Speech at the National Choir of the Year Competition
Newgrange Hotel, Navan, Sunday 12 May 2019
It is a real pleasure to join with you all and to have the opportunity of celebrating with you at the National Choir of the Year. May I begin by thanking Navan Choral and Instrumental Festival for inviting me here to present the trophy to the winning choir. May I also thank Colman Pearce, the Principal Conductor of RTÉ’s Symphony Orchestra, for adjudicating this year’s competition.
I congratulate all the choirs who took part in the competition and those who took part in the many competitions throughout the festival, which I understand took place over eight days, culminating in the best eight choirs across a range of age profiles and categories performing for the final this evening.
The Navan Choral and Instrumental Festival celebrates 40 years of choral excellence this year. The Festival is a wonderful opportunity for all the competitors to showcase their talent, build their confidence, learn from other competitors, develop a love of the arts,
and have a meaningful experience in music and vocal performance.
I am delighted that the festival recognises the importance of the Irish language within Irish culture. It does so by demonstrating, through the Irish Language Choir Competition, how Irish remains a living and vibrant language in many communities. These competitions allow choristers to engage with, and perform, traditional Irish songs
as well as contemporary pieces written by Irish composers.
I am also heartened to discover that the organisers strive to bring the festival to the general public by inviting them to attend the competitions free of charge so as to experience and enjoy the richness of the many performances.
As Patron of the Irish Youth Choir, I believe deeply in the transcendental power of choral music. Great music is often beautiful, inspiring, tragic, uplifting, moving and thought-provoking. It is also provocative, necessarily intellectual and indeed often subversive
in reminding us of possibilities not yet realised, worlds waiting to be born, depths of humanity yet to be experienced. It is also work that creates enduring bonds between the world we inhabit today, and the past which fashioned, sculpted and formed that world, but, and even more importantly, that work is how imagination is made possible in its different ways.
By encapsulating, through a piece of music – or indeed a painting or a dramatic work – the preoccupations, the myriad complex thoughts and emotions of a different moment in time, artists gift future generations with portals not only to the past but to the present and future in their offering of the opportunities to weave a journey back to the present moment, or away from it, armed with new truths and insights, facilitating the fletching of new arrows for flight to the future.
Mar, i ndeireadh na dála, is ag éisteacht le hinsintí eile go mórchroíoch, ag éisteacht gan claontacht, ag tabhairt meas do castacht agus éagsúlacht dearcacha agus meonta an t-am atá thart, le hintinn oscailte samhlaíoch, a mbeidh muid in ann todhchaí níos fearr a chruthú le chéile.
[For it is, after all, through the generous hearing of other narratives, listening without prejudice, by the respecting of the intricacy and the multifarious perspectives of the past, having an openness to an imaginative ethic of memory, that we will be enabled to travel together towards a better future.]
We, as a people, have, in many times and places, sought and found dreams of hope and possibility in the words, song, music and dance of our artists. In ancient Ireland, the filleadh, the poet, enjoyed not only the love of his clan but the protection and patronage of the powerful. It was the fillidh who carried and gave expression to the collective memory of the people, in all its triumph and its tragedy, and to their collective aspirations for the future.
With the coming of Christianity, and the new culture of the monastery, came a commitment to recording, in Irish and in Latin, our great mythological cycles: the Ulster Cycle, An Rúraíocht, with its tragic tale of Cú Chulainn, the Fenian cycle, An Fhiannaíocht, and its tales of the exploits of the Fianna, the Cycle of the Kings, with its wonderful account of Buile Shuibhne, a story given new life by Seamus Heaney and Trevor Joyce, and the Mythological Cycle, which describes the origins of a people formed by successive waves of migration, with all the conflict but also with all that enrichment of mind, body and spirit that such migrations bring.
It is very important on an evening such as this to recognise the importance of the performer and performance in a myriad of styles and forms. The performance preceded the record and made the archive of the future possible.
I am struck by how appropriate it is that this evening’s competition is being held in the Newgrange Hotel, just a few miles from Brú na Bóinne where can be found highly accomplished pieces of sculpture, regarded as some of the finest achievements and the largest assemblage of European Neolithic art in Western Europe. The construction, some five millennia ago, of the 40 passage tombs and the associated tomb sculptures display a highly sophisticated artistic endeavour.
Great artists have so often been those brave pioneers who were willing to challenge, contest and critique the norms of the societies and ages into which they were born. In encountering that pioneering work, we discover the visions and fantasies of, and aspirations for, a better world that so often drives the work of our great artists. We may at times fail to give sufficient attention to the agony that is involved, in the preparation for, delivery and exhausted pursuit of an aesthetic projection.
It is creativity that inspires innovation, and it is those artists who so often engage in ongoing journeys towards the finding of solutions to open ended questions and more just and equal societies.
We owe a great debt of gratitude therefore to those gifted and creative people who went before, just as we owe to future generations a duty to also be those brave pioneers unafraid to engage in new tasks of imagination. We also, as a society have the responsibility of nurturing creativity so that the lives and livelihoods of our contemporary artists are made possible. The idea of the creative artist needing poverty as a stimulus is a foolish and, even in policy terms, a dangerous myth.
In this choral festival, we recall through our hymns and songs the lasting contributions of all our artists who have died, and this year so many have passed from us, leaving behind their enduring legacy, a legacy that joins the tapestry first woven by the earliest fillidh on this island, and formed through the many centuries since. They have so greatly enriched our world and inspired the work of future generations of created and gifted citizens, those whose work will also offer innovation in our capacity to live good lives together.
The diversity and quality of creativity in Ireland is the most important ingredient in fostering our reputation of being a dynamic and culturally rich nation, but, even more importantly, the arts are an important part of people’s lives and we are rightly proud of our artists, writers, musicians and performers.
It is so very important that we continue to develop an appreciation of our indigenous music and art, at both a grassroots level and abroad, in order to ensure a knowledgeable audience who can appreciate and support the talented artists this country produces. By carefully building on our international reputation for the arts and culture, our creative industries can play an important part in helping to construct a vibrant, open and more ethical society for our people. Organisations like Navan Choral and Instrumental Festival will continue to have a vital role to play as we craft this shared future.
As we continue to move through the twenty-first century, another generation of crafters and shapers and visionaries will leave their indelible mark on Irish culture and on our musical traditions. It is important that they, too, be given the opportunity to contribute to the capturing of the issues and moods which make each era and each generational experience a unique and exceptional moment; drawing on a wealth of tradition as they continue to push boundaries, to experiment, and to broaden and deepen our great reputation for artistic success.
May I conclude by expressing my gratitude to all those who took part in the competition, and may I also wish the Festival continued success into the future.
Go raibh mile maith agaibh go léir.