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Ireland Finds New Soul in Gospel Music
Citizen reporter Denis Burke interviews members of several gospel groups in Dublin
Denis John Burke (denis)     Print Article 
Published 2005-10-15 15:32 (KST)   
Gardiner Street Gospel Choir
©2005 D. Burke
Church scandals, a young generation disillusioned with faith and the secularization of Irish society have all contributed to creating a spiritual void in many Irish people. Since 1994 something has appeared that may yet turn the tide on this trend and even if it doesn't, it's still good music! Gospel groups are springing up all over Ireland, many of them based in particular churches but others play bars and popular venues and some are just for fun.

I spoke to members of several groups about their experiences and feelings on the matter.

Fiachra Matthews is a member of Maynooth Gospel Group which is still in its infancy but has so far succeeded in attracting much talent; Fiachra was interviewed in Glasnevin, Dublin on June 20.

Annie Redmond is a singer and soloist with Gardiner Street Church Gospel Choir who perform a regular Sunday Service and part of the Gospel Project group who are currently gaining much ground in Dublin. I interviewed Annie in Trinity College Dublin on June 19.

Cathy McEvoy has directed Ballymun Gospel Choir, Gardiner Street Gospel Choir and currently directs the Gospel Project. We met in Glasnevin, Dublin in late May.

Brother Richard Hendrick answered, via e-mail, for the well established Dublin Gospel Choir.

What are the origins of Gospel music as it is now manifesting itself in Ireland?

Annie: It wasn't necessarily brought here from any source. It's more like a gradual opening up to new types of music. Films, like the Commitments, had a lot of influence. Then there are artists like Usher and Mary J. Blige growing in popularity in Ireland.

Br. Richard: Gospel Music began in Ireland with the foundation of the St. Mary of the Angels Gospel Choir in April of 1994 by two Capuchin Friars (Monks) in the Capuchin Church of Church St. Dublin. They were led to this by work they had been doing with the young people of the area who were very dissatisfied with the religious music they were being taught in school which by and large was a mixture of traditional hymns and seventies Christian folk music. As this did not appeal to them and as the Sister Act movies were in vogue at the time they asked if they could sing Gospel and so the Choir was started.

Kevin Kelly has been a driving force behind Gardiner Street Gospel Choir.
©2005 D. Burke
Very quickly it became a runaway success and over night the group found themselves performing to packed venues all over Ireland. This led to many other groups being formed in other churches. When the St. Mary of the Angels Gospel Choir came to an end some of the members decided to continue on and founded a new choir the Dublin Gospel Choir in 2002. This was founded by Fran Douglas, Sharon Murphy, John Crofton, Orla McGowan and me. The DGC as it is known by its fans has since gone from strength to strength and is the leading Gospel Choir in Ireland today.

What kind of feedback do you get from the public and who comes to your gigs or services?

Fiachra: The music lends itself to entertaining people. Because of the nature of the music it's easier to get a good response, the audience and the performers feel good.

Cathy: Generally positive, there are some mixed ideas of what Gospel actually is. But people say some interesting things like "Why do you not wear robes?" or "It's a breath of fresh air to Christian music." As for who, well people come from all over the city to Gardiner Street and it's not always a matter of religion. I had a woman tell me that she's there every Sunday and she's an atheist.

Annie: I've had people tell me that the Gardiner Street mass makes their week. As for gigs, it's like taking the service out of the music and the two are quite easily separable, the music itself is very distinct. We've met some resistance in the church. Some people seem to think it's showy and too loud. There are even those who would call it inappropriate. Recognizing it as a style of music and moving away from its religious context is something Ireland needs to do too.

Br. Richard: Feedback is overwhelmingly positive! Most people who attend are overawed at the power of Gospel Music to move them to many different emotions and to touch their hearts with its simple Gospel message of Peace, Freedom in adversity and Joy. Our audience comes from all ages and divisions of the population though the younger generations have a quicker connection with the music as many of its rhythms and sounds would be familiar to them from R&B, Hip-Hop and Soul Music.

Who, if anyone, influences your arrangements or your style?

Cathy: Some songs are not standard gospel pieces and so they have to be adapted. I would aspire to Kirk Franklin who wrote a version of Lovely Day which we now perform.

