President Michael D Higgins is to attend the final event of the Navan Choral Festival in the Newgrange Hotel on Sunday next, 12th May to mark the 40th anniversary of the festival that got underway this weeked.
What started as a one-day festival in 1979 has grown to a seven-day event including choral and instrumental competitions which are expected to attract more than 3,500 competitors and accompanying visitors to the town.
Organisers say that the festival would bring a great buzz to the town and encouraged people to attend any or all the competitions free of charge at venues including the Newgrange Hotel, St Mary's Church of Ireland, St Mary's RC Church, Simonstown GAA Centre and Columbanus Hall. Each year the festival attracts the cream of choral and instrumental talent from primary and post primary schools, youth choirs, adult choirs, and solo singers. Entries are said to have increased considerably from previous years. The festival concludes on Sunday 12th May by hosting the prestigious National Choir of the Year Competition sponsored by the Rotary Club of Navan, and the President will attend this event.
From its humble beginnings 40 years ago, the festival directors and committee have overseen a gradual programme of innovation, introducing a new solo instrumental competition last year for strings, brass, woodwind, accordion, and percussion instruments. Building on the success of these competitions, another new competition for instrumental ensemble groups was introduced for this year. Along the way, the festival directors have been working in close partnership with the Royal Irish Academy of Music to develop these competitions.
The festival has three directors, Sean Lynch, Marie Mullooly (secretary) and Ernest McBride (who was secretary for 35 years). Speaking at the official launch of the festival in the Newgrange Hotel, attended by the Mayor of Navan Cllr Jim Holloway, Mr Lynch said that more and more students these days were actively considering the arts as a potential part-time or full-time profession. With this in mind, a new competition entitled 'Young Opera Voice' was introduced in 2016 and the festival was supported in this by the advice and guidance of international soprano, Clonee native Virginia Kerr. The comptition showcases the most talented young opera singers studying and training in Ireland and has already attained a "must attend status" with rising stars.
The Irish language also has its place in the festival and with the support of Foras ne Gaeilge, Navan Choral and Instrumental Festival gives choirs a great opportunity to compete in Irish. The festival hosts Irish language choral competitions for primary and post-primary school choirs as well as youth and adult choirs.
Primary School Choirs entered are from Navan, Naas, Tullamore, Donore, Trim, Clonee, Mullingar, Malahide, Terenure, Curraha, and Rathfarnham. Post-primary/youth choirs participating include Navan, Rathfarnham, Milltown (Dublin), Mullingar, Virginia, Ranelagh, Ballinteer, Tullamore, Castleblaney, Portumna, Maynooth, Baldoyle, Thurles, Mount Merrion, Malahide, Clonee, Athy, Monaghan, and Dundalk.
Adult choirs are entered from County Down, Skerries, Blackrock (Dublin), Tallaght, Baldoyle, Tullamore, Clontarf, Strabane, Clane, Swords, Rathmines, Lucan, Mullingar, Terenure, Wicklow, Kells, Dunshaughlin, Navan, Sligo, and Kilmessan.
There are solo competitors in piano, solo singing, and instrumental from Drogheda, Clonsilla, Castleknock, Athlone, Sutton, Navan, Drumcondra, Skerries, Celbridge, Glasnevin, Newbridge, Summerhill, Duleek, Trim, Tallaght, Wicklow, Mullingar, Leixlip, Bettystown, Straffan, Clane, Foxrock, Cork, Virginia, Rush, Collon, Saggart, Laytown, and Dundalk.
Young Opera Voice entants are from Greystones, Ranelagh, Ballinsloe, Rathgar, Kinnegad, Enniscorthy, Bray, Raheny, Stillorgan, Fairview, Walkinstown, Phibsboro, Newry, Clare, Drogheda, Lucan, and Tuam.
Mr Lynch told the audience at the festival launch that the committee was extremely grateful for the support of the local business community, including Meath County Council, The Newgrange Hotel, Navan Rotary Club , St Mary's Credit Union, and Meath Chamber. He thanked the management team who voluntarily gave their time to the huge task of organising the festival and also the many volunteers who helped out during festival week.
