"Mocked as a child for 'singing like a girl' I now perform for sold-out crowds"

New to the Parish: An English chorister whose grandfather was born in Dublin felt immediately at home when he moved there

“There is a trust and genuine ethos of hard work here.” Harry Oulton at St John the Baptist Church, Clontarf. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

“There is a trust and genuine ethos of hard work here.” Harry Oulton at St John the Baptist Church, Clontarf. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Harry Oulton was born six years to the day after his grandfather’s death. It was June 16th, the date made famous by James Joyce’s depiction of Dublin in Ulysses. Although Oulton knew about his grandfather’s birth in Dublin in 1919, he had no idea growing up of the 300 years of history that linked his family to the Irish capital.

“It was kind of spooky that I was born on that day and now I’ve ended up in Ireland. My grandfather would have always said he was Irish.”

While Oulton’s Irish roots date back centuries, his real interest in Ireland only arose as an adult. As a child growing up in Hampshire in the south of England, his true passion was singing. He was sent aged eight to the cathedral school in Winchester, where he was selected to join the school’s choir. He would spend the next five years undergoing intense vocal training as a member of the renowned Winchester Cathedral Choir.

“You’re sent on voice trails and selected while you’re at school. You then begin the most intensive training, with rehearsal before breakfast every morning. We would perform seven services a week, including four on a Sunday and throughout Easter and Christmas. On top of that, you had to study two instruments. While very demanding at times, it was also an incredibly unique experience to sing professionally from such a young age and gave me a passion for choral music that has influenced every stage of my life so far.”

He can still remember the thrill of performing at Winchester Cathedral for visitors such as Queen Elizabeth. “The sheer size of it and singing to thousands of people – that was daunting. What you take away from that is you learn to be a professional and behave like a professional while you’re still a child.”

He decided to study English literature at university and went on to do a law conversion course. “I felt like I already had the most unbelievable music education as a chorister. I was strong in English and I wanted a career that really tested my brain all the time.

“I could never see singing as a job. Music for me is a joy; it’s a passion that I use to relax. I take it incredibly seriously but for me it’s a release from work rather than a job in itself.”

I would describe life in London as ‘Groundhog Day’. People would say it must be so wonderful living in that city but I never really got to see London

After university he began working for a law firm in London. He enjoyed his work but struggled with the fast-paced London life and applied for a position in Dublin. In September 2013 he arrived in his grandfather’s hometown.

“I would describe life in London as ‘Groundhog Day’. People would say it must be so wonderful living in that city but I never really got to see London. It was Tube in the morning, work all day, home, gym, dinner at 10pm, bed. I was exhausted every day and I never got to do the London experience. It was the polar opposite in Dublin.”

Three choirs

He settled into life in Dublin by following his musical passion and joining three choirs. He joined Christ Church Cathedral to carry on with his singing in Anglican cathedral tradition while also joining the award-winning New Dublin Voices chamber choir and the Ardú a cappella vocal ensemble.

“With New Dublin Voices I was trying to explore the top end of chamber choir singing and the parameters of what’s possible with the voice. We did some extremely challenging repertoire and I’d never been pushed in that way with contemporary music.

“With Ardú it was the challenge to sing with a really small ensemble and focus on blend and sound. There’s six of us and we really try to push the boundaries of what ensemble singing is all about. It’s extraordinary, I listen back to our tracks and you wouldn’t know there’s no percussion there.”

With the demands of three choirs along with work as a trainee solicitor with the McCann FitzGerald law firm, Oulton eventually had to leave Christ Church and New Dublin Voices in favour of focusing on the Ardú repertoire. Every Sunday he spends four hours rehearsing with the small group before cycling home feeling “elated and relaxed” from the music.

This extracurricular life would never have been possible in London, he says. “It certainly helps that Dublin is smaller than London, which cuts out the dreaded commuting ‘dead hours’, but I think it is also because the cultural life of Dublin is absolutely thriving. In the nearly four years I have been here I have never come across so many start-up musical ensembles.

“From being mocked as a child for ‘singing like a girl’, I now find myself performing on stage to sold-out crowds with some effortlessly cool and talented colleagues who I am proud to call my friends.

“People understand music is important here, and it’s part of the fabric of Irish culture. People are choosing to be proactive about their passions and it’s not a top-down culture. It’s home-grown and organic.”

The environment here is generally much happier and more tolerant

His family have been very supportive of his move across the Irish Sea and Ireland increasingly feels like home. “Each time I fly back to Dublin it feels more like home, particularly since Brexit. I understand now why I felt so strongly that I wanted to leave London. Coming back to Dublin feels like home, going to the UK feels like going abroad.”

Oulton says there is a notable “culture shift” between life in London and Dublin. “People are not trying to squash other people into the ground to get to the top. It’s a collaborative, ‘good luck to you’ culture. There is a trust and genuine ethos of hard work here.”

He also admires the pride people feel in being Irish. “It helps to know that so many of my family lived in Ireland and loved being here. There was something I was obviously missing in the UK, and the environment here is generally much happier and more tolerant. I think I’ve found my place.”

  • Ardú Vocal Ensemble will perform as part of MusicTown festival at City Hall, Dame Street, Dulin, Friday, April 14th at 6.30pm. Tickets from ardumusic.com
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