Hearts of darkness: Joseph Conrad and Roger Casement in the Congo

For their collaboration commemorating the Rising at the NCH, Colm Tóibín and Donnacha Dennehy have focused on the uneasy time when Casement and Conrad shared quarters in the Belgian colony

All this week, the National Concert Hall's Imagining Home series of concerts is inviting artists to examine Irish identity, history and the legacy of the Rising through music, theatre and writing. Imagining Home: On Revolution sees the writer Colm Tóibín and the composer Donnacha Dennehy present readings and musical performances that deal in various ways with the concept of revolution.

The thread running through this particular evening is one of personal relationships to these political events, which are otherwise abstracted into the history books as finite dates, cold numbers and neatly finished stories. The musical and literary elements of the evening are both refreshingly international in approach, with writers from Poland, Libya and Egypt complementing Tóibín and Joseph O'Neill. Dennehy's programming includes works by Philip Glass, Beethoven and Berlioz.

"That was the brief: other evenings are going to be Irish traditional music, Irish singers or Irish writers; could there be one evening which looked outwards or which connected to the outside world?" says Tóibín. "We've invited writers from outside Ireland to come and talk about the way in which revolution has affected their lives. Just so we'd get some sense of a context in which we could place 1916 in Ireland. An international context."

"There's something, for outsiders, about looking at the 1916 rebellion that is very interesting, connecting it to things that happened to them and in their countries. It's a way that you can do it using writers, in a way that might not be so easy if you're trying to use historians or politicians. I wouldn't fancy having Donald Tusk [the president of the European Council] on the stage."


While much of the centenary celebrations will focus on Irish folk traditions and the contribution of ordinary people to the Rising and its mythology, the classical music tradition’s relationship with protest and rebellion is somewhat less straightforward. In Ireland and elsewhere, classical music has often been seen as the preserve of an established, aristocratic elite: the kinds of people the folk traditions were usually in revolt against.

Crashing the party

This is something Dennehy's work with Crash Ensemble has regularly sought to challenge. In his musical programming for On Revolution, he has brought together a host of composers from the western classical tradition who have engaged with protest movements in their own ways. Perhaps the most notable connection is with the French composer Hector Berlioz, whose Elegie en Prose, dedicated to Robert Emmet, will be performed on the evening.

"A lot of our concerts in the early days, we weren't just doing them in concert halls but in clubs and various other places," says Dennehy about Crash Ensemble. "They were trying to change the way this music was delivered and to not just accept all the trappings of classical culture. Within that, there were composers whose music we'd perform, like Louis Andriessen, who in his early music was very interested in, and was basically protesting for, left-wing causes. There is a whole tradition of protest music. It's not just limited to other musics."

Tóibín picks that thread up: “It’s so fascinating that we think of Robert Emmet through the ballads we know about him, without realising that one of the greatest composers of the age, Hector Berlioz, also got involved. It’s just one way of trying to suggest that maybe the parish is more interesting than we think.”

The centrepiece of On Revolution is The Dark Places, a musical collaboration between Tóibín and Dennehy that explores the relationship between Joseph Conrad and Roger Casement and their respective reactions to the horrors they witnessed in the Belgian Congo during the 1890s. Tóibín has written extensively about Casement in the past, but the man he describes as "the most complex of all" the figures of 1916 retains a powerful draw on his imagination, and this opportunity to go further into his character and his story was too good to pass up.

“Casement had shared quarters in the 1890s in the Congo with Joseph Conrad, and they had both then gone their separate ways: Conrad to become a writer in England, Casement to become a reformer and then a revolutionary.

"When Casement wrote his first report on the Congo, he went to see Conrad, who was very uneasy about it. Conrad, by that time, really wanted to settle in England, wanted no more trouble, and was writing Heart of Darkness. Then there's a letter after Casement's execution from Conrad to John Quinn talking about him. In other words, for all those years Conrad and Casement had kept in touch.

"Casement's interest in revolution in Ireland arose from what he saw in the Congo, as did Conrad's Heart of Darkness, one of his best-known pieces of fiction and, through that, you could once more connect what had happened in Ireland in 1916 to what had happened in the outside world."

Casement and Conrad

Tóibín introduced the story of Casement and Conrad to Dennehy, and the latter was immediately intrigued. Words and lyrics have been an increasingly central part of Dennehy's work over the past decade or so – culminating in The Last Hotel, an opera written with Enda Walsh last year – and he was excited by the prospect of working with a novelist. When Dennehy eventually saw the libretto from Tóibín, he was not disappointed.

“Colm’s words were just beautiful. They were crying out for a musical setting. It allowed space for the music to speak, as it were. One thing I really relish is not just dealing with the kind of surface meaning of the words but also a subtext. Thinking of the character saying the words, what’s left unsaid and where the room is for the music.”

For Tóibín, that element of character was particularly important as he wrote, as it offered him a familiar route into an unfamiliar form of writing. “I was working, in a way, as a novelist, trying to find a voice, a voice that I thought Donnacha could pick up on. For Casement and Conrad, the personal becomes important here. This was not about the nation. This is not a celebration of violence or importing arms from Germany or any of the actual military matters. It’s about these two strange ghosts.”

Tóibín and Dennehy come back to this point again and again in discussing the project: the intersection of the personal and the political, the local movements and the universal struggles. As artists, they are free to make these links in more imaginative and investigative ways than more official spokespeople. In so doing they can shed fresh light on a subject that, even before the official celebrations had begun, was in danger of being talked to death.

“There is no doubt that this is an important celebration in our history – the actual defining event that then brought about independence,” says Dennehy. “That is definitely a topic worthy of artistic exploration. What’s involved in that? How sometimes the results can be at odds with the aims of a thing like this. How idealism interacts with reality. These are fascinating topics that breed artistic ideas.”

Dennehy and Tóibín's collaboration sets out to explore those ideas in a way that complements the complex legacies of both its central characters and their political era. On Revolution is as much an examination as a commemoration, and with voices from around a war-torn world included in the mix, the evening will be far from a simple, patriotic celebration. "I think we've come to feel that we have a right to interrogate the rebellion as much as celebrate it," says Tóibín. "That simplicity is over."