A New Irish Christmas

Over recent years I have started some new Christmas traditions.  One of these is going to the “Ireland in Christmas Praise” concert by New Irish Arts, which was last Friday night in the Waterfront Hall.

For those who have never heard of New Irish Arts, they were formed in 1994 by the Irish contemporary hymn-writer Keith Getty. They now have several hundred members in both a choir and orchestra and a few years ago formed a Youth Choir.

Their Creative Chief Executive is the ever extravagant and extremely talented Jonathan Rea. Jonathan, a Cambridge graduate, spent 10 years as Director of Music at Bangor Grammar School before starting to work with New Irish Arts. Jonathan arranges most of the music himself to add the New Irish twist to a lot of well-known songs, which is always an enjoyable experience.

New Irish Arts are a very busy organisation – they play in many churches all over Northern Ireland, lead worship for half of ‘New Horizon’ in Coleraine in August, have their residential for the youth choir and have just started a partnership with Belfast Bible Club to run a course for music in the local church.

One of the highlights of their year is their Christmas event which has gone from strength to strength over recent years. It used to be in the Ulster Hall before they packed that venue out and it has been in the Waterfront Hall for a few years.

Friday night’s concert opened with the traditional German carol “In Dulci Jubilo” and was followed by the first soloist of the evening (Stevie Johnston, worship leader at Glenabbey Church) with Hillsong’s “Born is the King”. We then got our first opportunity for some audience participation as we joined with the choir, orchestra and youth choir for “O Come All Ye Faithful.” To hear 2,000 people singing, plus a choir and orchestra, is always an amazing experience.

The next item was a brilliant adaption of the traditional “O come, O Come Emmanuel” with Victoria Schmidt as the soloist. Vicki studied law at QUB and passed her bar exams in 2013 before deciding to concentrate on music full time. After hearing her own, somewhat haunting, version of this hymn, it isn’t difficult to see how gifted she is musically and I she builds on her success so far.

“Starry Night” followed which is a traditional Irish melody with additional lyrics by Jonathan Rea and Sylvia Burnside before it was the turn of the Youth Choir for several non-Christmas related songs which, as Jonathan said, was to show everyone that they can do more than just carols. Some of these songs were written by the Eastbourne-based Pete James and several feature on the Youth Choir’s new CD, ‘My Lighthouse’, which was rehearsed and recorded as part of their residential week in August 2015

It would be very easy to say that the youth choir were good just because they are young and it wouldn’t be seen to be nice to criticise them, but this choir really are something special. There are around 80 children and under the direction of Jonathan and along with some adult volunteers, their standard of performance was genuinely fantastic.

The Robert MacGimpsey classic “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” followed, made famous my Andy Williams, Kenny Rogers and many others, with Sylvia Burnside as the soloist. Sylvia trained at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama and works as a singing teacher for all ages and is somewhat of a New Irish ‘hit’ with every crowd. The first half closed with some more audience participation in “Hark! The herald angels sing” with, of course, the New Irish twist.

The second half started with “It’s Christmas”, a medley of songs by Chris Tomlin,  “Your Name” and “What Child is This” with Katherine Park singing as the soloist.

At every Christmas event, New Irish support a Christian charity and we heard from William Matter, Northern Ireland Area Partner Development manager for Operation Mobilisation (OM). William shared about the work of OM in Eastern Europe and how they are supporting the local churches with the migrant issues that they face. It was so encouraging to hear that OM raised nearly £9,000 from the concert and this will be used to help with the on-going crisis in the region.

Pete James performed the Graham Kendrick song “Thorns in the Straw” before the youth choir took to the stage again. We were then transported back to the mid-1990’s with the Cliff Richard (yes, you did read that right) song “Saviour’s Day”. It’s at this point that I’ll admit that I do actually quite enjoy that song, but I have rarely heard it performed.

We returned to Vicki Schmidt for “Rose of Bethlehem” before a reflection by Barry Forde, Methodist and Church of Ireland Chaplain to Queen’s University. He said he had be very challenged by what he had heard from William about the plight of the refugees which had made him rethink what he was going to share, and I am so pleased that he did.

He told a story from October 2014, when a young woman arrived outside the chaplaincy who played the same 4-bar phrase on her accordion, which Barry described as ‘haunting’. She was outside some of the student houses, day after day, and he said that his main concern was for the students’ welfare. Barry said he was challenged by the attitude of the students – when the house immediately behind where she played had their Christmas dinner, they invited her in to share their dinner, they bought her a basket of food and they walked her home. Barry shared the illustration of this girl, Lucia, who was seen as insignificant by those who walked past her, as events 2,000 years ago also began with two insignificant people. He ended with challenging us to see Jesus in the least of us, to see the message of hope in the lowliest of places and challenged us to go there, love there and serve there.

“A King Is Coming To Town” followed before the final item in the programme, “Joy to the World”, and a final bout of audience involvement. The New Irish faithful sitting around me were somewhat annoyed to not see “O Holy Night” on the programme but thanks to some insider knowledge, I knew that they were finishing with this.

I absolutely love the New Irish version of this song and Sylvia Burnside is a fantastic soloist. A lot of people around me, including myself, spent the duration of this song with their eyes closed as the orchestra and Sylvia sent shivers down us all.

There is a lot of people who would need thanked (and it would take too long to name them individually) but I think it is fair to single out Jonathan, Events Manager Clara (and her maternity cover Alannah) and stage manager Michael for all of their hard work to make the concert so enjoyable.

If you have never experienced a New Irish concert before, check out their website for their upcoming performances – the concert in the Waterfront Hall in September with Keith and Kristyn Getty is a must – and come and see what the fuss is for yourself!


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  1. jsawilson

    Good review, James: did you mean to mention the couple of pieces from Pete James himself?

    • JCbelfast

      Hi Alan

      I mentioned one of them and forgot the other one but it’s changed now…thanks for the reminder!

  2. Hi James -Thanks for this very helpful review of what was a wonderful evening’s praise and worship. We are still receiving gifts towards the Syrian refugee crisis and hope to bring in £10k which will be used to help the local OM teams and churches respond to the people as they migrate from the Middle East to Europe. I particularly appreciated The Rose of Bethlehem song. William

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