Anne Hailes: Organ music spectacular pulling out all the stops

Richard Yarr, founder of the Northern Ireland International Organ Competition, with Fr Eugene O'Hagan, who will introduce the evening gala on April 6.

I KNOW where I'll be at 7.30pm on Wednesday April 6 - I'll be sitting in St Anne's Cathedral in Belfast listening to the might of the cathedral organ played by 10 top class international organists, all prize winners of the Northern Ireland International Organ Competition (NIIOC); this is their 10th anniversary and they are celebrating in style.

Tonight these professionals play at Southwark Cathedral London and on Wednesday of next week they will delight audiences in Belfast.

Organisers have raised £39,000 to bring this wealth of talent back to Northern Ireland (where over the years they undertook their finals), including air fares, accommodation, payment for these professional musicians and all the expense that goes with such an undertaking.

But they work hard whilst they are here - not only the gala concert but free lunchtime recitals on April 5 at 1.15pm in each of the six counties.


At St Anne's the 1907 Harrison and Harrison organ will be so proud to host these musicians who follow in the footsteps of the famous Captain Charles J. Brennan, the first St Anne's organist-in-residence who died in 1964.

He said that of all the services and events he played for, the funeral of Lord Carson was outstanding, the coffin carried on the deck of a warship as it sailed up Belfast Lough and then on a horse-drawn gun carriage to a packed cathedral where Captain Brennan was waiting.

Today, as then, it is a very spectacular setting as the music soars above the nave to the rafters.

Richard Yarr, renowned organist and founder and chair of this, the world's leading international competition for young people, says: "We're thrilled to be celebrating our first 10 years with these very special concerts featuring 10 winning organists who are now such great ambassadors for the king of instruments and for our competition.

"NIIOC takes pride of place on their CVs and I know these events will offer something for everyone. They will also provide great opportunities to thank those who have supported us on this exciting journey."

Simultaneous lunchtime recitals by individual NIIOC prizewinners will be presented under the banner 'Northern Ireland Resounds' on April 5 in the following venues:

  • Saint Peter's Catholic Cathedral, Belfast.
  • Down Cathedral, Downpatrick.
  • St Patrick's Church of Ireland Cathedral, Armagh.
  • St Michael's Church, Enniskillen.
  • First Presbyterian Church, Omagh.
  • Christ Church, Derry.
  • Ballywillan Presbyterian Church, Portrush.


Most of the 10 NIIOC senior competition prize-winning organists from 2011 to 2020 are from the UK, with representatives from Germany, Hungary and Mona Rozdestvenskyte from Lithuania.

Richard Gowers, senior prizewinner in 2013, will also include the premiere of a work by Grace-Evangeline Mason specially composed for NIIOC and the Commission for Victims and Survivors. It is dedicated to all those touched by the Northern Ireland Troubles.

Tickets for the Belfast Gala Recital are £10 (students £5) and are bookable through the competition website,

Japanese Noh actor wearing a traditional mask. Picture by Kimberly Fitzgerald.


Masks have been big news for a couple of years now. They come in all colours, shapes and sizes, quite a fashion item in recent times.

However, to wear or not to wear, that is the question. I believe 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, even when someone next to you in the queue gives you a dirty look. But what's new? Nothing.

In Venice, ladies and gentlemen enjoying a masked ball wore them to create intrigue and to hide secrets; women especially wear the mask of makeup to enhance their looks or disguise their flaws; and there's the wonderful theatrical work by professional makeup artists who can change a man into a women, a child into an old hag; then there are medical and gas masks that offer life.

When I was little, I remember a horrible Mickey Mouse mask kicking around the house - presumably protection again a mustard gas attack from German invaders.

The 'Noh' plays are classical Japanese musical dramas based on tales from traditional literature. The actors tell a story enhanced by masks.

There's one that represents a normal loving female who, when in a jealous rage, becomes a demon with a twisted mouth, sharp teeth and metallic eyes.

Nearer home just think of that awful programme, The Masked Singer.

Looking back through history many countries have a tradition of hiding behind a mask to disguise themselves against recognition or to terrorise opponents. It's fascinating when you begin to think about it.

Now comes an invitation to visit Artcetera Studios (located in the lane beside Rosemary Street Church in Belfast) to view a unique display of masks, the work of husband and wife team, Laurence and Chris Burrell.

This project began life last January although it was first considered during lockdown when Chris, who works in the film industry, and Laurence, who was a jeweller and part owner the famous Wicker Man arts and craft shop, shared ideas about future projects.

They talked about many things but both were intrigued by masks and what they represent, to protect as in Covid, at rituals, even the invisible mask of fake happiness to protect fragile mental health.

So they set to work in their studio on King's Road, Knock. Laurence tells me that 30 individual masks are on display.

"We've used a variety of materials, one mask is made from tiny coloured beads reflecting the global picture of life today, another is made from the peel of a silver birch tree trunk, some are suede, others leather, and a Mandela - meaning circle - mask which aids meditation."

As Laurence says, an exclusive collection of art which runs until April 1 and is open from 11am to 5pm. More about the Burrells' exhibition and other craft work at

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