Memories of Mayo

Eoin Conway directs Cór Fingal, a prize-winning mixed adult choir based in Malahide.

Eoin wrote this blog after reminiscing with his singers about their shared fond memories of Mayo Choral Festival, which was scheduled to take place this week. Like many festivals, the organisers have postponed the 9th Mayo Choral Festival until May 2021 in the hope that conditions will be more amenable to choral concerts by then.

The first Mayo Choral Festival took place in 2012.

Cór Fingal — at the time singing as Enchiriadis Chamber Choir — competed and won in its inaugural year. This has happened a couple of times since and the journey from Dublin to Mayo has become a fruitful one for the choir.

We like to return there because it’s always been a smoothly-run festival (from our perspective at least; I haven’t been behind the scenes!), and its timing at the end of May is a great way to finish the term.

I love how the festival takes over Castlebar for the weekend. All the locals know about it. Businesses welcome the influx of visitors. Families driving through the town beep and wave while the singers walk between venues.

What happens at a festival does not stay at the festival.

Events become choir lore, passed along endlessly between members in the form of “do you remember the time when…?”

- Do you remember when [name] had to colour his ankles with permanent marker because he had no black socks?

- Do you remember when we had to compete at 9:00 in the morning and our pieces went a full major third flat?

- Do you remember the time when [name] crashed his car into a ditch on the way to the venue? (Trick question, because that happened more than once)...

Last year’s memories of Mayo include practising our songs outdoors (because the lack of acoustic leaves mistakes nowhere to hide); winning the Sacred Music competition; and the torrential rain which poured over us as we walked the (surprisingly long) route from the GMIT hall to the festival club.

Some memories are hilarious, in the “I guess you had to be there” sense. Other experiences were stressful, but in time even “leaving Dublin at 5:00 and trying to arrive in Castlebar for a performance at 8:00” fades into a fond memory...

Planning for a festival involves tradeoffs and what-ifs. Should we sing our less-impressive pieces in the opening round, and save our best material for the final, or would that run the risk of us not getting through? Or there’s this one: obscure and difficult contemporary music tends to score highly at competitions (provided you can sing it), but is usually not so popular in concerts. So which should we prioritise in our repertoire for the year?

Another tradeoff is experienced by the singers every year: if they qualify for the final, they’ll get to perform for a bigger audience and have a chance to win more prizes. If they don’t qualify for the final, they can go to the pub sooner. So the singers are happy with either outcome.

Unfortunately, we can’t be there this year. In March, when the Fingal International Festival of Voices was postponed to 2021, followed shortly after by the Cork Festival, and then Navan, we held out some hope that Mayo might still happen. When Declan Durcan phoned me to deliver the bad news, I remember thinking they must have decided to err on the side of caution. The end of May still seemed far enough in the future, surely all this COVID business would have blown over by then, which shows how much I had underestimated the situation. 

We hope to return to festival singing next year, but for now the future is uncertain. We’ll be following the advice of scientists and health experts about when and how it might be safe to resume singing together, but for now these are difficult times for choral singers. Or, if you can manage to be upbeat about it, these are “challenging” times.

That’s why it’s important to think back on the good times every so often, and to hope it won’t be too long before we can start making some new memories together.

Find out when Cór Fingal get back to rehearsals via their Facebook page.

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