Faithful or not, we can all rejoice in carols

Tim Wheeler
Tim Wheeler

Some of Northern Ireland’s best-known celebrities tell Helen McGurk about their favourite carol and why they love it so much

Who doesn’t love a Christmas carol? Whether it’s one performed with crashing chords on a church organ, sung with a thick layer of schmaltz by Bing Crosby, or belted out with enthusiasm by an out-of-tune school choir, there’s just something about carols.

Pamela Ballantine

Pamela Ballantine

We asked some well known Northern Ireland folk to tell us about their favourite carol and why they love it.

Colin Murphy, comedian

I’m not in the slightest bit religious but O Holy Night is the best. Cliche, I know, but it’s difficult not to be when you’re dealing with Christmas. Several reasons I like it but, the main one is it’s a solo so punters can’t join in and ruin it. There’s a key change in it that makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up too. It’s at it’s best when it’s stripped right back to soloist and with as little accompaniment as possible instrumentally.

Frank Mitchell, UTV weatherman and U105 FM presenter

It’s more a Christmas gospel song than a carol but it’s beautiful and it captures the real meaning of Christmas where the child is central to the story. The Child Jesus, the children in our family and the children of the world and it has that perfect line ‘we can all be children for a while’!

Every church should sing it, but in fairness there aren’t many priests or ministers who embrace Steve Earle and introduce him to the choir.

The song is called Nothing but a Child and it captures the journey of the Three Wise Men perfectly!

Denise Watson, broadcaster

Alan McKee

Alan McKee

My favourite Christmas carol is Little Donkey for several reasons.

It’s the main hymn we sing on Children’s Day in my church, Harmony Hill Presbyterian in Lambeg. All the wee kids love it. It also reminds me of my two girls’ nativity plays with Mary and Joseph and the manger. And when I was in the Brownies a long time ago I used to go carolling with the girls to Harmony Fold, the old people’s home, and it was our favourite song to sing to the residents. It also signals the true meaning of Christmas which is Christ’s birth in Bethlehem.

Dan Gordon, actor and writer

Four years ago I did some readings in St Anne’s Cathedral for the Linenhall Library Christmas celebrations.

Actress Ali Ford

Actress Ali Ford

My close friend composer, cellist and traditional Irish musician Neil Martin played Carúl Inis Córthaidh - The Wexford Carol on cello.

I had never heard it before and it instantly became my favourite.

The tune dates back to around the 18th Century and it was re-popularised by William Flood (1859-1928), who was organist and musical director at St. Aidan’s Cathedral in Enniscorthy, Co Wexford.

The sound resonated around the roof and walls of that great building, vividly recreating, without words, the story of the birth of Christ and Christianity.

For three minutes everyone present held their breath – if he’d played for much longer we’d all have turned blue.

l In February 2019 Dan is touring his one man show – Frank Carson: A Rebel Without A Pause about the iconic comedian, all around Northern Ireland theatres – It’s the way he tells ‘em.

Rita Fitzgerald

Rita Fitzgerald

Paula McIntyre MBE, chef

My favourite carol is In the Bleak Mid Winter. I love that it’s warm and gentle with beautiful lyrics by Christina Rosetti. I think the line “Angels and Archangels may have gathered there, cheribum and seraphim thronged the air” is so atmospheric and encapsulates the essence of Christmas. James Taylor’s version is my favourite - I know it’s Christmas when I play that and pour a wee cognac!

Pamela Ballantine, television presenter

I am very much a traditionalist when it comes to Christmas carols and love one that I can sing with gusto so Oh Come All Ye Faithful is one of my favourites. I am not the greatest of singers, but what I lack in talent I make up for in enthusiasm and my friend, Linda McAuley from the BBC, and I always sing the descant. Thankfully there are usually enough people around me to drown out the bum notes.

Peter Corry, musician

If it’s a Christmas carol (not a Christmas song) I’d say Silent Night - a very beautiful simple carol which just takes me back to my childhood Christmases.

Alan McKee, comedian and actor

“It sort of changes all the time. But I really like Good King Wenceslas. Anytime I hear it I sort of hear a brass band playing it in my head. It’s got a great story. I’ve actually been in Wenceslas Square in Prague. He was obviously important enough as a king to have a square named after him but my knowledge of him is pretty much limited to the song.

There’s a couple of carols which are a real plod. I think Away in a Manger has probably been butchered too many times at primary two nativity plays.”

Kim Lenaghan, presenter, BBC Radio Ulster

“I absolutely love Hark, the Herald Angels Sing. It is so joyous and always gets played as the great, resounding finale to any carol service. Christmas is all about tradition and nostalgia and I remember every Christmas Eve listening as a family to the carols from Kings College, Cambridge. We all had our favourites and this was mine. I know every word from beginning to end, the harmonies and the descant, and this Christmas Eve I’ll be sipping mulled wine, eating mince pies and singing along to Carols from Kings, same as I do every year, and just waiting for the big finish.”

Ali Ford, actress, Give My Head Peace

“I adore O Holy Night. I love it. The melody alone sends tingles down my spine. I adore poetry and this carol is actually adapted from a poem by a Frenchman. One of the lines is “A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices,” - it always fills me full of Christmas spirit and makes me, I suppose, reflect on the true meaning of Christmas. I also love another timely part in it where it says something like “He taught us to love one another and in his name all oppression shall cease”. Even though it was written a very long time ago it still feels very fresh and relevant today and makes me feel full of joy and peace and love.”

Tim Wheeler, Ash frontman

“I love Hark, the Herald Angels Sing. I love the chords and the melody. Musically, it really gets to me. Once in Royal David’s City is another cracker as well. That’s another one we need to put on our setlist!”

Rita Fitzgerald, presenter, UTV Life

“My all time favourite Christmas carol is Silent Night. It evokes so many childhood memories of Christmas for me, it’s wonderful. Growing up my family were pretty musical and every Christmas Eve in our wee house at Camlough Lake we huddled round the tree, singing our heads off til the fire died down and it was time for bed, all eagerly anticipating Christmas morning and all the joy that was to come.

Now on Christmas morning I will be singing Silent Night round the piano with my husband’s family and loving every moment of it all.’’

George Jones, musician

I like O Holy Night because of Luciano Pavarotti - he brings me to tears every time I hear him singing it. There’s also a beautiful piece of music called Carol of the Bells. My favourite classical piece is Sleigh Ride from Lieutenant Kije by Prokofiev.

Ian McElhinney, actor and director

I love the old stalwart of Christmas, Silent Night. But I also love O Holy Night; I think it’s a beautiful number. And O Come All Ye Faithful is a hard one to beat, especially if there’s a descant in it.