This year, there will be a special poignance to the performance of the famous carol cycle in Kilmore, Co Wexford. Jack Devereux, the much-respected leader of the choir which every year keeps alive the tradition of the carols, died on Saturday. He was buried after Mass yesterday morning in St Mary's Church, where he sang the carols every year from the 1930s until recently. There will still be a Devereux in the choir, however; Jack's cousin Johnny is proud that his son will carry on the tradition: "A Devereux has always sung the carols."
Jack and Johnny Devereux were introduced to the carols early in life: "My father's 70 years dead now," says Johnny. "We were only children, there were five of us. He was supposed to have died of TB. My uncle Ben used to sing the carols. He came home one night and says to me: "You'd better practise the carols this year, 'cos I'm not singing them anymore. I'm giving them up." So we used to sing down in Tom Quinn's workshop. Tom was a carpenter and he sang them with us. Tom and I and me brother sang them together."
Even before the death of his cousin, Johnny Devereux was not planning to hear the carols this year: "No, they bring back too many memories, don't they? Sixty years. When you think of all the fellas I sang with . . . "
The Kilmore Carols are found only in Wexford, and date back more than 300 years. In 1684 Luke Waddinge, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Ferns, published A Smale Garland of Pious and Godly Songs. The cover inscription continues: "Composed by a devout Man/ For the Solace of his Friends and/ neighbours in their afflictions." The book contained 11 Christmas songs, two of which are still sung in Kilmore today. The texts were new, while the melodies were drawn from various traditional sources.
Waddinge died shortly after his book appeared, but interest in the subject was revived by a Father William Devereux, parish priest of Drinagh, Wexford from 1730-1771 (the current Devereuxes in Kilmore are almost certainly related to this priest). Devereux published A New Garland Containing Songs for Christmas. This included some of his own carols along with a few from Waddinge's collection.
Father R. Ranson, who published an edition of the Devereux book in 1949, claims that "the carols were first sung in a little chapel at Killiane, and tradition seems to indicate that the choir consisted of six men." The chapel in question was "no more than a mud hut".
The carols proved very popular, and manuscript copies quickly spread to neighbouring parishes, including Kilmore. Diarmaid O Muirithe, who has assembled and edited a collection of all the Wexford Carols (The Wexford Carols, Dolmen Press, 1982) observes: "They were sung in most of the churches of south Wexford in the 18th century, and even well into the 19th century. I think it's a great pity that they're now no longer sung outside Kilmore." O Muirithe considers that the church hierarchy in Wexford is to some extent responsible for the carols' decline. "For centuries they had been regarded by the church with a kind of benign tolerance, no more than that."
One priest in Kilmore Quay in the 19th century decided to get rid of the carols altogether and replace them with Victorian hymnody. "But the people in Kilmore decided they wouldn't be banished. The priest was banished instead, because nobody came into the church the next year. The bishop had to transfer him."
Kilmore parish priests have in recent years been supportive of the singers. However, Johnny Devereux remembers one priest who hated the carols. "They say if he'd ha' lived there'd be no carols. He gave us to understand it was our last year singing." Carols had always been sung during the collection or during communion, but this priest changed that. "We had to sing at the last gospel. We wouldn't sing four lines and the congregation would be all gone. He told us it was our last year, then he died in November - just before Christmas."
The choir which performs the carols has always been restricted to six men. The six divide into two groups of three, then sing alternate stanzas. The voices always sing in unison, without harmonies. As with any traditional group, individuals are free to ornament the melodies in their own way, once they don't drift too far from the others. A single voice starts each song, then the others join after a line or two.
Devereux complains that there have been changes in recent years. "They used to alternate, but they don't alternate now. I think that's not nice. Now the six sing the whole time, all of them, and I don't like that. It's surely been that way for five or six years, now."
The singing begins in Kilmore church on Christmas Eve, and continues until January 6th. There is a carol to mark each of the important days. On the Sunday after Twelfth Day, the singers traditionally travel the four miles from Kilmore to Kilmore Quay to sing.
