Preaching to the choir – An Irishwoman’s Diary on PfizerPfonics and Rome’s Pantheon


The music rose, floating like a whisper over our heads where we sat in the pews of the Pantheon in Rome, one of the eternal city’s most ancient temples. It was a moment to be cherished, to sit in this Roman church and listen to the voices of the PfizerPfonics, a Cork-based choir, singing two Irish compositions as part of the fifth Rome Music Festival, which was held there recently.

To make the day even more special, Ciarán Hope, the Irish composer of their hymn Agnus Dei, was present to hear them sing his work. As the first chords rang out, Hope beamed, delighted to hear his music come to life in such a spectacular location. Having recently returned from a long stint in Los Angeles, he was there to savour the experience of Agnus Dei being performed by this award-winning four-part choir in one of the world’s most impressive buildings, originally built by Marcus Agrippa in 27 BC. The piece was originally written as part of the score he composed for the two-hour 2014 film about Mother Teresa, called The Letters, with Juliet Stevenson in the lead role.


The choir also sang the lullaby Suantraí ár Slánaitheora, by fellow Irish composer Fiontán Ó Cearbhaill, who died in 1981. Looking skywards towards the famous Pantheon oculus, which is a near-30ft hole in the temple’s ceiling and the monument’s only source of light, it was easy to imagine this Irish composer, who spent 27 years working as a railway clerk in Waterford city, listening in. While he worked away at CIÉ, he studied music, graduated from TCD and continued to teach, write, lead a theatre orchestra and conduct three different brass bands until his death. For a while, his spirit was alive and well in the Pantheon that morning.


Once the choir’s opening notes sounded, a hush fell over the proceedings. Other choirs from other countries, including Turkey, Poland, Argentina and Bulgaria, stood in the wings waiting for their turn to sing in front of the main altar, but for those of us Celts who were present, it would be hard to beat the sense of pride in this group of Irish singers.

All through the morning, tourists continued to wander in from the Piazza della Rotonda outside, not understanding what all the fuss was about, that the PfizerPhonics were raising the roof – with oculus – under the baton of choir director Bernadette Kiely. It was a Roman holiday with a difference for any Irish visitor to the Pantheon that day.

Although a morning affair in the Pantheon, the three dozen-strong choir, in acknowledgement of their imposing surroundings, were dressed in evening attire – the men in silver waistcoats over black, while the women wore sparkly blue tops over black.


The next day, the choir sang at a specially organised concert in St Patrick’s, the Irish Augustinian church on the Via Boncompagne in Rome. Here they joined forces with the Coro Colacicchi, a Roman choir, which has strong links with the Cork International Choral Festival (April 27th to May 1st).

Again the Irish sang the two Irish-penned compositions, this time with musical accompaniment by their pianist, Denise Crowley. They also sang a number of other pieces, including the James E Moore jnr’s arrangement of An Irish Blessing and Adoramus Te by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. Ciarán Hope was in attendance once again to hear them perform. Others at the concert included Hope’s girlfriend, the actress Rebecca O’Mara, who will shortly be appearing in the Abbey’s production of Othello, playing the part of Desdemona, Margaret Ryan, deputy head of mission at the Irish Embassy in Rome, Cork men and Augustinian priests Fr Tony Finn and Fr Brian O’Sullivan, and the Italian artist and soprano Irene Rinaldi.


Although the trip was punctuated by many highlights, the icing on the cake for many of the choral singers, their director, and the choir’s supporters happened during a visit to the Vatican City. All eyes were on Pope Francis when they gathered in the Piazza San Pietro for a general audience. As pilgrims pressed closer and the crowd swelled, the choir waited to receive the pontiff’s blessing.

Imagine their surprise when he gave them a special mention, signalling out the visiting choir from Ireland, welcoming them to Rome and to the Vatican City. Sure, it’s a wonder some of them had any voices left to sing after the roaring and the cheering they did at this papal mention.