Downpatrick Choral society: The Great Hall, Downshire

Contributor: Matthew Campbell

When St Patrick’s Choral Society first performed, it was on an old and highly inadequate stage in the Canon’s Hall, situated in Irish Street Downpatrick (no longer in existence). In early 1980 the musical group moved to Downpatrick Leisure Centre as this venue had a large multi-purpose hall with an equally large stage. The capacity of this hall could exceed 500 persons and hosted a variety of events from concerts, musicals and even sporting events. Both venues served their purpose adequately and certainly did not detract from the group’s success.

The society changed venues once again in 2001 when they moved to The Great Hall auditorium situated in the Downshire Hospital Estate, Ardglass road Downpatrick.

The Downshire Hospital, or ‘County Down Lunatic Asylum’ as it was originally named, opened in 1969 and was one of the final phases of district asylums constructed in a programme that had been on-going since 1820. The design of this grand building was overseen by the Government Board of Works architect, J. H. Owen, however a second local architect, Henry Smyth, was also employed to oversee the detailed design and supervision of the building project.

The Down Recorder at the time described it as nothing less than colossal, measuring nearly one thousand feet across the main frontage. It had the capacity for 333 patients (Kelly, A Grand Old Lady, 2012).

At the heart of this grand building was the Great Hall. Originally the hall served as a multipurpose venue for patient day activities and meals as well as conferences, however the hall went through a significant period of refurbishment in 1998 with the intention of preserving it as the only interior surviving from the Victorian asylum. The regeneration scheme cost over £750,000 to complete which involved removing the suspended ceiling that had been installed in 1969, and exposing the original roof trusses which are integral to the halls iconic look now. The inclusion of a high vaulted ceiling also greatly enhanced the natural acoustics of the hall. The plan to open this hall to the public as a prime entertainment venue in the area was a complete success and the renovation has brought a variety of cultural, musical, social and educational activities to Downshire. In the past two decades the hall has hosted, pantomimes, musicals, concerts, rallies, exhibitions and even banquets. The hall is now ‘home to St Patrick’s Choral Society who are continuing the strong entertainment tradition associated with the venue. (Kelly, 2012)

As the years have moved on, the hospital has closed down ward by ward (mostly due to lack of funds for the upkeep of such a large building). The construction of the new Down Hospital on an adjacent site meant that many services were transferred to the new building and the old Victorian site began to become obsolete. The building is now owned by the South Eastern Health & Social Care Trust who still use it regularly to host training days and other staff organised activities. Some of the newer wards were also converted into office spaces and are still in use today.

In 2013 the Newry, Mourne & Down District Council (originally named Down District Council before a merger in 2013) moved its council buildings onto the site with the construction of a new civic centre. Shortly after this move, the local PSNI and fire services also moved to a newly built headquarters on this site revitalising the estate.

However, through a century of change and re-development, the iconic Great Hall still stands at the heart of the magnificent building and remains as just a small reminder of the history enclosed inside this once asylum.


Dr Sean Kelly, A Grand Old Lady, (published by South Eastern Health and Social Services Trust, Dundonald, 2012)




Downpatrick Choral Society: The early years

Contributor: Mathew Campbell

Just like any new company or indeed business, the beginning can be a bumpy process and indeed sometimes slow to take flight. Speaking with some past members of St Patrick’s Choral Society, they never fail to remind me that it was those early years that produced some of the most wonderful stories and memories. Nothing was as uniform as it might seem today and the term “rough and ready” may have been thrown into conversation now and then, however this did not stop a dedicated group producing some wonderfully memorable productions.

St Patrick’s Choral Society held its inaugural concert in 1962 in the beautiful surroundings of The Great Hall auditorium situated in the Downshire Estate. I find this quite apt as The Great Hall is now, and has been, the home of St Patrick’s Choral society since the late ‘90s.

Founding member Maureen Keohane recalls how “a small group of people with a common interest in singing, came together in the front room of Mrs Kathleen Rafferty’s house in Irish Street to prepare for the debut”. Those rehearsals around the fire are quite a juxtaposition to how rehearsals currently run in the local parish hall. I’ve heard many times how those initial weeks of rehearsal during cold winter Tuesday and Thursday evenings were responsible for some lifelong memories. (Kelly, Keohane, 40th Anniversary Concert Programme) 

