Songs of Erin are a family affair for Rachel Kelly and Una Hunt

Rachel Kelly: Inspired by the work of her grandfather, TC Kelly.

WHEN mezzo-soprano Rachel Kelly steps onto the platform of the John Field Room on Friday to open a recital titled ‘Songs of Erin’, in the final week of Composing the Island, it will be very much a family affair. Accompanying her will be her mother, pianist and broadcaster Una Hunt.

However, the family connections go deeper still and extend back to another generation. Included on the programme are songs by Thomas (TC) Kelly, Rachel’s late grandfather. A Co Wexford man, Kelly was music teacher in Clongowes College for many years and a prolific composer and arranger for Radio Éireann. He died in 1985 before Rachel was born. The recital is one of the events in the final days of a three week extravaganza of concerts shining a spotlight on the work of Irish composers.

Kelly follows Robin Tritschler’s earlier recital of an Irish Song-Book from the first half of the 20th century. Here the emphasis is on the latter decades.

“When I sat down to plan the programme with my mother, I wanted to feature my grandfather’s work and I’m singing two of his songs. There is a little lullaby and a song that incredibly was banned in the 70s. His setting of Padraig Pearse’s poem ‘The Mother’ is an incredibly emotive and beautifully written piece. He wrote it after Bloody Sunday and it moves me to tears when I hear it. Whenever I sing TC’s music, it just sits so perfectly in my voice. The way he has written it. It feels as though he wrote it especially for me.”

In the poem, Pearse imagines his mother’s grief and pride after her sons die for Ireland.

In the run-up to the Rising’s 50th anniversary, Kelly’s setting was considered ‘inflammatory’ by RTÉ, and Veronica Dunne’s recording of the song was banned.

The poetry of WB Yeats is the other dominant strand in the programme. Philip Martin’s four settings include the singer’s favourite Yeats poem, ‘He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’. The name Bernadette Marmion may not be familiar to many concert goers. Kelly has been a big fan since discovering her work as a student at the Royal Irish Academy.

“I just love what she does in this line in Bright Cap,” she says.

The 21st century is represented in the programme with hot-off-the- press settings of texts taken from Moore’s Melodies in works commissioned for the occasion by Belfast composer Phillip Hammond.

Pianist and broadcaster Una Hunt is well known for her extensive research on the heritage of Irish song composers and her daughter has cut her teeth performing in recitals of the songs of Thomas Moore and WV Wallace with her mother.

Her performances in recent Irish productions as Nerone in Agrippina and Idamante in the Idomeneo were highly praised. Have the dynamics in the rehearsal room changed as Kelly has moved on in her career? Kelly chuckles.

“Well I am my mother’s daughter and we are both fiery Irish women with strong opinions. My mother has brought me the whole way. I am so grateful to have this opportunity and it will be very special to perform my grandfather’s songs with her.”

  • Rachel Kelly and Una Hunt perform Songs of Erin on Friday lunchtime at the National Concert Hall, Dublin, as part of the Composing The Island series


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