I had never dreamed of writing a libretto. Perhaps I had always wanted to, subconsciously: fascinated all my adult life by the correspondence, synergy and trickier moments between Arrigo Boito and my favourite composer, Giuseppe Verdi. That confluence of words and music whereby the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
And along came this chance, with this remarkable team, and its vision a Cantata to mark the occasion of the Irish Civil War – a piece of music that might contribute to this awkward commemoration of a painful moment in Irish history. And my task would be to collate, from the UCD archives, the libretto.
I have two Irish Grandmothers, feel their DNA in more than half myself, and have been engaged in Irish history and affairs since student days. So: very daunting, and incredibly exciting for that. And there’s this simple truth: as one approaches one’s 70th year, among the few ways to pretend to defy Anno Dominae is to keep doing things for the first time.
Around 2018, the plan was to spend long weeks purposely immersed in the archives at UCD, handling venerable paper. But in the event, along came Covid-19, so that Principal Archivist Kate Manning was sending vast electronic files for me to read on a laptop – too many to print – until my pupils became rectangular. I thus made my way, during and after the pandemic, through tens of thousands of pages of type- and hand-written letters, diaries, military and paramilitary orders and reports, and political deliberations.
From these, I had to construct – carve, almost – something coherent, which carried the narrative from some of the roots of the civil war (famine, so-called ‘land-clearance’ and the burning of Cork, by way of context), past the Treaty, the great divide over it, through the war itself, to its bitter, unresolved, aftermath.
Those ‘voices’ on the page could not have been more various: intimate confidences, roguish boasts, hilarious accounts of prisoners’ letters smuggled from jail by ‘the shit cart man’, bitter reflection and the poignant agony of awaiting execution, expressed above all by Erskine Childers, whose principled treason against his country of birth I admire and aspire to.
Kate had said these voices in her archive ‘needed to be heard’, literally, and the task was to bring them from that laptop screen, before you, to be set to music by Anne-Marie, and sung. There could be no ‘taking sides’, but there had to be some kind of balance, or rather counterpoint, between pro-treaty and anti-treaty, male and female voices.
The mountains of words were first gathered into a gargantuan text, then a series of drafts. The last, were it to be set to music, would probably have outlasted Wagner’s Ring Des Nibelungen, or at least Götterdammerung. And that was something I could not inflict on Anne-Marie and Ciarán, or indeed your good selves.
So – an inspiration – in came Kellie Hughes, with a vivid sense of how this work should be performed – and experienced by you – on stage, and ideas for which sections of the text served that purpose more than others – so that Götterdammerung would become something manageable.
But, I thought – and my colleagues in this endeavour kindly agreed – that the original draft should have some kind of life, and this is it: posted here for your perusal, if the spirit moves.
Partly because it contained material that might be of interest: additional detail on the Treaty negotiations and Winston Churchill’s droll hubris; on the fighting and conditions in Free State jails, and glimpses of the macabre intimacy of the Civil War – people often knew those they were fighting and killing. Also the cross-wires of the Michael Collins’ death at the hands of the IRA he once led. And also because a few themes and scenes just had to go. One of them invoked the marriage between Desmond and Mabel Fitzgerald, he Defence Minister in the Free State cabinet, she the anti-treaty rebel. There is an extraordinary correspondence between Mabel and Ernie O’Malley, while the latter was imprisoned and on hunger strike, despite which he blesses her loyalty to a difficult marriage. The exchange demonstrates O’Malley’s insatiable reading, and demand for books in French and German as well as English.
Both Desmond and Mabel were in correspondence with my great aunt, Gladys Hynes – a painter (she illustrated her friend Ezra Pound’s Cantos), sculptor, mystical Catholic and fervent Irish Republican. Mabel had sent Gladys a horrific report on the treatment of women by the British during the War of Independence, but now confides to Gladys that she feels she is “letting down” the hunger strikers every time she lights the family home fire for her husband. For all that, Gladys and Desmond communicate, sometimes almost teasing one another, about the political outcomes of the Civil War.
What Kellie made of this draft – and Anne-Marie set to music – is nothing short of remarkable, humbling for me: a distillation that retains the attempted scope, but heightens the tensions, and sharpens the edges, of the outrage of civil war – a libretto wherein less is more.
But for anyone inclined to navigate our endeavour upstream a little, towards its source, herewith the original draft from which your premiere on September 30th was drawn.
As the last recruit to join the Cantata creative team, I knew I was stepping into a collaboration where much of the heavy lifting had already been accomplished. Librettist Ed Vulliamy had completed the considerable task of disseminating the rich, vast material held in the UCD archives, distilling hundreds of voices and thousands of documents into his chosen structure for the libretto, and all this was realised from afar during lockdown. I often work with primary source material when creating new work, so I understand the enormity of the task that Ed accomplished and the significant effort it involved cannot be underestimated.
While adapting the text for performance, I set myself the task of remaining as faithful as possible to this original narrative framework, whilst also condensing the action and developing the dramatic structure to support composer Anne-Marie O Farrell’s work. I confined edits within sentences to choices based on the singing voice and its needs, without changing context, but occasionally allowing for changes in tense, when more immediacy was required. Working from someone else’s vision is of course delicate, but Ed was incredibly generous with his work from the outset. Anne-Marie’s patience as I found my feet in our initial creative sessions was extremely welcome and we worked closely together throughout the adaptation process. It’s a real pleasure in the final few days of preparation to hear her beautifully complex score come to life in the rehearsal room.
The evolution of new work is always fascinating to me, with choices to include or exclude material constantly opening and closing new creative avenues. This is hopefully evident in the three drafts included here, from Ed’s original extended edit, to his condensed libretto, which provided the base from which the final document, the adapted performance libretto, was created. Many difficult choices had to be made to serve the Cantata form, so it is fitting that these drafts be housed together, to make accessing the original documents possible for anyone interested in delving deeper. Perhaps the most difficult but ultimately necessary decision I had to make was to omit the Mabel and Desmond Fitzgerald archival material from the final performance libretto. Their letters are extremely special, with a mix of the domestic and epic that is both inspiring and touching. I hope that one day these letters will provide the inspiration for a new creative endeavour, so that they can be experienced in their own right.
Presented by UCD Archives and UCD School of Music
Supported by Arts Council, UCD Ad Astra Academy, UCD College of Arts and Humanities, UCD Decade of Centenaries, UCD University Relations, RTÉ Lyric FM, RTÉ Concert Orchestra, Resurgam