The evening of Friday, October 14th, 2011 marked the beginning of a weekend of Sacred Harp singing in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The singing was held at Rosemary Hall, right next to Belfast’s All Souls Church. The weekend of events had been co-organised by American expat Barton Creeth and William Duddy of the Belfast Trad society. Barton, who had already been in contact with the Cork Sacred Harp singers, had arranged with New York City-based singing master Aldo Ceresa to put on a workshop, which would be followed by an informal all-day singing on the Saturday. The Cork All-Day Singing would be held the following weekend.
Earlier that Friday afternoon, sixteen of the regular Cork singers set off in four cars and traveled the five hour journey to the north of Ireland. By the time the cars from Cork had arrived at 9 pm, Aldo was already in full swing with his workshop. There were approximately twenty people in attendance—seated in the traditional four-part, hollow square seating arrangement. Three quarters of those present were from Belfast. All were completely new to Sacred Harp singing, with the exception of Barton and his wife Jaime.
Also in attendance were a few singers who had travelled up from Dublin and Waterford, and three other U.S. singers, Patrick Paglen, Al McCready and Mike Nord. Al had traveled to Ireland for the Cork All-Day Singing and Mike attended after having first dropped in on the Cork singers’ weekly singing a few days earlier.
Instead of the passing a basket for donations, there was an admission charge for the workshop and all-day singing. Though this is a relatively common practice at singing schools and workshops, it was a surprise to many of the visiting singers to be asked to pay for admission to the all-day singing. The fee may have been due to the fact that the event had been organized through a trad music society rather than an established Sacred Harp singing community.
By the time all the Cork singers had arrived Aldo had finished running through the beginning rudiments and had just started leading the group in singing songs from The Sacred Harp. The Cork singers’ arrival added momentum to the flow of the workshop and, of course, contributed substantially to the volume of the singing! Enthusiasm took over the class as the evening wore on and by the time the workshop ended at approximately 10:30 pm, some of the more experienced American and Irish singers were taking turns leading examples of the different types of song in the book, at Aldo’s request. The Belfast newcomers and the Dublin contingent had both decided by the end of the night to try and start their own groups as soon as they could, with core members from each city eager to begin making plans.
The following morning at 10:30 am the all-day singing began with a continuation of the singing school during the morning session. Only a handful of Belfast singers had turned out for the singing school, but this certainly did not dampen the mood of those in attendance. After lunch Aldo went through a few more songs at the request of the remaining Belfast contingent and an informal singing then began. Aldo called the leaders beginning with the bass section and continuing around the square. With a short pause for a recess in the middle of the afternoon, and after singing 28 songs, the group finished around 4:45 pm with “Parting Friend” (414).
Eager to keep on singing the group discussed the idea with William Duddy of Belfast Trad and decided to meet up again at 11 am the following morning. William also told us that Reverend Chris Hudson from All Souls Church had heard the singing earlier in the day and had invited us to sing Sacred Harp at the end of his service the following morning for the congregation to experience.
The next morning we ran over eight songs that Aldo had suggested for the service. We then walked across the grounds through the back of the church and the Reverend introduced us to the congregation. We sang standing on the altar in a semicircle and the sound was incredible. The whole church was filled with Sacred Harp music. Being involved in the performance was quite moving and the exultant feeling took us all by surprise. There was a very warm response from the highly receptive and appreciative members of the church congregation.
After the service we were given tea, coffee, sandwiches, and cakes and made to feel very welcome. The excellent coffee was especially well received and appreciated after a long day of singing and a late evening the night before! We then gathered in the car park on the grounds of the church and sang three more songs in the blissful sunshine. This was followed by lunch and another afternoon of informal yet highly enjoyable Sacred Harp singing.
The whole weekend was intended to introduce Sacred Harp singing to Belfast and was very much a trial run for the local singers and organizers. Many plans were made to start weekly singings in Belfast and Dublin and overall the feeling was that the friendships formed and connections made during the weekend would help further the development of Sacred Harp singing on the island. We all wish Barton and the singers in Belfast the very best with their future singing. I’m sure the music will bring as much joy to you as it has done to us in Cork. Lastly, Rosemary Hall proved to be a wonderful singing venue and could be a possible consideration as the location for an Ireland Convention over the coming years. Watch this space!
Many thanks to Barton Creeth, William Duddy, and Aldo Ceresa for putting together the weekend, to Eimear O’Donovan for taking the minutes, to Ewan Paterson for allowing us to include his photographs with this piece, and to all the singers who made the trip to Belfast. Shout on!
Minutes for the Belfast Singing School and All-Day Singing are posted on the Minutes of Sacred Harp Singings section of the Fasola.org web site.