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Left Behind – Songs of the 1916 Widows
Simon O’CONNOR (b. 1975)
By the Yew Tree – Song of Maud [4.30]
Come Home, Drummer Boy – Song of Agnes [4.30]
From the Water - Song of Muriel [6.37]
Your Face Through Time – Song of Kathleen (with Michelle O’Rourke) [4.44]
Help Me Draw the Ghosts, William – Song of Grace [5.40]
Carousel – Song of Áine [5.34]
Come Home, Drummer Boy (alternative version) [4.23]
Anonymous (17th C.)
Have You Seen But a White Lily Grow? [2.04]
Michelle O’Rourke (voice, piano)
Simon O’Connor (piano, guitar)
Dara Higgins (bass guitar)
John Dermody (percussion)
The Robinson Panoramic Quartet
rec. 2016, St. Peter’s Church of Ireland Church, Drogheda, Ireland
ERGODOS ER23 [38.02]

The Easter Rising of 1916 remains the seminal event of modern Ireland. For all the incompetence of the event (De Valera, for example, set up a strongpoint overlooked by tall buildings, and orders to march on Dublin were countermanded), the use of court martials and hasty shootings in Kilmainham created martyrs who met their deaths with astonishing resilience.

It has elicited some interesting musical reflections. In addition to John Kinsella’s 5th Symphony, (The 1916 Poets) from 1992 (TOCCATA CLASSICS TOCC0242) – far from his finest work, I think – and the classic film score Mise Éire from Seán Ó Riada, arguably Ireland’s greatest composer, despite his brief life (GAEL LINN ORIADA CD 03), there is Charlie Lennon’s very rewarding áille Na hÁille / A Terrible BeautyA Suite in Honour of the Heroes of 1916 (GAEL LINN CEFCD 209), as well as Patrick Kennedy’s Score to the documentary series, 1916 (Universal Music, Ireland, 4778963).

This new recording, from Simon O’Connor, makes a valuable and very moving addition to this musical tradition, in works of affecting – and well-crafted – simplicity. O’Connor has moved from his teenage roots as a punk-band musician to electronic music and avant-garde rock groups. He was a founder of the psych-rock group, The Jimmy Cake and the noise-rock group, Thinker.Org. But his musical thinking moved on, leading to formal study at Trinity College, and informal work with Kevin Volans. The result is a style which is direct, lyrical and tonal, with an emphasis – on the evidence of this song cycle – on melody and harmony. I have not heard his other compositions, but his 57-minute piano suite What is living and what is dead I shall certainly explore.

The impetus for this song cycle was Sinéad McCoole’s book, Easter Widows, each song representing a different widow, of those court-martialled and subsequently shot. Maud Gonne married – and messily separated from – John MacBride, shot on May 4th, but the Song touches also on her firstborn daughter Iseult, who died in infancy and was buried under a yew tree. Agnes Hickey was the widow of Michael Mallin (May 8th) – to my mind, this slightly jazzy song was the least successful in the cycle, but further listening might show something I missed – though the alternative version, here a bonus track, seemed a stronger composition. From the Water’s inspiration was the widow of Thomas MacDonagh (3rd May), and the song reflects also her own accidental drowning in 1917. Grace Gifford was wife of Joseph Mary Plunkett (4th May) and is remembered for her marriage in the chapel of Kilmainham the night before his execution – the lyrics refer to her skills as an artist as well as to her loss. Kathleen Daley was wife of Thomas Clarke (3rd May) – her song has a stoic quality of mourning. Éamonn Ceannt (8th May) was husband to Frances (‘little Áine’). Her song recalls a visit to Howth, scene of Erskine Childers’s gun-running (900 rifles used in the Rising) of 1914.

Performances are committed and fluent (the cycle had many performances throughout Ireland in 2016). Michelle O’Rourke has a lovely, perhaps mezzo, voice, with clear enunciation (the provided texts are hardly necessary) and the accompaniment has clear articulation throughout, with transparent textures, well-captured by the fine recording.

This needs no special pleading for its musical qualities, but it is also a fine memorial to tragic – if inspirational – events.

Michael Wilkinson

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