Singer Róisín O’Reilly

Hymn offers “a thrill of hope” for Syrian children

A Christmas hymn performed by a Cavan singer has in just a few days raised enough funds to keep a school for Syrian refugees running for three months.

Róisín O’Reilly performed the Christmas classic “O Holy Night” to raise funds for the education of Syrian refugees who fled their war torn homeland and now live in poverty in Tyre, Lebanon. It costs €3,000 to maintain the school founded by Fr William Stuart for a month.

Róisín put the song and video online on Friday with a link to a Gofundme page and in few days since she has crashed through her initial target to raise €5,000 by Christmas – by Monday when the Celt talks to her she had raised over €9000 – enough to keep the school running for three months. Heartened by the response the Poles native has revised her fundraising goal:

“I'd love to raise enough for six months,” she says. “I'm actually astonished at the generosity of Irish people.”

Fr William returns home to Clontarf, where Róisín has lived for over 15 years, to raise money for the school by preaching at Mass. It was there that Róisín got to know Fr William and learn of the incredible children who attend the school.

“He returns every summer to Dublin and speaks with passion and humility of the work that he undertakes with the Syrian refugee children in one of the most poverty-stricken areas of south Lebanon,” explained Róisín. “These children are known as 'street children' - they work on the streets, from 8am every day selling anything from hair clips to chewing gum to anyone who will buy.

“They have no access to normal school education because of the severe economic collapse in Lebanon where the state schools are full to capacity with students who before would have been educated privately. This has resulted in almost no places for Syrian refugees.”

Fr William's school offers hope for these children.

“With the generosity of Irish people so far the school has a dedicated team of four teachers and a social worker running a morning and an afternoon school of three classes and a kindergarten. They teach Arabic, English and Maths and provide the children with a meal and bus to and from school.”

To support Fr William's work, Róisín had planned to hold a fundraising concert this year, but Covid called a halt to live concerts. After a rethink in October she resolved to record a song instead - the pandemic almost stymied that plan too. She, and guitarist Ewan Cowley, managed to get into the studio on the final day before the latest six week lockdown.

“Literally I got into the studio on Lockdown Wednesday for two and a half hours and that was it – what we got we got. I remember doing the harmonies in 20 minutes.

"Normally when you record something you can go back and do fixes, or rejig it – but there was no going back."

Róisín was inspired to sing O Holy Night as the holy family themselves were refugees after Jesus's birth. To this reporter's ear her rendition is incredible, but she admits there's parts she might like to sing differently, had she the luxury of time. However she was happy for the song to take on a life of its own now.

“I remember I felt really good,” she says of leaving the rushed recording session. “I have just given this over to some other force nearly.”

Reflecting on how the pandemic stopped her from hosting a fundraising concert she notes, “I wouldn't have raised one per cent of this from a concert.”

While Róisín's performance is breath-taking, the video created by her friend Mihai Cucu, includes a collage of the smiling children attending the school which brings home the true value of Fr Stuart's work.

“When you look at it, it brings you to a new dimension of hopefulness – just in their faces, it's beautiful,” she said.

Fr William has been keeping track of the song's progress and Róisín says he is “overwhelmed”.

“He shed tears when he saw the video,” she says. “It's really about his work in the beginning. He was in a very challenging position four years ago, it looked like there was no hope at all of getting this together, but I really do think when there's good intentions, forces move with you – I really believe it.”

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