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As he steps down from Radio Ulster's Sounds Sacred, Canon Noel Battye tells Laurence White about his 30-year broadcasting career

'If any one person in my parish had objected to my broadcasting work, I would have given it up the next day'

Canon Noel Battye, presenter for more than 30 years of the religious music request programme Sounds Sacred on BBC Radio Ulster, describes himself as a workaholic. For almost his entire working life he held two jobs - his parish ministry and his broadcasting career.

But now, at the age of 75, he has finally decided that it is time he hung up his microphone - he had already retired as rector of his last parish, St Finnian's Church in Belfast's Cregagh area.

While he had decided last December to end his association with Sounds Sacred this year - "anno domini had caught up with me" - it was still a wrench when the time came.

The following week he virtually cut himself off from all but his closest friends and relatives - screening his phone calls and emails - as he adjusted to his new situation.

A native of Waterford - although the family hailed originally from Yorkshire - he still has a home there and now looks forward to spending more time with his brother and nephews.

But he ignored one piece of advice he was given by the long-time producer of the programme, Betty O'Rawe (who died in February this year). "She told me that when it came time to give up the programme I should never listen to it, as it would only drive me mad, thinking of how I would have done things or what I might have said. But I will still tune in."

For a man whose broadcasting career for the BBC, both in Northern Ireland and nationally, lasted from 1972 until this year, he makes it sound almost accidental. "I never applied for any job, but just took what came my way," he says.

Ordained in 1966 after graduating from Trinity College Dublin, his first ministry was at St Anne's Church in Dungannon and teaching at the town's Royal School. He then went to Edinburgh University to gain various qualifications in teaching and religious education, and on his return to Northern Ireland became curate at St Jude's Church in Ballynafeigh in Belfast.

His first broadcast was on Radio 2 programme On The Way, which was presented by DJ Pete Murray, but his big breakthrough came when someone recommended him to Rev Moore Wasson, head of religious programming at Radio Ulster. He was invited to do a one-off slot and evidently impressed all concerned sufficiently to be constantly on their radar when new opportunities arose.

The Seventies were to see the Rev Battye experience widely different lives. Initially he was appointed chaplain at Pembroke College in Cambridge University, but by the end of the decade he had also spent two summers as a stand-in chaplain at Crumlin Road gaol in Belfast.

"I went straight from working in Pembroke for five years to serving in Crumlin Road," he recalls. "It was obviously a very difficult time in Northern Ireland, but as my role was one of holiday substitute it was not as intense for me as for those who served there full-time. I found it an excellent discipline.

"When preaching, you had to have total concentration and also because of the things you were hearing. Overall, I think I was received as well by the men in the gaol as anyone. There were four different wings, which housed men who were accused of different levels of crime. Some were engaged in Bible studies and overall it was a very interesting experience."

At this time he was serving in Knocknagoney Parish in east Belfast and then, in 1978, he became rector of St Finnian's, where he was to remain until his retirement in 2008.

Looking back over his career in the church he has only one regret - he never served in a country parish. "I help out in some at the moment and I enjoy that. I see it as something I missed out on, but I never actively sought such an appointment. You just do what's right for you." He has the same attitude towards his broadcasting career. "I enjoyed every minute of it. I did not apply for any post in all my career. I took what came along. I had no plans to go into broadcasting. I simply responded to the invitations from Rev Moore Wasson and his successor, Fr Jim Skelly, and the rest followed. It all worked out, so I was right."

However, Canon Battye is keen to stress that his clerical work was his priority at all times. "To my mind the parish - and by that I mean the individuals, not the system - was the work which had to be done. Anything else was voluntary, although I obviously got paid for my presenting jobs.

"When I was approached to do broadcasts during my time at St Finnian's, I asked the vestry if they had any objections. The members encouraged me unanimously and I got nothing but support from the parish. I always felt that if any one person in the parish had objected I would have given up broadcasting the next day," he adds.

