    These standards were maintained right up until the late 60s but I would have to say they declined after that, as High Masses were rarely if ever celebrated and the choir was reduced to singing the standard “3-hymn sandwich” – with the odd glorious motet at communion but only if time permitted. It must have been really galling for them! The organist himself died in 1974.

    The school I went to had a boys’ choir in the school chapel, which was open to the public, right up to the mid-70s but it declined soon after. Certainly by the time I left in 1977 it had ceased to operate. However there was also a good adult choir (we sang with them sometimes) and they were very capable. I have no idea what’s happening there nowadays but I wouldn’t suspect it’s up to much.

    Similarly the local Dominican church had an excellent choir and chant featured strongly. They were so good that they were capable, in the 1950s, of staging a performance of “Messiah”, with soloists drawn from within the choir!

    I sing in a number of choirs and have taken part in many competitions over the years. I recall that in the Navan and Dundalk choral festivals (maybe Arklow as well?), up to the 90s, there used to be a sub-section of the Sacred Music category devoted entirely to chant. That doesn’t happen anymore, which perhaps indicates the decline in church choirs generally, as “secular” choirs just don’t tend to do chant which is regarded as a specialist niche, and church choirs would be the only ones that would be doing it nowadays. Except that, by and large, they’re not! In the church choir I sing in, we’re doing the Kyrie, Sanctus & Agnus Dei from the Missa Orbis Factor at Christmas, but that’s a “special” and we don’t even do the simple Missa de Angelis regularly. We do polyphonic motets, sometimes. Shame it’s not done more often, really, as people really appreciate chant and quality music. However numbers have a lot to do with it, as quite often we just wouldn’t have the resources to do justice to decent music.

  4. Jaykay, thank you very much for that, which likewise challenges the received wisdom and is very helpful for understanding the history.

  5. I, too, found these historical accounts of liturgical choirs most interesting and illuminating, as I have considerable research experience in the Liturgical Movement in Europe and America. I don’t know whether your readers are aware that Pope St Pius X’s intended plans for the restoration of Gregorian Chant were hijacked as early as the 1930s by “progressive” reformers in the name of “active participation” by the laity in the Mass. In Europe this was spearheaded by Dom Lambert Beauduin and in America by his disciple, Dom Virgil Michel.

    So when I read the historical records of what was being introduced in my native land, alarm bells immediately began to ring in my mind. I recognized at once that involving mixed choirs – men, women and children – in liturgical functions was the initial means adopted by liturgical reformers on both sides of the Atlantic to “open up” the liturgy to the laity. This in itself was an innovation, for historically the Church has always regarded singing at Mass as a strictly liturgical function reserved only to males and preferably performed in the choir loft.

    It is significant that once this barrier to lay participation had been removed and the laity became accustomed to responding to the priest through singing, the way was paved for other innovations such as verbal responses (the “Dialogue Mass”) between priest and congregation. The next step was to introduce the vernacular as a more appropriate way of conducting a dialogue. And so there unfolded a logical progression from promiscuous participation in choirs to full-blown vocal “active participation” by all by the 1960s.

    You only have to consult the Vatican’s ‘De Musica Sacra’ of 1958 to see how keen the “progressives” were to introduce precisely these reforms even before Vatican II was convened. This document not only encourages the entire congregation to join in liturgical singing but also to recite aloud the server’s responses and even sing or recite the priest’s prayers such as the Gloria, the Introit, the Our Father etc.

    Please understand that I have no objection to familiarizing the laity with the Church’s sacred music or to training children to high standards of performance outside the liturgy. But you must forgive me if I am not tremendously cheered by the developments mentioned in the Irish dioceses. I wonder what my Ordinary, Archbishop McQuaid – requiescat in pace – reacted to this during his tenure of office.

  6. Carol, thanks for your very interesting comment. I must apologize for the slight delay in approving it as it went into the Spam folder.

  1. Pingback: Ephemerides Liturgicae Report on the Liturgical Movement in Ireland (1968) « Lux Occulta

  2. Pingback: Standards in Sacred Music « Lux Occulta

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