The Palestrina Choir had its origins in a boys’ choir formed in the 1890s by Dr Vincent O’Brien, then a music teacher at Saint Mary’s Place Christian Brothers School in Dublin. It was at a performance of Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli at Saint Teresa’s Carmelite Church in Clarendon Street, Dublin in 1898 that this choir and its gifted director first came to the attention of Edward Martyn.
*The choir in 1970 with director Oliver O’ Brien.
Martyn was born to a family of Roman Catholic landed gentry at Tulira Castle, Co. Galway in 1859. He was educated in Belvedere College SJ, Dublin, Beaumont College, Windsor and Christ Church, Oxford. He is well known for his involvement in the Irish Literary Theatre, later to become the Abbey Theatre, which he co-founded in 1898 with W. B. Yeats, Lady Gregory and George Moore. However, his interest in establishing a national theatre was matched, if not exceeded, by his interest in the reform of liturgical music in Ireland. During his university days, he travelled extensively in Europe, where he was struck by the quality of the choirs he heard in the great cathedrals there. He was determined that the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland deserved and should have music of an equivalent standard.
In particular, he wished to promote the music of Palestrina, espoused by Pope Pius X as the standard to which all liturgical music should aspire. Between 1898 and 1902, Martyn worked tirelessly to establish the choir at Saint Mary’s Pro-Cathedral, offering an endowment of £10,000 (in current terms about €1 million) on the condition that Dr O’Brien be appointed choirmaster. An agreement was signed on November 26, 1902, and the Palestrina Choir was constituted and installed in the Pro-Cathedral on January 1, 1903.
In the century or so since its foundation, the Choir has had seven directors. Vincent O’Brien, director until his death in 1948, was succeeded by his son, Oliver O’Brien. In 1978 Fr Seán Ó hEarcaigh took over from Oliver and four years later Fr Ó hEarcaigh was succeeded as director by Ite O’Donovan. In 1996 Comdt. Joseph Ryan directed the choir before Órla Barry became the next director. In 2002 the current director Ms Blánaid Murphy took on the mantle.
The celebration of the Palestrina Choir’s centenary year in 2003 highlighted the immense contribution made by it to the Saint Mary’s Pro-Cathedral, the Archdiocese of Dublin and the nation during its first 100 years.
While maintaining an unbroken tradition of service at the Sunday liturgy at the cathedral church, the choir has also performed at numerous State occasions, featured on radio and TV nationally and internationally and has travelled extensively. In recognition of this, in December 2003, the Choir was awarded the much-coveted St Cecilia Award by the Vocal Heritage Society of Ireland.
In June 2004 the Choir represented Ireland in Bratislava at the closing of Ireland’s EU Presidency. In 2006 the Choir undertook a major tour to Poland and Czech Republic as well as a monthly series of Mozart Masses at the Pro-Cathedral, with full orchestra, and launched a CD recording, The Bells of the Angelus, to critical acclaim.
In 2007 the Choir continued its busy schedule performing once again at the Bach Cantata series in Dublin and at the Dun Laoghaire Organ Festival. The Choir also toured to London with performances at Westminster Cathedral, the Brompton Oratory and Worth Abbey. In 2008 they toured to Germany singing in Limburg and Köln Cathedral while 2009 saw an extensive tour to the north of England. In 2010 the choir was invited to sing at the Ghent International Music Festival.
In May 2011 the boys of the choir undertook a tour of three Catholic cathedrals in the north of Ireland, presenting recitals of their music and singing the Sacred Liturgy: St Peter’s Cathedral Belfast (Down and Connor), St Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh (Archdiocese of Armagh) and the Cathedral of Saints Patrick and Colman, Newry (Dicoese of Dromore). In 2011 the choir was invited to tour Budapest and sing at the prestigious Ars Sacra (Sacred Art) Music festival. The boys of the choir preceded this with a visit to the beautiful town of Kecskemét, where they took part in classes at a Kodály music school, gave a recital and visited the well-known Kodály Institute. On return from Hungary, the choir launched its most recent CD recording of Eucharistic motets and hymn arrangements, ‘O Sacrament Most Holy’ in anticipation of the Eucharistic Congress in 2012.
The choir sang at the opening and closing ceremonies and liturgies of the 2012 International Eucharistic Congress, held in Ireland. The choir also gave a choral recital in their own cathedral to a packed church, singing Vivaldi’s ‘Gloria’ and the first performance of ‘Missa Caro Mea’, an orchestral setting of the Ordinary of the Mass by Colin Mawby, commissioned by Ms Gemma and Ms Tríona King to celebrate the 32nd Eucharistic Congress. When the Congress had concluded, the boys of the choir went on an educational tour to Leipzig, visiting JS Bach’s former church the Thomaskirche and singing a concert and Mass.
The Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord, 6 January 2013, was a major date in the history of the choir. In November 2012 the choir received an invitation from the Director of the Sistine Chapel Choir to join them in singing Mass at Saint Peter’s Basilica, celebrated by His Holiness Benedict XVI. A major fundraising campaign ensued and in January 60 choristers (boys and men) and a huge entourage travelled to Rome for this major celebration. The pilgrimage was led by Most Reverend Diarmaid Martin D.D., Archbishop of Dublin as well as Cathedral Administrator and chaplain to the choir Very Reverend Damian F. O’Reilly (now Canon O’Reilly).
Since 2002 the Choir has been directed by Blánaid Murphy, one of the foremost choral music directors, educators and consultants in Ireland and under her guidance it continues to thrive and develop. There are currently over 40 boys in the choir and there is significant competition for annual entry. This confirms the current strength and positive future of the Palestrina Choir into its second century at the Pro-Cathedral.
For over 110 years choir members and their families have brought vibrancy to the life of this cathedral church. Thrice-weekly rehearsals lead to melodious harmony and choral excellence, though only a high level of commitment from the boys, gentlemen, director, manager and assistants can achieve it. All are directed towards the worthy celebration of the Sacred Liturgy, ‘the summit towards which the activity of the Church is directed and the fount from which all her power flows’.