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An Irishman's Diary

An Irishman's Diary

It may have lacked the popular appeal of Peig: The Musical! but Ireland’s first-ever grand opera in the Irish language was a critical success – albeit short-lived. Eithne – also known as Éan an Cheoil Bhinn (The Bird of Sweet Music), was first performed in Dublin in 1909 and described by The Irish Times as “native opera in the old tongue of Eire”.

The original musical score, by a composer named Robert O’Dwyer, turned up recently in an auction at Mealy’s, the specialist rare book and manuscript auctioneers. The unusual national cultural heirloom was bought for €3,200 by the National Library of Ireland where music lovers, Gaelgoirs, scholars and the curious may wish to consult it.

The opera told the story of “a beautiful but disconsolate ‘Princess of Tir-na-n-Og’, wandering the earth seeking the hero who shall break the spell and restore her lost mother, and of the hero, ‘Ceart’, who after overcoming his enemies, achieves the task and wins the Princess”.

The composer, Robert O’Dwyer was born in Bristol in 1862 and later moved to Ireland where he was appointed to the Dublin Corporation professorship of Irish music in 1914. He became professor of Irish music at UCD in 1929 and was also an Irish language activist. The opera’s librettist was a Sligo priest, Fr Tomás Ó Ceallaigh.

Eithne was first performed at the Rotunda in Dublin during the “Oireachtas” – an annual arts festival of traditional Irish culture – in 1909. The Irish Times reported that the occasion was “likely to prove memorable in the annals of the Gaelic renaissance for it marks the production of the first genuine Irish opera” which “opens an entirely new epoch, and it unfolds prospects of Ireland once again being a musical nation”.

The critic said the music was “rather Wagnerian” and, therefore, “not new in style” but that the composer had shown “an astonishing grasp of the powers of expression in his vocal and instrumental material”.

The paper opined that “the harp is mute no longer; it has been restrung, and it sings once more the sweet music of ancient Ireland”. Oh dear! Little did The Irish Times know then that, a century on, the harp that once through Tara’s halls would be nicked by Jedward.

The opera was staged commercially the following year, with the backing of patrons including Countess Markievicz, Dr Douglas Hyde and Lady Gore-Booth. Eithne opened at the Gaiety Theatre on Monday, May 16th, 1910. Long-forgotten stars of the Dublin stage played the leading roles: Evelyn Duffy as “Eithne”; William Dever as “The High King of Eirinn”; and Joseph O’Mara as “Ceart”. A Mr Ernest Cameron had a grand part; he played “The Guardian Spirit of Tir-na-n-Og”.

The following morning’s Irish Times review was again reasonably positive and the critic noted that Mr O’Mara was judged to have been “far and away the best of the performers”; and, although Mr Dever was “not up to his usual standard”, Miss Duffy sang “exceptionally well”. But “the rest of the soloists were not above the usual amateur level”.

The unnamed critic described the production as “a very elaborate piece of work” and also commented that “the opera, being entirely the work of Irish brains, is altogether about as distinctively Irish as could be”. But he didn’t seem to enjoy it quite as much as the audience and asserted that the composer, Mr O’Dwyer, had been overly influenced by “many of the most blatant mannerisms of Wagner, sometimes involving uglinesses not justified by dramatic effect”.

Overall, though, “the opera was enthusiastically received” and “Mr O’Dwyer appeared several times on the stage with the principals in response to applause at the conclusion of each scene”.

Despite the good coverage, however, Eithne appears to have sunk without trace and has not, apparently, been revived in the last 100 years.

What chance of a revival? While there is a small audience for opera in Ireland it might be a tough commercial prospect to mount and stage a grand opera “as Gaeilge”.

Twenty years ago, the Galway-based Flying Pig Comedy Troupe staged a musical version of Peig – the autobiography of a Kerry crone which has caused untold misery to generations of Irish schoolchildren.

The show was co-written by Julian Gough (he later became a novelist) who described it for the Guardian newspaper as an attempt to turn “a Blasket Island life of hardship, misery, poverty and potatoes into a two-hour musical comedy”. The plot involved Peig finally getting the fare to America and becoming a star on Broadway.

But the writers lost their nerve and wrote the script in English which featured such memorably execrable lines such as: Peig: “I’m an old woman now…” / Chorus: “She’s an old woman now!” / Peig: “…with one foot in the grave …” The finale involved Peig, suspended 25ft up in the air on a trapeze, throwing a chamber pot full of glitter over the front rows of the audience as the curtain came down.

Despite that mesmerising image, Peig! The Musical also seems to have vanished from the theatrical repertoire. Does Eithne stand a chance in the 21st century?
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