Alexandrina McCausland Stewart: A Life in Music

Nuala McAllister charts the largely unsung contribution of a musical trailblazer to Derry~Londonderry at the turn of twentieth century

This week the Ulster History Circle unveiled a Blue Plaque to Alexandrina McCausland Stewart, who was a central figure in Derry~Londonderry’s musical life at the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1900 she single-handedly started two institutions: the Derry Feis Ceoil and the Londonderry Philharmonic Society, both of which have left a musical legacy which endures to the present day.

Alex, as she was known, was the Dublin-born daughter of Wilhelm Elsner, a celebrated German cellist and professor at the Irish capital's Royal Academy of Music. His daughter inherited his musical talents, enjoying a distinguished career as a contralto throughout Ireland before she moved to Derry in 1898.

That year she had married Abraham McCausland Stewart, the city’s harbour engineer and diocesan architect. Within two years she became the founder and then Honorary Secretary of the Londonderry Feis, overseeing its development from a one-day event in 1900 to a week-long festival of solo, choral and instrumental music by the later 1920s. She also took lead roles at the Londonderry Philharmonic Society's twice-yearly concerts.

Yet there has been no acknowledgment of the range of her musical activities in Derry, until the erection of the Ulster History Circle's Blue Plaque this week at No 9 Crawford Square, where she spent her married life with her husband and three children. 

Alex Elsner was born in Stillorgan, County Dublin on June 13 1865 and later attended the Royal College of Music in London. In 1884 she returned to Ireland and took part in concerts with Dublin music societies; she was also a popular choice for private recitals in fashionable Dublin homes.

By the later 1880s she was singing in Belfast and the North West too. She was soloist at a St Columb’s Choral Union concert in Derry in February 1887 and again at a concert in October 1889 at the new Opera House, when she was described by the local press as 'quite a favourite with Derry audiences'.

alex outside guildhall with feis committee 1939 (1).jpg

Alexandrina McCausland Stewart (bottom left) outside the Guildhall, Derry, with the Feis Committee in 1939

On June 28 1898 Alex married McCausland Stewart, who was related to both the McCausland family of Drenagh, Limavady, and the Stewart families of Killymoon, County Tyrone and Mount Stewart, County Down.

Within a few months Alex had invited a representative from the Dublin Feis Ceoil to advise on the establishment of a similar Feis in Derry. The first one-day ‘Feis’ event took place on April 7 1900, giving the city the second Feis Ceoil in Ireland, before Sligo in 1903 and Belfast in 1908.

There were six competitions: for church choirs, factory choirs, school choirs, drum and fife bands and solo singing. In these early years, the Feis Ceoil was true to its name – ‘Festival of Music’  and had only musical competitions. It was an immediate stimulus to music in the city, as factories quickly formed choirs specifically for the competitions.

In February 1900 employees at three different Derry shirt factories established four choirs: one each from Welch and Margetson and Co. and Hogg and Mitchell, and two choirs from Tillie and Henderson. Competition amongst the choirs was intense with each vying to outdo its rival in a bid to achieve the highest marks and praise from the adjudicator.

During the next twenty years the Derry Feis gathered strength, adding more competitions, cups and awards every year, and regularly attracting competitors from Scotland and England. Alex made use of her Dublin contacts to increase the prestige of the Derry Feis and also encouraged local businessmen and dignitaries to donate cups and medals.

Alex was equally committed to the Londonderry Philharmonic Society, which also started in 1900. Its concerts featured distinguished soloists from London and Dublin, and regularly attracted talent scouts. At the Philharmonic concert on March 31 1938 the Belfast tenor James Johnston, later known as the 'Singing Butcher', made his debut. He was talent spotted for the Dublin Grand Opera Society. Johnston later moved to Sadlers’ Wells in London where he was Principal Tenor for fifteen years.

Alex Plaque

(Left) Alex's father Wilhelm Elsner, (right) Blue Plaque unveiled by the Ulster History Circle

The Philharmonic Society had a large mixed chorus and its own orchestra. In its first year the chorus numbered just over one 100 with an orchestra 19 strong. By the mid-1920s the 'Phil' was at the height of its popularity and at its Silver Jubilee in 1925 it had a chorus of 120 voices accompanied an orchestra of 40 players. But although essentially upper and middle-class in its committee membership, the Phil was still a community organization, drawing its singers from all classes in the city.

The highpoint of Alex’s musical career in Derry was her appearance with the celebrated Halle Orchestra in St Columb’s Hall on Tuesday, March 3 1914. This concert, during 'Feis Week', brought together her love of vocal and orchestral music and her dedication to the Feis movement in Derry.

It was widely advertised and 'Special Late Trains' were laid on to Limavady and Buncrana. The Derry Journal reported that she sang 'with that admirable enunciation, technical accuracy and soulful interpretation which have placed her in the front rank of Irish vocalists'.

Alex's husband died suddenly in August 1924, and she soon returned to her family in Dublin, but returned each year to Derry for Feis Week. In recognition of her musical achievements in the city, the Feis Committee awarded her the honorary title of ‘Administrator’ and offered to pay her return journey to the event for the rest of her life.

Alex died in a Dublin nursing home on May 16 1942 and her remains were brought back to Derry for burial alongside her husband in the city cemetery. Her only daughter Alexandrina had been killed on active war service in Burma a few weeks earlier.

The new Blue Plaque in Crawford Square will finally acknowledge the city’s good fortune in Abraham McCausland Stewart’s marriage to the daughter of a German musician. His young wife, Alex, then brought her own unbounded enthusiasm, organizational skill and keen musicality to her adopted city.

Nuala McAllister will discuss Alexandrina's life further on Your Place and Mine from 8.05am, Saturday, April 9 on BBC Radio Ulster.