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June 2019
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2004-08-17 Organist and Choirmaster

One of several part-time jobs I held in London was to play the organ for Sunday services in Guys Hospital Chapel. The service, conducted by the sensitive chaplain Neville Smith, was always poignant, as the patients literally came and went week by week.

Years before it seemed like such a big deal for me to play in the school chapel. As the Chaplain announced each hymn, my entire frame quavered, my pores leaked and my hands might as well have been two bunches of over-ripe bananas.

Before I moved to London I spent two years as organist and choirmaster in a South Dublin parish. I played at Morning and Evening Sunday services, weddings, funerals, extra-curricular performances (even a cameo appearance in the Parish pantomine), and took choir practice on Friday night. As with every choirmaster, I had my characters  the glamorous and talented rectors wife, a one-man-tenor-brass-section, a sweet and motherly alto, and a soprano who had her index finger permanently lodged in her earhole so that she was unable to hear the other sopranos who were under the note. Incredibly it never dawned on her that the tuning problems lay closer to her own soft palate, and she may have been better advised to employ her remaining nine digits as ear-plugs for the other choir-members.

As I note-bashed hymns, psalms, responses, and anthems for Sunday, I called at times for more sound. Naturally, the most enthusiastic but less musically aware choristers always obeyed religiously. I was fortunate however to have a leader in each section, and on Sunday morning, usually a nice well-blended 4-part sound led this busy parish congregation in worship.

The organ was at the front of the church by the altar, and so this charlatan was on full view. Those who knew could see that my feet rarely ventured into the unnerving and relatively unknown realms of the pedal keyboard. For the last verse I generally pulled out all the stops and shifted up a key in order to redeem myself musically.

I sometimes managed to absorb the initial spoutings from the pulpit, but the ensuing 15 minutes of my meandering musings covered anything from an analysis and improvised biography of the many colourful assembled sinners, to the exploits of undisciplined brats terrorising the aisles, to my more daring decisions concerning casting for my parish productions of Oliver and Joseph.

At Evensong, a handful of regulars, clearly favouring a more intimate gathering, sang hymns and canticles with tentative tone, overwhelmed by the presence of a retired Wagnerian soprano whose vibrato meant that  ingeniously  the hymns were in two parts. On occasion, Evensong was conducted by a thrice-retired diminutive clergyman from the Ministry of Healing. Measuring in at 4ft 8inches, his expressive bald pate was barely visible over the lectern, while his partially-supported speaking voice rose and fell two octaves when least expected.


It was my times alone in church which I remember most. On dark winter nights when I turned the key in the vestry door, I entered a spiritual time-machine, awash with ghosts from a century of christenings, weddings, funerals, harvests and carol services. If your faith is built on rock, a church organist is a rewarding post to hold, but even if, like me you are a doubting Thomas, it is still nice to play such an integral role in worship, transporting the ceremony to another level. Being an organist was not unlike having my own weekly column, it had not been part of the greater plan in my life, and yet, in both cases, despite feeling a bit of a fraud, I have loved every second.

The silence was often broken by the sexton coming to check the heating, or just popping in for a gossip, always accompanied by Lassie  the result of a moments acrobatic limbo-passion between a local sheepdog and a Jack Russell.

One of my parishioners, and my piano pupil, was Don Tidey. While he was being held hostage by kidnappers, a vigil was held every night in the little church on the Dublin mountain foothills.

On two occasions, the Sunday service was broadcast live on RTE Radio Morning Service. In the RTE Guide there it was, for all to see  Organist : James Nelson. Mass Setting : Nelson in F. I had been found out. Time to exit  stage left.