Cllr Holloway said that music had the enormous power to uplift people and their spirit. He said he could still clearly remember the first occasion when he heard Beethoven's 9th Symphony in Whitefriar Church in Dublin. Kevin Stewart, Director of Services at Meath County Council's economic and enterprise unit, said that the council had a successful policy of supporting a variety of festivals in the county of which the Navan Choral Festival was one. He said that these festivals served the purpose of uniting social, community and business interests in the county.
Original festival was a half day affair, recalls founder
"Imagine a young child stepping out onto the stage in Navan to perform - the memories he or she will take away are wonderful. This is what we are about. We want to celebrate excellence in singing and enrich the lives of both young people and adults," so says Ernest McBride, director and one of the founder members of the Navan Choral and Instrumental Festival.
This year's festival, which runs from Friday 4th to Sunday 12th May, is the 40th Navan Choral Festival.
The first in 1979 was a half day affair, but over the years it has become the premiere festival of the north east attracting thousands of competitors from across the country and further afield for eight days of competition and performance.
"It all grew out of the Navan Male Voice Singers. A few of us decided we would like to hold some kind of competition. We had travelled to a few festivals, so we decided to go ahead and organise it."
Ernest, who was originally from Waterford had been a member of the Navan Male Singers for around 12 years at that time and happily took on the job of hosting a festival along with some of his fellow choristers.
He is still a director of the festival, along with Sean Lynch, and spent 35 years as secretary until that role was taken over by Marie Mullooly five years ago.
"That first festival took place in Navan Community Centre - it was just a competition for choirs.
"Today, there are 60 choirs, some of them 100 strong, and we have soloists, opera singers and instrumentalists."
The Navan Community Centre was the only venue for the first festival, but this year there will be six venues around the town catering for around 4,500 people," he adds.
Ernest recalls that the early days were very different and there was no promoting of the event on twitter or Facebook like today.
The Navan Choral and Instrumental Festival engages talent from all age groups by hosting competitions for primary and post primary school choirs, as well as youth and adult choirs. It also hosts solo singing, opera singing and piano recital competitions. In 2018, new instrumental competitions were introduced and provide an opportunity for musicians of diverse genres to showcase their talent, network and further their musical careers.
"The festival aims to promote and celebrate musical excellence and quality performances, while providing artistic encouragement to all the participants," said Ernest.
"The competitions provide an opportunity for participants, in a friendly and supportive environment, to showcase their talent and improve their standard of performance. Adjudicators provide constructive feedback and written commentary to all choirs and soloists to encourage and advance their musical growth.
"The festival recognises that the Irish Language it at the heart of our culture, and the Irish Language competitions in our festival programme, allows choristers the opportunity to engage with and perform traditional Irish songs, and to embrace our heritage through song."
The instrument competitions were only introduced last year and they include competitions for piano, strings, woodwind, brass, accordion and percussion instruments.
Another of the more recent innovations in the Young Opera Voice which gives a break to you people 29 and under - and there is a top prize of 1000 for that competition.
The festival began hosting the National Choir of the Year competition 15 years ago - a major coup for the Navan organisers. "It has encouraged much bigger choirs to take part."
It takes place on Sunday 12th May in the Newgrange Hotel.
Today, the festival attracts a lot of sponsorship with the main sponsors including Meath County Council, Boyne Valley Tourism, Foras naGaeilge, Credit Union Plus and local businesses.
"When we first started we went around the local businesses and they kindly gave us cups to present to the winners and we still have those today as perpetual cups for the various competitions.
"We are extremely grateful to those businesses and families that gave us that support in the early days of the festival," he says.
Cups reflect history of town
The social, community and business history of Navan is written in the titles of the cups and trophies handed out at the choral festival over its 40-year history. They include: (PC=Perpetual Cup) - The Jim Byrne PC, The Michael Dunne PC, Rotary Club Navan PC, The William J Murphy PC, St Mary's Credit Union PC, The McGoona Kitchens PC, The Tom Foster PC, Bishop Smith PC, The Paddy Newman PC, The Callaghan Family PC, The Sean Keelan PC, The Tara PC, The Dermot Callaghan PC, The Children of Lir Bog Oak Trophy, The Meath Chronicle Cup, The Sean Creamer Trophy, The Maire ni Scolaigh Trophy. Pictured above are Kate Lynch, Ernest McBride, Marie Mullooly, and Sean Lynch of Navan Choral Festival, with the cups which will be awarded.