Vocal recall: Civil War testimony is put to music for centenary event

War reporter Ed Vulliamy has written a libretto based on material in the UCD archives

It is six years since UCD archivist Kate Manning first conceived of the unlikely idea of setting the university’s Civil War material to music.

The archive contains correspondence and reports that are heartbreaking and despairing, but also material that is optimistic and defiant.

“They compete with each other — some are confident, some struggle to be heard. Some speak with authority for the many, some argue against the consensus. These voices are a cacophony,” she recalled.

“It struck me that one way to hear these voices was to set them to music. I wondered about the use of words like ‘remember’ and ‘memory’ in the context of commemoration and reflecting on the past, and I wondered about the discussion that was building about the challenges of commemorating the Civil War.”


Enter the well-known Guardian journalist and author Ed Vulliamy. Vulliamy wrote a book in 2012 about the aftermath of the Bosnian war. Half-jokingly, he says few people were interested in the war, which he covered, and fewer still in its aftermath, which he wrote about in The War Is Dead, Long Live the War.

“[Kate Manning] was one of about three people, my editor and my mother being the others, who read the book,” he said.

Ms Manning convened a dinner in her apartment in August 2016 with Vulliamy, composer Anne-Marie O’Farrell, Ciaran Crilly, head of UCD School of Music, and Wolfgang Marx, a lecturer in the School of Music. Together they mapped out an idea for a cantata (orchestra, choir, soloists) with a libretto written using the voices in the archives.

In 2019 the UCD Decade of Centenaries grant scheme awarded funding to commission the cantata, but it was delayed because of Covid-19. The preparation has all been squeezed into the last year. The title Who’d Ever Think it Would Come to This? is taken from Ernie O’Malley’s posthumously published Civil War memoir The Singing Flame.

It referred to the crowds watching captured anti-Treaty rebels of the Four Courts being marched through the streets of Dublin following their seizure.

Vulliamy is linked to the period by blood. Both his grandmothers were Irish. His paternal grandmother Eileen Vulliamy, née Hynes, was a committed Irish republican. Her sister Gladys Hynes was a good friend of Desmond and Mabel FitzGerald, the parents of Garrett, who were prominent in the Irish revolution.

“Ireland is Europe’s most interestingly changed country. It is demographically young. The UK lives more absurdly and grotesquely in its past. Ireland is living its future,” he says.

“The timing couldn’t be better for grappling with a difficult moment 100 years ago in a way that the 50th anniversary was incredibly awkward. It is a really interesting time for Ireland to deal with this because of the zeitgeist.”

Wars are grim affairs, as he knows having covered so many of them. “It’s all so humourless,” he says, but there are many moments of levity which made him laugh out loud in the UCD archives.

“There are various questions of drag queens at Christmas time. There is a wonderful description of how the IRA were getting their letters by putting them in a Bovril pot taken out by the ‘shit cart man’. This is hilarious, it’s morbid, I never read it in any history book,” he said.

He came to be very moved by the correspondence of Erskine Childers, the British naval officer turned anti-Treaty rebel, who was executed in November 1922. “Erskine Childers is a man whose principles I aspire to,” he said.

Sooner or later every historian of the Irish revolution comes up against the same problem: deciphering Ernie O’Malley’s spidery scrawl. O’Malley’s interviews with anti-Treaty veterans are some of the most valuable contributions to the revolutionary period and are a key part of the UCD archives, but his handwriting was often rushed and chaotic.

“He reminds me of [American journalist] Studs Terkel in his ability to get people to talk. When he was in prison he ordered 20 books in German and French. He had an extraordinary intellect, but not without a certain arrogance.”

The performers on the evening include the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, the award-winning chamber choir Resurgam, soloists Colette Delahunt (soprano), Sharon Carty (mezzo-soprano), Dean Power (tenor) and Benjamin Russell (baritone).

Who’d Ever Think it Would Come to This? A Civil War Cantata takes place at O’Reilly Hall in UCD from 7.30pm on Friday evening, price €35

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times