His broadcasting career has certainly been varied, taking in Radio 4, the BBC World Service, Radio 2 and BBC1 television. In the latter he was the only presenter from Northern Ireland on the This Is The Day programme.

From 1985 to 1996 he - along with several others - presented the Sunday Half Hour broadcast on Radio 2 from all over the UK.

"None of us presented from our home regions," he says. "It was a fascinating concept. Some broadcasts were from people's homes, others from places as diverse as Heathrow Airport. Some were from the homes of UK politicians like Simon Hughes and Baroness Masham and church historians like Rosemary Cramp. We also broadcast from religious communities and travelled the length of the UK, from the Shetlands to the Scilly Isles".

Canon Battye vividly remembers his first broadcast of Sunday Half Hour: "The idea was that we would go around different denominations. My first trip was to Mourne Presbyterian Church in Kilkeel. I found it easy to talk about the village and the Mournes and the church had a great choir. I was standing in that night for Trevor Williams but because of the huge positive response I got from the listeners to the programme I was hired for the next 10 years."

While he was not a reluctant broadcaster he was not one to jump at the chance of being on radio or television. Perhaps it was modesty but he recalls how the BBC wrote to him after one of his first broadcasts asking him back. "I actually thought they were just writing to me out of politeness and did nothing about it. Then they wrote again and I had to reply after running the idea past members of my congregation to whom I owed my primary duty."

At the same time, he was presenting - and later producing - Sounds Sacred. And then there were the twice weekly Thought for the Day slots, which went on for 15 years. Canon Battye admits he was always very nervous before every broadcast, "yet I enjoyed every minute of it. I felt a relationship with people and my enjoyment grew as I got more and more input into the programme".

With such a long-running programme - he presented it for just over 33 years - tastes in religious music inevitably have evolved. He notes: "Taste is much broader now and the content of the programme now has greater variety, both culturally and theologically.

"On any given Sunday, Sounds Sacred would receive requests for a couple of gospel songs, a few traditional hymns or works by Pavarotti or some of the great choirs from around the UK."

So, what are his favourite pieces of religious music? It seems a simple question, but Canon Battye, in his precise way, says it is not straightforward.

He replies: "A good question but impossible to answer, as my choice at any particular moment would depend on current circumstances.

"For example, Pour Out Thy Spirit, and Breathe On Me Breath of God bring me back to Ordination vows, Lead Me Lord brings me to my very first service at Knocknagoney, whereas For All The Saints, with its proclamation of Resurrection, brings me to the very moving All Saints-tide services in St Finnian's. Also, I never tire of Holy Week hymns like When I Survey The Wondrous Cross. I also love Mozart's Laudate Dominum and Ave Verum."

Regardless of the music, there is no doubt that he was a very popular presenter of Sounds Sacred. 
He recalls getting dozens and dozens of letters after it was announced he was ending his broadcasting career.

"A number of the people who wrote to me said I was the constant background to their evening meals on a Sunday. I got another letter wishing me well in my second retirement - I had retired from St Finnian's in 2008 - and expressing the wish that I would follow the example of Frank Sinatra and keep coming back for yet another retirement.

"I got to feel terribly close to the listeners and I don't know how much I am going to miss being involved in the programme. However, I know stopping was the right thing to do."

He is grateful to the BBC for continuing with Sounds Sacred for so long. "It is encouraging to have an outlet for religious music. It is also helpful that it is a request programme so everyone can see the number of requests that come in each week. That helps to keep the programme alive."

The programme has had a number of guest presenters when Canon Battye was on his annual holidays, including Fr Eugene O'Hagan of singing trio The Priests fame, and Tony Macaulay, who wrote the memoirs Paperboy, Breadboy, All Growed Up and Little House on the Peaceline. But it is the clergyman, originally from Waterford who has left the most indelible imprint on the programme.

Belfast Telegraph

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