Contemporary musical take at centenary event

14.9.2021 | Church in Society, Union Theological College, Public Affairs, Commemorations

Guests at this Friday’s centenary event ‘On These Steps’ will be treated to the premier of a specially commissioned song by the Belfast-based indie singer-songwriter, Ferna. The Presbyterian Church in Ireland's (PCI) livestreamed event, to mark the part played by PCI's Union Theological College in hosting the first Parliament of Northern Ireland 100 years ago, also marks the centenary of the creation of Northern Ireland and the partition of Ireland, recognising the diversity of views around this significant anniversary.

Launching the event at the start of this month, which will be held at the south Belfast College - known in 1921 as the Assembly’s College - PCI’s Moderator, Right Reverend Dr David Bruce, said the Church had “a broader aim beyond the commemorative, as we seek to build relationships by bringing people together to reflect on our shared past, in a way that enables us to look in hope to a shared future.”

Speaking about the commission, Ferna said, “When Steve [Stockman] asked me I was surprised and very apprehensive about it because I felt the song could go wrong in so many ways! I mean, how do you reflect upon something as complex and troubled as 100 years of Northern Ireland in a helpful, thoughtful way?

“As a prompt, I was asked to read the King’s speech from the opening of the Parliament in 1921 and the line “the future lies in the hands of my Irish people themselves”, stuck with me. It made me wonder whether this had been true over the last 100 years, or whether it could still become true during the next 100. I wanted to use the song to explore those questions.”

Ferna said that at the same time, the song is also her attempt to answer another intriguing question: ‘if Northern Ireland was a person what would it say today?’

“I’m used to writing songs through self-reflection, so this brought it into more familiar territory for me. It also made writing the song a lot easier, as I could speak with one voice rather than trying to represent everybody, which I had no idea how to do!” she said.

“It’s sort of a slow, pulsing ballad in which we meet someone who knows they are stuck in a weird cycle of fresh starts and setbacks. We meet them as they’re taking stock and wondering how they might start again in a way that actually takes them somewhere different. At the same time I was very focused on painting an honest picture of this person – I wanted to show their flaws, but also their inner strength, their pain but also their stoicism. I also wanted to avoid being trite or sentimental.”

Ferna is the new project of the Coleraine born Hannah McPhillimy, which she explains merges the organic with the electronic, delivering, a sound that is both epic and intimate, confident and vulnerable, beautiful and menacing, filled with mixed emotions and powerful hooks.

Talking about the title ‘Lapsed’, Ferna said that as with many of her songs, it was the first thing that came to her. “I think it does actually do quite a good job at setting the scene. It is a past orientated word that we associate here with a loss of faith, and how a ‘lapsed Catholic’ or a ‘lapsed Protestant’ is still very much defined by the thing that they have rejected, which I find interesting. This is the kind of headspace I pictured the character of this song is in - occupying a space on a pew – either out of hope, or out of habit – but desperate to feel something like belief again.”

During the event the Moderator, Dr Bruce, will give a reflective address, while Ian McBride, the Foster Professor of Irish History at the University of Oxford - and a native of County Armagh – will bring an historic perspective. It is hoped that there will be an opportunity for political reflection, during a panel discussion, with some of the invited guests.

Accompanied by strings and percussion, Ferna will perform her song for the first time before an invited audience of political and civic guests from across the UK and Ireland, which includes the leaders of Ireland’s main denominations. Guests, and those watching online, will also hear the actual words of King George V’s speech, delivered at the Parliament’s opening, as spoken by Jim Allen.

Looking forward to the song’s premier, Rev Steve Stockman, a member of PCI’s Peace and Reconciliation Panel, and a minister well known for his use of music as an important part of his ministry, said that Ferna was ideal for the commission.

Talking about the song, the minister of Fitzroy Presbyterian Church in Belfast said, “This wasn’t an easy ask for any singer-song writer, but I knew Ferna was creative enough for what we wanted having worked with her at the Four Corners Festival. She had also collaborated successfully with novelist Jan Carson, capturing the heart of Jan’s debut novel ‘Malcolm Orange Disappears’ in song, getting into the text and beyond the words themselves.

“With this in mind, I had no doubt that she would have the creative flare to get into the context of our event, adding something very different to the day that was not only original, but thought-provoking and contemporary.”

You can watch the livestream of the event via this website from 2pm on Friday, 17 September 2021. Ferna’s song, ‘Lapsed’ will be available to stream, or purchase, from all major online platforms after the event. It will also be available to listent to here.

Images: (1) Ferna (photo credit Kenny Baird) (2) the official logo for the event (3) Ferna performing in 2017 (photo credit Samuel Kwan).

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