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Ruth Fleischmann

The Cork International Choral Festival has been taking place annually since 1954, with the sole exception of 2001.[1] About 5,000 choristers take part every year; they come from all over Ireland, from Britain, from the European continent, and now and then from as far away as Africa, America, and Asia. Over the sixty years there have been about 4,000 choir entries.
Photographs of Festival Directors, Adjudicators and Participants.

Moira PyneThe Festival started as part of An Tóstal, a national festival begun by Seán Lemass in 1952, a time of great economic depression and high emigration, as an attempt to set a process of innovation in motion that would lift Ireland out of the stagnation which had paralysed the country. This imaginative initiative was picked up with enthusiasm nationwide; senior army officers and Bórd Fáilte, the Irish Tourist Board, played a leading role in its implementation.

‌The first Tóstal began in Cork in 1953 with a pageant in which a large section of the business community took part; there were sporting events, Gaelic League activities, and a very varied arts programme, including a performance organised by the Cork Orchestral Society of Handel’s Messiah performed by the English Hallé Orchestra under Sir John Barbirolli, with Our Lady’s Choral Society of Dublin – in all 300 performers. The following year the Choral Festival was established, and two years later the Film Festival.

Aloys Fleischmann and Russian folk dancersThe Choral Festival set out

  • to encourage music-making at local level, to provide a forum for rural and small town choirs to present their music and compete with each other
  • to bring outstanding foreign choirs to Ireland and thus provide standards against which the national choirs could measure themselves
  • to set standards through panels of distinguished adjudicators, both Irish and foreign
  • to provide entertainment for a large audience by combining competitive with non-competitive performances interspersed with Irish and foreign folk dancing
  • to establish contact between the two parts of Ireland: a choir from Belfast attended the very first Festival; that bridge-building continued to be successful Festival policy right through the Troubles
  • to establish links with foreign choirs and dance teams and encourage Irish choirs to visit their counterparts abroad
  • to encourage choral music in schools – a schools competition was introduced in 1966
  • to bring the Festival to the city through outreach or fringe activities which have been organised since 1959. Visiting choirs sing for church services and give church recitals; choirs and dance teams perform in various venues outside the City Hall; foreign choirs give joint recitals with Irish partner choirs in their home towns in CountyCork.
  • to create incentives for the production of new choral music by Irish composers and to encourage Irish choirs to perform this music: since the beginning competitors have been required to sing one work by a living composer from their own country. From 1958-1961 there were two competitions for Irish composers: one for a new work, and one for a folk song arrangement; in 1962 the Seminar on Contemporary Choral Music was set up which commissioned up to four Irish and foreign composers every year to produce new works for performance at the university Seminar and at the Festival – since 1962, 128 works have been commissioned from 109 composers of 22 countries. 1972 brought a further initiative with the Seán Ó Riada Trophy competition for Irish composers.

The Festival from the beginning co-opted choir conductors on to the Festival Artistic Advisory Board, involving them in policy making. This led to many changes, among them the expansion of competition types: in 1966 a schools competition was introduced; in 1977 a plain chant and church music competition; in 1980 a youth choir competition. In 1988, the first year of Geoffrey Spratt’s directorship, set pieces were abolished, the competition structures altered considerably and prizes increased tenfold. He expanded the outreach activities and introduced the idea of having major orchestral choral works performed at opening gala concerts. All of this was maintained under John Fitzpatrick, who in 1998 began a further new project: the Composers-in-the-Classroom scheme; in 2000 he established a competition for light, jazz and popular music. 

‌One of the most striking feature of the Cork International Choral Festival is the extraordinarily dedicated and unswerving voluntary support it receives from a large active group of citizens from all walks of life. This sense of commitment has lasted in many cases over decades and in quite a number passed from generation to generation.CICF book cover

The perpetual problem down the years has been Festival financing. Cork City Council, Cork County Council and the Cork business community have given generous financial support, as have national corporations, the Irish Tourist Board and the Arts Council. It borders on the miraculous that the Festival has survived Ireland’s two major financial crises.

The Cork International Choral Festival was one of the reasons why Cork was designated European Cultural Capital for 2005. The city has been a gracious host to tens of thousands of European musicians over the past sixty years. May it long continue to do so, and may the choirs and dance teams continue to “bring the house down” with the applause given by the enthusiastic and generous Cork audiences so appreciated by all the participants.