Second Wind – Frank McNally on a weather-delayed world premiere

An Irishman's Diary on a resurfacing victim of the 'Beast from the East'

David Power: world premiere at the National Concert Hall of a new work inspired by his version of a very old Irish tune, ‘Gol na mBán san Ár’

David Power: world premiere at the National Concert Hall of a new work inspired by his version of a very old Irish tune, ‘Gol na mBán san Ár’

 

It has long been well known in Ireland that, around this time of year, the wind may shake the barley. There’s even a ballad on the subject to warn us. But the wind’s unprecedented attack on the 2018 ploughing championships took everyone by surprise. We may now have to update the national defences. A new song might help.

In the meantime, the Waterford uilleann piper David Power must have feared the worst this week as he saw the storms roaring in from the Atlantic. At the other end of the long hot summer, last March, he was preparing to perform the world premiere at the National Concert Hall (NCH) of a new work inspired by his version of a very old Irish tune, Gol na mBán san Ár.

Then a thing called “the Beast from the East” intervened, resulting in a power-cut. The NCH’s New Music Dublin festival, of which David was to be part, became one of many things cancelled that week, as the wind that shook the bakeries also dumped vast amounts of snow on Ireland.

Gol na mBán is what’s known in traditional music circles as a “slow air”. So it is in some ways apt that the work inspired by it, written for pipes and orchestra by composer Kevin Volans, has taken nearly seven months to reschedule. 

Fortunately, unlike Wednesday’s ploughing, it seems to have survived this week’s Pest from the West.

And barring something even more dramatic between now and then, the premiere will finally take its bow at the NCH this Saturday night, under the revised festival title of “New Music Dublin 2018: Defrosted”.

To recap from the piece I wrote here in February, Gol na mBán san Ár (“Lament of the Women at the Slaughter”) dates from the mid-17th century. It was a tribute to the Gaelic warrior Alasdair MacColla, whose forebears spanned Antrim and the Scottish Isles, but who died in Cork at the Battle of Knocknanuss (1647), the “slaughter” of the title.  

Unusually, the lament was composed by a group of his female relatives – “mother, foster mother, wife, and daughter” – hence the other part of its name.  

The Volans work is rather longer than the tune it references. But as would have been the case in March, it forms only half the show. The whole evening is subtitled “Contintental Drift”, because although the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra accompanies both, the other half of the performance is Chinese, via the composer Unsuk Chin and the soloist Wu Wei, master of an instrument called the “sheng”.   The sheng is a kind of mouth organ, but more elaborate than the ones we know. In any case, considering the weather disturbances we have had here in March and September, it seems only right that the rescheduled concert should combine native wind instruments from east and west.

Getting back to another old Irish song, mentioned here yesterday, I should probably have known that in listing the many Irish counties with a place named “Bawn”, I would have omitted at least one. But it’s somewhat embarrassing to learn that the omission – or at least the only one I’ve heard of so far – was my native Monaghan.

Sure enough, there is a Bawn there too. It’s near a better-known hamlet called Latton (you’ve probably heard of the famous “Latton temperament”), and occupies the same line of latitude as stony, grey Inniskeen.  

So it’s a good bet that there are plenty of rocks in it too, just as plough-resistant as anything in the song.  

The area has no shortage of lakes either. And Paddy Cole, one of the readers who reminded me of its existence, said he “often fished the river there”.  

But as another reader – Art Agnew – pointed out, Bawn has a good handball alley too.

Art is a stalwart of the Patrick Kavanagh Society. So while he was at it, he drew my attention to the 2018 Kavanagh Weekend, which starts next Friday (the 28th) and will feature “plenty of ploughing material”.  

Indeed, so associated with the implement was the poet that a horse-drawn plough is the logo of the PKS.

But of course in later years, Kavanagh also tilled the fields of literature and journalism, even turning a few drills in the loamy topsoil of this newspaper.  

Thus the 2018 weekend will be launched via a discussion on “poetry and journalism”, featuring comedian (and PKS president) Oliver Callan and Anne Harris.

Other speakers on the programme include the former RTÉ newsreader Anne Doyle, talking about what Kavanagh means to her.

A full event listing is at patrickkavanaghcountry.com

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