Professor Desmond O'Neill writes for Culture about a unique project showcasing the (literally) unsung talents of Ireland's medical community...

One of the pleasures of medicine is the frequent sense of a shared vision of how enmeshed it is with the humanities. As a group, doctors tend to have a high level of cultural engagement: for example, our own studies show that over 50% of medical students play, or have played an instrument. Yet we rarely celebrate our cultural participation in a collegial manner, and perhaps it is time that we more openly acknowledged this shared portal to the bigger picture in life and medicine.

These elements have come to life vividly over the last eighteen months through the Irish Doctors Choir. An all-Ireland grouping, it arose originally to provide the chorus for the very talented European Doctors Orchestra performance of Mahler’s mighty 2nd symphony, the Resurrection Symphony in the Ulster Hall in Belfast in November 2017.

The Irish Doctors Choir at the Ulster Hall

Take-up was fantastic, with virtually all specialties and stages represented, ranging from medical students through trainees to those retired for many years, a very intergenerational project. The choir has decided to continue as what is known as an event choir, meeting for a weekend of intensive rehearsals, followed by a further weekend culminating in a performance.

Friendships and connections are forged during these week-ends, and I have been in awe at the wide range of pursuits and achievements of those present, and sense of shared pleasure and purpose. The rehearsals have included concerts for residents of nursing homes and other institutions, a rewarding outreach.

For a group dealing with illness and death throughout our working lives, there is something extraordinary reassuring and quietly energizing about this participation in music probing mortality, resurrection and a deep sense of consolation.

Our next concert was an immersion in another avenue of spiritual music, the potent and deep All-Night Vigil by Rachmaninov. It was a visceral shock to be a part of this extraordinary music, with the proceeds of the performance in An Grianán in April benefitting the Gary Kelly Cancer Centre.

An invitation was then extended to the choir by the conductor of the Cambridge Philharmonic Orchestra to join in their performance of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, The Symphony of a Thousand, in Ely Cathedral in July. This was an exhilarating experience for nearly thirty of our members.

For a group dealing with illness and death throughout our working lives, there is something extraordinary reassuring and quietly energizing about this participation in music probing mortality, resurrection and a deep sense of consolation.

All of these composers had more extensive personal exposure to death than we do and their music provides an extra layer of opportunities to see the bigger picture, echoing and providing a more positive spin to Milan Kundera’s dictum that all we can do in the face of that ineluctable defeat called life is to try to understand it.

Our latest project is a concert at the end of November of Bach’s Music For Advent in support of the ARC Cancer Support. Accompanied by a period ensemble, the music has been a revelation, and in particular how Bach combines wit and dance rhythms with deep spirituality. The programme includes cantatas and motets for Advent and promises to be a wonderful evening and excellent introduction to the festive season.

The Irish Doctors Choir, with soloists and instrumentalists from specialist early music group Sestina under the direction of Brian McKay, perform Bach for Advent in Newman University Church, St Stephen’s Green, Dublin at 7.30 pm on Sunday 25th November 2018 - find out more (and get tickets) here.