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I am often asked why and how the Warrington Male Voice Choir, one of England’s oldest and highly acclaimed male choirs, became so deeply involved in promoting hope and reconciliation in Northern Ireland. The simple answer perhaps lies in the caring human response of ordinary people to an ongoing tragic conflict.
The choir, which traces its formation to 1898, has a long-standing tradition of altruism. Throughout its history, it has assisted numerous charity organisations by its concerts, and has responded loyally in times of national emergency, especially during the two World Wars. Nevertheless, the vicious horror of the IRA bombing of busy Warrington town centre on Saturday 20th March 1993, in which two children were killed and fifty-six people injured, prompted a unique and very special initiative for this amateur organisation.
Many choir members, through their various professions, were involved that day and in the weeks that followed, dealing with the human consequences of the tragedy. The town and its people had been inadvertently drawn into Northern Ireland’s Troubles.
Within days of the outrage, the choir assisted the victims of the tragedy financially, and sought to create links with groups in Ireland working for peace. A capacity Benefit Concert arranged by the choir raised over £11,000 but, more significantly, rang to a call by Terry Waite for the people of Warrington to demand peace and seek reconciliation; to make Warrington the turning point in the political violence of Northern Ireland.
The choir was uniquely placed to carry forward this call for reconciliation. Its appeal to audiences is direct: through the sincerity of the music, the quality of its performance, the presentation and physical presence of the choir’s large numbers. The choir had the administrative structures to maintain a sustained initiative, to deliver high-profile events to audiences representing all traditions, and to encourage and give tangible support to groups working for peace.
By the August of 1993, Concerts for Reconciliation had been arranged in Dublin and Drogheda for the following Easter, to mark in Ireland the first anniversary of the bombings. Dublin, because the public outrage at the Warrington bombings had been expressed most strongly there; an estimated 20,000 people had rallied in the city’s O’Connell Street to denounce the bombings. Drogheda, because historically that city epitomised the human tragedy of past Anglo-Irish relations. Christmas concerts for Peace and Reconciliation were to follow, in Belfast in December 1994, sharing the city’s first Christmas after the IRA Ceasefire, and in Londonderry in December 1995, the city where the Troubles began.
An invitation to participate in the 1996 St. Patrick’s Day parade in Armagh, Ireland’s ecclesiastical centre, signalled the endorsement of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland. The choir became the first English group to receive such an honour and enjoyed an unprecedented welcome on the streets of Armagh. The choristers were presented with sprigs of shamrock by Cardinal Cahal Daly, Primate of All Ireland, in a powerfully symbolic gesture.