Tuesday 21 November 2017

Monks led me to the treasures of singing in the choir

If Ben Gunn could sing, Leo Cullen, who remembers childhood visits to the Cistercian Abbey, could also give it a go

A man named Ben Gunn it was who got me romantically involved in choirs in the first place. . . You remember old Ben Gunn? The ragged outcast that young Jim Hawkins came across on Treasure Island. One of Cap'n Flint's cut-throat buccaneers, who as he said himself, hadn't "spoken with a Christian these three years".

But despite his days of piracy, his past saved him. For, as he told Jim: "I was a civil pious boy, and could rattle off my catechism that fast you couldn't tell one word from another." He did the right thing by Jim and Squire Trelawney, too, and when he had sailed home to England and eaten enough of all the delicacies he had missed, principally cheese, what did he do, that vagabond? He retired to the country where he became "a notable singer in church on Sundays and saints' days". He joined his village choir. That greatly impressed me. I thought then that Ben Gunn's was a noble calling, and that one couldn't do better. I might even join a choir myself one day.

At this time I already had in mind the prototype choir -- though I wasn't sure I'd want to join it: the monks' choir of the Cistercian Abbey in Roscrea, to there I was driven each starry Christmas Eve to midnight mass with my parents and aunt. I would rattle around in the back of the car on the driveway up to the abbey, almost spotting Santa in his sleigh high in the heavens, his surefooted reindeers with nothing but fresh air to gallop on. And then my holy aunt would say, "Oh listen: The Alleluia will inspire you." Oh it did, and I fell asleep in the depth of my soul to the chant of the monks behind the high wooden partition. And when I woke up, aunt said: "The essence of a great choir is harmony, in which no one voice be heard above the rest."

Well I'd known harmony from very earliest days ... The four part corner-boy choir of Templemore where I grew up usually only featured a soloist but on the odd day, maybe if the sun came out, his song was swelled by his companions. How lucky one was to be around for those bel canto occasions when they cleared their throats, spat, and like four Nelson Eddys, fell into unison: "Oh, Rosemarie I love you, I'm always dreaming of you. O-o-o-o-of you." Did a corner ever vibrate more harmoniously than the corner of that Tin Pan Alley?

And then I came across a girls-only choir. In Ballingarry, noted for three things, the Cabbage Garden Rebellion of the Fenians, the anthracite colliery, and a Presentation Convent hidden in the fields. Where a black-grimed coalminer on his way home from work might suddenly run into a white-faced boarder girl flitting through the woods and each would be equally startled. Where my family went to mass on Sunday mornings and heard a sleepy choir of farmers' daughters boarders just out of their pyjamas, hair just combed free of sleep. They perched in a rickety wooden balcony, a squawking little flock of hens, while Reverend Mother turned missal pages in the sanctuary and frequently peered up at them and added her bristling tenor every time silence threatened. So that the choir no longer adhered to my aunt's dictum of indistinguishability but became a dominant John McCormack that could curdle milk, not because the voice was sour but because it was so sweetly bossy.

And then I did join a choir. The De la Salle Waterford school choir where I went to boarding school. Where again vocals were not indistinguishable -- where broken voices croaked in the well of the choir, until our choir master, Stanley Bowyer, a stooped Welshman with an ear mounted on a tuning fork, weeded them out like removing weeds from a garden. Stanley Bowyer also played the organ at the cathedral but where we boarders were concerned his most important claim to fame was his being the father of Brendan Bowyer of the Royal Showband. He taught us all sorts: march songs, ballads of old Tom Moore, Italian love songs, even though all we

wanted to learn from him and we drove him mad shouting it out, all we wanted to learn was The Hucklebuck. Truth is, some were only in the choir for the annual concert of all the school choirs of Waterford held in the Theatre Royal, where they -- the ones with the deep bass voices and a few baritones, too -- conducted backstage duets with contralto Sacred Hearts from the convent across the river in Ferrybank.

Choirs. . . choirs, the union of human voices joined in celebration: monks' all-night midnight lullabies; Presentation girls' hymns to pillows and hair clips; De la Salle boys' O Solo Mios; echoes of Ben Gunn's press-gang dirges. And the choir on the street corner: go-boys who burst into song for no other purpose than to pass God's, and maybe the Devil's, time while awaiting a moment of anarchy such as when a captive motorist might stop for directions -- whereupon in four point synchronicity they might point towards any old road out of town and sing out: Templetouhy, Tipperary, Tennessee, Tallahassee Bridge. And say, "I'd hop in and show you the way, boss, only I have to stay put." And add, no matter what time of year it was: "And a Happy Christmas to ya!"

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