Continuing our NewsFour New Fiction “The Choir That Never Was”

by William Jenkins

It was in the 1950’s, and I was working at McBirney’s on Aston Quay when a new movement swept the land. It was The Industrial Rosary Crusade, fostering the daily recitation of the Rosary in hundreds of industrial and commercial centres. The Patron and Spiritual Director was a Dominican priest, Father Gabriel Harty. I heard that the aim of this great crusade was the conversion of Russia.

Father Harty travelled around the factories of Dublin encouraging the workers to take part. Each day during lunch hour the rosary was recited by a small band of volunteers. The uptake, though sparse at first, gained momentum.

As time passed, a new initiative was suggested: why not a pilgrimage to Knock Shrine in Mayo? At this point we were truly fired up and Father Harty was enthused with the Spirit. The man’s zeal was something to be admired. Plans were made, numbers attending, train timetables, stewards for the sick, etc. Father Harty keen as ever decided something new was needed to crown the day. A choir! Why not? But where would the voices come from? The solution was obvious. This was an industrial crusade so it was right and proper that the choir should be made up of the great unwashed, the factory workers themselves.
And so began another odyssey for Father Harty as he trawled through the factories for volunteers. I, in my naivety became one of them. A motley crew of twenty, we gathered at the Priory House in Dominic Street for assessment by a choir mistress. She was a small, pretty lady who, despite her size, had a shrill and commanding voice. We, the untrained fools that we were, cowered before this formidable little woman. To call us ‘frogs anonymous’ might have been a kindness, a title well deserved. In time, mainly due to the patience of our choir mistress, a semblance of order emerged. The tenors, bass, and sopranos were all assigned their positions and the repertoire was decided. Hymns for the journey, hymns during Mass, all the favourites from ‘I’ll sing a hymn to Mary’, down to the Ava Maria. Week after week we diligently laboured. The scowl on the face of our choir mistress gradually vanished. Her shrill voice had come down a few octaves and at last a measure of success seemed attainable.

There was more to come. One of the ladies came up with the notion. ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful,’ she said, ‘if we had robes to wear?’ Everyone agreed and thought it was a great idea. We could see ourselves set apart with our own distinctive garments. We decided on the design, the colour (sky-blue), and a motive in the shape of a gold M on our chests. I drafted the patterns in three sizes. The fabric was bought and volunteers from other clothing factories did the sewing in their own time. There was great fun when they were completed, and we tried them on. Even our choir mistress was delighted with her students. Happy days!

The day before departure we had a final rehearsal. Up until then we had always practised alone, with Father Harty popping in from time to time to see how we were getting on, always very friendly. On this occasion, however, a new figure entered the hall, a Brother, tall and resplendent in Dominican black and white. He stood silently as we went through our paces. At the end, his reward to us was a few gentle claps, no words, and then he left.

The next day, we assembled at Kingsbridge Railway Station, fully robed, excited like young children. When Father Harty appeared he was not his usual friendly self. Everyone noticed his look of gloom but none of us was prepared for the hammer blow that was to come. He drew us aside in the old baggage claim area to speak the words that shattered our dreams.
“I am sorry. I have bad news for you. The Bishop will be in attendance at Knock. Thousands of pilgrims from factories from the length and breadth of Ireland will be coming, from Galway, Cork, Limerick and other towns, including a special group from the Shannon Industrial Complex. It is the opinion of the Brother who attended your rehearsal yesterday that the standard of the choir is not up to par. Hence another choir has been substituted, the girls from Loretto College.”

Poor Father Harty, the man was close to tears. Still this didn’t help the stunned shock we all experienced. The cheek, the gall, all our work, everything dismissed, all in the name of someone’s sense of misplaced pride.

In protest at this affront, I left Kingsbridge Station along with four lady members of the choir. We walked fully robed along the Liffey in silence. After a few minutes had passed, I stopped, took off the robe and defiantly tossed it into the river. My companions were shocked at first but then they started laughing and one by one they followed suit. We gazed over the wall, watching the sky-blue garments floating away.

As I made my way home, I remembered the words of Father Harty, when he said the Brother considered our choir was not ‘up to par’. Such a remark could only come from a snobbish golfer, and I prayed that he should be forever doomed to a frustrating life trapped in the sand bunkers of some golf course. A fitting hell for the likes of him, I mused.

William is 88 years of age and is active in many writers’ groups. The Choir That Never Was is a true story.