In 1945, just after a rehearsal of the Palestrina Choir at St. Mary’s Pro-Cathedral, the choir’s director, Dr. Vincent O’Brien, fell into a conversation with one of the curates, Father Andrew Griffith.
What if they could bring together the best singers of the Catholic parishes of Dublin to form one great choir that would perform large-scale oratorios? Dr. O’Brien expressed a desire to conduct Handel’s Messiah one more time before he retired. Perhaps the new choir could debut with a performance of this piece, which had premièred in Dublin in 1742.
Archbishop John Charles McQuaid gave his full support to their idea. On 16 December 1945, the Amalgamated Catholic Choirs of the Diocese of Dublin — a choir comprised of 360 singers — made its debut at the Capitol Theatre with a performance of Handel’s Messiah, conducted by Vincent O’Brien. Dr. O’Brien’s son Oliver conducted the second performance.
Dublin audiences embraced the new choir. Eminent attendees at the first performance included President Séan T O’Kelly, Taoiseach Eamon De Valera and Alderman PS Doyle, the Lord Mayor of Dublin.
Buoyed by its success, the choir was formally convened in 1946 as Our Lady’s Choral Society, with Archbishop John Charles McQuaid serving as President, Father Griffith as Director and Vincent O’Brien as Chorus Master, a position he held until his death two years later. Almost immediately OLCS assumed its position as Dublin’s premier choir.
The choir began a rewarding relationship with the national radio service Radio Éireann in 1947, when its Symphony Orchestra accompanied OLCS in the Irish première of César Franck’s Les Beatitudes, conducted by Jean Martinon.
Another milestone was the choir’s first performance of Verdi’s Requiem on 3 October 1948. In 1952, the choir undertook another ambitious work: The Dream of Gerontius by Edward Elgar. After nine months of rehearsal, OLCS performed the work under world-renowned conductor Sir John Barbirolli, accompanied by Barbirolli’s own Hallé Orchestra. The performance was a triumph.
In June 1961, Princess Grace and Prince Rainier of Monaco were deeply impressed by a performance of the Berlioz Requiem by OLCS. They invited the choir back to Monaco, where OLCS performed Beethoven’s Choral Symphony in the Courtyard of the Royal Palace, sharing the bill with violinist Yehudi Menuhin.
In April 1966, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising, OLCS sang A Terrible Beauty is Born, a specially commissioned cantata by the Irish composer, Brian Boydell.
Over the years, Sir John Barbirolli had become, to quote former Chorus Master Oliver O’Brien, “a true inspiration and greatly loved friend of OLCS”. Barbirolli served as guest conductor on a number of occasions, including the concerts in the National Stadium to mark the choir’s 25th anniversary in 1970. These performances of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius and Verdi’s Requiem were the last choral concerts he conducted.
In 1976, Oliver O’Brien’s work with the choir was recognised by Pope Paul VI , who made him a Knight of St. Gregory the Great.
When O’Brien retired in 1979, after 34 years of service with the OLCS, Proinnsías Ó Duinn was named the new Music Director of OLCS.
At this point of transition, the choir’s leadership realised that if OLCS were to achieve a professional standard, the choir would have to become more self-critical. It decided each member would be re-auditioned every three years. This policy, which continues today, allows the Music Director to maintain the balance and quality of the choir.
A new version of Our Lady’s Choral Society appeared in the early 1980s. The number of singers had been reduced from over 300 to 120. Under the musical direction of Ó Duinn, this leaner choir was able to focus on major oratorios as never before.
In September 1981, as part of the celebrations that marked the opening of the new National Concert Hall in Dublin, OLCS performed Beethoven’s Choral Symphony, accompanied by the RTÉ Symphony Orchestra.
The choir marked the 250th Anniversary of the first performance of Messiah with the first of its “Messiah in the Street” performances in Fishamble Street in April 1992. In May the same year, Trinity College Dublin celebrated its 400th anniversary. OLCS was one of the choirs that made up the 1000 singers who performed Mahler’s gigantic Symphony No. 8 at the Point Theatre.
In celebration of its 50th Anniversary in January 1995, OLCS embarked on what is surely one of the most ambitious challenges ever undertaken by an amateur choir in Ireland: it performed the two oratorios of Elgar, The Apostles and The Kingdom on consecutive evenings, as the composer had intended.
In February 2009, Our Lady’s Choral Society had the distinction of being the first choir to perform Handel’s Messiah in the Vatican. The choir was invited to perform the oratorio in the Paul VI Audience Hall for Pope Benedict XVI and an audience of 6,000 on the occasion of the 80th Anniversary of the Vatican City State.
Today, Our Lady’s Choral Society holds a unique place in the diverse, cosmopolitan city that Dublin has become. Under the guardianship of the Archdiocese, OLCS welcomes members from all religions and all walks of life. And for many people living in Dublin, the Christmas season simply does not begin until they’ve heard at least one performance of Handel’s Messiah by Our Lady’s Choral Society.