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Cork Choral Festival 24

Diary of a Festival: YPMVC and the Cork International Choral Festival, May 2024 by James Elliot ( with minor edits and additions from Mike Wash )


What an unforgettable trip …. 12 performance in 5 days to appreciative audiences, all with standing ovations!


Day 1: Tuesday 30th April


Sue and I arrived at Lambs Hill Farm, courtesy of a lift from Janet, our super President, at 2.45. Here, the happy throng was boarding our York Pullman luxury coach, piloted by our cheerful driver Paul. Amazingly, no one was late or arrived having forgotten their passports, trousers ( well so we thought ), wives, etc, so we left bang on time. The drive over the Pennines along the crowded M62 was nevertheless happily uneventful. Funny, I always feel a little shivery whenever we pass Saddleworth Moor. We reached the concrete, glass and fume-filled maze that was Manchester Airport, arriving promptly at the Premier Inn South at 5.30 and meeting in the restaurant at 6.30. Decent food arrived without too much delay, courtesy of the efficient waiting staff. As a reward we treated them to a sample of our repertoire, conducted gallantly by Helen, once again going beyond the call of duty. Then for some (including Sue and myself) an early night in preparation for the dreaded early morning flight.


Day 2: Wednesday 1st May


The Merry Month of May began for us in the small hours of the morning, as we readied to be on the coach by 5.30. The restaurant wasn’t due to open until 6am, so no cornflakes, bacon and eggs. At Terminal 3 we were confronted by a battery of self-service check-in terminals. Sue and I had encountered these little rascals at Heathrow some months earlier, so the golden rule was “Don’t Panic”! Also a nice young lady was on hand to assist anyone in difficulties, so that part of the obstacle course proved relatively easy. Then we scrambled via the organised mayhem of the security gates into the departure lounge in nervous anticipation of how many hours (days? weeks?) our flight would be delayed by.

Guess what – our Ryanair 737 not only boarded on time, it actually left some minutes early! Hats off to Ryanair! Yes, you read it here first, folks! So we arrived at a cool and overcast Cork without too much gnashing and wailing of teeth. As we emerged into the airport concourse there was a set of staging that could have been custom-built for us, so we assembled to give the incoming passengers a rousing send-off with a well-received “Hakuna Mungu” and “Mermaid”.


Outside, two coaches were already waiting for us, along with our two charming and jolly Festival minders, Ursula and Marie. The former was highly experienced as a volunteer, whilst Marie was still relatively new but full of fun and enthusiasm. We checked in at the Hotel Leonardo (possibly named after one of the four Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) and after a quick refresh made our way to Fordes Bar by the side of the River Lee. The jovial landlord Barry had laid on soup and sandwiches, including some for the gluten-free contingent. Then a sing to the by-then crowded bar, greatly appreciated by the warm and welcoming audience. “Drunken Sailor”, “Softly as I Leave You”, “Landlord”, “Gwahoddiad” and others, all slipping down as smoothly as the local Murphy’s stout. It was also live streamed to all televisions in the pub so all could see as well as hear. The rendition of Red Red Rose was filmed by a local and is merrily doing the rounds on social media.


Saint Finn Barre’s Cathedral


This Victorian gothic cathedral was originally founded in the Seventh Century, and is dedicated to Saint Finn Barre, patron saint of Cork. He lived between about 550 and 623 AD, so was roughly contemporary with Saint Augustine of Canterbury. The Church of Ireland cathedral we see today was wholly rebuilt between 1863 and 1879 and designed by William Burges. He was one of the foremost architects of his day, being responsible for, among others, Cardiff Castle and St Mary’s at Studley Royal


This was followed by a short walk to Saint Finn Barre’s Cathedral for a 2.30 performance of sacred music, including “Poor Wayfaring Stranger”, “Fill-a-me-Up”, “Just a Close Walk” and others, all well received. Tydi Rhoddiast was filmed  and is now available on you tube. Then all strolled back to the hotel for an efficient check-in and a little relaxation before a pre-concert evening meal. This was at Milano’s Pizzeria, part of the Pizza Express chain, so all things familiar were on the menu. Whilst the party for the opening gala concert arrived at 5pm, Sue and I arrived at 6, just as everyone was finishing off. The meals appeared efficiently and were tasty enough but the experience was a little soured by chaos at the paying till as the system warranted inputting each item per person - Chairman Mike was on hand to calm things down and ensure everything was Ok. It turned out, he ended up with a €50 surplus which came in handy for our final meal together.


