Opera inspired by Youghal witch casts a spell

The case of a woman who was accused of witchcraft in Co Cork and prosecuted at a sensational trial in 1661 forms the plot of a new opera by the acclaimed avant-garde composer, Raymond Deane.

Opera inspired by Youghal witch casts a spell

The case of a woman who was accused of witchcraft in Co Cork and prosecuted at a sensational trial in 1661 forms the plot of a new opera by the acclaimed avant-garde composer, Raymond Deane.

While thousands of non-conformist women were being burned at stakes across Europe, Ireland’s cohort escaped relatively unscathed. There are only a tiny handful of such trials in the records.

Joining the select roll call that included Alice Kyteler and Biddy Early was Florence Newton, who became known as the Witch of Youghal.

Apparently, Newton was begging for food at the home of a wealthy landowner. The housemaid, Mary Longdon, refused Newton’s hungry pleas and sent her on her way. Later as Longden was at her chores, Newton met her, “threw the pail from her head, and violently kissed her”.

When Longdon subsequently suffered seizures, Newton was accused of witchcraft and imprisoned in the town’s landmark Clock Gate. The subsequent trial drew large crowds, but there is no official record of the outcome.

Emma Donoghue wrote of the story in her play Trespasses, which Deane has used for his new opera, Vagabones.

“I had just finished reading Emma Donoghue’s novel Room,” says Deane.

Something about it suggested to me that there would be operatic possibilities in her work, so I looked through a volume of her early plays and I found this one which immediately struck me as offering good material for an opera.

The dramatic potential also appealed to Colette McGahon, director of Opera Collective Ireland.

Deane, who spent his first 10 years of childhood on Achill Island made an impression when he made his debut at the age of 15, playing his own piece at the first Dublin Festival of 20th Century Music, an occasion he recalls with wry amusement.

“The concert was in the Exam Hall at Trinity. Although it was January, the day was very mild and the window over the stage was open.

"My piece was on loose pieces of manuscript paper and a gust of wind blew the whole shebang off the stage. I stopped playing and crawled around and picked up everything and put it back on my keyboard and continued.

"The RTÉ crew in the background were saying, ‘That’s typical avant-garde music for ye — one big long silence.’ I think that put the audience on my side.”

The following year, Deane, still a schoolboy made the pilgrimage to the summer school at Darmstadt, a mecca for anyone interested in the contemporary currents in European classical music.

There he heard music by leading-light Karlheinz Stockhausen who would later become his teacher.

Deane admits to having mixed views on the contemporary scene in Ireland.

There is an extraordinary boom in opera composing. You’d have to trace that back to Gerald Barry’s Intelligence Park which he wrote in the 1980s.

He laments, however, the low level of Government subsidies for arts,particularly classical music.

With a running time of 90 minutes, Vagabones is scored for six singers and 13 musicians from the Crash Ensemble.

Along with the usual strings and percussion in the pit, the score calls for a tin whistle, an accordion and an Irish harp.

Raymond Deane.
Raymond Deane.

One of the stops on the tour is the town in Co Cork in the town where Florence Newton fell foul of a community riven with superstitious beliefs and social hysteria.

“The performance in Youghal, in St Mary’s Church is particularly symbolic as the piece is set in the town at the time of the witch trial of 1661 and I am looking forward to that,” says Deane.

Vagabones by Raymond Deane is at St Mary’s Church, Youghal, Co Cork, on Sept 12, and also has dates in Tallaght, Dundalk, and Waterford.


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