Music was a welcome Christmas focus

Although Christmas viewing did not have an ‘overt religious element’, Brendan O’Regan describes entertainment full of ‘joy, good humour, optimism and insight’

There was certainly no shortage of Christmas music programmes over the Christmas period… loads of the expected carol services, but also a few that were off the beaten track.

One of my favourites was a Roots Freeway special on the Saturday before Christmas. This has become an annual tradition for presenter and veteran Irish bluegrass player Neil Toner – presenting Christmas music with a rootsy flavour. 

Most of it was gospel orientated, though I did like the instrumental Sleigh Ride by mandolin virtuoso Sam Bush. There were traditional and contemporary songs from the likes of Doc Watson and Emmylou Harris, with some Irish flavour as well – John Spillane’s musical version of Kavanagh’s Christmas Childhood poem was particularly evocative, while The Voice Squad sang an excellent version of the Enniscorthy Carol. All well worth listening back to on the RTÉ Radio Player. 

Also recommended viewing on the RTÉ Player, and also focused on music,  is Higher Hopes, a wonderful documentary shown on RTÉ One, on the Wednesday leading up to Christmas. 

Conductor David Brophy and his team, having made such an impact with the High Hopes Choir in 2014 developed this work with people touched by homelessness by setting up a new choir in Cork. 

The show was aptly named, as it exuded hope, with plenty of joy, good humour, optimism and insight. 

It was useful to have a catchup section at the start where the previous participants spoke of the changes the initiative made in their lives… they had found greater self-confidence, some had found housing, some had found work  and some had gone back to education. Brophy wasn’t giving all the credit to the choir venture, but hoped it was an important influence.  

The Cork choir thrived, and like those in Waterford and in Dublin, was full of interesting characters. 

There wasn’t any overt religious element but that was fine. You could see however that charities like St Vincent de Paul were involved and most practices, along with some performances, were based in religious houses, churches or oratories, so the support is there in the background. 

There were two significant highlights – one was when the choirs were visited by Christy Moore and got to record a single with him. Moore was as moved by the venture as much as the choir members were. 

In a relaxed way, he opened up to them about his own struggles with alcohol addiction, an experience that resonated with many of the singers, and said it was one of his most enjoyable recording sessions in years.  

The other special occasion was when the choirs got to sing at Áras an Uachtaráin after President Michael D. Higgins expressed an interest in their work. 

Choir members were awed and enthused by the prospect and were pleased that people in the corridors of power were listening to them. 

It was good to see the President taking a low-key role, being a facilitator and appreciator rather than the centre of attention. 

It wasn’t the only appearance of the President or the Áras over Christmas. Carols from Áras an Uachtaráin was broadcast on RTÉ One Christmas Eve and Christmas morning. I loved seeing the RTÉ Concert Orchestra performing in one of the living rooms rather than on a formal stage, and I was impressed by how the biblical Christmas story was told in sand-art throughout the programme, enhanched by the fiddle and whistle playing of John Sheehan of The Dubliners. 

Other musical performances were a matter of taste. Generally  I like Imelda May’s musical style but I’m not sure that the Wexford Carol suited her, though I did enjoy her soulful rendition of A Cradle in Bethlehem, an old Nat King Cole song. 

Lucy O’Byrne did a fine version of O Holy Night, while Iarla Ó Lionáird sang the haunting Don Oíche Úd I mBeitheal.  

Mick Flannery played a rather downbeat love song, Christmas Past, and suitably the programme ended with a lively version of We Three Kings by the young Aspiro choir from Carlow – the young performers were stationed throughout the Áras and the fluidity of the camera work weaving through the building perfectly matched the grace of the sand art as this part of the Christmas story was told. 

The President and Mrs Higgins were cheerful and chatty and as always the show was presented with ease and warmth by Mary Kennedy… long may she continue in this role.

Pick of the Week

BBC 4 Sun 3 Jan 7.00pm Andrew Graham-Dixon explores the ancient Christian practice of preserving 
holy relics and the largely forgotten art form that went with it, the reliquary.
BBC 1 Sun 3 Jan 4.25pm Ann Widdecombe goes behind the scenes of BBC drama Father Brown, starting a new season this week.
RTÉ One Sun 3 Jan 9.30pm RTÉ’s new fi ve-part 1916 commemorative drama Rebellion begins with the outbreak of World War I.