The opening Gala concert held in the City Hall was a feast of orchestral and choral music. The 80 piece youthful Cork School of Music symphony orchestra and the 200 strong Fleischman choir treated us to the Symphony No 1 in C minor by J Brahms and after the interval in celebration of the Anglo Irish composer Charles Stanford, with the help of 4 extremely good soloists, took us through a very moving version of the Sabat Mater.


Day 3: Thursday 2nd May


Some slept well, others not. Sue and I were kept constantly awake until 3pm by the raucous and threatening goings-on outside the Simon Community Hostel on the other side of the road. Fortunately the sympathetic hotel staff, who were only too well aware of the problem, moved us promptly to a new room overlooking the river. Derek Thompson also suffered an unhappy experience when he inadvertently left the bathroom sink tap slightly running. Unfortunately the hotel’s drainage system couldn’t cope and so he and Isobel had to be evacuated to a less waterlogged room.


Now for a little Pillow Talk… the problem with room sharing in my experience is that some people snore, and a heavy snorer can reach up to 80 decibels, approximating to that of a lawn mower or vacuum cleaner, with some attaining 100 decibels, more than a car horn. Such stentorian emissions are surely enough to tax the patience of even the most tolerant room-mate, which may well be what afflicted some individuals (not to name any perpetrators or victims although suffice to say the victim was also the person without uniform trousers and had to rely on the good will of Terry Yates who came prepared with a spare pair!)


Stentor, as the classical scholars among you will know, was the Trojan Herald in the “Iliad”, famous for his powerful voice. As Homer might have written “His snore was mightier than the snores of fifty ordinary men”. Perhaps a hypoallergenic pillow could be the answer?

We awoke to pouring rain, and as it cascaded down someone told us “the really heavy stuff is coming a bit later”. So taxis were summoned to take us the short drive to Nano Nagel Place in Douglas Street. I kept thinking that a rain-themed concert could be held, “Raining in My Heart”, “Down Came the Rain”, “Have You Ever Seen the Rain”, and so on. We entered the beautiful Goldie Chapel (so called after its architect, George Goldie) for a joint concert with the Carolia of the University of Puerto Rico. ( This choir came 3rd in the overall competitive section ) They sang, among others, a haunting “O Sapienta” and encored with “Danny Boy”. Our music included “Sweet and Low”, “Down by the Riverside”, and a finale of “The Lost Chord” which sent shivers down my spine and brought tears to our Chairmans eyes - it might have been the top B flat but I suspect not! Who could possibly judge between the Puerto Rican’s performance and ours? Both were equally vigorously applauded by the audience. Afterwards, we chatted with the Puerto Ricans, whose one complaint was the cold weather. They also presented us with lapel brooches of the Coquí, a tiny tree frog native to the island.


Nano Nagle


Venerable Honora Nagle (c. 1718 – 26 April 1784), known informally as Nano Nagle. She was a pioneer of Catholic education in Ireland in the era of the so-called Penal Laws, when Catholics were prohibited from practising their religion, education, public office or owning property above a limited value. She spent much time aiding and illegally teaching the poor of the city of Cork.


In 1775 she founded the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary (PBVM), commonly known as the Presentation Sisters, now a worldwide Catholic institute. She was declared “venerable” in the Roman Catholic Church on 31 October 2013 by Pope Francis.


After a taxi back to the hotel, Sue and I chilled out, giving the Jamieson’s tour a miss – this was well worth it, according to everyone who went. Then on to the City Hall for the Gala Concert by the State Choir of Latvia. Their technically superb singing incorporated, for the first half, contemporary Irish composers as well as Charles Stanford’s “Beati Quorum Via”. The second half, more well-received by most of us, included modern Latvian choral music, influenced as much of it was by folk motifs. Then to the hotel for a nightcap (Jamieson’s, anyone?) and chat in the hotel bar.


Day 4: Friday 3rd May


Another cool and overcast day. After a leisurely and enjoyable breakfast we walked over to Cork City Hall for the International Non-Competitive Choir event. After a long-winded introduction by the Artistic Director, a warm welcoming speech was given by Kieran McCarthy, Lord Mayor of Cork, who concluded with a most passable rendition of “Smile” – whoever thought mayors could sing!


We were preceded on stage by the Ukrainian Residents’ Choir. Their performances was variously lively and moving, and rightly drew much appreciation from the crowd. I did wonder, though, how they managed to get that nesting swan (or was it a stork?) through customs.


