Raising the roof


Singers aged seven to 82 and of eight nationalities are achieving an unusual harmony in an inner city church, writes Patsy McGarry, Religious Affairs Correspondent

There is no other choir quite like it in Ireland. Members are of both sexes and all ages from seven to 82. They are of eight nationalities from three continents, of mixed race (including Dubs), and of differing economic and political backgrounds.

It's the Discovery Gospel Choir, based at the St George and St Thomas parish church on Dublin's Cathal Brugha Street. It is the only Church of Ireland church built by this State. The original St Thomas's was destroyed in a fire which engulfed the Gresham Hotel and spread northwards during the Civil War.

Anyone who has heard this choir perform, as they do at periodic immigrant services in St George and St Thomas (the next such service is on Sunday when the Anglican Bishop in Egypt, Right Rev Dr Mouneer Hanna Anis, will speak) is impelled to reach for superlatives, with "exuberant", "exhilarating" and "inspiring" topping the list.

Choir co-ordinator, a theology student from south county Dublin, Philip McKinley recalls that the main instrument in the fight against Apartheid in South Africa was four-part harmony. He and his colleagues in Discovery are determined that four-part harmony will do as much for integration in Ireland.

Gospel music is spreading throughout the country, across all denominations, but is particularly prevalent in the Pentecostal churches, 77 of which are in Dublin alone, he says.

He believes gospel music is prophetic, offering "a clear vision of the future" and would like to see Discovery replicated throughout the country, in all denominations, as a way towards integration. "If people here fail in that, Ireland will be a horrible place for Irish and immigrant alike," he says. Gospel music offers "a vision of hope for the future". It offers "something to young people my own age who realise the deep failure of what is also an ageing Church in Ireland". The integrated style of worship, with song, dance, and a variety of contemporary musical instruments is "a full expression of Jesus Christ," he says.

He has been with Discovery since it began in June 2004. They have performed at St Maelruain's in Tallaght, at the asylum centre in Mosney for Christmas 2004, for Archbishop Desmond Tutu in St George and St Thomas last May, outside the Taoiseach's office on Merrion Street in Dublin during the Make Poverty History rally last July, and in Mountjoy prison last Christmas.

As well as reaching out, the choir has also been helped by others. Many of the choir singers are out of work. Being able to perform music in an enjoyable context does great things for self-esteem, and it was felt guitar lessons could help. Hearing of this, the Dublin & Glendalough Church Music Committee offered €500 to pay for a season of guitar training. This key committee of the diocese supports music in local churches and provides training and information for parish musicians.

The Discovery Gospel Choir's musical director, Solomon Ijigade, is a former asylum-seeker from Lagos in Nigeria. He is now an Irish citizen with baby son Elijah "one month and a few days old". He acquired citizenship following a campaign by the Discovery choir group and supporters in the Church of Ireland, by members of the Gospel choir at St Francis Xavier Church on Gardiner Street in Dublin and supporters in the Catholic Church, and through the efforts of former Fine Gael leader Alan Dukes, whose son is one of Solomon's friends.

He is director of music at his own church, the Christ Ambassador International Christian Centre (a Pentecostal church) at Glasnevin/Finglas in Dublin and, as well as his work with Discovery, he was also with the Gardiner Street choir until last month. He has been in Ireland for five years. Much of that time was tough, he says. "Thank God. He gave me the grace to keep me up when down."

Fanny (Frances) Black, at 82 is the oldest member of the choir and of the parish. She is a member of its regular choir too. Her family ran the Hattons dairy business on Richmond Street for years and she ran her own shop at Richmond Cottages, which she says sold everything. "Anyone who went to O'Connell's [ schools] would know me. Pat Kenny and all," she said.

She is in the Discovery choir because she loves the music. "I always loved any kind of music." She found her choir colleagues very nice. "They're a very affectionate type of people. Three go to O'Connell's beside me. All a mix you see, all in one."

Revd Katherine Poulton, from Hillsborough Co Down, recalls that when she arrived in the parish five years ago "if there were 21 at a service we thought it was a red-letter day." There are about 120 in the parish now, with services also attended by tourists and other visitors to Dublin because of the church's accessibility to the city centre.

At the beginning of her ministry there she saw the parish had to "embrace something or face closure".

Parishioners were welcoming and continue to be so, "very generously". It is "very much a family, a community. There is a feeling of belonging, which is important," she says.

The Discovery Gospel Choir's CD Made to be as One is available at the Best Seller shop on Dublin's Dawson Street, at the Resource Centre Rathmines and from discoverygospelchoir@yahoo.com