‘The Irish Church Music Scene’

The Irish Church Music Scene

This article by Harry Grindle (1935-2013) was published originally in Organists’ Review, August 2011, to coincide with the annual Congress of the Incorporated Association of Organists held in Belfast. The article continues to be a useful snapshot of church music in Ireland. As the original article is now over ten years old, many of the people mentioned are no longer in the roles described here. A later informative piece is an essay, Music in the Church of Ireland, by Dr Kerry Houston in Irish Anglicanism 1969-2019, ed. K.Milne & P.Harron, Four Courts Press (2019).

Northern Ireland

Choirs from Northern Ireland have an impressive record of success in major competitions. In 1984, the Belfast chamber choir, Renaissance, conducted by its founder, Ronnie Lee, won the inaugural Sainsbury UK Choir of the Year Award . The membership of this choir consisted largely of former pupils of Grosvenor High School where as Head of Music, Ronnie had established and maintained over a period of some 39 years a tradition of choral excellence. In 1986, under his direction, the school choir won the youth section of the Sainsbury Competition as well as the premier award at the International Festival at Montreux.

In more recent years, choirs from Methodist College, Belfast (MCB) have won the Sainsbury Competition (1998 and 2002) and the BBC Songs of Praise Choir of the Year Contest (2004). The Chapel Choir was named “RTÉ All-Island School Choir of the Year” in 2009 and in 2005 the MCB Junior Choir won the BBC Radio 3 Children’s Choir of the Year Competition.

The junior category of the BBC Songs of Praise Competition was won in 2004 and 2010 by the choirs of Waringstown Primary School and Ballyholme Primary School in Bangor.

Church choirs in Northern Ireland

Through radio and television broadcasts, Northern Ireland has also become known for the high quality of some of its church choirs. At McCracken Memorial Presbyterian Church in Belfast Rob Anderson was in charge of the music from 1947 to 1955.  Rob, who died in 2010, a few weeks after his 100th birthday, had forsaken a career in accountancy to devote himself entirely to his true métier. A highly regarded teacher of piano and singing, he was also the most exacting of choirmasters. Convinced that choirs thrive on hard work, he devised a schedule which included individual lessons for his singers and rehearsals for each of the parts as well as for the full choir. The overall sound of the choir was enhanced by the introduction of boys’ voices and the repertoire was extended to cover all periods, with Latin motets being sung sometimes as introits and anthems – hardly the custom in Presbyterian churches even today! It is an indication of the McCracken Choir’s standing that it was the runner-up in the closely- contested final of the Festival of Britain Choral Competition in London in 1951.

At Bangor Abbey (1957-67), where he inherited a fairly average parish church choir, Rob Anderson demonstrated what is possible when such a group of singers is under the direction of a gifted choir-trainer who is prepared to go to any lengths in order to realise his vision. Such was the refinement of the singing that listeners to the choir’s BBC Choral Evensong broadcasts found it difficult to believe that what they were hearing was not coming from one of the English cathedrals.

In the past, Choral Evensong has also been broadcast regularly from St Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast and from three of the city’s parish churches with excellent musical traditions. These were St Matthew’s and St Bartholomew’s where the aforementioned Ronnie Lee, something of a legend in his own lifetime, was successively organist and choirmaster, and St James’s which was closed in 2008. This fine building is now used by the Antiochian Orthodox Church.

Sunday choral services are the norm at the Church of Ireland cathedrals in Armagh, Belfast, Downpatrick and Derry, with St Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh and St Columb’s Cathedral, Derry being the only two where choirs of men and boys are still found. In recognition of his 34 years of devoted service as Organist and Master of the Choristers at Armagh Cathedral, Martin White was made an Honorary Lay Canon by Archbishop Eames in 2004. The choral tradition at Armagh can be traced back to the Céli Déi or Culdees (usually translated ‘servants of God’), ascetic Christian monks, with a particular interest in the musical aspect of worship, who lived in community there from possibly as early as the 8th century.

