Bridge Over Troubled Water
“Learn to light a candle in the darkest moments of someone’s life.
Be the light that helps others see: it is what gives life its deepest significance.”
I will never forget the day. Smoke billowed from the smouldering ruins with savage intent. Screams rose from the mire shrouded in crimson ashes that fell from the sky. We looked on aghast through the lens on the bridge, silent witnesses to an atrocity that defied all reason. Something had happened on our island that would tinge the landscape for evermore. All had changed, changed utterly. From here, there could be no going back.
August 15th, 1998, Omagh will always be synonymous with the worst terrorist attack that visited Northern Ireland during the troubles. I, like so many others, watched in disbelief when the images flashed up on the screen that Saturday evening; me chasing the dream hand in a card game in our family pub, the ’64’, in Gorey and they, blood-soaked and bewildered, cradling each other beneath the haze. Nothing was said in ’64’ as the reel rolled yet an unspoken truth connected us at the rawest of levels to the grief of a people we had never met before.
On the walk home that evening, my gaze was drawn to the lengthening shadows of the trees as they bowed in quiet homage to the setting sun. I know now what I sensed then; a line had been crossed. No ideology, no cause, could justify the killing of so many women, men, children, including a mother of unborn twins, and leave the living with wounds that would never heal. 31 lives lost in an instant – for what?… Against the darkening skies, the light of the distant stars became more visible. Against the brutality of this car bomb, the stoic dignity of a people shone like a beacon to guide me home.
15 year old Claire Gallagher had arranged to meet friends in Omagh that day. Their weekly ritual of catching up on the latest gossip over coffee was interrupted by the piercing wail of sirens outside. Police were alerted to live explosives in a car near the Court House at the upper end of the town. People were urged to move to a hastily erected security cordon on the lower Main Street until the threat had passed. Hoax or not, the call had to be taken seriously. The warning was designed to mislead, to draw people to the very place where the bomb was concealed – young and old alike moved in unison to their unknown fate. An eerie silence descended upon deserted streets as Claire and her friends left the sanctuary of the café behind.
Warnings of this kind were routine in the Province that summer. It was the inconvenience, more than any impending danger, that bothered people the most. Prime time Saturday afternoon, this disruption needed to pass, and quickly, so that everyone could get on with their day. Shop assistants, day trippers, locals and visitors alike, even Spanish students visiting the town with their host families from Donegal – all corralled into this one space under the reassuring glow of the afternoon sun. Claire was standing with her friends, chatting away, oblivious to the 500 lb bomb in a small, red Vauxhall Cavalier just metres away. 3.10pm the bomb exploded. Time stood still.
2 decades on, Claire is married to Ryan Bowes and they have 2 boys, Oran and Conor, and a daughter Cara. Within months of the bomb, she was back in school completing her O level exams on the way to realising her childhood dream of becoming a piano teacher. By her early 30s, she had opened her own Music Academy in Omagh – inspiring her students with her infectious positivity and unwavering belief in each one of them. What makes Claire’s story all the more remarkable is that she has achieved all this without sight. In Claire’s world, there are no limits. No explosion would define her future. She would!
The shrapnel sprayed through the air with merciless abandon. There was no order. Some walked away; others not so lucky. Little did Claire know that from that moment on she would never see again. It could be easy for her to feel sorry for herself; to long for just one glimpse of her three beautiful kids, to miss seeing the radiant faces of the children she tutored as they played the piano scales solo for the first time, to want to revel in the colours of the fragrant flowers or her favourite dress, to need to see the face of the man she loves. I’m sure there are times she feels it. Yet, her warm smile beams knowingly at all that happens around her; her antennae finely tuned – her coordinates undimmed.
March 1999, Claire came to Waterford to accept the St. Angela’s International Peace and Justice Award. There she was, sitting alongside Phil Coulter, playing Danny Boy on a grand piano mesmerising the large gathering of students and parents. Each note floated with haunting simplicity to a place only she could see. We had become private spectators to a courage mustered from somewhere deep within. We all felt it. Not a word was spoken. We wrapped up the evening with a wee surprise for our special guest – a poignant rendering of ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ with our own Folk Group in the school joined through the airwaves on one giant screen by Claire’s classmates from their Music Room, Loreto, Omagh. Two choirs, miles apart, soared in fragile hope to signal a new dawn. A spark had been lit!
Little did we know that what started that night 20 years ago would grow into what we now have today. Claire asked me to promise the link would continue and I owed it her to do make sure it would. Within a decade, we’d be singing at her wedding. The origins of the choir are etched deeply into our sound. Together our voices and our harmonies rise as one to reveal how difference and discord can give way to something greater. Over time, the choir evolved to include members from Gorey, Dublin, Belfast, Midleton, Kilkenny and Tullow to become the Island of Ireland Peace Choir. Each of the 40 voices in the choir, each person in the choir, each harmony line, no matter how diverse, has its rightful place. Our song and our story exist side by side.