Then it was our turn, and on we marched. Mike our Chairman gave a bold opening speech in Yorkshire dialect, ably translated by David Lampitt, much to the amusement of the audience. “Run” blew the roof off, tremendous applause all round, then to our seats to appreciate the other entries. The ones that stood out for me were:


  • Pro Musica Soest, a superb young German choir;

  • Madrigali, from Finland, whom we were to encounter later on;

  • Rafset from Sweden, bringing us back to the Flower Power era with a Bob Dylan number;

  • Caro S’ena Frisca from Sardinia, whose laid-back appearance and who unusually sang in a huddle with their backs to the audience nevertheless produced some amazing sounds


Cork City Hall: a dark history


The Lord Mayor in his address mentioned that the City Hall was built in 1936. In this he was displaying a supreme act of diplomacy, for he undoubtedly knows of the building’s previous history. The brutal Irish War of Independence was fought from 1919 to 1922 between the Irish Republican Army and the British Crown forces. These comprised regular army troops, the Royal Irish Constabulary and the paramilitary Auxiliaries. These were augmented by the notorious “Black and Tans”, police recruited from the mainland and consisting primarily of ex-soldiers.


On the night of December 11th/12th 1921 large numbers of these debouched from their barracks and descended on the city in a drunken rampage of widespread arson, looting, vandalism, mayhem and violence. They destroyed most of St Patrick Street, many shops, offices and residences, the Carnegie Library and its entire bookstock, as well as burning the City Hall to the ground. The present building was reconstructed on the site of the original, and was paid for by the British Government as a gesture of reconciliation.


There was a plan to meet outside for a combined choral sing on the City Hall steps, but this was thwarted by the sheer numbers, time passing by, and the coaches waiting outside with their engines running. So off we went next to Glanmire, a commuter village six or seven miles away. We were to sing in the public library, located in a small retail park. The building’s utilitarian facade belied the warm and welcoming interior, and despite some initial doubts as to how many people would attend, the available seating space quickly filled up. We were introduced by the cheerful Assistant Librarian Mike as “The Royal Philharmonic Male Voice Choir”. Well, what a leap up in the World! Perhaps we should have Queen Camilla as our President? Prince William as our Chairman? (dreadfully sorry, Mike and Janet!)


Our performance went down a storm and we obliged by giving an encore of “Mermaid”. Among the audience were two small boys (future choir members?) who refused to leave despite their dad desperately trying to coax them away. The only attendee who didn’t seem to appreciate our efforts was a little girl in her mother’s arms who clamped her hands over her ears as soon as we started to sing “Hakuna Mungu”.


Afterwards, we were treated to tea and biscuits, while I was able to browse the books and relive my good old library days by appraising the Dewey Decimal Classification system (14th, 17th, 21st, or 13th abridged? No doubt the latter, ideal for public library use).

We were left to make our own arrangements for evening meal. Whilst others dined in the hotel (wise move) Sue and I ate in an Italian restaurant at the top end of Oliver Plunkett Street. The offhand manner, over-speedy service and (probably) reheated food put a damper on our spirits and was to cause problems you don’t want to know about later on in the night. We were glad to get to St Finn Barre’s Cathedral to meet up with our gang to listen to Chamber Choir Ireland. Their programme mainly consisted of contemporary music. Mostly this was by young Irish composers, and included a clever opening number, “chOirland”, made up from the nonsense lyrics of Irish folk songs. England was represented by “Lamentations of Jeremiah” by Thomas Tallis. The highlight of the evening was the World Premier of “The Dancers Inherit the Party” by Gabriel Jackson, inspired by the Scottish artist and composer Ian Hamilton Finlay.


Quite a few ventured back into what was quickly becoming known as our Local - Fordes Bar - so welcoming, that the owner ,Barry, offered to lend Chairman Mike his car for the duration of our stay! On entering into the pub we were greeted to a rather drunken and loud rendition of Irish songs not realising that the majority of the culprits were some of our members! The poor chap who was on stage with his guitar didn’t have a chance as he obliged us in taking stage and about 20 of us gave several well known Snikkleway songs to a very appreciative audience. We did hear that singing continued well into the night and Martin Sleeman gave his party piece and they were also lucky to hear  Larry Gibson and Dave Parkinson sing a solo as he was leaving.


