Belfast Telegraph

Van Morrison performs three of his old songs in moving and nostalgic farewell to his mother Violet

Revered rock star surrounded by family and friends at funeral in church where his parents married

Ivan Little

Belfast's favourite musical son Van Morrison yesterday sang an emotional farewell to his cherished mother Violet at her funeral in a Bloomfield church, the place where his parents were married and a venue he has immortalised in several of his compositions.

The acclaimed singer was visibly distressed as he arrived at St Donard's Parish Church, which sits halfway between Hyndford Street, where Van was raised, and Cyprus Avenue, where he celebrated his 70th birthday last August with two sell-out concerts.

But while thousands of Van's fans from all over the world had descended on the tree-lined avenue for the gigs, there were just over 150 people in the church for a service of thanksgiving for the life of his redoubtable 94-year-old mother, who was a talented singer in her own right.

Recordings of Mrs Morrison's songs were played during the service, which was for close friends and family only.

Outside the church a tiny knot of neighbours stood on the Beersbridge Road to watch the hearse arriving at St Donard's.

Mrs Morrison died in a Holywood nursing home last week and Sir Van postponed two concerts in Germany to fly back to Northern Ireland. He was said to have been a devoted and caring son for his mother, whose husband George died in 1998.

The service was a simple one and there were few mourners from the music industry.

Indeed, apart from Van's grown-up daughter Shana, who lives in America, and his wife Michelle Rocca, who was there with their two young children, the majority of the people in the church were old friends with whom the singer had grown up.

Boyhood pal Gilbert Irvine, who went on to become a match-day announcer at Glentoran Football Club, was present.

He lived close to Van in Hyndford Street and was part of one of Van's first musical ensembles, a skiffle group. The singer recalled in one interview how Gilbert had fashioned a wind instrument out of a lead pipe he found in the Beechie River near their home.

"You blew into it. He was lucky he didn't get typhoid," said Morrison.

Other friends who played in groups along with Van in his youth were also among the mourners - broadcaster George Jones, former guitarist Billy McAllen and Van's cousin Sammy Stitt, who was a drummer.

Pastor Bill Dunn, who paid a moving tribute to Mrs Morrison during the service, is another friend from Van's past.

Van Morrison sang three of his own songs during the service, accompanying himself on guitar.

The first was a duet with his American backing singer Dana Masters, who lives in Co Down.

The song By His Grace is from Van's 21st studio album Hymns to the Silence which was released in 1991 and the lyrics refer to "living your religion deep inside when you try for the kingdom on high".

Violet Morrison's granddaughter Shana, who six years ago called her up to sing at a concert in Belfast and introduced her as "my wee granny", recited the Poem of Life in honour of the woman she said was one of her best friends in the world. Her father then sang a second duet with Dana - On Hyndford Street, an evocative remembrance of Van's early life.

St Donard's church gets a mention in the song, which last August brought Van's second concert at Cyprus Avenue to a spine-tingling end. But On Hyndford Street can rarely have been more poignant for the singer than it was yesterday. Shana joined Sir Van and Dana for the third musical tribute.

Joyous Sound, from his Period of Transition album from the 1970s, talks of the grace that "will follow us until we meet again".

In his tribute Pastor Dunn quoted the words of a famous old Irish song, A Mother's Love's a Blessing, as he offered his condolences to Van and his children.

He said Mrs Morrison had an "engaging and outgoing personality" adding that he remembered her singing at a private birthday party for Van a few years ago when she also danced the twist.

"She was a down-to-earth lady, the type of person you enjoy being around," he added.

Referring back to the wedding of Van's parents in St Donard's on Christmas Day, 1941, he said their marriage wasn't only a happy one but also an "adventurous and exciting one".

He added: "Little did they know that the boy born to them, George Ivan Morrison, would one day take them on an amazing musical journey and catapult them into the eyes of the world."

Pastor Dunn said he'd gotten to know Mr and Mrs Morrison after he, George Jones and Van got caught up in the skiffle mania that swept the UK back in the mid-1950s.

"A few cheap guitars, a washboard, and a tea chest attached to a brush shaft by a piece of string was all that was needed for a skiffle group," he said.

The pastor revealed that after skiffle had been replaced by rock'n'roll, Van called at his home in Greenville Street and asked if he would be interested in starting a rock band with his cousin Sammy Stitt. But things didn't go according to plan for Van.

"The three of us met up in Van's bedroom for a practice with two guitars, a snare drum and an amplifier but when that was switched on, it blew a fuse."

Pastor Dunn said he then blew all the lights in the Morrison household as he tried to fix the problem and Van's mother told her irate husband: "They're only boys enjoying themselves."

The pastor spoke of Mrs Morrison's pride in seeing her son getting the freedom of Belfast and receiving a knighthood for services to the music industry.

After the service, which was conducted by Canon Ken Higgins from St Donard's, Mrs Morrison's coffin was wheeled from the church by undertakers. Van Morrison emerged holding the hand of his young daughter Aibhe and his son Fionn Ivan grasped the hand of his mother.

The family left together in an undertaker's limousine and the cortege travelled past a number of places which have become landmarks for Van's fans, as they follow a trail of locations named by Morrison in his songs down the years.

The cortege then drove over the North Road Bridge which is mentioned in On Hyndford Street and past Cyprus Avenue, first referenced on Morrison's classic Astral Weeks album.

Mrs Morrison was buried in Holywood, which is featured in a number of her son's songs.

She was laid to rest with her husband in Redburn cemetery on the outskirts of the town.

Belfast Telegraph

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