Over the past few years, we have performed throughout Ireland, most notably on the infamous steps of Northern Ireland’s Government Buildings, Stormont and in The Odyssey Arena, Belfast. We’ve had the honour of singing the anthems in the Aviva Stadium, Dublin at soccer internationals and opened the 1916 commemorations in the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin. The choir travelled to Sri Lanka in 2008 to sing in the Children’s Homes that we had raised funds for in the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. We visited Messines, Belgium in 2014 to mark the 100th anniversary of the ‘Christmas Peace Truce’ and more recently did a series of concerts in Krakow in 2017 in line with our commitment to bring our message of peace to places synonymous with persecution. Yet it is the smaller events that define us as a choir. Our origins lie in Omagh, our inspiration; Claire.
Kate O’ Neill from Avondale, Waterford, now living in Perth Australia, recalls one vivid memory from her 10 years in the choir. “It was a Sunday morning in Sri Lanka and the choir had come together to sing for the locals in a Church in Matara. Looking into the crowd I couldn’t but imagine what these people had been subjected to in the 2004 Tsunami. Many lost loved ones, some who were never found. Yet this morning there was what could only be described as a calmness in the church. People smiled as we sang, and it was then I realised that the sound we created was more than just a sound; it was a message and we all felt it… 10 years on and almost 10,000 miles away from home the Peace Choir holds a special place in my heart. Not only did I make wonderful friends and memories, it has helped shape the person I am today.”
John Kelly, from Omagh, recalls enduring memories from his days in the choir. “In the years following our Sri Lanka trip, the then Waterford-Omagh Peace Choir travelled the length and breadth of Ireland, from the steps of Stormont, to Tall Ships on the River Suir, to rain soaked steps outside Waterford Crystal during Thomas Francis Meagher weekends, to community churches on the peace walls just off the Shankill Road in West Belfast. All of us who remain involved to this day often talk about the Peace Choir being a “constant” even in our busy adult lives. It’s not always easy to take the time out to drive 8 hours in one weekend, often in one day, for a workshop or a concert, but when we do, we are immediately reminded why we do just that; the harmonies click, the dynamics ebb and flow and we feel, just for those few hours, that we have “come home”. Here’s to the next 20 years…”
Carmel Doyle from Tullow, Co. Carlow reflects on the distinctive sound of the choir and what it is that makes the choir unique. “The choir sings with a soft, beautiful tone, heavenly harmonies that I really fell for when I heard them for the first time five short years ago. Our workshops and concerts give me the chance to escape, to leave behind the normal worries all of us carry. We know how to enjoy ourselves too and the time to chill and mingle is always important. We are strong in our love of the music and our commitment to the choir. I am very lucky to be among its number. Long may the choir continue to be force for good – like a symphony played by the passing parade, it’s the music of life.”
Sarah Bates captures what it is that draws her to the choir. “Edmund Rice Centre – Taizé on the first Friday of every month. The chapel is in darkness except for the light of the candles and the moon. Our voices flow from the silence in harmony, lolling ourselves and all present into a meditative state. The Peace Choir is my musical and spiritual anchor. In a world where I can get lost in the busyness of work, study, living… the peace choir provides me with monthly opportunities to get back in touch with my voice, with the music within me, and simply, to sing. It brings out the best in me. It challenges me greatly and has taught me I can face my fears, sit with my fears, and overcome my fears to sing another day. I am grateful and privileged to belong to this choir, to this community which represents hope and peace.”
Claire. Our last words reach out to you. You have brought us together. Your light shows us the way. Thank you.
“Walk on, walk on
What you got they can’t steal it
No, they can’t even feel it
Walk on, walk on
Stay safe tonight.”
(‘Walk On’, U2)
Dr. Phil Brennan is founder and musical director of the Island of Ireland Peace Choir. This March, the choir will celebrate their 20th anniversary.
Special thanks to Kate O’ Neill, John Kelly, Carmel Doyle and Sarah Bates for their contribution to this blog and to all members of the choir, present and past, for the many great memories and the amazing friendships. To Elaine, for selecting the images and photos to go with this and for being a true companion for all of us in the choir over the years. We’d like to express our deepest gratitude too to Drew and Linda Hamilton, Omagh, and to the Edmund Rice Brothers, Waterford for being with us every step of the way.
Phil and his wife Elaine invite you to share in one of their specially tailored Caminos through Waterford County during 2019. The Waterford Camino experience blends walks/cycles, motivational talks and music.