‘THE singing was the best part of it!’
John O’Sullivan, formerly of the O’Sullivan Brothers, Hollyhill, is speaking about the practice of congregational singing at weekly mass.
“When you stop to think of it, the singing together of hundreds of people in the church was absolutely incredible! But it’s all gone now.”
Singing together has always been an integral part of the fabric of the Irish psyche. From wakes to pubs to kitchens to camp fires, Irish people simply love to sing.
It breaks down barriers, unites strangers, and gives us a sense of connectivity to those around us and to our shared heritage.
However, the practice of the sing-song is dying out now, with the invasion of technology and the Irish proclivity for staying in instead of going out.
But the appetite and need for that sense of connection remains as insatiable as ever.
Up to about 20 years ago, congregational [U1] singing was a massive draw for those going to mass.
“A lot of our churches were built for choirs,” according to local historian Cllr Kieran McCarthy. The music bonded the parish and there was ‘a power in the music and acoustics of these buildings’.
“Singing was crucial,” admits Fr Finbarr Crowley, parish priest of Innishannon and Knockavilla. “When we sang these old hymns, half the time we didn’t even know the words, but there was a connection between us all, a shared heritage, a common destiny, and they were in a communal pitch so both the strong and the weak singers could sing it.”
For author Alice Taylor, whose childhood home was three miles from the nearest town, these hymns evoke memories of her childhood when the weekly trip to mass was a great social occasion.
‘There was a great sense of togetherness in our house around mass,” recalls Alice. “On Sunday morning, the cows had to be milked, the pony caught and tacked up for the trap. Then they’d all head off in their Sunday best.
“‘And my job every Saturday night, from the moment I was able, was to polish the shoes for the entire family before mass.”
The shiny shoes would then be lined up at the base of the stairs, from the parents right down to the smallest child, ready for the following morning.
Sunday was also the day the weekly shop was done. “The shopping list would be handed in to the shop before mass and collected after it,” remembers Alice.
Moreover, mass was where you met your friends and neighbours. Big crowds of neighbours populated the church, and seating was at a premium, with large numbers being forced to stand at the back or down the aisles.
“And when you got a chance to sing a rabble rouser like We Stand For God, it lifted you like nothing else!” adds Fr Crowley.
Communal singing is like “eating food”, he attests “it always tastes better when eaten with other people.”
“Hearing those old hymns sung even now transports me instantly back down memory lane to our uncomplicated childhood; to the Missions, the Eucharistic Processions singing Sweet Heart of Jesus, Benediction.”
Growing up in Bandon, those Catholic ceremonies gave Fr Crowley “a sense of identity. It was a safe time; a time in which we were cared for.”
Alice Taylor points out: “Children love ceremony and ritual and there was a great sense of occasion about mass, the dressing up, the processions, the singing. It linked us back along.”
Those divine hymns like O Mother I Could Weep For Mirth, To Jesus Heart All Burning, Hail Queen of Heaven, and Sweet Sacrament Divine are hardly ever sung in our churches now. They have been replaced by modern, folk hymns which are lovely, but don’t have the same sense of inclusion as the old ones.
When he was based in Ballinlough parish, Fr Crowley recalls Queen Of The May being sung at the end of every First Communion mass by the children of the local Our Lady of Lourdes school. And, as he walked down the aisle, he can vividly remember seeing grown men and women with tears in their eyes due to the power of the memories the hymn evoked.
Queen Of The May has a very special significance for me personally. It was the hymn my maternal grandmother loved.
She passed away, too early, at the age of 56 and for decades my mum would leave the church, in tears, when this hymn was sung.
Even now, thinking of it makes me emotional for my grandmother, who I never met and for my mum, who loved her so much.
But it links all three generations of us women together and I will sing it proudly for us all.
“We always loved to try and chant at mass,” admits John O’Sullivan, whose family were passionate about singing together.
“That sense of community, of hundreds of people singing together, is so powerful. But it was never truly recorded.”
Twenty years ago, the CD phenomenon that was Faith of our Fathers tapped into this incredible communal heritage when they recorded all these old hymns.
On May 7, in Cork’s Everyman Theatre, we will also celebrate this heritage and relive memories of a simpler time when we spend the evening singing all these beautiful old hymns together.
Fr Crowley is bringing back the old hymns to his parish. Even young children are singing along to The Bells of the Angelus now.
The attendance at mass is up; spirits are high; the chatting with neighbours in the church grounds afterwards a sign that that sense of community is alive and strong.
Alleluia: Hymns Celebrating The Faith Of Our Fathers written and directed by Cathal MacCabe and starring soprano Linda Kenny, tenor Ryan Morgan, The Carrigaline Singers, Cor Scoil Eoin, and our Alleluia band (MD Alan Carney), is on in the Everyman Theatre on Sunday, May 7. 7.30pm start.
Tickets €25 from 0214501673 or www.everymancork.com