After the success of a series of concerts from 1962-63, the society embarked on their first musical production ‘The Bohemian Girl’, an opera by Alfred Bunn and Michael Balfe. Bunn was a well known English theatre manager who held managerial positions at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London, and also the Theatre Royal in Birmingham between 1823 – 1830. Balfe on the other hand was an Irish composer, violinist and opera singer. He also notably spent some seven years directing Italian Opera at Her Majesty’s Theatre. In total, Balfe has composed over 29 operas from a career spanning 40 years. Their most famous work ‘The Bohemian Girl‘ may be remembered by us now for producing the haunting aria ‘I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls’ sung many times by another founding member and respected local singer Anne Quinn. ‘The Bohemian Girl’ ran from Monday 2nd – Wednesday 4th March 1964 in The Canon’s Hall, Downpatrick (now the site of the Patrician Youth Centre). The leading roles were played by Oliver McGrady (Devilshoof), Bernard McDevitt (Florestein) and Maureen Keohane (Queen of the Gypsies). I also found it quite interesting to note the price of a programme in 1964 which was 6 pence (equivalent to £1.16 in 2018) compared to today’s price of £3.

This production was very much a local effort with many members turning a hand to scenic design, costume gathering and various other ‘behind the scenes’ jobs, a factor of the society that I can proudly say is still very much the same today.

Scenery was for many years the creation of award winning set designer Mr Francie Morgan. I have had the pleasure of training under Francie and can endorse that even today he is still a master at his craft. Sadly many of his lavish sets were destroyed some years later when the Canon’s hall caught fire.

(Keohane, 40th Anniversary Concert Programme)

The years which followed saw the society begin to explore the world of light operetta and notably works by Gilbert & Sullivan. It wasn’t until 1982 that the society staged what we class today as a pure musical theatre piece, that was indeed a production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s ‘Oklahoma’. The society had wonderful success staging productions of ‘The Mikado’ (1970) and ‘The Pirates of Penzance’ (1973) and in the 15 years since its inauguration, consolidated itself as a thriving music society.

The early years of St. Patrick’s Choral Society were by all accounts a very special time. I am very privileged to still perform with some of the founding members of the company and also humbled to discover that my late grandfather Mr Brendan Rice was a member of the gentleman’s chorus of that first production in 1964.

Past Productions (1962 – 1980)

1962    Inaugural Concert

1963    Series Of Concerts

1964    The Bohemian Girl

1965    Maritana

1966    Carmen (Concert Version)

1968    Trial By Jury

1969    The Gondoliers

1970    The Mikado

1971    HMS Pinafore/Trial By Jury

1972    Concert

1973    The Pirates Of Penzance

1974    Iolanthe

1975    The Mikado

1976    Waltzes From Vienna

1977    Concerts

1978    The Arcadians

1979    The Merry Widow

1980    Gypsy Love


Letters written to St Patrick’s Choral Society by Gerry Kelly & Maureen Keohane for publication in the 40th Anniversary Concert Programme (2002)

List of previous productions

Downpatrick Choral Society: A new kind of musical theatre

Contributor: Matthew Campbell

Many people today tend to disregard the light operetta as a form of musical theatre, or even forget that it is in fact an early form of musical theatre rather than a different genre. It cannot be classed as purely opera if we are to compare it to say Mozart’s ‘Don Giovanni’ for example, and William Gilbert (of Gilbert & Sullivan) once remarked during a rehearsal for ‘HMS Pinafore’ that “unfortunately this is not Italian Opera, but only a burlesque of the worst possible kind” (Gilbert, Gilbert & Sullivan; A Biography, 1935) however there is no doubt that the early works of Gilbert & Sullivan do indeed resemble an operatic style even if they are not to be considered so.

What we are subsequently faced with is a new genre under the title ‘Musical Theatre’ that many regard to have begun in 1927 with the publishing of Jerome Kerne’s ‘Showboat’. This new era of music theatre seemed to be much more appealing to a wider audience of both spectators and performers and indeed the volume of works that have emerged since is quite remarkable if compared to those under the genre of light operetta. This genre within itself appears to be uncapped as even today new musicals are written and categorised as musical theatre meaning that the genre spans almost a century with no sign of it slowing down.

Why do I mention this? Well as I was examining a list of past productions by St. Patrick’s Choral Society, I noticed something rather strange along the timeline. From 1964 – 1981, all of the productions staged were of an early music theatre or light operetta genre (works such as The Mikado, Iolanthe & The Gondoliers). However, in 1982 the society staged a production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma, a musical planted quite firmly in a sub-genre that is now know as ‘The Golden Age’ of musical theatre (works written between 1943 – 1959).
See for more information on ‘The Golden Age’ of musical theatre,

I found this abrupt shift in genres quite surprising and indeed the timeline that followed did provoke some questions.

