It all began with a cup of tea and a chat about fundraising.
I’d first got to know Lucy Winkett, rector of St James’, many years ago when we were part of a group of people, with and without learning disabilities, living and sharing life together in one of the houses of the L’Arche Kent community. Lucy describes this time at L’Arche as being one of her two strongest spiritual influences; the other being a month-long silent Ignation retreat. We used to sing a bit in the evenings. Lucy would do Mary Black; I would do The Undertones. And she sang, very beautifully, at my wedding. I didn’t see too much of her in the ensuing years but it was special for me to drive a carload of L’Arche members up to East London for Lucy’s ordination as priest and later for her installation as a Canon at St Paul’s Cathedral. And I always loved hearing her on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, or reading an article she’d written.
Anyway, I’d told Lucy I was now working in London and we were having a cup of tea and a catch-up and got to talking about the various amounts of money we had to raise each year to keep our respective shows on the road. And she said with her usual infectious optimism “we can help you do some fundraising; you could do a concert in the church”. It seemed like a good idea at the time: A ‘Celebration of Irish music, theatre, poetry and dancing in the week of St Brigid’. But then there was the reality of actually finding musicians, actors, poets and dancers, and ensuring that we didn’t end up losing money from the event rather than gaining it! I was worried I’d bitten off more than I could chew! I was reassured by Paul, one of our wonderful team at the Irish Chaplaincy, and decided to take a step in faith, and thanks to the kindness and support of many people, things just fell into place. I spoke to Nora who directs the Irish Pensioners Choir as well as Irish Elders’ Theatre and she was only too happy to help. Yes, the choir would sing for us again; and yes, Elders’ theatre would write and perform a play about St Brigid (patron saint of the Irish Chaplaincy). And she would involve Jaqui and Billy, two of her talented musician friends. I found poets: Gerry, Gerry and Rory from the Chaplaincy; plus Anton Thompson McCormick who has performed for us before both at the Irish Embassy and in a prison, and who, on the night, sang as well the beautifully haunting ‘Síul a Rúin’.
I still needed a kind of ‘headline’ act. I’d been at a concert at the London Irish Centre and had been impressed by the Byrne-Whelehan Family Band. A few days after that I was at an Embassy event and the first person I bumped into was Eilish Byrne-Whelehan who I’d met there before. I thought ‘this is fate’! I explained about the concert and Eilish said she’d be delighted to help. She could bring 20 musicians from the Feíth and Cheoíl School of Music, including harps and dancers! We also found a sponsor, Derek Platt of Platt Reilly (partition and ceiling experts). We were in business!
The concert duly took place on January 30th. We hoped we might get 100 people there; there were 200 on the night and it was the most wonderful evening. Lucy did a couple of songs: Mary Black, including my favourite ‘Once in a very blue moon’. And I had the privilege of finishing the evening with a short set, including my setting of ‘St Patrick’s Breastplate’.
We received such a lot of lovely feedback about the evening, both from audience and performers. And all were agreed that we really must do it again soon.