Simon hits right note with Honours gong

Simon Neill conducting the choir at Westminster Abbey
Simon Neill conducting the choir at Westminster Abbey

At just 29 years old, Simon Neill from Portadown is one of the youngest people to receive a British Empire Medal in the New Year’s Honours list.

Portadown born and bred, Simon was a little nervous when he received the official letter from the Cabinet Office not knowing what lay inside.

To his delight, it was a letter of notification that he was to receive the British Empire Medal - an award for services to music and community relations in Belfast - that awaited him.

From Grantham Park, Portadown, Simon’s parents Keith and Jennifer were well known in the town. Keith was a youth worker and Jennifer a member of staff at Clounagh Junior High School.

His family were members of St Mark’s Parish Church and both were committed members of the Ulster Project, taking groups of Roman Catholic and Protestant children from Portadown to the USA. Both his father and sister, Cheryl, were presidents of the Project in Hutchinson, Kansas and now live in the USA.

Even his grandmother, Audrey Holland, who is now aged 80 and lives in West Street, has a strong musical background, herself a pianist and the daughter of Richard England, founder of the Edgarstown Accordian Band. Audrey’s cousin Drew Rowan also received a BEM in the New Year Honours list.

Former Portadown College pupil, Simon and his family all sang in the choir at St Mark’s - a good foundation for his future career.

In his youth he regularly competed at Portadown Festival and to this day returns annually to play as accompanist.

Now residing in Hillsborough, Simon has also this year been honoured by the Guild of Musicians and Singers who have awarded him a Fellowship for Services to Music in Northern Ireland.

He received two scholarships at the age of 17; one from the SELB to complete his studies as a flautist; the other an organ scholarship from the Church of Ireland Diocesan Scheme, under the tutelage of the late Belfast City Organist and professor of Mathematics Dr Donald Davison MBE.

The following year, while studying for his A Levels, he was appointed Director of Music at St Polycarp’s Church, Belfast.

Simon went on to read Music at Queen’s University, Belfast. While a student, Simon specialised in sacred choral music and piano accompaniment and began to challenge St Polycarp’s Choir with larger choral works.

He remains with the Parish Choir which currently boasts 50 choristers and counting, with a repertoire of over 600 works.

Simon set up a Choral Scholarship Scheme in St Polycarp’s, which recruits choristers from 20 schools from both sides of the community in Belfast and Lisburn. Under his direction, the Parish Choir has recorded two CDs and will record a third next season.

This summer he will be conducting the Parish Choir in St Paul’s Cathedral, London on their tenth anniversary tour, having sung in Westminster Abbey on six occasions, Trinity College, Queens’ College, and Emmanuel College Cambridge, and English Cathedrals such as Portsmouth and Chester.

Simon is a Trustee of The Ulster Society of Organists and Choirmasters which he served as Honorary Secretary for two years.

Simon teaches piano, voice, and organ in Rathmore Grammar School and St Malachy’s College, Belfast.

He is also a former member of the semi-professional chamber choir, The Priory Singers, founded by the late Dr Harry Grindle MBE.

He regularly accompanies local festivals, BBC broadcasts, examinations, and recordings. He was a guest of the Prince of Wales at Hillsborough Castle during a State visit in May last year.

And now he is returning to Hillsborough Castle to receive his BEM at a ceremony in April, and has also been invited to a Garden Party at Buckingham Palace in May.

Simon said: “I was humbled to be honoured in such a way by Her Majesty the Queen. I look forward to receiving the honour from the Lord Lieutenant of Belfast at Hillsborough Castle and to attending a Garden Party at Buckingham Palace later this year.”