The late Monsignor Pádraig Ó Fiannachta was not a man to shy away from a challenge.
The Co Kerry priest was a poet, publisher, Maynooth professor, editor, and vocal campaigner on community issues. He had completed the mammoth task of translating the Bible into Irish, much of it from the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.
However, during the last of his 89 years, his health failing after a stroke, even Mons Ó Fiannachta balked at the enormity of the task presented to him by composer Peadar Ó Riada: To assemble all of Ireland’s mythical past into one narrative, in Irish verse.
What compelled him to complete the narrative, which runs to around 7,000 lines of metered poetry, was a ‘geas’ or vow of obligation under which Ó Riada had placed him. The vast body of poetry entitled Fianna Éireann was the result.
And, following Mons Ó Fiannachta’s death in 2016, Ó Riada fulfils his side of the bargain when his musical setting of the narrative is performed on Saturday night in Baile Mhúirne, Co Cork, at a premiere launched by President Michael D Higgins.
The work, in the form of a ‘reacaireacht’ or narrative recital to music, brings to the public arena a project more than three decades in gestation on Ó Riada’s part.
He initially worked on the idea with Cúil Aodha poet Dónal Ó Liatháin, whose death in 2008 appeared also to have sounded the death knell for Ó Riada’s project.
That was until the solution appeared in the form of his friend Mons Ó Fiannachta, in Baile Mhúirne in his role as uachtarán of bardic poetry school Dáimhscoil Mhúscraí Uí Fhloinn.
“When Dónal died I didn’t really know what I was going to do. He was my muse,” said Ó Riada. “I saw Pádraig and I knew instantly, that’s the source. I put him under a geas to write it [the text] so I could do the other side of it.
“The following morning he rang me and he said that when he lay on his bed that night it [poetry] started flowing through him like a stream. As soon as the tap was turned on, it came out.”
Ó Riada said:
“Pádraig Ó Fiannachta and I felt that the bedrock of our culture, that which gave us our ideals, could be found by assembling our mythical past into a cogent narrative.
“Fianna Éireann is foundation myth of Ireland. Everything sits on a foundation myth — all the things that we value.
It’s full of stories about all kinds of things that happened and what we considered was good and what we considered was bad. You’ll find in it all the things that we still find good, like generosity, and welcome, and sharing. ”
Ó Riada’s ultimate vision is to pull together Ireland’s myths in one epic, possibly over several days. What will be performed in Baile Mhúirne’s Ionad Cultúrtha is an appetiser,
performed by the composer with Mick O’Brien, Steve Cooney, Aidan Connolly, Tommy Hayes, and Oisín Morrison, and preceded by a lecture on Mons Ó Fiannachta.
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