The town of Ballyclare is part of the Borough of Newtownabbey and is situated north of Belfast, Northern Ireland.
The roots of Ballyclare Male Choir were first set in 1920 with the formation of a male choir, mainly from men returning from the Great War. Often referred to as the Legion or Old Comrades Choir, its first conductor Joseph Howieson was a Scot and an ex-service man. He was married to a local girl and ran a grocers shop in Ballyclare Square. Joe's great nephew, Jack Montgomery is a member of the current choir. Another early and well-known conductor of that choir was a farmer's son, John Patterson. Through time, John was to become one of Ireland's leading tenors and eventually he became a distinguished singing teacher.
In the early 1930's a Belfast insurance man, Albert McClenaghan, was appointed as Precentor in 2nd Ballyeaston Presbyterian Church and he had a burning ambition to re-form the male choir. One of his church choir members, W J Stewart OBE was the instigator and organiser of what was then to be called Ballyclare and District Male Voice Choir. With Albert as its first conductor and William J as chairman, the initial twenty four choristers came together in September 1933.
The last direct link with the inaugural choir was only broken in October 2013 with the death of Sam Stewart in his 101st year. Sam was one of the choir's first members and the brother of its founding chairman W J Stewart. During his time, Sam served the choir well as President, accompanist for forty years, deputy conductor for thirty years and in addition, he also held the post of secretary for thirty eight years. This unprecedented service was formally recognised in 2000 when he was awarded Honorary Life membership of the choir.
Albert McClenaghan was an instinctive musician with no formal training but, he did not play an instrument. However, he had a tremendous gift for musical interpretation and arrangement coupled with the ability to convey his ideas to the choristers. In his twenty eight years as conductor he led the choir to many successes in festivals across the UK and participated in many local broadcasts. Unfortunately his leadership came to a premature end in September 1960 when due to failing health he was forced to relinquish his position.
His successor in the early 60's was Adam Donaghy and he had the promise of continuing the same high standards set by his predecessor. Sadly though, this was not to be. After two excellent years Adam died quite suddenly and the choir was once again looking for another conductor.
As that door closed, another opened and this heralded the Thompson era. William I Thompson MBE, otherwise known as Billy and a disciple of Adam Donaghy, was destined to lead what is now known as Ballyclare Male Choir for the next thirty three years. A man of boundless energy and a fine tenor in his own right, no false note or early entry ever escaped his notice. "I could spit on'im from here" was an expression occasionally heard at practices often followed by a stern gaze and a neat line in animated footwork. Billy was a staunch churchgoer and lay preacher. Such was his expertise and popularity that at one time he was also conductor of four other choirs. He established a wealth of connections with churches and organisations and this led to the choir securing engagements across the length and breadth of Ireland. Under his leadership there were numerous successes at provincial festivals with other notable winning performances further afield in Morecambe and Wharfedale. For a number of years during Billy's tenure the choir was accompanied at the piano by Naomi Hughes. Sadly in 1997 Billy was diagnosed with a terminal illness, a legacy of his shipyard days. A deeply religious man, he was finally called to greater glory in February 1998. His wife and life's companion Edna continued her association with the choir as a Vice-President until she passed on in March 2015.
Brian Agus succeeded Billy Thompson and conducted the choir for the next nine years until 2007. A true musical professional, Brian expected, and achieved a very high standard from the choir. Once when asked "Why does the choir sing such difficult pieces?" he replied "Quite simple, because it can". His efforts were duly rewarded through success at many choral festivals not only in this province but especially in England where the choir had the pleasure of winning the Male Choir trophy at the 100th anniversary of Ilkley Musical Festival. The recordings in "Rhythm of Life" and "Sing For Your Life" are part of his legacy.
Phyllis Boyd became conductor in September 2007. Her choral selections of, "something old, something new" were warmly received by the choir members as they responded to her leadership. There was a resurgence in membership during this time and it must have been very satisfying for her, when only in her second season, to look down and see many new faces in the ranks. Phyllis was well supported at that time by the other lady of the choir, accompanist and deputy conductor Rosemary Basher.Rosemary had been a popular member of the music team since 1987 and rarely missed a practice or engagement. Phyllis and Rosemary both resigned from their positions with the choir at the end of the 2011/12 season, however Rosemary maintains her links as a Vice president.
No history of the choir would be complete without some reference to its international connections. Cec George, now well into his nineties and a past member of the bass section, was on a business trip to Germany in 1979 when he had a chance meeting with a member of a German male choir. It transpired that the choir, MGV Sangerkreis, already had an exchange visit arrangement with male choirs in Norway and Finland. Very quickly Ballyclare was invited to join the group. Visits were initially arranged between the two choirs in Germany and Northern Ireland during the early 1980's. In 1984 all the choirs, including Hoybraaten Sangforening from Oslo and Laulu Veljet from Hameenlinna in Finland came together in Germany. Further gatherings were subsequently held in 1988 at Oslo, 1992 in Belfast and finally during 1995 in Finland. Ballyclare choir made its last visit to Germany in 2000 with concerts in Wolfrath and in Dorsten which is twinned with Newtownabbey. Another international connection was a visit to Neuchatel, Switzerland during 2009 to meet with another male choir whose late conductor Ian Woods was a native of North Antrim. Whilst there, the choir participated in three concerts, a church service and enjoyed the many delights that Switzerland had to offer.
To begin celebrations in it's 80th anniversary year and with a new conductor Paul Briggs and accompanist Sheelagh Greer the choir travelled to Tenby in May 2013, the birthplace of the present choir secretary Dick Grey, and to join forces with the local male choir. Besides participating in a concert, the highlight of the weekend was a chance to hold an informal choral recital in St David's Cathedral, Pembrokeshire.
When the choir was formed in 1933 there were approximately twenty four members and they came mainly from the local area. In 2014/15 the story is very different with an enrolment of fifty members. There is still good support from around Ballyclare, Ballynure and Larne but the catchment area extends much further afield with members travelling from Newcastle, Saintfield, Crawfordsburn, Lisburn and Belfast.
Finally, and most importantly, mention must be made of the support given to all the choir members by family and friends. A band of loyal travelling support can be seen at every engagement.
With confidence, the future of Ballyclare Male Choir is assured for many years to come.
© 2015 Ballyclare Male Choir