Ó Direáin’s poems spark unique musical project

Liam Ó Maonlaí who will be perfroming An tEarrach Thiar at Éigse an Spidéil.
Liam Ó Maonlaí who will be perfroming An tEarrach Thiar at Éigse an Spidéil.

Arts Week with Judy Murphy

Connemara musician Johnny Óg Connolly likes a challenge. The accordion player and composer is best known as a traditional musician but he’ll break new ground next Saturday, March 4, when An tEarrach Thiar, a song cycle based on 12 of Máirtín Ó Direáin’s poems which Johnny set to music, will premiere at Éigse an Spidéil.

Singer and pianist Liam Ó Maonlaí will perform the songs, explains Éigse administrator, Deirdre Nic Chonaonaigh, who is organising the concert at the Connemara Coast Hotel as part of the annual festival of music, literature and visual arts.

Serendipity seems to have been the building block of this project, a collaboration between Éigse, Johnny and Liam.

Deirdre runs the Gaelacadamh in Spiddal, which offers classes in the music, singing and dance of Connemara. Johnny, a primary school teacher, is one of the academy’s music instructors. In December 2014, Deirdre suggested to Johnny that setting Ó Direáin’s poetry to music would be a great project for him. She didn’t know it, but at the time he already doing just that.

A big fan of classical music and of poetry, Johnny had been toying with the notion of writing a song cycle for a while – like the classical German composer Franz Schubert had done by setting poems to music or Gerald Finzi taking on Thomas Hardy’s verses. But Johnny never imagined Ó Direáin’s work would be his starting point.

Johnny loves the Inis Mór writer who died in 1988, but it wasn’t that simple. Although he’s from Connemara, as were his father’s people before him, Johnny’s first language was English. Irish didn’t become central until he was seven and his family moved back from England to Connemara. And because Johnny’s mother doesn’t speak Irish, English was mostly spoken at home.

So, he thought if he were ever to embark on this kind of project, it would probably be in English. However, in 2014 he heard a version of Ó Direáin’s Christmas poem, Cuireadh do Mhuire, which had been set to music by the late Eugene Kelly.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.