For the past eight years the rector of Galway’s much-loved St Nicholas’s Collegiate Church has been Reverend Gary Hastings, an amiable Belfastman who is esteemed in Irish traditional music circles as a flute player.
I met him for a cordial chat which ranged over such subjects as Irish music, the history of the Lambeg drum, Croagh Patrick, the value of pilgrimage, and the diversity of people and faiths welcomed by St Nicholas’s.
Reverend Hastings was born in east Belfast in 1956 and was reared in the staunchly Protestant Raven’s Hill area. “I grew up in a big extended family; there were great aunts and grandparents and cousins all living nearby so on Christmas Day you could have 30 people eating their dinner in the house,” he recalls. “I was about 11 when the Troubles started; up to that it had been a grand place to live but with the Troubles there was a drastic change. I remember all the pubs in our road being burnt out within the space a week or two, and when you’re a child that is weird because you don’t know what’s going on or why it’s happening so you can’t understand it.”
Music was not a big part of Gary’s upbringing and only became serious when he went to university in Coleraine; “That was when I first got to meet and know Roman Catholics,” he admits. “Belfast was very segregated and where I lived you’d never come across a Catholic. When I went to Coleraine I did, and discovered they were just like the rest of us, which sounds like a daft thing to say, but up North that’s a big thing to find out when you were brought up in the kind of Belfast I was reared in. I went to university to do physics but discovered drink and cigarettes and girls and traditional music all around the same time so the physics didn’t really stand a chance. I started learning music then, the flute and the whistle.”
Hastings cites Boys Of The Lough flute player Cathal McConnell as a key mentor in those years. He also cut his teeth as a member of Shaskeen, with whom he performed in Galway in the mid-seventies, his first time visiting the city. Having flunked physics he then returned to Coleraine University to do a degree in Irish studies ‘as gaeilge’, taking a one-year intensive Irish language course beforehand. I ask if his family were taken aback by his immersion in Irish music and language.
“The music was just music as far as they were concerned,” he replies. “I was expecting some appalled reactions to me learning Irish but there wasn’t, strangely. My granny didn’t even know that the Irish language existed and the rest of the family thought me studying it was daft in the same way they would have if I was going to learn Urdu. Their reaction was ‘Where’s the money in that?’ but they didn’t react against it. At that time Irish wasn’t politicised, nor was the music, whereas by the later 1970s that had happened so then it would have been a much less healthy pursuit for someone from my end of Belfast to take up.”
Gary’s university researches provided the groundwork for his first book, With Fife and Drum, published in 2003 by Blackstaff, which explores the traditions of those instruments in Irish music.
“People tend to think there is Irish ‘green’ music and ‘orange’ Protestant music,” he observes. “In the 1800s there was only one kind of music in the whole country for most people, which was traditional Irish music, and both Protestants and Catholics listened to it. Cultural polarisation only started in the late 1800s; nationalism starts up the whole cultural thing with the founding of the GAA, Gaelic League, etc. That was when culture becomes polarised and Protestants pull away from it, but lots of Protestants were still dancing to traditional music in Orange halls whereas the Catholics in the North had stopped doing it completely. If you go back to the 1960s, traditional music – in the south as well, had died, yet there were still people in Orange halls dancing lancers and sets. Then as the Troubles happened the polarisation got worse and the attitudes emerged that ‘Catholics do this and Protestants do that and never the twain shall meet’."
The book also delves into the history of the iconic Lambeg drum; “The Lambeg drum started out as a relatively small military drum then gradually got bigger and bigger. The reason was that you’d have competitions where two drummers would face off against each other and they could be playing for five or six hours until one man finally gave up – crazy, macho, testosterone stuff!
"In that situation a bigger drum drowned out a smaller. The only thing stopping the drums getting even bigger was that goats only grow to a certain size and once you want to put goatskins on a drum you are stuck. Lambeg drums can produce 120 decibels which is the sound level of a light aircraft engine or a pneumatic drill, but they are still musical instruments – if you get a good drummer playing along with a fife there is a lovely swing to it.”
Lambegs were also adopted by Ancient Order of Hibernians bands; “Each side borrowed stuff from the other,” Hastings notes. “The Hibernians were a green mirror image of the Orange Order; they were drumming the same stuff. I learned a lot of tunes from Willie Nicholl and the man he learned from, Jock Lecky, taught both Orange and Hibernian drummers and fifers, and he taught them exactly the same tunes with just a couple of exceptions. He would teach the Hibernians ‘Kelly the Boy of Killane’ and he’d teach the Orange boys ‘The Boyne Water’ but all the rest of the tunes were in common.”
Hastings ministered for some years in Mayo and his second book was Going Up the Holy Mountain (Columba Press, 2015 ) which reflected on the spiritual importance of Croagh Patrick and the idea of pilgrimage.
“The Reek pilgrimage happens every year and is big but there are also people going up it throughout the year,” he observes. “They are going up on bicycles, or for sponsored walks, or for charity, all of which means people are starting to forget Croagh Patrick is a holy mountain and what it means and why it is special. I thought ‘I should do something about that’ so that’s where the impetus for the book came from. Rather than just being about the Reek it is about spirituality and pilgrimage. It is about how to pray and how to live your life in a spiritual way and the book is hung on the Reek as an idea.
“Pilgrimage is more of a Catholic than a Protestant thing but spirituality is getting new light shone on it so people are starting to think about it. There are spiritual things happening outside churchy stuff and that is something the churches will have to waken up to, that religion happens outside the churches now and pilgrimage is a useful spiritual concept no matter what religion you belong to. Most religions have pilgrimage as part of them anyway and it is a good thing to do; it is a tool you can use and it helps you spiritually.”
It was in 2009 that Rev Hastings became rector at St Nicholas’s, the church where he was ordained in 1993. Not only does the church serve the Church of Ireland community but it also hosts services for the eastern Orthodox faiths and Pentecostal Africans.
“The congregation here is eclectic; we have people here from all over the world,” Hastings declares. “Most are Irish but we also have Swedes, Germans, Australians, Americans, Africans, Chinese, you name it! There are lots of people who are attached to this church but who don’t come every Sunday but this is still their place. Then there are quite a few people who use the church yet they don’t come to the services and wouldn’t say they are C of I – and that is fair enough. A lot of people from Galway use this place to pray in. You see them in here lighting candles or they come in to say some prayers – this is Galway’s church it isn’t just our church. People use this church and they are part of its community albeit not in an official way.”
St Nicholas’s is certainly a church where one can be sure of a warm welcome and Rev Gary Hastings is the affable embodiment of its congenial spirit.