Nostalgia: Looking back on the prestigious Cork International Choral Festival's history

Nostalgia: Looking back on the prestigious Cork International Choral Festival's history

View of Cork City Hall during the Cork International Choral Festival in 1955. 

TOUTED as one of Europe's premier international choral festivals, the Cork International Choral Festival got underway on Wednesday, marking the 66th annual prestigious event.

The festival, which concludes tomorrow, was founded in 1954 to be a dynamic force in developing choral music in Ireland. 

It was originally organised in connection with An Tóstal - a series of festivals launched by Seán Lemass in 1953 which were aimed at promoting Irish culture and boosting tourism. 

Spanish performers at the Cork International Choral Festival pictured at Fitzgerald's Park in 1956.
Spanish performers at the Cork International Choral Festival pictured at Fitzgerald's Park in 1956.

An Echo article in March of the inaugural year of the Cork International Choral Festival stated that invitations to enter were being "extended to all choirs, Irish and foreign".

Cork International Choral Festival at City Hall, Cork, 1955. 
Cork International Choral Festival at City Hall, Cork, 1955. 

"A grant of £100 has been guaranteed towards the expenses of a Welsh choir to compete in the Cork International Choral Festival from April 20th to May 2nd. 

Cork International Choral Festival, 1962. Presentation College students pictured with South Presentation Convent students. 
Cork International Choral Festival, 1962. Presentation College students pictured with South Presentation Convent students. 

"The offer follows a conversation between Captain Kealy, Secretary of the Festival and the Lord Mayor of Cardiff, Sir James Collinson, during the Lord Mayor's recent visit to Ireland," the article continued. 

Performers at the Cork International Choral Festival at Cork City Hall in 1955.
Performers at the Cork International Choral Festival at Cork City Hall in 1955.

The festival, held virtually this year, would normally attract 50,000 visitors from all over the world to Cork city and county.

This year, the festival opened with a  specially commissioned poem, ‘A Singing City’ written by renowned Cork poet, Billy Ramsell.

Presentation by Lord Mayor Pa McGrath during the Cork International Choral Festival at Cork City Hall in 1955.
Presentation by Lord Mayor Pa McGrath during the Cork International Choral Festival at Cork City Hall in 1955.

The virtual performance was voiced by arts broadcaster, Elmarie Mawe and backed by exceptional archival footage of the festival over the years.

A Singing City 

And then the 17th century 

many-sailed and barnacled 

drops anchor at the harbour.

Songs richer than butter, 

more profitable than brandy 

are off-loaded at the quayside:

lieder and chansons

a snatch of sean nós swapped 

for a ballad from San Sebastian.

The city’s rivers swerve in counterpoint, 

its hills undulate like a melody.

What sieges those singing hills witness, 

what castles rising, 

collapsing amid the marshlands, 

what burnings, plagues and lockdowns.

And still from every street corner, 

from drawing room and shebeen 

come songs of history and courtship.

The harmonies, the eyes evolve, 

the faces change, the voices 

as the 19th Century yields to the 20th.

But the singing remains ceaseless.

And then each April with the cherry blossom 

the choirs started coming;

coming from Budapest and Bristol, 

from Gdansk and San Francisco, 

augmenting and replenishing 

the city’s endless store of song.

The harmonies, the eyes evolve, 

the faces change, the voices.

But each year the choirs come back again 

coming from Salzburg and Armagh 

Chicago, Vladivostok.

And we believe, we believe that madrigals, cantatas 

will grace the riverbanks once again 

unfurling themselves deliberately 

outside the city hall, the opera house 

that motets will drift like the cherry blossom 

through Daunt Square and Gallagher Plaza 

that sweet hymns will linger amid the market stalls 

hovering once more 

in spools and whorls 

above the olive merchants 

above the gossiping fishmongers 

and the purveyors of sumptuous fruit.

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