The Choir in 1942

Bobby Barden is the longest serving member of Saint Bartholomew’s Choir, having been with us for almost seventy years. He wrote the following memoir in September 2002 which talks about his first year in the choir, beginning in September 1942.

We were in the fourth year of World War Two. It threatened to spill over into Ireland and food rationing was intensifying. Private cars were off the streets and the trams had to cease by 9:30pm each evening. The thoughts of what might happen if Mr Hitler turned his attentions to our shores were alarming. Stories of the holocaust were leaking out and the fears of evacuation were very real. All in all a frightening time for a shy, timid ten year old.

Time came to turn for home. Together with my friend Willie Bredin, his mother, brother,two sisters and my mother and sister we had come down from Ranelagh along Marlboro Road to Herbert Park. We were to take a different route home, down to Ballsbridge then up Clyde Road, why this longer route I wondered? It was a Sunday, in August and our attention was drawn to what was happening at the very beautiful church we were passing. There was a procession coming out of the church, fourteen boys in red cassocks with short white surplices followed by an elderly priest. The time will have been mid-afternoon and this was to be my first introduction to Saint Bartholomew’s Church and Saint Bartholomew’s Choir at the end of their 3.30pm Children’s Service. The procession made it’s way from the main door and disappeared into what I know now to be the Vestry door.

“I’d like to be one of them” I can recall saying. Whether my friend Willie Bredin had the same enthusiasm or said so to his mother I can’t remember but he and I were destined to travel a new road, in tandem!

Early one week-day at the end of August, Willie and I were dressed in the best our mums could find and we made our way down to the octagon shaped Parish Hall beside Saint Bartholomew’s. We lived in the most modest of circumstances with the war threatening to spill over into Ireland. This meant that clothes were rationed, not that my parents could afford much. I remember a spotted shirt which was made out of a blouse of my fourteen-year old sister which I flatly refused to wear. I n very short supply were tea, white bread, cocoa and meat with fruit such as bananas and oranges non-existent as also were luxuries such as sweets and chocolate.

I was very, very nervous when mammy told me, we were going to be auditioned for the choir. The attraction in those hard times for our parents was the eventual gaining of scholarships into Saint Andrew’s College, then on Clyde Road or The High School, then in Harcourt Street.

I had one year earlier attended such an audition only to have mother told, “go and have his tonsils and adenoids out and then bring him back” That was Dr Hewson of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral and there was no way I ever wanted to see that place or him again. I held him totally responsible for the horrific pain I suffered in the Adelaide Hospital. I believe I must have held the record for the shortest post-operative stay ever, when, on refusal to cease crying, I was bungled into a hackney and taken home the same day.

Now back to the audition! Mr Fry, the Choirmaster and to me, then, one of the most hansome and meticulously dressed men I had ever met, greeted Willie, myself and a couple of others more warmly than we expected. Willie went ahead of me. I thought he sounded awful emitting a strange strangulated, breathy sound and attempting some scales and the verse of a hymn. My spirits lifted and I decided Mr Fry must be a saint as he didn’t laugh. Instead he told Mrs Bredin that Willie had talent and showed promise and so Willie was in!

Then it was me! I was taken from ‘my mother’s lap’ and put standing beside the piano. Again I marvelled, Mr Fry was clearly the cleanest, tidiest man I had ever met. He also had the longest fingers I had ever seen and a most distinguished long nose.

I sang ‘I’ll walk beside you’ which my Uncle Owen has taught me some time before plus some scales. I will have been very timid which Willie wasn’t and my voice was small but I was fairly musically-accurate and both tonsils and adenoids were gone. Mr Fry declared that I was in! That then was the start of a 60 year plus adventure!

My joining date was the first Sunday in September 1942 sitting as a probationer in the front pew on the decani side. (south side) About one month later I was robed and without any ceremony, as happens today, I was placed near the altar end of the decani stalls. I was in awe of the four ‘corner boys’ Sammy Cole, Cecil Armstrong, Reggie Balbirnie and Tony Constable with George Reeves, Noel Houlden, Brian Draper and Mick Purcell next in line. They exercised full authority over us all meting out punishment when they weren’t obeyed, this was the regime and we accepted it! Then I was enthralled with the gentlemen of the choir many of whom were as old as my parents. The bass line Messrs Ryder, Mahon, Fogarty, Price and Guy L’Estrange. The tenors Fred Leach and Robin Armstrong. The altos were Frank Thomas and Robin Luke. These were mostly semi-professional singers or divinity students .

Singling out just a few characters Mr Ryder generously gave us each two shillings and sixpence each Christmas,a princely sum in those days. Mr Mahon could sing lower than anyone else I heard at that time and Aubrey Fogarty had a ‘syrupy’ voice but we unkindly called him ‘fog-horn’ though not to his face.