1982 – Oklahoma
1983 – The Pirates of Penzance
1984 – Patience
1985 – Waltzes from Vienna
1986 – The Gondoliers
1987 – Fiddler On The Roof
1988 – Carousel
1989 – Ham
1990 – The Sound of Music

Notice how after Oklahoma in 1982, the society returned to older, more familiar repertoire of an earlier genre for the following four years and I am intrigued as to why. Was it that the audience reaction did not agree with a new genre of work and therefore they retreated to a safer option, or perhaps the performers themselves did not like the new style of work and preferred to return to what they were more comfortable with. Either way it seems rather strange that after one production they company then retired the idea for at least four years before attempting something ‘different’ again.

Now in 1987 when they staged ‘Fiddler on the Roof’, there appears to be a more consistent trail of the works which followed as they at this point had taken to performing several works from the new ‘Golden Age’ of musical theatre. I can only assume by this stage that the reception of these newer genre style pieces was more welcoming as from that moment moving forward there appeared to be a turning point in the types of work being staged, all of which was newer more commercial material that wouldn’t be out of place on the West End of Broadway stage today.

I must point out that in 1989 the company were months into rehearsals for a production of ‘South Pacific’ when the licensing company withdrew the performance rights to the production without warning. At this point the director at the time, Peter Kennedy, produced a script for a piece called ‘Ham’ which he had written himself. With three weeks to go until opening night, the company took to learning this brand new piece which by all accounts went down very well with the local audience.

Hesketh, Pearson, Gilbert & Sullivan; A Biography (Hamish Hamilton LTD. 1935)
Fiddler on The Roof – 50th Anniversary production programme (2012)

Downpatrick Choral Society: Welcome and Introduction

Contributor: Matthew Campbell

In my first blog of this research project, it is my intention to introduce you to my topic and outline my intentions for this area of study. As an MRes student at Queen’s University Belfast I am about to embark on my final dissertation which will look at the history of amateur musical theatre in Northern Ireland and potentially the south of Ireland also. As part of this research, I have chosen to create this blog which will take you on a historical exploration of an amateur musical theatre company that I have been involved with for some 15 years, St Patrick’s Choral Society, Downpatrick.

Downpatrick is a small town located approximately 21 miles south of Belfast. Traditional music has always flourished in the town, especially with the establishment of the old ‘folk club’ in Pillerwell Lane (no longer in existence), however in 1962 a new musical group formed which would broaden the variety of musical genres performed in the town.

The late Declan P. McGrady B.A founded St Patrick’s Choral Society in 1962. Not only was Declan the founder of the society, but also the first musical director. The intention of forming the society was not for the purpose of performing musical productions initially, however that is how the repertoire naturally developed.

McGrady had quite a long and illustrious musical background having joined St Patrick’s Church Choir in the 1950s. From there he was persuaded to “give the organ a go” by the then organist Sister Patrick (later known as Sr. Dorothy). After studying the organ, McGrady began to travel to Belfast each Saturday night in the late ‘50s to study composition as it was his intention to consider arranging some choral pieces himself. After a few short years McGrady had built up a reasonable collection of material which he had composed (sometimes under the name of Patrick Dancel) and subsequently in 1962 with the support of the then Parish Priest Very Rev. Canon Connolly and Right Rev. Monsignor Joseph Maguire, he proposed the conception of a choral group who would perform some of these pieces, amongst others.

It has never been documented or recorded however I can only assume that the name ‘St Patrick’s Choral Society’ was a derivative of the already existing St Patrick’s church choir which was of course based in St Patrick’s Church Downpatrick.

McGrady did admit that he was always more interested in four part choral arrangements, and it was these choral arrangements which made up much of the programme for the societies inaugural concerts in 1962/63, however he remembered with pride the society’s first two full musical productions, ‘The Bohemian Girl’ (1964) and ‘Maritana’ (1965). Whilst the society still to this day produce concerts from time to time the focus has very much shifted to full musical works which inevitably was a natural transition.

McGrady gave up the society a number of years later when they refused to even consider attempting a production of Rossini’s ‘Stabat Mater’. This would have been an overly ambitious task for the still considerably new company and McGrady’s abrupt departure only consolidated his interest in traditional choral material rather than the light operettas of Gilbert & Sullivan which were becoming more popular within the town.

Welcome to the Music Projects blog

Welcome to the new Music blog established by SARC at Queen’s University Belfast. This blog, which will appear at irregular intervals, will highlight student work at different levels of study (BMus, M-Res, PhD); it may feature one-off blogs on individual projects, or a series of blogs on a particular theme.


Readers can expect a series of blogs this spring on the history of the Downpatrick Choral Society, written by M-Res student Matthew Campbell.

Dr Sarah McCleave, editor

School of Arts, English and Languages

22nd March 2018