A brief history of the Choir
From the very beginnings of history, singing has been integral to worship in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, and from the earliest times, part of the Christian life, with references to Jesus (Mark 14.26) and the early Church “singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Ephesians 5.19).
When Saint Patrick built a church in Armagh on the Height of Macha in 445, singing was part of his community’s life of daily prayer and worship. This religious foundation (which predates that at Canterbury by 152 years), centred on the “Great Stone Church”, of which Patrick was Abbot and Bishop, is one of the oldest in the British Isles! The Archbishop, whose office gradually incorporated that of the Abbot, is still head of our Choral Foundation. Patrick had also established a school on the Hill, and most religious houses took in and educated children; and so it is reasonable to assume that the community of priests and monks was joined, from the earliest times, by boys in the singing of God’s praises. In the 9th century the community was augmented by members of a religious brotherhood, the Ceile De or Culdees, the “Companions of God”, who came from near Dublin and settled here, devoting themselves to singing the daily services in the Quire. With the Dissolution of the monastic houses in the 16th century, this community of singers was also gradually dispersed.
However, by Royal Patent issued on 23rd May 1634, the choral foundation was re-established as “The College of King Charles in the Cathedral of St Patrick, Armagh” and “The Royal College of Vicars Choral and Organist”, consisting of six vicars choral (two of whom were to be in Holy Orders), and an organist. Choir members wear scarlet cassocks to signify this historic Royal foundation. The Commonwealth of the 17th century saw the choral foundation disbanded once again, but then revived by Archbishop Thomas Lindsay (1714 – 1724), who substantially re-endowed it. A further Royal Charter, granted by King George I in 1723, expanded the choir by the addition of two vicars choral and made provision for the education of four boys.
Despite the Disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1871, the 19th century witnessed a flourishing of the choral foundation, with the boys educated at their own choir school, and with the gentlemen and organist employed and accommodated in the Close. Armagh’s most illustrious Chorister of this period was Charles Wood. The son of a Lay Vicar Choral, he was born at 11 Vicars’ Hill in 1866. He became Professor of Music at Cambridge, a noteworthy composer, with some of his work still in the Choir’s repertoire, but above all a great teacher of composition.
The vicissitudes of the 20th century and a diminution of the value of its endowments, saw substantial changes in the choral foundation, with the closing of the Choir School, the cessation of a daily sung service, and an end to tied-accommodation in the Close. The Choir became a purely voluntary body, but did not die out. It evolved! The latter decades of the century saw a significant rise in membership and enthusiasm.
The 21st century Choir continues to play a central role in maintaining Cathedral worship at two choral services on a Sunday, on certain holy-days during the week, and at services of national and international significance. Most recently on the 20th March 2008, the Cathedral Choir was joined by the Children and Gentlemen of Her Majesty’s Chapels Royal to sing the Office for the Royal Maundy at which Her Majesty the Queen presided. New structures have recently been introduced, which aim to provide flexibility in the modern era but which remain true to our fifteen-hundred year tradition of singing God’s praises on the Hill of Armagh.