Opera sounds a new note on the Great Famine

Opera sounds a new note on the Great Famine
Iarla O Lionaird in The Hunger. Picture: Jack Vartoogian

Donnacha O’Dennehy’s opera looks at a surprisingly neglected era, writes Alan O’Riordan.

As a co-founder of the country’s leading contemporary music group, the Crash Ensemble, Donnacha Dennehy has long been at the forefront of new music in Ireland. 

In the past few years, his interest in opera has grown, producing a soon-to-be trilogy with Enda Walsh, and his work on the Great Famine, The Hunger, which is currently on at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin.

Dennehy demurs something on the idea of The Hunger as opera. It’s a dramatic musical work for the stage, certainly, he allows. 

But his preferred term would be “docu-cantata”. 

Nonetheless, he’s been bitten by the stage bug, something he admits he didn’t really see coming.

“I think something was unlocked when I wrote ‘Grá agus Bás’,” he says, referencing a piece with the Cork sean-nós singer Iarla Ó Lionáird from 2007. 

“I was always drawn to an intensity in music, now I find a lot of that intensity seems to be in collaborations between composers and theatre people. 

"It can be exhausting, but it is really addictive.”

Dennehy is also a professor of music at Princeton, and it’s from here he was speaking ahead of the Abbey opening. 

Indeed, the US provided him with a way to approach the famine, in the personage of Asenath Nicholson, an American who travelled Ireland in the 1840s and wrote Annals of the Famine in Ireland, on which Dennehy has based the book of his work.

“I suppose today she might be called a humanitarian,” says Dennehy. “She was born in Vermont and ran a house for the indigent in New York, where she became interested in Ireland and the Irish. 

"She visited Ireland and wrote a book about Irish hospitality, before the Famine, and then returned in the 1840s. 

"She was shocked by the transformation. I’d been wanting to write about the Famine for a long time, but I couldn’t find something to hang it on. 

"But this spoke to me. I read it and I thought, ‘There it is’.”

Historians of the Great Famine have had to deal with a legacy of silence, and a dearth of direct sources among those it hit hardest. 

Dennehy quotes George Petrie’s phrase “a great unwonted silence” in describing a similar situation culturally.

“There is very little dealing with the Famine, even in sean-nós tradition,” he says. 

“History is always biased towards the wealthy and powerful. They produce the sources, the accounts; so of course, there’s a lack of sources among the peasant class who were destroyed by this.”

That said, Dennehy has cast Ó Lionáird in the role of a representative of that very class. 

Donnacha Dennehy
Donnacha Dennehy

In a direct attempt to fill the silence comes a rare contemporaneous song, ‘Na Pratai Dubha’.

“The figure of the old man in the piece is invented out of scraps of material that address the famine in that time, but it is not ethnomusicological thing. 

"It forms the building blocks for the world of the piece. I saw that as my role as an artist. Where history stops, art begins.”

The Hunger had its premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, directed, then as now, by another Cork man, Tom Creed. 

“They call it the ‘Potato Famine’ here,” Dennehy notes, “as if that’s all it was. There were, of course, far more complex forces at play: colonialism, free market theories, you know. Exports didn’t stop during the famine.”

It was that complex reality, and the lack of its appreciation, that led Creed and Dennehy to add another layer to the work: a set of interviews, presented on video monitors on stage, recorded with such thinkers as Paul Krugman, Noam Chomsky and Branko Milanovic.

“We wanted to place this historical account in a larger context, one that showed resonances of today,” Dennehy says. 

“Famines still happen, but almost none of them are just due to a food shortage. There was this attitude of the colonialist, that the Irish were lesser, and that still pervades: that othering. 

"Here, in the US, you have this horrible anti-immigrant rhetoric, this distortion of the other, which is the same was what happened with the victims of the Famine. 

"So, it’s that universal thing that drew me to it.”

The Hunger is at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin until August 24

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