‘The composers took it on with a seriousness and respect for the Irish language that was extremely encouraging’: Dáirine Ní Mheadhra on her new song project

Dáirine Ní Mheadhra (Photo: John Lauener)

‘The composers took it on with a seriousness and respect for the Irish language that was extremely encouraging’: Dáirine Ní Mheadhra on her new song project

This week, a major project of fifty newly composed songs in the Irish language will be launched. The Journal of Music spoke to Dáirine Ní Mheadhra about the initiative.

When Dáirine Ní Mheadhra’s husband, the Canadian pianist John Hess, went looking for songs by Irish composers at the Contemporary Music Centre in Dublin, he came back with a surprising observation.

Hess, who taught collaborative pianism – how to work with singers and instrumentalists – at Western University in Canada, noticed that, among hundreds of songs, there were very few in the Irish language.

There were probably around four or five hundred art songs in the English language by Irish composers… He came home and he just happened to say it to me: you know, there are very few art songs written on texts in the Irish language. And it really took me aback….

Ní Mheadhra grew up in an Irish-speaking family in Cork City and entered the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra as a cellist at aged 17. While playing in the orchestra, she became particularly interested in contemporary music and in the 1990s formed the ensemble Nua Nós, which recorded Gerald Barry’s Piano Quartet No. 1, the work that is used on the Leaving Certificate exam syllabus.

Irish abroad
Ní Mheadhra moved to Canada in 1995, however, and, with Hess, they set up their own contemporary opera company, Queen of Puddings Music Theatre. It was while working with the award-winning composer Ana Sokolović that she first realised the difficulty for international artists of performing works in Irish: they couldn’t pronounce the language and works didn’t come with a phonetic guide.

Even though I was brought up speaking Irish in Cork, it never occurred to me to commission songs in the Irish language – and I love the Irish language! So it really gave me pause for thought.

Reflecting on the reasons why there wasn’t more classical music that used Irish, Ní Mheadhra realised that it was a combination of ‘the psychic blow from colonisation’ and the fact that the language, historically, was just not a central part of the art form: ‘The Irish language was not really present in classical music… we don’t think about that, or I didn’t think about it. And I thought I had to do something about it.’

Open Call project
Ní Mheadhra applied for the Arts Council’s Open Call programme, which is for large ambitious projects. In 2018 she heard the project was successful, and she had already begun making preliminary plans and had contacted a number of composers.

This Thursday 17 October at the Royal Irish Academy of Music, the fruits of her project will be officially launched: ‘Tionscadal na nAmhrán Ealaíne Gaeilge / Irish Language Art Song Project’. It is a multi-faceted initiative, but at its heart is fifty new songs commissioned from twelve Irish composers and five international composers. A website will go live on Thursday which contains the scores, recordings and spoken-word recordings, and everything will be downloadable for free. In addition, next February and March at the National Concert Hall, all fifty songs will be performed by singers including Anna Devin, Daire Halpin, Rachel Kelly and Magali Simard-Galdès, with Louise Thomas and Hess on piano.

‘All the composers outside of Ireland, they all absolutely accepted the commission, and were intrigued and very interested in writing something in the Irish language,’ says Ní Mheadhra. In Ireland, ‘the composers took it on with a seriousness and respect for the Irish language that was extremely encouraging… I think it … touched on some nerve … because they were all anxious to do it.’

The composers span the generations, and include Garrett Sholdice (who was also score editor for the project), John Kinsella, Linda Buckley, Raymond Deane, Ryan Molloy, Ailís Ní Ríain, Andrew Hamilton, Deirdre Gribbin, Jonathan Nangle, Kevin O’Connell, Ann Cleare and Jennifer Walshe. The international composers are Oscar Strasnoy, Anna Pidgorna, Ashkan Behzadi, Fuhong Shi and Ana Sokolović.

International performances
What makes the project unique is that the words of the songs come with transcriptions in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), which broadens the possibilities for international performance considerably. ‘Any classical singer in the world, once they pick that up, they can read that,’ explains Ní Mheadhra. The lack of accompanying IPA was something that was absent in Irish-language works of the past, and reduced the likelihood of them ever being performed by international artists.

Among the writers whose works have been set to music are Myles na gCopaleen (used by Hamilton), Aifric Mac Aodha (Ní Ríain) and Máirtín Ó Direáin (Sokolović), as well as traditional texts like Dónall Óg (Sholdice). Deane has set Maghnas Ó Domhnaill and Pidgorna has set Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill. 

It is an important time for the language in Ireland right now, Ní Mheadhra feels.

You have to have a very long view on it, because the Irish language was associated with poverty for such a long time… I think Ireland is coming to a moment in history where it can look at that again. … you have to let quite a lot of time pass … to let all those things go down the stream.

Ní Mheadhra and Hess have just this year moved back to Ireland. Does she notice a big change in the Irish music scene since the 1990s?

I think it’s light-years ahead of what it used to be. There are so many festivals in different parts of the country. …There’s a sense that not everything exists just in Dublin. … I still remember the day when I was 17 and I went into the orchestra with my big wide Cork accent … [Ireland] is just a more interesting place to come back to… It has opened up considerably.

Tionscadal na nAmhrán Ealaíne Gaeilge / Irish Language Art Song Project will be launched at the RIAM, Dublin, on Thursday 17 October. The new songs will be available at www.cmc.ie.

Published on 15 October 2019

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