Today the only parish church choir in Northern Ireland consisting entirely of men and boys is that at St George’s, Belfast where there is also an adult mixed-voice chamber choir which sings Evensong once a month. The two choirs occasionally combine in performances under the church’s Director of Music, Dr Emma Gibbins.

A veritable musical renaissance has taken place at St Peter’s RC Cathedral in Belfast following the appointment in January 2008 of Nigel McClintock, a former chorister at St Anne’s Cathedral, as its first full-time Director of Music. With the establishment of a Schola Cantorum (SC) as his prime objective, Nigel auditioned over 300 boys in the course of the next three months. The SC, founded in March 2008, has a membership of 48 of whom 10 have organ lessons. There are 12 probationers. In addition to singing at the weekend liturgies, the SC appears frequently at concerts at the cathedral and elsewhere. The boys’ travels have so far taken them to London, Paris and Rome where they sang at Mass before the Pope. The SC has been the subject of a three-part BBC Television documentary.

Many of Northern Ireland’s most promising young musicians continue their education in Great Britain with some of the singers and organists taking up choral and organ scholarships at Oxbridge or other universities. Special mention should be made of Christopher Gray, from Bangor, Co. Down, who has gone on to become Director of Music at Truro Cathedral and who is probably the first Irish musician to hold such a post.

Organ scholarships

Because so few of the organists in particular return to the province to pursue their professional careers, it has been proving increasingly difficult to fill vacancies in churches. As a remedial measure, three-year organ scholarship schemes are in operation in three of the northern C of I dioceses. Selected candidates receive regular organ lessons and are also given help with choir-training, the tuition being either free or heavily subsidised. Some of the students, who range from teenagers to the middle-aged and even the retired, may have already been assisting with the music in their local churches and are keen to improve their skills. The students’ progress is regularly assessed and certificates are awarded to those who successfully complete the courses.

South of the border

Dublin is unusual in having two C of I cathedrals, Christ Church and St Patrick’s, founded respectively in 1038 and 1190, with choir schools dating from 1493 and 1547. Following the closure of its choir school in 1972, ladies gradually replaced the boys in the choir at Christ Church. Under the direction successively of Peter Sweeney, Mark Duley and Judy Martin, the eventual mixed-voice choir has become one of the finest in the country. In addition to singing five services each week, the Christ Church choir undertakes a busy schedule of concerts, broadcasts and recordings.

The only remaining cathedral choir school in the country is at St Patrick’s which is unique in two other respects. It is the only Anglican cathedral in these islands at which daily matins is still sung (during school terms) and it is the sole cathedral in Ireland at which there is daily choral evensong (with the exception of Saturday).

At St Fin Barre’s C of I Cathedral in Cork, where the Director of Music is Malcolm Wisener, the choral establishment includes both boy and girl choristers who sing separately with the men. The choirs of the C of I cathedrals in Waterford and Kilkenny, both of mixed voices, are respectively under the direction of Dr Eric Sweeney, one of Ireland’s most significant composers, and Malcolm Proud, the eminent harpsichordist.

Up to the 1960s the choirs in a number of the larger churches in Dublin were wont, like their counterparts in Belfast at that time, to give occasional performances of  Handel’s Messiah and other substantial choral works.  While this is no longer the case, fine musical traditions of long standing are maintained at St Bartholomew’s, Clyde Road (under Tristan Russcher, formerly assistant organist at Christ Church Cathedral) and at St Ann’s, Dawson Street (under Charles Marshall).

For over a hundred years the Palestrina Choir at St Mary’s Roman Catholic Pro-Cathedral has been one of Dublin’s most highly regarded musical institutions. This choir of boys and men sings at five weekly liturgies during the choir term. A major project during the current year is the performance of all twenty of Victoria’s masses to mark the 400th anniversary of the composer’s death.

