04 Oct 2022

OPINION (AN COLÚN): A celebrated actress and a great writer in a Birr church

OPINION (AN COLÚN): A celebrated actress and a great writer in a Birr church

Pictured in St Brendan's Church of Ireland during Vintage Week were l. to r. myself, Claire Mullen, Rita Kelly and Rev Arthur Minion.

MY THOUGHTS this week are with the Vaihichev family from the city of Kherson in southern Ukraine. I interviewed them a couple of months ago when they were briefly staying in Birr Outdoor Education Centre. You couldn't get more decent people. As I talked to them I thought to myself how tragic and unjust it is that good people like this are thrown into hell because of the rapacity and evil of one man, because of the rapacity and evil of a corrupt system.
As I talked to them I put myself in their shoes and imagined what it would be like if Russian tanks came rolling through the streets of Birr, my house was blown to rubble and I had to stand and fight while my loved ones became refugees; I thought of what it would be like for our once peaceful lives to be thrown into turmoil because of the greed and callousness of an authoritarian system. There but for the grace of God go I, I thought. It is only by chance that I live in a beautiful and peaceful country, a place that is highly unlikely to witness invasion by a foreign power. (But then again, the last couple of years have been so strange and so testing that one couldn't rule anything out.)
Now fighting is raging in the Kherson region, and there's a chance that Ukraine will retake the city, something which I thought was far from likely. There is a chance that the Vaihichevs one day will be able to return to their home city and live there under a free, democratic Ukraine.
The suffering is horrendous and we must keep in mind that in spite of the passage of several months and a feeling of weariness with the war the refugees need our help as much as ever. Last week the public had three opportunities to make charitable donations to the plight of Ukrainian refugees in Birr's Church of Ireland. We must praise the Church's Rector Rev Arthur Minion for this wonderful and compassionate initiative. The donations coincided with three concerts, all free. On Thursday August 4th people could hear one of the finest organists in Ireland, Gerard Gillen. On Friday 5th of August the public could listen to another very fine Irish organist (Charles Marshall) and a fantastic Romanian violinist (Bogdan Sofei).
I myself took part in the first of the three concerts on the first Saturday of the festival. This concert was called 'James Joyce and Friends' and it marked the centenary of the publication of 'Ulysses' by James Joyce. I sang a couple of Thomas Moore melodies, 'Silent, O Moyle' and 'Believe me, if all those endearing young charms', interspersing them with some observations with the aim of shedding light on the songs' subject matter and on the importance of Moore in Joyce's work.
The celebrated actress Claire Mullen also took part. Claire is an inspiration because she is so accomplished and so full of spirit at a lofty age. She recited by heart part of Molly Bloom's famous soliloquy at the end of 'Ulysses' (avoiding some of the naughtier bits, considering the ecclesiastical setting.) This was a long and technically demanding recitation and Claire handled it with skill and intelligence. She was interviewed by Rita Kelly (a wonderful poet who we are fortunate to have living in our midst). In the interview she reminisced about visiting Trieste and meeting Lucia Joyce (James’ troubled daughter) and Ezra Pound (one of the 20th Century's most celebrated poets). She talked about working with some of the great Irish actors of the last century including Micheál Mac Liammóir, Hilton Edwards and Cyril Cusack. Not all of her acting was of an elevated nature. From 2002 to 2005 she played Winnie McGoogan in Mrs Browns' Boys. She also reminisced about my cousin Aengus, who was Editor of the Sunday Independent until he died a decade ago. They used to swim in the Forty Foot together and got along very well (Aengus often greatly valued and enjoyed the company of artists).
Silent, O Moyle is a magnificent song. It first appeared in Thomas Moore's famous volume of songs, 'Irish Melodies'. It features three times in Joyce's work, first in the short story 'Two Gallants' (which appears in 'The Dubliners'), secondly in 'Ulysses' and finally in 'Finnegans Wake'. The two gallants are the friends Lenehan and Corley who head out into the town one evening for a bit of fun. They come across a small group of onlookers listening to a street musician playing the song. This is the description in the story: “They walked along Nassau Street and then turned into Kildare Street. Not far from the porch of the club a harpist stood in the roadway, playing to a little ring of listeners. He plucked at the wires heedlessly, glancing quickly from time to time at the face of each newcomer and from time to time, wearily also, at the sky. His harp too, heedless that her coverings had fallen about her knees, seemed weary alike of the eyes of strangers and of her master's hands. One hand played in the bass the melody of Silent, O Moyle, while the other hand careered in the treble after each group of notes.”
The song tells the sad tale of Fionnuala, one of Lir's daughters, who was transformed into a swan by a jealous witch and condemned to wander for nine centuries over the waterways of Ireland. Fionnuala is weary of her wandering and begs for an end. She looks forward to the 'day star' of Christianity, because when it arrives in Ireland her curse will come to an end and Ireland will be warmed with peace and love.
Of the friends Corley is the more heartless (his name is deliberately ironic because its first syllable means heart). Lenehan is more sensitive and feels the song deeply. Lenehan empathises with Fionnuala because the experience of life has also 'embittered his heart against the world.' Like Fionnuala, there is a gentility about his nature; but he disguises this part of himself so he can fit into the more caustic and harsher human environments around him. But when he is on his own he drops his happy act and his face becomes older, sadder. Beneath his lighthearted exterior Lenehan is as much condemned to suffering as Fionnuala is. Lenehan's path to happiness lies in a home of his own, a sympathetic mate and and a decent job. Sadly, he is condemned to corruption by his environment.
There is a brief reference to Silent O Moyle in the Scylla and Charybdis section in Ulysses. Stephen Dedalus feels alienated from those around him. He thinks of the song and that Fionnuala's pain perfectly expresses his own - 'Cordelia,' he says, 'Cordoglio. Lir's loneliest daughter.'
The song is also referenced in Chapter Three of 'Finnegans Wake' when Joyce writes, 'and I wound around my swanchen's neckplace a school of shells of moyles marine to swing their saysangs in her silents'.
Some 122 lyrics by Moore have been identified in 'Finnegans Wake'.

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