A musician, a flautist, a cleric, a man from Loyalist East Belfast, and a passionate enthusiast and supporter of Irish culture - Rev Gary Hastings is all these things. Within the next two months he will become the new rector of St Nicholas’ Collegiate Church.
Rev Hastings will take up his post in late June/early July, taking over from his predecessor Rev Patrick Towers. July is also the time when Rev Hastings celebrates his birthday. A new year in a new post so to speak?
“I hadn’t thought of it like that,” Rev Hastings laughs during our Wednesday morning interview. “I suppose I’m starting with a clean slate! The people who preceded me have done a great job in turning St Nicholas’ from a small parish into a vibrant and open one, especially Rev Patrick Towers. I hope to build on those good foundations.”
Rev Hastings was born in East Belfast in 1956 and grew up in the city’s Raven Hill area. While today he is widely known and admired as a fine Irish traditional flute player and Christian clergyman, he admits that music did not play a huge role in his family and that his vocation came late.
“I have a couple of cousins in the flute bands up North but I don’t come from a musical family,” he says. “Irish trad was not big in Protestant, Loyalist, East Belfast!”
However the folk boom of the 1970s was to change all that.
“In the mid-1970s trad became very popular and I got interested in it,” he said. “I was in university at the time and there was a lot of new music and I was meeting a lot of people who were playing the music. From then on I got into that side of things.”
Rev Hastings began to learn the flute and over the years he has built a reputation as a wonderful musician and enthusiastic advocate of Irish traditional music. In 2002, along with Fermanagh fiddler Fr Séamus Quinn, Rev Hastings recorded the album Slán le Loch Eirne – Stories to Tell for the Co Galway based Cló Iar Chonnachta label. The album was highly praised, being described by The Irish World as “the most beautiful flute and fiddle recording you will ever hear”, and by Traditional Music Maker as “the real thing”.
“We did it for the craic,” he says of Slán le Loch Eirne. “That’s the way you have to approach these things. There’s no point in doing it otherwise.”
Moving to minister in Mayo was a bonus for the Ulsterman, as being based in Westport he was able to combine his spiritual work with his music. “I play every week at the session in the pub owned by Matt Molloy of The Chieftains,” he says.
Galway is a magnet for traditional music and the city’s vibrant trad scene is possibly the healthiest in the country. As a traditional musician, Rev Hastings is well aware of Galway’s reputation and will no doubt be a frequent visitor and participant in the trad sessions in The Crane Bar, Tigh Coili’s, and Árus na nGael.
“Oh I have to!” he says. “I know a lot of musicians in Galway and I’m looking forward to checking out the scene. I find music is very good for the head. You can’t be doing church work all the time.”
Rev Hastings won’t be coming to Galway as a stranger, as it was here he was ordained in 1993 and he ministered in St Nicholas’ from 1993 to 1995. However this time he is coming in as rector. Furthermore his current parish is Aughaval parish in Mayo. Although it covers a wide geographical area, it has only a small Church of Ireland community.
“Galway is going to be a lot more diverse,” he says. “As well as my clerical duties there will be a civic role to play in that there will be a lot of functions and events to attend and people to visit in the two large hospitals.”
Rev Hastings does not feel his story of how he came to choose the life of a cleric differs from that of other Christian clergymen, but he does admit to being a “late vocation”.
“Talk to any priest and their story will be the same,” he says. “You had this idea in the back of your head for a long time and it didn’t go away. I was a late spiritual developer but the more I went on the more it began to make sense.”
The last 10 to 15 years has seen Ireland become an increasingly secularised country. In light of this, what role does Rev Hastings feel Christianity can play in contemporary Ireland?
“Secularism has not realised that it has come from a post-Christian point of view and that it thinks it’s great and always does the right thing,” he says, “but most people are, what I call, first generation ex-Christians and there is a lot of Christian influence in the way they think and it is that Christian influence that puts the compassion and kindness into a culture and society. In a purely secular system it would be quite easy to lose that. We cannot always let money and the economy dictate what society does. There also has to be kindness and love.”