"On Christmas Eve the church is packed, chock-a-block. We sing The Darkest Midnight. Then the following morning we sing Christmas Day is Come. The Darkest Midnight, that's a tough one, ye see. Got to be careful starting that fella off, because you've got to go high and low. And then Christmas Day Has Come -that's another hard one. New Year's Day and Stephen's Day - they're nearly all grand."
The airs, O Muirithe observes, "are traditional, but traditional to where? To Wexford. They're quite unlike anything you'll find in other areas of Ireland. And they're quite strange, but they grow on you." Locals tell the story of a bemused Dubliner who attended Mass on Christmas Eve in Kilmore. Listening to the slow, drawling voices of the carol singers, he concluded that "there's somebody drunk up there".
The strangeness comes partly from the extremely slow tempos which the singers adopt, stretching melodies out to breaking point. Seoirse Bodley, professor of composition in UCD, transcribed recordings of Jack Devereux for O Muirithe's book. He commented that on these recordings "the tempo was considerably slower than that used in most ornamented traditional singing in Irish".
Phil Callery of the Voice Squad (who has himself recorded a few of the carols) finds that the Kilmore singers "don't seem to connect strongly with the melody - they're telling a story, concentrating on the narrative".
The narratives tend to be dark, lacking in the cheery optimism which one associates with Christmas carols. In this sense, they reflect their times. Waddinge's On Christmas Day the Yeare 1678 concerns the effects of the Popish Plot, which saw the banishment of the clergy:
The name of Christmass
Must chang'd and altered be
Foe since we have noe Masse
No Christmasse have we
O Muirithe detects the influence of the metaphysical poets on Waddinge, particularly Richard Crashaw. He compares Crashaw's conceit of "Aeternity shutt in a span" with Waddinge's lines from First on Christ's Nativite: "Now infinite hight is low, and infinite depth is shallow,/ The greatest length is short, the greatest largeness narrow". Several of Waddinge's carols were included by Thomas Kinsella in The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse.
O Muirithe adds: "Devereux's carols are of a different kind altogether - they're folk songs, and they're none the worse for that."
Johnny Devereux's favourite carol is Song for Jerusalem. "That's the grandest carol. I'd rather have that than the whole lot of them." Curiously, this is not the work of either Waddinge or Devereux. It was written in England long before the Wexford carols, and was first printed in 1601. The author signs himself F.B.P. - tradition holds that he was a Catholic priest under sentence of death. It is perhaps the darkest of all the carols in Devereux's New Garland:
Jerusalem my happy home
When Shall I Come to thee
When Shall my Sorrows have an end
Thy Joys when Shall I See
Johnny Devereux sang me a few verses of this. The melody climbs haltingly up a full octave in the third line, then sinks resignedly to end.
Speaking about his book on the carols, O Muirithe explains: "The main reason I wanted to get them down - I'm always afraid that some day or other these carols will not be sung anymore. Everybody that loved them got a terrible fright after Vatican II when pop music became part of the Liturgy. And even in the present day they have to take their place with this pop music that the ordinary church choir sings. Dreadful stuff - I often think that Evelyn Waugh wasn't far out when in Vile Bodies Mrs Ape sings a song There Ain't No Flies on the Lamb of God.
For the moment, at least, the Kilmore carols are alive and well and providing a rare link with the past. A letter to The People, a Wexford newspaper, in January 1872 quoted the sentiments of one old man: "I have stood," he would say, "within many of the grandest Cathedrals in Europe and under the dome of St Peter's itself, but in none of them did I ever feel the soulthrilling, rapturous sensation that I did as a boy listening to six aged men on a frosty Christmas morning sing the carols beneath the low, strawthatched little chapel of Rathangan."
Kilmore carols are to be found on various recordings: A Chieftains' Celebration, with Nanci Griffith, (RCA Victor), Good People All by Noirin Ni Riain (Gael Linn), and two Voice Squad albums, Many's The Foolish Youth (Tara) and Holly Wood (Hummingbird)