The Monaghan Soviet: How the people took over the asylum

Michael Gallen on the event in his home county that inspired a new opera at the Abbey Theatre

It's five years since composer Michael Gallen came across the historical event in his native Monaghan that would lead to his new opera Elsewhere. He co-wrote the libretto with writers Annemarie Ní Churreáin and Dylan Coburn Gray, and the production, directed by Tom Creed is an international affair, not just in its casting, but also in the use of the French new music group, Ensemble Miroirs Étendus conducted by Fiona Monbet. Also involved is Gallen's new "opera and music-theatre company" Straymaker, which was set up two years ago with the delivery of the new opera in mind.

Gallen says he came across the story of the Monaghan Soviet “as two lines” when he was doing research in 2016 for a centenary commission. “I had decided to focus on the movement of communities around the border at that time. I came across this line about how this Soviet that had taken place in the Monaghan Asylum had momentarily overcome the sectarian divisions that were rife in the area. I had never heard of it. It’s not a particularly well-known story at all, even locally.”

The Monaghan Soviet took place in 1919. But in 2016 Gallen had little interest in the fact that the world was then in the middle of a flu pandemic. He says that when he met up to talk to people who had already researched and written about it, “The thing that really stayed in my head was that they had organised this Soviet, first of all, because the workers in the asylum were on strike. They had been looking for pay equality between men and women. And also they had conceived of a form of strike that would allow them to gain leverage over the authorities without having to compromise on patient care.”

He was very taken by “the fact of it all being so forward-thinking. And, you know, growing up in Monaghan I wouldn’t have thought of Monaghan as being the playing-field of great ideas. Some of the stuff that was being discussed is still pertinent politically today. Especially in terms of mental health care. I find it fascinating.”

The strike and the Soviet were led by Republican activist and writer Peadar O’Donnell. “He had had this idea also that once they locked the gates that they would radicalise how the asylum functioned. That they would incorporate the resident patients into the function and organisation and protection of the Soviet.”

The internal dynamics of the Soviet seem to have become something of an obsession for Gallen. “First of all, what must it have felt like to be a patient. It flies in the face of the entire 20th-century history of Irish institutional care, this idea of people being treated as human beings, being made feel that they’re a part of something. So, how must it have felt to have this period of hope and inclusion, and then, subsequently, to spend decades in incarceration, being de-humanised and hidden away, really not having a voice.”

As soon as he mentions the word voice, he segues into the world of the opera. “That was the idea that drew me into the idea of an opera about the story, that the story could be told from the perspective of a patient who, years later, is still running over these events in her head. It uses that memory as a means of accessing whatever small fragment of freedom she has in her situation.

“I know there’s a way of telling that story through an opera that isn’t possible through writing a short story or writing a play. You’re really moving back and forth between two realities. You can use the architecture of the opera to signify the change between the internal and the external space.”     He says he spoke “quite a lot with Professor Brendan Kelly in Trinity, who’s written books on the history of Irish psychiatric care, and knew a little bit about the Soviet. And the hospital itself, which is still in operation, had commissioned a book about the whole history of the hospital, and there’s a chapter about the Soviet there.”

His research for the opera took him to a Swiss psychiatric hospital in 2019. He was drawn there by a scheme “using creative arts workshops to re-socialise people after periods of acute mental illness. I wrote to the director and asked him if I could spend some time in the hospital and do some workshops with the patients”.

But his real goal was “just to listen to the patients and to get a sense of the human story”. He wanted at all costs to avoid “the usual tropes of setting something in a psychiatric hospital and writing about the experience as experienced from the outside in”.

In Switzerland, “the two things that really changed for me were this main character, Celine, that I could create a voice for her that was at the same time extremely compassionate and intelligent and humorous, but also have these cracks in it where you would see there were points where her version of reality doesn’t conform with the majority idea of what reality is. When you don’t play ball because of the strictures of how communication normally works in society, your voice just doesn’t get listened to at all.

“The second thing I really would have gotten a sense of was how easy it would have been for an idea of collective action to take place in an asylum or a psychiatric hospital. Because the patients are such a resource for one another. It is a different form of society, where, in order for it to function, diversity needs to be accepted. You need to be able to go along with whatever narrative people are having, in order to communicate with them. I found that then the music began to flow an awful lot more easily for me.”

He says he felt “an immense creative freedom” composing the opera. It was the world of the opera and its characters which dictated the musical style. “I found that the second I got a sense of what the world of the piece was going to be and who the people were in it, the music began to serve that purpose. What’s emerged is music that I feel is much closer to my voice than anything I’ve written before. But almost by accident.”

It’s not a totally unified style. “My childhood was steeped in traditional music. And, although there isn’t explicit traditional music in it, the way the ornamentation works to sort of crack Celine’s character in and out of the different trains of thought has been a really useful psychological device.”

He says that the whole world of the opera “stems out from her at times. So the structure is essentially that we fan in and out from the moments where she succeeds in making her vision manifest on the stage and the moments where that’s curtailed by her actual existence within the hospital. In those moments where it stretches out, the musical dynamic in her voice is very influenced by the ornamentation of sean nós, also very influenced by the litanies I would have heard at Novenas when I was a child . . . basically, she’s in a constant stream of consciousness. And the conjunctions between all of those sentences are answered as if they’re Pray For Us’s in a Novena.”

The litany she’s in, he explains, is all “Soviet ideology, and little bits of her psychology are interspersed with that”. When her vision is manifest “it becomes this very riotous atmosphere on the stage, where that spreads out into the full ensemble. I would say that in the moments where her psychology is much more internalised, the world that she’s in is more akin to timbral contemporary music. In that moment I’d be much more interested in scoring the sound of the ECT machine, or the clang of the corridors, or the murmur of other patients. It’s a way of using that medical world to create the musical sound-world.”

Her main foil, says Gallen, is someone called the Inspector of Lunatics, “which was the name for the visiting psychiatrist of the time. At the beginning he is the rational, Everyman voice on the stage. There’s quite a bit of break in the fourth wall in the piece. He speaks to the audience as if they’re a group of trainee doctors who have come in to see the patient. And over the course of the opera, his diagnostic power becomes more and more suspicious. But also, as he gains moments of control, he also forces a different musical language on the piece.” That language is much more drawn from Weimar Germany, the pop music at the time, in 1919, the early 1920s. “There are things like Foxtrotskies in it.

“And when I hear it all out loud, it feels very me.”

Michael Gallen's Elsewhere is at the Abbey Theatre on Monday, November 15th; Wednesday, November 17th; Friday, November 19th and Saturday, November 20th.