Annie: The London community Gospel Choir -- they're solo orientated a lot of the time and there's a lot of exhilaration. Mary Mary are another, they can be quite ugly but I think it needs to be raw and gutsy sometimes.

Br. Richard: Our major influence would be those artists who have revolutionized Gospel Music in America today, people like Kurt Carr, Fred Hammond and above all Kirk Franklin all of whom have given Black Gospel a new, vibrant relevance to today's young people.

Ireland has changed a great deal in the last 10 to 15 years, how does Gospel music fit into that?

Gospel Project on stage in Dublin's Crawdaddy
©2005 D. Burke
Annie: The admissions and revelations of the Catholic church in the last few years really shocked people. It turned a lot of young people away and made some older people think twice. Definitely people felt lost in their faith. Gospel music helps because it can bring people back to it in a different way. Some young people see it as uncool to be religious and Gospel music makes it more accessible, kind of like it's okay to like Gospel music.

Cathy: The Catholic Church is going through a rough time right now in Ireland. The fact that Gospel mass congregations are growing suggests that just maybe people are looking for something to guide them through this void.

Spirituality or just good music?

Br. Richard: I think it differs from person to person. Some come originally just for the sound of the music and are gradually opened to its powerful message. Some come for the innate spirituality of the music that answers a need for them. We in the DGC are just happy they come and as long as they are open to the message behind the music we are delighted that they are here to work with us.

Cathy: Some of the actual choir members would take exception to people assuming that they are religious. Saying that, more people involved in the choir seem to take to volunteering and community work, so arguably it has some effect.

Ireland's Christian, and especially Catholic, churchgoers have a reputation for being a little traditional, how does that fit in with what you do?

Cathy: Irish congregations take a lot of encouragement to sing. Apparently Anglicans have had this problem for a long time but for something that is meant to be participatory it takes a lot of hard work to get them going.

Br. Richard: While it is true that the Irish Church Music tradition would be more used to a congregational/choir form of worship we have never had a problem with acceptance of this kind of music. The Irish respond instinctively to Music as a medium of emotion, whether that is the feeling of loss and pain or joy and celebration and so once they get their head around it being OK to experience these feelings in a worship setting we have seen thousands dance and sing along with us for all they are worth. Also I think it's a good thing to remember that Gospel Music isn't for everyone... rather it's just one of many ways to worship or even just to celebrate!

Internationally do you think Ireland has a stronger or weaker Gospel movement than most countries?

Fiachra: It would be much weaker than, say, the States but among predominantly Catholic countries it's probably quite strong.

Cathy: It's huge in The UK but in Europe Ireland may have the second biggest movement. That's not strictly saying much though, I mean, the Dutch for instance -- who usually are very influenced by American music -- never took much interest in Gospel.

In your opinion does the take off in Gospel music have anything to do with domestic or international pop?

Fiachra: No, not so much from popular music but films have definitely helped to expose people to this kind of music. It hasn't always been everyone's cup of tea so film has certainly helped to increase its popularity.

Annie: Ireland's music has changed a lot in the last 10 years and it could be a lot to do with MTV broadcasting to every home and opening up new music. Soul has become more popular. Beyonce and Mariah Carey have made their presence felt here.

The more commercial stuff has opened it up to a more black sound. It takes the cheese out of white people singing black music. Destiny's child and people like them help to put it in a context we're used to.

Is there such a thing as "Irish" gospel?

Annie: The main trait so far, style wise, is to take other music and translate it to Gospel terms. After that there is imitation, some other choirs in Ireland are derivative of American style and that's the formula that works for them but I like the idea of taking secular music and making it Gospel.

Fiachra: If there is I'm not familiar with it. I'm sure there are very accomplished people working on it but I think with our tradition of music it could be great. The sooner it evolves the better I think!

Br. Richard: Yes! It's us...Irish voices singing Gospel Harmony together. We are also working on our own distinctive material and blends of voices so that in the future, please God, Irish Gospel will be a readily recognisable niche in this huge field.

Cathy: It's being born. If there was such a thing pre-2000 the face of it was Van Morrison. Some people say U2 are Irish Gospel but put another way, U2 have a number of songs that could meaningfully be described as Gospel.
Having attended several services and gigs I, for one, hope that their optimism that Gospel music is here to stay is well founded. And judging by the reactions of the crowds, I would think it is.
©2005 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Denis John Burke

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