A FEW years ago, Cork tenor Breiffni Horgan decided to look back on his performance on The Late Late Toy Show in 1987, when he took centre stage and earned nationwide plaudits for his moving rendition of O Holy Night.
He put on the video his parents had taped it on, and sat back to reminisce about the moment when many believe a star was born. But he was in for a shock.
“Halfway though the video, my dad had recorded over it with an Ireland v Australia rugby match,” says Breiffni, “so there’s this bizarre cut from Mary O’Sullivan showing Gay some cuddly toy to Ireland lining up for the anthem at Lansdowne Road!”
Luckily, his precious segment remained intact for posterity...
I am chatting to Breiffni about his memories of that night, December 4, 1987, when Gay Byrne was the host. The RTÉ legend died in November last year aged 85, and was the man who got the ball rolling on the phenomenon that remains The Late Late Toy Show.
Dressed in a simple surplice and collar, boy soprano Breiffni sang his way into the hearts of Ireland with his sublime rendition of the iconic Christmas song.
He says: “For a lot of friends and family in Cork, Christmas hasn’t really begun until they have heard O Holy Night sung somewhere around the city. Every Saturday, at 6 o’clock mass, I sang in St Patrick’s Church on the Lower Road and it was there I got my first opportunity to sing it. Paddy Hegarty was the organist and, of course, his daughter Mary used to sing O Holy Night there every year, so I got to learn from the best.”
His rousing rendition went down a treat. The next day’s Cork Examiner said Breiffni’s “beautiful rendering” of O Holy Night was “easily the musical highlight of the night”.
The boy was not short of confidence. “I did two runs of the song in the afternoon for a sound test. The second time they turned up the monitors which allowed me to hear myself a bit better, and added a bit of reverb. I asked them if they could keep it the second way that evening and they said they would.
“The Echo had run a picture on the front page that day so no pressure at all...!”
It was fairly chaotic in the Green Room. Horgan recalls looking over and seeing Gay smoking a cigarette and thinking to himself, ‘that doesn’t look right. How come I’ve never seen him smoke before?’ “It’s funny the things you remember.”
“Gay came over, shook my hand and wished me luck,” he added, “then he was gone in a flash.” He remembered Breiffni the following morning, however, as he played O Holy Night on his radio programme.
The Green Room was packed with troupes of singers from the Billy Barry kids in Dublin, Irish dancers, and local kids practising the toys they were to demonstrate. A 10-year-old Cobh dancer, Tara Barry, was also there, but the backstage crew were local. “I remember thinking I had never been surrounded by so many Dubs!” recalls Breiffni.
Amidst the chaos, someone said there was a telephone call for him. “I heard this Cork accent on the other end and it was the Lord Mayor of Cork, the late Gerry O’Sullivan, ringing to wish me luck and tell me all Cork were rooting for me. I remember being really proud to have got that call and getting a real lift from it.”
After the show, the Lord Mayor called back to congratulate Breiffni. “I think it’s a measure of pride that Cork people have in their own. I’m pretty sure no-one else got a call from their Lord Mayor that night!”
Horgan does have one regret that night. “I’m pretty sure we didn’t get any one-for-everyone-in-the-audience gifts,” he insists.
The mid-’80s were dominated by just two TV channels and if you were a hit on one, the entire nation knew about you. So, the weeks after the Toy Show were an exciting blur of singing engagements for Breiffni.
“It felt like I was asked to sing at every Christmas concert going on in the city and county. I was literally out every night.”
One day leading up to Christmas, friends of his from Cork School of Music were busking to raise money for SHARE in Winthrop Street and he joined them for a few renditions of O Holy Night. “I remember being struck by the incredible generosity of people. We raised hundreds of pounds that afternoon.”
The Toy Show was a great stage for Breiffni — just like it had been the year before when a young Imelda May appeared. “Making my debut TV appearance at such a young age and on such an iconic show was a baptism of fire, but it has stood to me over the years,” he said
“It’s testament to the fantastic training I got at a young age from Maeve Coughlan, St Finbarre’s Cathedral and everyone at Cork School of Music that I was able to just focus on the performance and not get caught up in the hype.
“Years later as a tenor, singing live on radio broadcasts for RTÉ or the BBC, I’ll always refer back to that show and everything else is a doddle in comparison!”
Breiffni was born to perform. His mum Frances plays violin and was the leader in several orchestras in Cork. She was also a regular in the Cork Opera House band for all their shows, including the annual panto.
“As small boys,” recalled Horgan, “my brother Paul and I loved to run down to the curtain that separated the orchestra pit from the auditorium and wave down at her.”
Horgan’s dad Pat is heavily involved with the Cork Shakespearean Company, known as The Loft. He also has a beautiful tenor voice.
“As a small child, one of my earliest memories was being taken to see dad rehearsing for The Student Prince in which he was playing the title role,” says Breiffni. As an added bonus, his mum was also playing violin there.
His parents were avid listeners of Your Choice And Mine, Tommy O’Brien’s classical music show on RTÉ Radio 1. Pat taped each episode and when Breiffni was about eight, he found the tapes and tried to sing along to them. “All the old greats were on there — Caruso, McCormack, Gigli, Pavarotti. At that point, I think I was making so much of a racket, they wanted to get me out of the house and into a choir to give them some peace!”
Around that time, St Finbarre’s Cathedral choir, under the direction of organist and choirmaster Colin Nicholls, had released an album of choral works and established a training regime for their child choristers.
“We had two rehearsals a week and sang twice on Sundays. In return, we received free piano and music theory lessons.”
As a young boy soprano, Nicholls gave Horgan fantastic solo opportunities with the cathedral choir. Latterly, too, as a tenor with the East Cork Choral Society.
About a year after he joined the Cathedral choir, Breiffni began vocal training with the irreplaceable Maeve Coughlan at Cork School of Music. At 13, he performed the lead in its Amahl And The Night Visitors, with Majella Cullagh as his mother.
In addition, Evelyn Grant and Gerry Kelly had begun their Christmas Snowman concerts in Cork City Hall and invited Breiffni to sing solo. His star was firmly on the rise.
The next summer, he recorded an album at Sulán Studios in Ballyvourney, called Just For Today, with Eleanor Malone on piano. He followed this with first prize at Feis Ceoil in Dublin, where RTÉ noticed him and invited him to that Toy Show screen test in Dublin.
Breiffni went on to study engineering in UCC but the lure of music remained. He was awarded full scholarships to study at London’s prestigious Guildhall School of Music, and the International Opera Academy in Ghent, after which he went on to perform with many superb opera companies including Glyndebourne Opera and Flanders Opera.
Now based out of London, his loves of opera gala work and oratorio have taken him all over Europe and the UK.