On our return to the hotel there was a mix of verdicts about the earlier concert in St Finn Barres : “Rubbish”, said Paul. “Boring” said Steve. “Terrific”, said Hazel. “Self-indulgent claptrap” said Derek. “Interesting…” said Jeanette. “Erudite” said Sue. “Obscurantist” thought I. And so a “tot” of Jamieson’s and off to bed.


Day 5: Saturday 4th May


Opening the curtains in the morning, could it be possible that the sky was showing just a glimpse of blue? Sue remained in bed as she was unwell, yesterday evening’s meal being the chief suspect. The rest of us proceeded to Cobh under our own steam, some going by coach others by rail. I took the 9am train from Kent Station, buying the ticket from the easy-to–use machines and finding the train after just a little difficulty locating the right platform. Then a pleasant ride alongside the inlets, creeks and mudflats of Cork Harbour, apparently the third largest natural harbour in the World after Sydney and Poole. Half an hour later I was at Cobh in bright sunshine, meeting up with others who had arrived by coach or later train.


Cobh


The town was originally developed from a small fort on an island in the harbour known as “The Cove”. In the Napoleonic Wars it became a major naval base, and was named “Queenstown” after a visit by Queen Victoria. Subsequently, it developed as a popular seaside resort. It became a major emigration port after the Great Famine of 1846-49, some 2.5 million people eventually emigrating to North America. In addition to its Titanic association, many of the victims of the Lusitania were brought here after it was torpedoed by a German U-Boat in 1915. In 1920, during the Independence war, the Council formally changed the town’s name to Cobh.


We gathered outside the Titanic Experience for a brief guided introduction and time to explore. Cobh was the last port of call for the Titanic on its fateful maiden voyage, and we were given tickets bearing the names of one of the 123 passengers to board there. In the display was a list of all the names with a note as to what happened to them (I was the businessman Thomas Myles, drowned). Then I enjoyed an early lunch in the company of Steve, Janette and Berry at the Seasalt Café, dining on a gluten-free beef brisket sandwich to die for.


By 12.30 it was time to be singing, so there was a strenuous walk up the steep hill to the towering St Colman’s Cathedral. Here we had a joint concert with the Madrigalen Womens’ Choir from Finland. They performed after us and filled the huge space with their sublime singing. We started with a recital of “Music in the Air”, “My Lord, What a Morning”, Little Innocent Lamb” and various others, all joyously received. ( Gwahoddiad was filmed and now on our You Tube ) We then walked swiftly down the hill to the Heritage Centre, converted from the old railway station. Our second sing of the afternoon was at 2.30pm, featuring “Sweet Lass of Richmond Hill, “Let there be Peace on Earth”, “Softly as I leave You”, “Let All Men Sing” and “Down by the Riverside”. We then assembled on the bandstand for a third performance at 3pm, surrounded by an appreciative and happy crowd of spectators, families and promenaders enjoying the sea breezes. 


Our last show of the day at the Commodore Hotel was at 3.30pm  ( where a number of Commodore Male Voice Choir members in the audience were astounded by our performance )and another recital featuring “Sweet and Low”, “Hakuna Mungu”, “Tydi a Roddaist” and a few others. Phew! By this time, most of us were feeling in the mood for giving our vocal cords a little liquid TLC.


The train back to Cork was pretty full but with a happy, good humoured crowd, arriving around 5pm. We enjoyed a convivial evening meal together in the hotel, and although I felt a little dubious about the idea of bacon and cabbage this turned out to be rather delicious. We finished the meal with an audience of all kitchen and service staff and gave them a few songs and a good tip! Afterwards ,some, (including myself) looked forward to an early night, whilst the more adventurous and young-at-heart ventured over to the Clayton Hotel for a late evening of dancing and music. Opinions the following day were mixed – some said too crowded, so left early, others secured a table and enjoyed the country dancing. Some were impressive in their ability to skip, hop and twirl to a lively Irish band. I was happy to have given that a miss, being endowed with three left feet with twelve toes on each. So I’m only good for “Dad Dancing”.


Day 6: Sunday 5th May


Bright sunshine greeted us this morning, and after a leisurely breakfast most of us decided on a walk along the riverside and up one of Cork’s many steep hills to the bright and capacious Cathedral of St Mary and St Anne. Here we performed as part of the service, singing for the Entrance (“My Lord What a Morning”), Offertory (“Music in the Air”), Communion (“Let All Men Sing”), Recessional (“Lily of the Valley”) and service end (“Tydi a Roddaist”).


