Many centuries ago in the days of the Cambro-Normans there existed a tradition in Ireland which was already an ancient one. It was said that when St. Patrick and his companions came one day to a certain valley in the North of County Down suddenly “they beheld the valley filled with a heavenly light and with a multitude of the host of heaven they heard, as chanted forth from the voice of angels, the psalmody of the celestial choir”. This place so enthralled those Holy men that they called it “Vallis Angelorum”, the Valley of the Angels. In the process of time there was built in the valley a Holy place called Bangor in which was celebrated a praise to God such as the world had seldom seen or heard. Such was the veneration in which it was held that St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote of it in the 12th Century that “so great do they say it was that the solemnisation of divine offices was kept up by companies, who relieved each other in succession so that not for one moment day or night was there an intermission of their devotions”.
Although there is nothing now remaining of the buildings in which this celebrated perennial praise was sung a precious and golden fragment of its ancient literature remains. This is contained in a manuscript called the “Bangor Antiphonary” which is preserved in the Ambrosian Library at Milan in Italy. The “Laus Perennis” or Perennial Praise was based on the Temple Praise in Jerusalem and the community of Bangor were well versed in the scriptural basis of this authority. In this they were remarkably similar to those communities of the Jews known as Essenes and Therapeutae who sung a similar praise in Palestine and Egypt in earlier times. Because of it the Bangorians established what was for them a new Jerusalem in accord with the revelation of St. John the Divine, that disciple whom Jesus loved, to whom he entrusted his mother at the foot of the cross and whose vision of the Apocalypse contained the final oracles of God.The piety and the learning of the Bangor monks was unrivalled in Christendom and it was mainly due to them that Ireland became known as the island of saints and scholars. The most illustrious of all were Columbanus and Gall. Pope Pius XI has said that the more light that is shed by scholars from the period known as the Middle Ages the clearer it becomes that it was thanks to the initiative from labours of Columbanus that the rebirth of Christian virtue and civilisation over a great part of Gaul (France), Germany and Italy took place. The Order of the Columbans, however, did not long survive its founder and merged with the Benedictines in the 8th Century.
However, in honour of St. Gall there arose a monastery dedicated to him which became one of the most important centres of Irish influence on the Continent. This monastery has been described as eminently distinguished as the chief seat of learning of Ancient Germany. It reached the height of its fame in the 9th Century under Moengal, an Irishman. Although celebrated by its beautiful manuscripts, its carvings and its miniatures it remained true to the tradition of Bangor regarding music as the greatest of all the arts.
Through the teaching of Moengal the music school of St. Gall became the wonder and delight of Europe. Moengal has been identified with that abbot of whom the “Annals of Ulster
” state: “871AD Moengal the Pilgrim Abbot of Bangor brought his old age to a happy close.” The famous pupils of Moengal there included Notker Balbulus, “the stammerer”,who wrote a large series of hymns and is considered one of the greatest musicians of the Middle Ages, Tuotilo who was a painter and sculptor as well as a poet and musician and Rathpert Waldramon who was a great musician and librarian. These three men were among the finest contributors to European Medieval hymn and song writing.The political power of the ancient British Cruthin who had created Bangor gradually declined in Ireland, and at the great battle of Moira on Tuesday, 24th June in the year 637, this power was severely reduced . Sir Samuel Ferguson, the greatest Irish poet of the 18th Century who came from Belfast, has written of this, “We are here upon the borders of the heroic field of Moira, the scene of the greatest battle whether regard to numbers engaged, the duration of combat or the stake at issue that was ever fought within the bounds of Ireland. For beyond question, if Congal Clane of Ulster and his gentile armies had been victorious in that battle the re-establishment of old Bardic paganism would have ensued”.
Not for the first time the last refuge of the Bards was the Kingdom of Mourne in South Down.
When I was a boy of 13 years I travelled with my grandfather Robert Kerr throughout the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. My Great-Great Grandmother had come from Islay and spoke only Gaelic, Ulster Gaelic and it was in the Hebrides that I was introduced to Gaelic music. There are many different forms and styles found in Gaelic music which range from unaccompanied vocal singing to full instrumental music. These are different facets of what is a dynamic and living tradition. For me it is a tradition which stretches back to the ancient song writers of Bangor and it is the music of Heaven. Only a Bard inspired from Heaven itself could fully express that enigmatic musical beauty which persists in what is called the Celtic soul. But this music is far more ancient than the Celts, who were merely a warrior aristocracy ruling over an aboriginal people who had been in the British Isles for thousands of years.
‘Astral Weeks’ by Van Morrison
Born on the southern shores of Belfast Lough ,from which Columbanus and Gall had left Ireland for Europe, an exile has now returned to his spiritual home in the North of Down. Van Morrison’s first album for Warner Brothers, “Astral Weeks”, is considered by many to be not only his best work but the best album of all time. It has been described as transcendental, meditative, and possessing a unique and hypnotic musical power which has its origins in the ancient hills and valleys and shores of the Atlantic fringe of Europe, once considered the edge of the world. Musicologist W. H. Williams has written that Ireland’s initial impact upon American music came predominantly from Ulster. Whatever their other influences the greatest and most lasting effect of the Scotch-Irish Ulstermen was music. Only rarely does that music and song writing reach, as it did in Patrick’s time, the level of the singing of the Celestial choir. But this has happened through that most exceptional man, Van Morrison, a Bard from Heaven, who sings of another time and another place and another world..