Earlier this year, I attended the highly entertaining football international between Ireland and a little-known South American side that plays in yellow. While marvelling at the silky skills of the flamboyant Kilbane and McAteer, I happened to remark upon the almost total lack of vocal encouragement emanating from the 44,000 people assembled in Lansdowne Road. The taunt, “You only sing when you’re winning” could easily have been written for the Irish crowd, were it not fact that we don’t. [Sing, that is. We do win occasionally!]
We pride ourselves as a nation with a long list of positive attributes, but vocal dexterity is right down at the bottom of it, along with queuing patiently and using litter bins. As a race that was responsible for both Boyzone and Westlife, we rightly keep our heads low whenever the subject of singing in public is raised.
This fact was always brought home quite forcibly at Sunday Mass. With my wife, I usually attend the 10 o’clock service at the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Huntstown, which is our nearest place of worship, at least until the new church is erected in Littlepace.
As fellow members of the congregation will attest, Father Eugene is blessed with a deep, rich and mellifluous voice which reverberates around the pine panelling of the brand new church, a choral echo to the solemnity of the service, a rich evocation of the ancient spirituality of the Mass. If he chose to sing the entire Mass himself, it would be a beautiful performance, akin to attending a recital by Count John McCormack.
The problem though, as Father Eugene himself occasionally points out, is that the Mass is not supposed to be an entertainment. It is a participatory event, a coming together to worship. However, in Huntstown parish, and I suspect all around Ireland, the roof of the church is hardly in danger of being lifted off its joists by the vocal power of the congregation. A spider, idly spinning a web in the higher recesses of the roof, will not suddenly turn around startled by the sudden volume of joyful singing emanating from the pews below.
Basically we mumble. We have no problem in joining in, but we deliberately pitch our voices at a level where people around us can’t distinguish our own particular timbre. It seems as though the ultimate taboo is to have other members of the congregation glance sideways at you, as they distinguish your tones from the general muffled drone. We are extremely self-conscious when it comes to singing, and probably with good reason.
If a karaoke party we had in our house shortly after Christmas could be deemed representative of the Irish population as a whole, only one person in twelve is physically capable of holding a note, let alone carrying a tune. A video of this aforementioned entertainment causes us to cringe in embarrassment when it is replayed, despite the fact that we all thought ourselves pretty damn cool at the time.
Personally, my own voice is flatter than a hedgehog on the Blanchardstown by-pass during rush hour. I make Shane McGowan sound like Luciano Pavarotti. And I am very conscience of the fact. So, in common with a lot of the congregation, I suspect, I mouth the words of hymns with gusto, yet little sound escapes my pious lips.
However, I believe that, of late, our performance has been improving. The spider in the roof might not be leaping out of his skin in fright, but at least he is pausing for a second, while devouring an errant fly, to ascertain where the soaring voices are coming from.
The reason, I suspect, is the steady increase in numbers of non-nationals participating in Sunday worship. Their whole ethos seems to be quite different to ours. They are not afraid to sing out loud, they are not afraid to hit a wrong note in public, no doubt reasoning that if Jesus was crucified for our sakes, the least we can do in return is to sing His praises in a joyous and unrestrained manner.
I am reliably told by a Nigerian workmate that Mass in his homeland lasts for several hours. It is a happy, eagerly awaited occasion, and participation is total. Nobody holds back. Nobody mumbles the hymns. Nobody interprets the words “Sing Hosannah to the King of Kings,” as “Whisper them as quietly as possible.”
And when you think about it logically, they are perfectly right. A whole world has been created for our benefit, ranging from the physical beauty of a sunset to abstract concepts like love and hope. The wonder of childbirth, the friendship of equals, the great circle of life, the list goes on and on. So why shouldn’t we let rip, let our voices, imperfect as they are, soar up to heaven in whole-hearted praise and thanks?
Therefore, in today’s global village, our immigrants are showing us how it is supposed to be done. Singing hosannas with gratitude and joy. I’m sure that Father Eugene is delighted with the increase in volume, relieved no doubt that he no longer has to drag us struggling and kicking through the verses and choruses of hymns ancient and modern.
Of course, the change will not come overnight. It will take more than a few hymns on a Sunday to overcome years of tuneful self-consciousness but, under the guidance of the newer, more vocal members of the congregation, our own strength of lung is improving. We are still applying the same unwritten rule of pitching our voices so they can’t be distinguished, but, as the general volume is now higher, so our own voices have grown marginally stronger. Granted, we still have a long way to go before we contort our mouths to the impossible shapes seen on “Songs of Praise,” but at least we’re heading in the right direction. And before too long, who knows? That spider might be scuttling off to look for a pair of earplugs.