Afterwards apart from a few, we were all treated to delicious sandwiches and cakes provided by the Church. Following a group photo, Chairman Mike thanked our 3 Failteoiri ( welcomers ) Ursula, Marie and Terry who went out of their way to ensure we we all knew where we had to be and we had what we needed. Mike also thanked the choir stating “ I have always believed this is more than a choir, it is a community of friendship and support. One where everyone acts with positive intentions to make this the best choir we can possibly be”


Some walked downwards towards town for lunch, Sue and I content with a coffee and cake after a perusal of the Crawford Art Gallery. Derek and Isobel with 3 others enjoyed a fish meal at Quinlans.


There was just one more event, our final sing in the atrium of the Clayton Hotel. We readied ourselves in the crowded lobby, squeezed our way into the rear staircase, and after the performance by the Carrigaline Singers we were on! We beheld an amazing sight of the packed crowd, the huge atrium space, and spectators lining the staircases and the galleries above. As the previous choir had just sung “He Ain’t Heavy”, Berry made a sudden switch to “Hakuna” and a wise choice too. It was greeted with thunderous applause, as were “Run” and a rip-roaring finale of “Don’t Fence Me In”. We floated on a high back to the Leonardo, then after a brief rest over to the City Hall again for the presentations. We made sure Berry received the mightiest of mighty cheers as she walked onto the stage to collect her certificate.


All good things must come to an end, and this wonderful week of singing, the companionship of old and new friends, new sights and experiences likewise would soon be over. We went back to the hotel for a change and final meal (I didn’t get my ice cream! Boo Hoo!), then boarded the bus at 8pm for the airport, arriving for a peaceful and straightforward check-in. We encountered the good natured security staff just as they burst into a rendition of “Happy Birthday” for one of the passengers. “Jesus, you got some laces in those boots there”, said one to Sue as she removed them, seated on a chair he had thoughtfully provided.


By 11pm it was time for our flight, and believe it or not it left on time again. The airport Gods were clearly smiling down on us. Arriving at Manchester just after midnight, the last thirty or so of us were abandoned on the tarmac in the open air without a bus in sight. It finally turned up 10 minutes later and wandered around the perimeter, dumping us in an arrival hall where we had to work out that the carousel with our bags on it was the one signed “Malaga”. Welcome to Britain, I thought. After a few anxious moments, we found the exit and Mike waiting for us, clipboard in hand. A traffic-free drowsy two hour trip over the Pennines took us back to Lamb’s Hill Farm by 2.30am, where we speedily jumped into our cars and made our way home. Thanks again Janet for the lift to our front door, then Sue and I did a quick sort-out, cuppa and off to bed by 4am.


And finally… a big thank-you


In quieter moments I often reflected on what a monumental feat of planning, responsibility and organisation this must have required, and how skilfully and carefully it was achieved to make the entire event proceed without so much as a whisper of a hitch (do hitches whisper? I’ve no idea). Behind this week there are therefore some people who deserve a hearty three cheers and a toast of several tots of the finest Irish whiskey:


Mike Wash our Chairman for his energy, attention to detail, commitment and hard work over this past year. I have no doubt organising this gave him at least one or two sleepless nights, quite possibly sleepless weeks.


Janet, our President for her charm, support, gregariousness, commitment, enthusiasm, and general presidential presence.


Steve Poole, Treasurer and financial genius, for his mastery of the money side of things.


Berry Lewis, our fabulous and talented Musical Director, for her ebullience, humour, charm, learning, skilful and energy-filled direction and occasional ferocious glare.


Helen Smith, our brilliant accompanist, she’s often in the background, but her piano playing is definitely foreground.


Derek Thompson, our Secretary: not sure what he did , but I’m, sure he did it to the best of his formidable abilities.


Martin Parrott, our Stage Manager, whose combination of affability and tyranny ensured that nearly all of us were in the right order at the right place and at the right time.


Michael Noakes, responsible for our new uniforms. Thanks to you we look super cool wicked dudes. And I really love the tie.


Maeve, Janette, Tony, Neil and Mike M and Sue and Ian Reavill and all others who contributed to such a terrific event. Apologies to anyone I have left out, this was purely unintentional, and I am more than happy to be enlightened, though not to the point of physical violence.


James Elliot

York May 2024

One of the many beautiful venues where we performed,The Goldie Chapel.


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