Derry’s Colmcille Ladies celebrate 45 years in the music business

editorial image

They’re the women who sang so beautifully, they made President Bill Clinton cry.

For four and a half decades, the Colmcille Ladies Choir has been spreading musical joy in Derry, around Ireland and across the world.

And, along the way, they’ve made a number of famous friends. What other choir has sung for Paul Newman, Pope John Paul II and, even, Mickey Mouse in Disneyland?

This year, the ladies are celebrating 45 years in the music industry. And they say they’ve had a fantastic time singing together.

Firm friendships have been formed, generations of women have performed, and amazing memories have been made.

But this is a choir that means business.

The Mayor of Derry and Strabane Colr Elisha McCallion pictured with the Colomcille Ladies Choir at a reception held in the Guildhall to mark their 45th anniversary. DER0316GS041

The Mayor of Derry and Strabane Colr Elisha McCallion pictured with the Colomcille Ladies Choir at a reception held in the Guildhall to mark their 45th anniversary. DER0316GS041

Hours and hours of practice have gone in to make these Derry ladies one of the most iconic choirs in the world. They compete at the highest level and can sing in seven languages.

It all started in 1970 when Bishop Edward Daly called a meeting asking musicians, singers and people interested in drama to come to a meeting in St Columb’s Hall to try to breathe some new life into the city.

Three things happened after that meeting. A pantomime committee was formed, the ‘71 Players were born and the Colmcille Ladies Choir held their first rehearsal - in St Columb’s Hall.

Four of the original members are still choir members today - Sheila Carlin, Ursula Clifford, Anne Gallagher, and Angela Morrison, who was the youngest member - aged just 15.

“This group did exactly what I hoped they would. It gives me so much joy that they are singing as well now as they were 45 years ago.”

Bishop Edward Daly

Under the baton of Derry conductor Patrick Carlin, the choir was an overnight success. His daughter, Sheila, who took over conducting the choir when her father retired due to ill health in the 1980s, said the time was right for a new choir as there had always been a great tradition of singing in Derry.

“The choir was very family orientated,” she said. “We had mothers, daughters and grand daughters - that’s what kept us going. A lot of women had sung at home and in the factories.”

In 1977, the Colmcille Ladies began their first tour of the East Coast of USA. This was to be followed by a tour of the West Coast and a further six trips to the other side of the Atlantic.

Ursula Clifford said: “We were very lucky because the Irish Government had sponsored that first trip to America. It was the 70s and they wanted to put out the message that life was still going on in Ireland despite the Troubles.

Anne Gallagher (Secretary), Angela Morrison (Treasurer), the Mayor of Derry and Strabane Colr Elisha McCallion, Ursula Clifford (Co-ordinator) and Sheila Carlin (Musical Director) pictured at a reception held in the Guildhall for Colmcille Ladies Choir celebrating their 45th Anniversary. DER0316GS042

Anne Gallagher (Secretary), Angela Morrison (Treasurer), the Mayor of Derry and Strabane Colr Elisha McCallion, Ursula Clifford (Co-ordinator) and Sheila Carlin (Musical Director) pictured at a reception held in the Guildhall for Colmcille Ladies Choir celebrating their 45th Anniversary. DER0316GS042

“In 1994, we met President Bill Clinton at a Speaker’s Lunch on Capitol Hill.”

Anne Gallagher revealed that the choir sang at an event where the tickets were $1,000 a head.

“A few of us had our picture taken with Paul Newman, he came up and said that he loved us singing. We sang ‘Danny Boy’ and President Clinton cried.”

Sheila recalled how tight security was at Capitol Hill.

“The whole of Pennsylvania Avenue was sealed off,” she said. “When we looked outside all we could see was the choir’s bus and the President’s car.

“President Clinton was really lovely and spoke to everyone in the choir.”

The choir’s trip to Rome in 1982 to celebrate the Silver Jubilee of Bishop Edward Daly is one of their most memorable performances.

“We had a private audience with Pope John Paul II,” said Ursula. “We had to climb so many steps to the Pope’s private chapel. It was 6.30 in the morning. I remember the tears running down Bishop Daly’s face with pride when we sang.

“Afterwards, the Pope got his picture taken with every single person and we all got a pair of rosary beads which we will still treasure. They are a relic now.”

Sheila recalled how her father had composed a special arrangement of Chopin’s ‘Polonaise’ to sing for the Pope.

“My father did all the arrangements,” she said, “we never had to send away for any music. Playing for the Pope was a special moment.”

Patrick Carlin handed the baton to his daughter Sheila in the 1980s and she’s been at the helm of the choir since.

They’ve since performed on the ‘The Late Late Show’, ‘Peter Corry’, ‘Highway’ and recently had their own televised Mass on RTE.

“We’ve had such fun,” said Ursula. “So many memories, like the St Patrick’s Day in America when we were made corned beef and cabbage three times in one day!”

For Sheila, it was the time they sang in New Jersey when the theatre went on fire that she can still recall.

“I remember being at the side of the stage,” she said. “I was due to come on with the accordion, but I could see the smoke. My father just kept on conducting. Eventually, they told him to stop and, when we went outside, we continued to sing on the embankment.”

Angela Morrison said it was Sheila’s attention to detail that made the choir excel.

“We work hard and we have the discipline. You always look at the conductor, you stand a certain way,” she said. “I love being in the choir, there is such an affection among the girls. Genuine and long standing friendships have been formed.”

Bishop Edward Daly described the Colmcille Ladies Choir as a “wonderful group of women.”

“This group did exactly what I hoped they would,” he said. “It gives me so much joy that they are singing as well now as they were 45 years ago.

“The group was formed to help local women have a release from the drudgery of life in the 1970s. They’ve been all over the world and I’ve been able to travel with them. I remember our trip to the Vatican - and the Pope really enjoyed that. This choir has been a great part of my life and I am delighted to see they are still going strong and children and grandchildren have joined.”

As for the ladies - they’re celebrating their 45th anniversary but say - bring on their Golden Jubilee.,

The choir perform in 1977 before embarking on a tour of the USA.

The choir perform in 1977 before embarking on a tour of the USA.

The Colmcille Ladies Choir sing at the RTE studios.

The Colmcille Ladies Choir sing at the RTE studios.

Members of Colmcille Ladies Choir, attending their 40th anniversary dinner, held in the City Hotel.  (0610T09).

Members of Colmcille Ladies Choir, attending their 40th anniversary dinner, held in the City Hotel. (0610T09).