The Pro-Cathedral Girls’ Choir, inaugurated in May 2009, sings at the 5.45pm Mass on Tuesdays as well as at occasional weekend liturgies. Girls’ choirs also make an important contribution to the musical and liturgical life of the two Dublin C of I cathedrals.

Blánaid Murphy, the Director of Music at the Pro-Cathedral since 2002, studied music at Cambridge University, where she was organ scholar at Selwyn College, and later at the Musikhochschule in Stuttgart. Ms Murphy currently conducts three other Dublin choirs and holds the post of Choral Director at the Royal Irish Academy of Music.

A leading figure on the Irish musical scene for many years, Gerard Gillen was appointed Titular Organist of the Pro-Cathedral in 1976. He held the Chair of Music at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth from 1985 to 2007. Professor Gillen has an international reputation as an organist, having given to date in the region of a thousand recitals throughout Europe, the Middle East and America. He was founder-chairman of the Dublin International Organ and Choral Festival of which he was Artistic Director from1990 to 2000. In 1984 he was conferred with a Knighthood of St Gregory by the Vatican and in 2006 was created a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres by the French Government. He has also been awarded a doctorate (honoris causa) by the Pontifical University. As chairman (since 1993) of the Irish Episcopal Commission’s Advisory Committee on Church Music and in various other capacities Professor Gillen has had an important influence on music in the Roman Catholic Church.

In addition to the Pro-Cathedral, there are professional choirs at two other RC churches in Dublin. At St Teresa’s Carmelite Church, Clarendon Street), the choir, under the direction of Gráinne Gormley, sings settings by Haydn and Mozart in addition to Renaissance repertoire at the 11.00am Mass on Sundays. The church is fortunate in having another fine choir, called Fuaimlaoi, devoted to music in the Celtic idiom mostly composed or arranged by the organist, Ronan McDonagh. At the Church of SS Columbanus and Gall in the Ranelagh area of the city, the professional choir (funded by the millionaire composer of Riverdance, Bill Whelan!) sings Renaissance and contemporary repertoire at Saturday evening Mass directed by Orla Flanagan.

Founded in 1927, the Benedictine monastery at Glenstal in Co. Limerick has strong artistic and musical traditions. The flourishing monastic community includes several highly-skilled musicians among whom are two outstanding organists, Dom Cyprian Love and Dom Columba McCann, whose wonderful improvisations enhance the liturgy. The monks of Glenstal are worthy custodians of the Gregorian chant tradition and the monastery’s reputation for the decorum and beauty of its offices is well deserved. In the 1980s the community formed a celebrated partnership with the singer and theologian, Nóirín Ní Ríain, who coined the word theosony to describe her concept of sound as an expression of Roman Catholic belief.


A number of the leading organists in the Republic of Ireland are active as organ teachers either privately or at one of the music colleges. At the DIT Conservatory of Music and Drama in Dublin the organ tutors are Una Russell, formerly Organist and Director of the Choir at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dundalk, and Peter Sweeney, who studied with Lionel Rogg in Geneva and was for eleven years Organist and Director of the choir at Christ Church Cathedral. At the Royal Irish Academy of Music, David Adams, a prize-winner in four international organ competitions and currently organist at Taney Parish Church and St Nahi’s in Dublin, teaches both organ and harpsichord. The organ tutor at the CIT Cork School of Music is James Taylor, the assistant organist at St Fin Barre’s Cathedral. It is good to know that the majority of those young organists from southern Ireland who undertake graduate studies abroad (usually in Germany or Holland) return eventually to their native country to make a significant contribution to its musical life as performers and teachers.

