It is a chilly February evening and in an upstairs room of the Bracken Court Hotel, Balbriggan, snatches of Jackie Wilson’s “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” rise from the lungs of the nearly 60 men and women present.
The Balbriggan Gospel Choir was set up just before Christmas by two local women, Jayne Robinson and Sharon Kelly, to give a “gospel treatment” to songs old and new. Already, it has attracted nearly 100 members, and it’s scheduled to sing in the town square on St Patrick’s Day, ahead of the main parade.
For Robinson, putting the choir together has had a redeeming effect, for her personally and for the people around her.
“I came to hear the Dublin Gospel Choir singing here one night, and it was two weeks before Christmas,” she says. “I had suffered a bit of depression in the last six years and … a fire was lit that night. And I just put it out all over social media.”
When Robinson put word out that she wanted to set up a gospel choir, her friend Sharon Kelly was intrigued. “I write my own music, but I haven’t done it in a long time after my children came,” she says.
Growing up in Ballymun, Kelly had performed in two bands: reggae band Zero, and rock band Silica. “One of my first performances as a solo singer was by accident, because I was a backing singer in Zero,” she says.
“Our front man wasn’t able to make it one night so i took over and thought ‘Oh My God, I don’t what to do!’ But facing the audience was the most emotional experience of my life and my love for music grew from there,” she says.
Since Robinson and Kelly came together they have enlisted a drummer, keyboardist, bass player and a guitarist/choir director. Robinson says that – despite the word “gospel” in the name of the choir – “There’s no religion.”
The choir is open to all, Robinson says. “Any nationality, no matter where you’re from, and we want to specify that: no matter where you’re from, we really want everybody to come together.”
The choir will sing a wide range of songs, old and new, Kelly says.
“Absolutely there will be hymns if it’s gospel choir, but we were thinking about taking modern songs and gospelizing them with voices,” she says.
“Something like ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ by Nirvana and turning it into a gospel song,” she says. “At the moment we’re starting with ‘Something Inside So Strong’ which I think is a great anthem for Balbriggan at the moment.”
It is just after seven in the Bracken Court Hotel, and choir director Dave Flood is taking aspiring singers through warm-up exercises before the main rehearsal.
The group launches into “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher”, and Dave waves his arms.
“Where’s Anne? Hands up all the Annes?”
One or two hands are raised, and Dave spreads his arms:
“Higher and Higher. Not Higher Anne Higher!”
This earns him a rumble of laughter, and the singing begins again. Kelly and Robinson are soon passing glasses of water to hoarse singers.
Although Dave is paid for his work, the other committee members and musicians are volunteers. Feedback from the new members is positive.
“It’s about camaraderie and a community spirit,” says Roisin O’Neill, a young mother who comes with her husband. “In the long term, Balbriggan needs to feel good about itself. Lately, people here have been feeling the need for something positive here.”
Says Derek Kenny: “I’ve never done anything like this before. You can see why it’s needed when you see how many they’ve got in the first few weeks.”
Robinson says the positive response has meant a lot to her.
“We’ve had mails from people that had sat at home on their own for the last couple of years with depression,” she says. “They’re coming and thanking us at the end of the night, saying, ‘You’ve no idea what you’ve done here.’ And that’s what we wanted.”
Fingal County Council has enlisted the Balbriggan Gospel Choir to sing four songs on St Patrick’s Day. The singers will assemble in the town square ahead of the parade.
Local Councillor Sinn Féin Malachy Quinn came along to the first of the choir’s weekly sessions and was so impressed he joined up there and then.
“It’s a very good thing for the town, given that Balbriggan has got a lot of bad press recently,” Quinn said.
At the recent rehearsal at the Bracken Court Hotel, Dave strums his guitar, keyboardist Stephen Grimes backs him up, and the crowd sings lustily along.
Some of them have sung with musical groups and choirs before; some are complete novices.
Sharon Kelly, who writes her own music, says that any newcomer can gain a new and better singing voice from a group like this one.
“There’s a line that’s been said: if you can talk, you can sing,” she says. “Absolutely, you can if you’ve some kind of vocal ability. It can be taught but I believe it’s in the heart.”