High moral ground – Frank McNally on taking to the pulpit

An Irishman’s Diary

Dublin’s Mount Streets, upper and lower, are presumed to be named for their proximity in former times to a “Gallows Hill”, located between there and what is now Baggot Street.

This was the slightly worrying backdrop to a personal first last weekend when I climbed the steps of another conspicuously elevated landmark on Mount Street Upper, to make my debut speaking from a church pulpit.

The venue was St Stephen’s, better known as the Pepper Canister. The event was the world premiere of a piece of music inspired by Patrick Kavanagh’s A Christmas Childhood. My job was to read the poem first and say a few words about it.

A Christmas Childhood is a classic example of Kavanagh’s favourite idea, that in the parochial resides the universal. You never have to leave your own village to learn what mattered in life, he believed (not that he took the advice himself).


Hence his relocation of the nativity story to a cowshed in Inniskeen, with his own family deputising for the Holy One and, by extension (as his biographer Antoinette Quinn noted wryly), the poet's six-year-old self standing in for the Baby Jesus.

Insofar as I was qualified to speak about the work, it was from also having an unusual familiarity with the poem’s parochial aspects in rural, 20th-century Monaghan. The nativity aside, A Christmas Childhood is about a child’s discovery of music, from “putting our ears to the paling post”, to listening to his father’s melodion, to hearing his mother make “the music of milking”.

And it so happens that I too have heard the music of milking.

As a child, I even tried my hand (both hands, in fact) at making it, with limited success. There is a trick to milking cows, like everything else, and part of it is putting them to ease. They don’t work well with amateurs, a status I never rose above. I was still learning the art when the arrival of milking machines made it redundant.

My Auntie Mary used to interpret the music of milking ever more literally. She was a firm believer that actual musical accompaniment led to increased milk yield, so she would always have a transistor radio on in the background.

I have a memory as vivid as Kavanagh's of her milking to the accompaniment of Larry Gogan's Top 30, with the cows grooving along happily to the latest hits. And studies have since vindicated her theory that music increases milk yield, but apparently it needs to be of the slow and calming kind. Joe Dolan and 1970s disco must have produced mixed results.

Anyway, happily, no trapdoor opened under me during my time on the Mount Street pulpit. I made it down again safely to hear the first full performance of Tom Lane's fine 16-minute suite, commissioned for and sung by the Cantairí Avondale choir (see cantairi.com) as part of their Christmas concert, under the direction of John Doyle.

The Pepper Canister is what lesser newspapers might call one of Dublin’s “iconic” sights. This one prefers to describe it as ionic, that being the style of its portico, at least. But of course it’s the distinctive tall, narrow, dome-topped tower that earned the nickname.

This year marks a 200th anniversary for the church, construction of which began in 1821, although the official bicentenary will be in three years, celebrating its completion in 1824.

A church without a churchyard, it has ever since been marooned on an traffic island, surrounded by the curved thoroughfares of Mount Street Crescent. On the plus side, it enjoys an unobstructed view to and from Leinster House, several hundred metres away, which makes it one of Dublin’s more famous landmarks.

The giant, carved wooden pulpit was added only in 1889, and according to An Irishman’s Diary from 30 years later, was still not wired up to the church’s electricity in the 1920s, so that the preacher depended on candlelight. Luckily for me, this has been rectified since, or I might have struggled with the small print of the Book of Uncommon Prayer (Kavanagh’s collected poems).

The Cantairí Avondale concert was an accidentally apt curtain raiser to a week of music and art events in the church, collectively titled “A Frosty Dawn”, that began last night (December 17th).

The title borrows from one of everybody’s favourite lines in A Christmas Childhood: “the winking glitter of a frosty dawn”.

Events are scheduled to run nightly for the next week, culminating with Bronagh Gallagher and guests on the 23rd, unless a frosty Nphet committee decides otherwise.