Parked here until I can reactivate my trad music blog Hogfiddle.

A rather different kind of Irish music, and one I find I’m increasingly drawn to, is by semiclassical Irish composer Shaun Davey. He’s known for songs, backed by pipes (mostly uilleann, but with Scottish bagpipes occasionally thrown in) and symphony orchestra, typically featuring his wife, soprano Rita Connolly, as the soloist. I guess you’d call it middlebrow, but, hey, I’m irredeemably middlebrow and I may as well admit it.

Davey’s output includes film scores, including Waking Ned Devine and a BBC production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night — his songs typically are embedded in larger works. The Shaun Davey Music website lists a wide variety of work in concert music, film and theater. Selections available online include:

  • Newfoundland. An instrumental, featuring symphony orchestra and Liam O’Flynn on the uilleann pipes; the finale of Davey’s orchestral suite The Brendan Voyage. Video is from the Irish premiere in 1983 at the National Concert Hall in Dublin.
  • Fill to Me the Parting Glass. An arrangement of the traditional air “The Parting Glass,” set to a melody of Davey’s creation, here sung by Seamus Beagley of the West Kerry band Béal Tuinne accompanied by a small orchestra led by Alan Smale of RTÉ (Raidió Teilifís Éireann) in the National Concert Hall.
  • Ciúmhais Charraig Aonair. Based on a Gaelic poem by Caomhín ó Cinneide, and played by Béal Tuinne for a South Winds Blows TV documentary, with interpolations by Connolly and Davey and a reading of the poem in Irish with English subtitles by the poet’s daughter Dorina.
  • The Wind and the Rain. Shakespeare’s poem from the epilogue to Twelfth Night. As sung by Ben Kingsley (who played Feste), it is featured here in the end title and credits for the BBC’s 1996 production.

This song, based on a speech by 19th-century Irish nationalist Daniel O’Connell, who has been a hero of mine ever since I discovered Seán Ó Faoláin’s classic biography, King of the Beggars, when I was supposed to be attending to something else in grad school. It was my first introduction to O’Connell and, I believe, to Ó Faoláin and Irish literature in general. (I believe my interest was sparked when he gave a reading of his short stories at UT-Knoxville.) My introduction to Irish music came slightly later, when I heard an Irish fiddler busking inside the county courthouse during an oldtime music festival in Smithville, Tenn., and the intricacy and melodic contours of the music reminded me of the best of Joyce, Yeats and Ó Faoláin. But that’s another story for another time.

Known as the “Great Liberator,” O’Connell was the first Catholic to take a seat in the British Parliament, in 1829, and more than anyone he kept the cause of Irish home rule, if not quite independence of the crown, alive during the first half of the 19th century. He was also a vocal opponent of slavery, and Frederick Douglass once shared a speaking platform with him when the Black abolitionist visited Ireland. O’Connell was equally at home in Parliament and in the mass meetings he held throughout most of Ireland (although not so much in the Protestant north), and his vision for Ireland endured.

“He is interesting in a hundred ways,” says Ó Faoláin, “but in no way more interesting than in this — that he was the greatest of all Irish realists, who knew that if he could but once define, he could create.” Ó Faoláin continues:

He did define, and he did create. He thought a democracy and it rose. He defined himself, and his people became him. He imagined a future and the road appeared He left his successors nothing to do but to follow him. They have added precision to his definition, but his definition is not altered; they have added to his methods, but his methods remain. You may break gold but it is gold still, fashion wood but it is wood still.

So it was that, as an English major at the time chiefly interested in Beowulf and Shakespeare, I was introduced to the sweep of Irish history. Many years later and 500 miles distant, when Springfield’s Ursuline Academy closed, I salvaged a used library copy of the 1938 American edition of Ó Faoláin’s King of the Beggars, complete with an old library card that showed it was checked out often in the 1940s. The North End of Springfield was for many years a stronghold of Irish Catholic Democrats, and I am sure O’Connell’s was still a name to be reckoned with on the North End. Still later, as a faculty member tagging along on a Benedictine University tour of Killarney, Cork and Dublin, our tour guide pointed out the site of O’Connell’s family home in Co. Kerry, and as I looked out the window I felt like our bus was driving past holy ground.

So it was inevitable that I would be drawn to a YouTube clip of a song titled “Daniel O’Connell’s Hymn” by Shaun Davey, performed in 2019 by Rita Connolly, with Davey and their children joining her on harmonies, and the RTÉ (Raidió Teilifís Éireann) National Symphony Orchestra at the National Concert Hall in Dublin.

It’s a setting of Davey’s adaptation of a speech Daniel O’Connell gave in 1843 at a mass meeting in Co. Kildare. The blurb on the posnerview YouTube channel, which archives Shaun Davey’s (and Rita Connolly’s) work, gives as many details as I’ve been able to find online about the song and the performance:

Rita Connolly sings Shaun Davey’s musical setting of a famous speech by Daniel O’Connell; harmony vocals by her daughters Ailsha and Carla, son Peadar and husband Shaun, with the RTENSO conducted by David Brophy at the NCH, Dublin, September 2019.

By listening to the performance, I was able to do several keyword searches on phrases I heard and tracked down the “famous speech by Daniel O’Connell.” It didn’t take long. He delivered it in 1843 at Mullaghmast, in Co. Kildare, and it is indeed famous. (Mullaghmast has rich associations in Irish history, too, of which O’Connell was well aware.) The speech is quite lengthy, so I’m only copying its conclusion, and italicizing the language Shaun Davey adapted and set to music.

The entire speech is available on the website, maintained by Western Standard Publishing Co. Inc. of Orem, Utah, at

O’Connell was a pretty good wordsmith. I suspect Seán Ó Faoláin studied his speeches, because I hear distinct echoes. Here’s the excerpt (the asterisked note is verbatim, too):

In Favor of the Repeal of the Union* (1843)

[…] Let any man run around the horizon with his eye, and tell me if created nature ever produced anything so green and so lovely, so undulating, so teeming with production. The richest harvests that any land can produce are those reaped in Ireland; and then here are the sweetest meadows, the greenest fields, the loftiest mountains, the purest streams, the noblest rivers, the most capacious harbors—and her water power is equal to turn the machinery of the whole world. O my friends, it is a country worth fighting for—it is a country worth dying for; but, above all, it is a country worth being tranquil, determined, submissive, and docile for; disciplined as you are in obedience to those who are breaking the way, and trampling down the barriers between you and your constitutional liberty, I will see every man of you having a vote, and every man protected by the ballot from the agent or landlord.I will see labor protected, and every title to possession recognized, when you are industrious and honest. I will see prosperity again throughout your land—the busy hum of the shuttle and the tinkling of the smithy shall be heard again. We shall see the nailer employed even until the middle of the night, and the carpenter covering himself with his chips. I will see prosperity in all its gradations spreading through a happy, contented, religious land. I will hear the hymn of a happy people go forth at sunrise to God in praise of His mercies—and I will see the evening sun set down among the uplifted hands of a religions and free population. Every blessing that man can bestow and religion can confer upon the faithful heart shall spread throughout the land. Stand by me—join with me—I will say be obedient to me, and Ireland shall be free.

* Delivered at Mullaghmast, Ireland, in September, 1843. Since 1829 agitation in Ireland for repeal had been in progress, and since 1842 had been rapidly intensified, until in the spring of 1843 a series of monster meetings had been started at Trim. Estimates of the multitude assembled on the Hill of Tara in August vary from 150,000 to 1,000,000. In the speech here given, O’Connell says that the multitude at Mullaghmast rivaled the one at Tara.

{Published Aug. 1, 2022]

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