Church Music Dublin, a group of church musicians appointed by the C of I Dioceses of Dublin and Glendalough, is to be warmly congratulated on the success of its efforts to support and resource music and musicians. A three-year modular course leading to the award of the Archbishop of Dublin’s Certificate in Church Music aims to help musicians working in local churches to acquire the necessary range of skills. Each year a short supplementary course, entitled Living Worship, takes places on four Saturday mornings in January and February with visiting speakers, both clerical and lay, addressing such diverse topics as Liturgical Space, Gospel Music, The Role of the Church Musician and Music in non-eucharistic Worship. Church Music Dublin’s award-winning magazine, Soundboard, which has been issued three times a year for the past decade, is a model of its kind. Attractively produced with excellent colour illustrations, Soundboard always contains an interesting selection of articles together with reviews and news items.

Further training for singers, choral conductors and organists is on offer at a number of the summer schools held annually in various parts of the country. Choral singing is the focus of those organised in Dublin by the Kodaly Society of Ireland and the Association of Irish Choirs as well as that at Christ Church Cathedral which is open to singers aged 14-18. The Irish Church Music Association’s five-day course at Maynooth caters particularly for musicians in the Roman Catholic Church. At Glenstal, near Limerick, Ansgar Wallenhorst and Douglas Hollick lead organ workshops dealing with improvisation and repertoire.


The services and liturgies at the city’s two cathedrals provide a framework for the Charles Wood Summer School (CWSS) at Armagh (the composer’s birthplace). The programme also includes daily concerts, talks, recitals, organ tutorials and masterclasses on various aspects of music in worship. The team of expert tutors includes David Hill and Daniel Hyde. A highlight of this year’s (2011) CWSS will undoubtedly be the inaugural Northern Ireland International Organ Competition which will take place on August 22 and 23 before a jury chaired by the distinguished French organist, Thierry Mechler.

Armagh, the ancient ecclesiastical capital of Ireland, was the venue for the 2010 annual conference of the Hymn Society of Great Britain and Ireland of which the former Bishop of Limerick, Edward Darling, is the current President. The two most recent C of I Hymnals, Irish Church Praise (1990) and Church Hymnal, 5th edition (2000) are the product of a collaboration between Bishop Darling, as General Editor, and Dr Donald Davison, the well-known Belfast organist, as Music Editor. They also co-edited Companion to CH5 (2005), an invaluable and monumental work of reference.

Organist societies

With the demise during the 1970s of the Leinster Society of Organists, the Ulster Society of Organists and Choirmasters (USOC), founded in 1918 and with a membership of circa 200, is now the only such association in the country. The annual “overseas trip”, as it is known, is a popular event in the Society’s calendar. Visits have been paid to the Netherlands, Paris and Berlin as well as to many centres in Great Britain. A generous bequest, augmented by regular donations from USOC members, has enabled the Society to establish a fund to help deserving applicants to attend relevant courses either at home or abroad. USOC has in recent years sponsored organ classes at the annual competitive musical festival in Holywood, Co Down. Funding is also made available, as appropriate, to individuals and projects by the Dunleath Organ Scholarship Trust which perpetuates the memory of the late Henry, Lord Dunleath, a redoubtable champion of the organ, its music and its players.


The last fifty years have brought considerable change and, in certain quarters, some decay. In Northern Ireland, of course, the notorious “Troubles”, during the latter part of the last century, adversely affected all aspects of life. Today, while musical standards in some Irish cathedrals and churches are higher than ever, in other places of worship choirs may be depleted or even non -existent, with recorded music being used where an organist is unavailable. In these challenging times every effort is being made both to support those who are in church posts and to encourage and fully equip those called to undertake what is a very important ministry. When talent is combined with total commitment and a capacity for hard work almost anything is possible. Much has been achieved. As we look to the future, there are good grounds for optimism.

Harry Grindle (1935-2013) was Organist and Master of the Choristers at St Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast and subsequently Head of the Music Department at Stranmillis University College. His important study of Irish Cathedral Music was published in 1989 and his memoir, Reprise….an Irish church musician looks back, in 2009. He was awarded an MBE in 2009 and is thought to have been the first Irish musician to receive a Lambeth Doctorate (2005).