A Choir for the Queen

Jenny Cathcart on preparing for a right royal engagement in Enniskillen's St Macartin's Cathedral

Tuesday, June 26, 2012 was a landmark day for Enniskillen, for its cathedral church and choir. Like England, Wales and Scotland, it was the turn of Northern Ireland to host a service of thanksgiving to mark the Queen's Diamond Jubilee and St Macartin’s was given that honour.

With senior clergy from the four main churches attending along with the First Minister, Peter Robinson, members of the Legislative Assembly and guests from all sides of the community, the ecumenical service was the Queen’s first engagement in the sequel to her historic visit to the Republic in March 2011.

For the Dean of Clogher, the Reverend Kenneth Hall – who had persuaded the Palace that his cathedral could and should accommodate the event – it was the culmination of weeks of planning and meticulous organisation. Despite the town’s royal connections – it was founded 400 years ago, when a charter was granted by James 1st – no reigning monarch had ever worshipped in St Macartin’s

Announcing the service at our regular choir practice, the Dean reminded us that we were being asked to provide music fit for a Queen. He warned that, since it would be televised live, any of us who fell out of line or made a faux pas could end up on Youtube!

Our director of music, Glenn Moore and his assistant, Jayne Haslett, drew up a schedule of special rehearsals. Additional choir members were drafted in to swell our numbers, and extra choir robes to match our own arrived from Comber Parish church.

The carillon of ten bells in the cathedral bell tower would peal out to welcome the Queen just as they had in 1946 when, as Princess Elizabeth, she had last visited Enniskillen and made an appearance on the town hall balcony.

The Order of Service was planned with an Irish theme and included some of the grand hymns: 'Praise My Soul the King of Heaven' written by Henry Francis Lyte (1793-1847) who was educated at Portora Royal School in the town, and 'Be Thou My Vision', its original Gaelic text written by Saint Dallan Forgaill.

Glenn Moore composed an anthem especially for the occasion, the words taken from the prayer, 'St Patrick’s Breastplate' (watch above). A fitting choice, for Saint Macartin was Patrick’s companion, the strong man who carried his friend on his back as they travelled through the marsh lands and swamps of 7th century Ireland.

Just as appropriately, Jeanne Munroe, director of the Portora Chamber Choir, arranged 'The Londonderry Air', also recognised as 'Danny Boy' for flute, organ and voices with a text by Timothy Dudley Smith: 'Christ the same through all our Story’s pages.'

As rehearsals progressed, the chairs upon which the Queen and Prince Philip would sit were already in place alongside the choir stalls. It became clear that some of us sopranos needed to move from the stalls opposite to those next to her Majesty so that she would hear the melody line and not be overwhelmed by bass or alto voices.

Two weeks before the service an official-looking cream envelope popped through my letterbox. It contained a letter from the Lord Chamberlain’s office at Buckingham Palace, with passes, dress code, parking and security instructions for entry to the cathedral on the day of the service.

We were asked to arrive between 7.30am and 9.30am. At about the same time, in yet another test of their stamina and devotion to duty, the Queen and Prince Philip would be preparing to board the royal aircraft in London.

When it came to the day, despite misty rain, the growing sense of expectation in and around the cathedral was palpable. As well as the crowds in the street, some 100 or so journalists, including a film crew from BBC Northern Ireland, had gathered to cover the event.

Since our usual choir room near the chancel had been taken over by scaffolding for the television cameras, we gathered in the cathedral hall. The girl choristers, the youngest of whom is nine, could hardly contain their excitement. Once robed, we snapped keepsake photographs of each other.

We had time for a vocal warm up and a final run through of the new anthem. Some of us were making sure we could repeat the second verse of the national anthem, which is so rarely sung. Finally it was time to get in line for our procession, timed to move off from the west door at precisely 10.37am.

The live television relay by the BBC had already begun and the choir and clergy had taken their seats when the Dean came forward to announce that the Queen’s arrival had been delayed. Because of low cloud at the local St Angelo airport, the royal aircraft had been diverted to Aldergrove where a helicopter was standing by.

The stiff formality of our entrance was thus relaxed as clergy, choir and congregation chatted informally. Some guests moved around to greet others or take comfort breaks. At the organ, Moore was obliged to extend his intro, providing soothing background music. From the choir stalls we were able to scrutinise the 750 guests seated in the main body of the church and in the galleries. The cameramen lined up their best shots.

As I looked down at the cathedral’s Regimental Chapel where the flags of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and the Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards are laid up, I could not help but wonder what my ancestors Malcolm and Adam Cathcart, Scottish Planters and parishioners of this church would have made of this gathering. It was they, who in 1688, assembled troops to defend Enniskillen for the Protestant King William III against the forces of the Catholic King James II, and afterwards formed the Inniskilling regiments.

Almost one hour later than scheduled the royal cavalcade drove up the main street and the royal party were welcomed at the cathedral gates by the Dean. From the chancel, their arrival was heralded by a sparkling trumpet fanfare played flawlessly and with feeling by Andrew Gordon, a member of Churchill Silver band.

At last we caught our first glimpse of the Queen wearing one of her typically elegant Angela Kelly bespoke outfits: a Wedgewood blue coat and hat trimmed with white lace in imitation of the well known pottery design. When she and the Prince arrived at their designated seats there was a brief moment of confusion about who would sit in which chair, but then the service began as the Dean pronounced these poetic lines from Psalm 84.

'Behold, our defender, O God, and look upon the face of your anointed. For one day in your courts is better than a thousand.' And we sang the hymn 'God Whose City’s Sure Foundation' set to music by Henry Purcell. The First Minister read the lesson from St Matthew’s gospel, its theme of tolerance and reconciliation summed up in the words 'Do not judge that you may not be judged'.

Cardinal Sean Brady, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, the Reverend Ken Lindsay, President of the Methodist Church in Ireland and the Right Reverend Dr Roy Patton, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, led prayers for the Queen, for people of all faiths and especially for the young in our land.

The performance by the Portora boys and girls proved to be the musical high point of the service. Talented local flautist, Kristan Swain, whose tone and phrasing mirror that of his mentor, Sir James Galway, and who is set to continue his studies at the Royal Academy of Music in London, played 'The Londonderry Air' with such feeling and sensitivity that it momentarily raised our spirits beyond these exceptional circumstances.

In his sermon, the Archbishop of Armagh, Alan Harper, explained how the biblical Year of Jubilee represented for the Israelites a resetting of the clock, the freeing of slaves, a new beginning. He described the precept expressed in St Matthew's gospel, of doing to others as we would have them do to us, as a golden rule for our lives.

Following the singing of the national anthem, and the Blessing, the Queen and Prince Philip were led down the aisle by the Dean. Our choir procession was followed by the remaining clergy. After a short break in the Deanery, which stands right next to the cathedral, the royal party and all of the senior clergy made their way across the street to St Michael’s Roman Catholic church, where they were received by Canon Peter O’Reilly.

As the choir dispersed, we felt satisfied that we had given of our best. Like everyone else we had been eager to see the Queen, to see her in the flesh. Whilst from afar we may have been impressed by her aura, her iconic status, within the confines of our own place of prayer, we found ourselves worshipping in very close proximity to an anointed monarch. In the end, what impressed us most was her humility.