With Christmas coming music and singing play a huge part in creating the ambience for our Irish celebrations. Carols have traveled far and wide and have been absorbed into many cultures. It got me curious about carols which actually could claim Irish provenance.
“The Wexford Carol” is obviously top of the list. It is considered one of the most ancient carols, dating back to the 12th century. It has been a favorite carol of mine since hearing a Julie Andrews recording back in the 1960s. It has one of the loveliest opening lines in a carol “Good people all, this Christmas time/ Consider well and bear in mind/What our Good God for us has done/In sending his beloved Son.”
Many carols that we associate as being typically English were actually written by Irishmen. Each Christmas the BBC opens the festivities with a Nine Carols service televised from King’s College Chapel in Cambridge. The traditional opening is a haunting rendition of “Once in Royal David’s City”. This quintessentially English carol was written by a Dubliner, Cecil Frances Alexander.
For many people a Christmas Carol concert is not complete without a rousing Halleluiah Chorus from Handel’s “Messiah. “ The composer, Handel, was German, and wrote the oratorio to text culled by Englishman Charles Jennens from the King James Bible. However, the very first performance was held in Dublin. This oratorio debuted in Dublin on 13th April 1742. The performance was held in the Fishamble Street Hall and was given to raise funds for charities aiding debtors and two hospitals. St. Patrick’s and Christ Churches lent their choirs, which amounted to 16 men and 16 boys. There were soloists and a simple orchestra. Such were the humble beginnings of what would become a musical staple for Christmastime around the globe.
One Christmas carol that comes to us in the Irish language is Don Oiche Ud I mBeithil. (I sing of a night in Bethlehem). My favorite version is on the Chieftain’s 1987 Christmas album “Bells of Dublin.” Burgess Meredith lyrically speaks the words in English with it then sung in Irish.
The Chieftain’s Christmas collection “Bells of Ireland” included new festive songs devised by Paddy Maloney including new compositions of Irish Christmas festive songs. One is the collaboration between Elvis Costello and Paddy Maloney on “St. Stephen’s Day Murders”, with its theme of holiday domestic volatility. There is also a lovely medley of Kevin Conneff’s “Wren in the Furze” which highlights the old tradition of hunting the wren on St. Stephen’s Day.
1987 must have been a year when the Irish were feeling particularly inspired by Christmas because that year also brought us Shane McGowan’s “Fairytale of New York”. The Pogue’s frontman and the late Kirsty McCall sang the song which tops many surveys as a holiday favorite. As I write this the British Independent digital new service reports that with digital streaming this song could finally become a Christmas No. 1 Hit!
From the profound “Messiah” to the profane Pogue’s carol from the drunk tank, the Irish Christmas playlist has all the holiday notes! But my all time get in the mood for an Irish Christmas has to be the Chieftain's "Bells of Ireland."