Show-stopping concert to raise funds for Derry's Long Tower Church

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With a sensational double bill concert - featuring soprano Margaret Keys and The Three Priests - St Columba’s Long Tower is pulling out all the stops for the much-needed restoration of its historic church organ.

The fundraiser, on the evening of Sunday March 24, will be held in St Columb’s Hall, a venue regarded for many decades as the second spiritual home of the parish.

Harking back to the heyday of the hall when Fr Edward Daly, as he was then, ran a series of legendary Sunday-night concerts - this promises to be a must-see celebration of exceptional musical talent.

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Long Tower parishioner, Margaret Keys, has performed her classical and crossover repertoire in some of the most famous concert halls and churches in the world.

Margaret Keys and The Priests will perform at the special concert for St Columba's Long Tower Church in Derry.Margaret Keys and The Priests will perform at the special concert for St Columba's Long Tower Church in Derry.
Margaret Keys and The Priests will perform at the special concert for St Columba's Long Tower Church in Derry.

A clip from Margaret’s recent Christmas concert tour was viewed by a staggering 1 million viewers online. She has featured on the BBC’s long-running Songs of Praise and BBC Proms and sung for celebrities and heads of state in parliaments and embassies across the globe.

Sharing a bill with Andrea Bocelli and Aretha Franklin among other artists who performed for Pope Francis when he visited the US in 2015 was the acme of Margaret’s career to date. In front of a live audience of 35,000 people in Philadelphia, her performance was broadcast to 1.5 million viewers worldwide.

But it is her collaboration with two Derry priests, Fathers Eugene and Martin O’Hagan, and friend and fellow-cleric Fr David Delargy – that has electrified concert goers across Ireland and the UK in recent years.

The velvety blend of Margaret’s polished soprano with The Priests seemingly otherworldly voices has reinvigorated the recital format and proved a hit with audiences.

Margaret Keys.Margaret Keys.
Margaret Keys.

The Priests, for their part, have enjoyed near superstar status in classical circles since signing a recording deal with Sony back in 2008 followed by the release of their first album.

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The phenomenal success of that first album landed them a Guinness World Record for ‘fastest- selling UK debut for a classical act’, turning Platinum in Ireland, the UK, Sweden, Norway and New Zealand.

Three more albums as well as several sell-out tours followed, consolidating their success nationally and internationally.

Although they made their breakthrough in the noughties, in reality trio had been singing together for many years, since schooldays in fact at St MacNissi College Garron Tower, Co. Antrim.

The Priests.The Priests.
The Priests.

Over the years The Priests have continued to donate the majority of their royalties to various charitable causes in Ireland, England and throughout the world.

And their ministries have remained front and centre their musical careers.

Sunday March 24’s gala concert is an important homecoming for the O’Hagan brothers and the first time The Priests have performed in the city in almost five years.

A handful of emerging talent will also perform on the night - but anyone coming to savour the vocal talents of The Three Priests and Margaret Keys will not be shortchanged.

Margaret is expected to perform many of her best-loved melodies from a repertoire that includes Gounod’s Ave Maria, Let This be our Prayer, Nella Fantasia (air of Gabriel’s Oboe), Scarlet Ribbons, The Old Man, The Flower Duet, After the Ball was Over, the Lake Isle of Innisfree, Barcarolle, You Raise Me Up, Bridge Over Troubled Waters and Time to Say Goodbye.

Fr Gerard Mongan, Long Tower Adm. was instrumental in bringing this exceptional collaboration about: “I’ve known Margaret for many years – since I first came to this parish as a curate. Like so many of our parishioners, the Keys family has a profound connection to this church. I knew Margaret’s late father Bill Keys well and she has certainly inherited his deep love and loyalty to this church and parish. So when Margaret agreed to perform a fundraiser – I was delighted but not entirely surprised. The hard part for her was tying down a date, because she really is jetting all over the world.

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“As for the priests, well the connection is probably obvious! They too are incredibly busy with their ministries first and foremost, aside from musical commitments. But this was a gig they simply couldn’t refuse, thank God! And I also want to thank Anne Marie Gallagher of St Columb’s Hall who helped us secure such a magnificent setting for our concert. I don’t think there is a more atmospheric concert venue in the city or diocese and the hall’s place in the history of the parish is the stuff of legend.”

Marking the close of Long Tower’s 240-year anniversary, Fr Mongan added that the concert “quite literally” afforded the opportunity to make a longstanding gesture of ecumenical gratitude.

“Back in the late-18th century, when funds were being raised to erect the Long Tower, Protestant Earl Bishop Hervey famously donated a significant amount of money to the building fund. In a spirit of reciprocity we intend to return the favour with a donation to the Church of Ireland’s restoration project at Christ Church on Infirmary Road. Examples of mutual respect are just as powerful now as they were then and the sheer joy of music and song has always helped bind people and communities together in this city.”

However Fr Mongan explained much of the proceeds from the concert will go specifically to the restoration of the Long Tower’s organ. The organ was substantially repaired and overhauled over the years and only the case of the original organ built in 1833 has survived.

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“Like other highly ornate historic churches, it takes a lot of money to maintain St Columba’s Long Tower. I suppose with so many other urgent repairs over the years, the organ took a back seat.

“We’ve had the experts in to examine it and apparently, it’s feeling its age! We thought it would be a fitting tribute to the close of the 240th anniversary to launch a campaign to raise money for its refurbishment. The pipes are in a particularly poor state and many of what should be working pieces need replaced. This is, as you would expect, highly specialised work and it is costly. Rather than appealing again to our congregation, who have generously supported the church and the hall for decades, we decided to put on a vocal event that would be enjoyed and remembered by music lovers across the city and beyond for many years to come.

“Given the calibre of our performers and the beauty of the setting, we genuinely think this is great value for money!”

Repairs will breathe new life into old organ

The original Long Tower pipe organ was built in 1833 on the west gallery of St Columba’s Long Tower at a cost of £324. The work was undertaken by Bruce, Small & Co of Edinburgh, the same firm who rebuilt the organ of St Columb’s Cathedral in 1829, then trading under a variation of the name.

In 1907 a major rebuild of the Long Tower organ was carried out by Telford of Dublin. By the late 1940s many of the features had been replaced including the Great Dulcina and a German Flute 4, but by “some miracle” we’re told “the Mounted Cornet of 1833 survived” – sadly only to be excised in the 1970s. Today the original casework is the sole part of the installation that dates back to 1833.

The organ was cleaned and repaired by Hill, Norman and Beard in 1948. And in 1975 a further overhaul was made to it including substantial repair and replacement of the pipework.

It is understood some of the 16ft pipes at the back date from 1907. The Oboe is also 1907 (with bottom 12 from 1975) and the Tierce 1975.

Over the years parts of preexisting large venue organs were incorporated into the Long Tower organ including sections from 1st Presbyterian Ballyeaston and Duncairn Presbyterian Belfast. Further minor works were done again in 2005.

A recent assessment by the Pipe Organ Preservation Co of Ireland found parts of the Long Tower organ are in need of major repair and upgrading.

Tickets for the concert are priced at £25 and can be purchased by contacting the Parochial House on 02871262301 or emailing [email protected] or darinaghboyle15@gmailcom

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