Guy L’Estrange was ordained and following some years in Ireland ending up as Deans Vicar and Hon.Canon of Canterbury Cathedral. Fred Leach we affectionately called ‘la la Leach’ came from Bristol Cathedral and he and I had many a discussion as we shared our Sunday walk homes to Ranelagh, he lived on Charleston Road at the time. Robin, the Reverend Robin Armstrong had a lovely mellow tenor voice but loyalty to my friend Mr Leach positioned Robin only second in the tenor line. With no cars around Mr Fry had two upstairs bicycles each with their distinctive handle-bars baskets.

Dear Canon Simpson the vicar for some 34 years walked everywhere and preached incessantly about the benefits of exercise. He will have been around 65 years of age at that time but he insisted on everyone kneeling with a straight back and no ‘slouching’. He also insisted that we should all bow our heads at every mention of the Lord’s name in prayer. Canon Simpson never owned a car using walking and public transport to get around. I was to grow to hugely admire him over the years that followed. The Canon’s son, Alan Simpson had a wonderful M20 BSA motorcycle to fulfill his role as a dispatch rider in the Irish Army and this was regularly parked at the steps of the Vicarage. He was so warm-hearted and often allowed this ten-year old to attempt to start it. Alan, of Pike Theatre and’ Rose Tattoo’ fame rose to the rank of Captain. The other cleric was curate Reverend Danny Clarke who had a silken baritone voice. I can still recall his beautiful intoning of the litany. Dan was a real ladies man and the ‘apple of my fourteen year old sister’s eye.

Now to return to choir affairs! This was then a time when a conductor for a church or indeed either of the cathedral choirs was frowned upon so Mr Fry controlled all from the organ using his mirror which was adjusted to the lead decani boy. He gesticulated most freely to keep in touch with the choir as he lovingly accompanied the liturgy. His accompaniment of the psalms and his concluding voluntaries won my greatest admiration. With the times that were in it, no cars around Mr Fry had two up-stairs bicycles each with distinctive handle-bar baskets.

Our normal Sunday was Matins 11:00am, Sung Eucharist 12:00pm, Children’s Service 3:30pm and Choral Evensong 7:00pm. When you were confirmed you had to attend Holy Communion at either 8:00am or 9:15am following which kindly Mrs Simpson entertained us to a light breakfast, more about that later. Practice for boys was Monday and Wednesday afternoons, then on Friday evening with the gentlemen. There were of course several weekday Festivals and Saint’s Days in addition to funerals, weddings and an occasional concert.

All this represented an enormous change in a ten year old’s life-style. Travel, preparation, practices, added to services, took close to 20 hours out of most weeks. New friendships were forged with the other choristers while previous relationships with neighbours and school friends faded into the background. Saint Bartholomew’s with it’s unique liturgy and music crowded into a young boys everyday thoughts and aspirations. The clergy, the choirmaster, the gentlemen of the choir, the senior boys and also the parish officers were all looked up to.

Whilst having a sense of awe, how different Saint Bartholomew’s was within the Church of Ireland would not have been that obvious .My earlier churchmanship will have revolved around Sandford Parish Sunday School and an occasional appearance in Sandford Church .I will have also have experienced with my mother the simplicity of Saint Columba’s, the Ranelagh ‘tin church’and daughter church of Christ Church, Leeson Park. While Saint Bartholomews was viewed as being very high church when related to the rest of the Church of Ireland there were no vestments, incense, reserved sacrament nor sanctus bells.

Saint John’s Sandymount alone featured this and at that time had it’s role outside the Church of Ireland. I cannot remember ever seeing Canon Simpson wearing a coloured stole nor encouraging the title of Father before his name. One custom that he and his successors pioneered was that academic hoods were never worn at the eucharist. We choirboys did distinguish between the various church seasons by wearing purple cassocks at low, Lenten and Advent services and red on festivals.

Oh! Those light breakfasts, well kindly Nell Simpson served us a cold meat which I seem to recall was polony and we didn’t favour it at all. Shamefully most of it ended up behind the tall dresser where for some years it ‘perfumed’ the dining room. If a dignitary was visiting we were awarded a boiled egg as a treat. Let it be understood their generosity in receiving a bunch of choirboys into the vicarage for food was much appreciated. The Vicarage was of course that huge house linked to the parish hall and now carrying on good works as the home of the worthy Knights of Malta.. It also housed the Travers Smith Library which is now in the R.C.B.Library, Braemor Road.

The choir was to play a great formative part in the initial 12 months up to September 1943, acting as an anchor point following the death of a mother mid 1943 at the cruelly young age of 46 years. It is frightening to imagine how much more forlorn and devastating circumstances would have been if a mother had not decided mid year 1942 to introduce her son to Saint Bartholomew’s Choir .

Deo Gratias,
September 2002