First performed on 25 November 2010, at St Ann’s Church, Dublin, by the National Chamber Choir of Ireland
with Stewart French (Guitar), directed by Paul Hillier.
The Guitar part was edited by Stewart French.
In writing this musical setting of Acallam na Senórach I was drawn to the evenness of the dialogue. Instead of St Patrick simply converting the pagan warriors, he is encouraged to listen to Caílte’s stories and poems of an earlier time, in which the saint delights.
This secular/sacred osmosis is maintained unwaveringly throughout the entire text. By the end of the narrative, one has witnessed not only the arrival of a new religion in Ireland, but also a richly-recounted secular narrative map of the entire island: the peaceful and enriching shaking of two great hands.
In preparing the libretto (the sung text), I have focused on only a few of the shorter constituent tales. This decision was born of the practical constraints of duration. I have, however, kept the skeleton, albeit smaller, of the overall frame in place. Finally, for the sake of simplicity, Oisín is removed from the primary narrative.
The characters are not assigned specific voices. The narrative as a whole is carried by a persistently changing combination of voices and guitar. The one exception is Cas Corach, the musician of the síd (underworld) who is most closely embodied, throughout this setting, in the solo interludes for guitar.
The music itself is not ethnographically inclined; that is, I have not attempted to reconstruct theories on Irish music of the period from which Acallam stems. However the score generally, and especially in the guitar writing, is imbued with an air of Arab and Persian influence. The dulcimer, which Cas Corach plays, is thought to have been similar to the Iranian Santur. A potential antecedent of the bodhráin (Irish frame drum), for which I have written two parts in this work, is the North African bendir.
Considering that the surviving manuscripts of the Acallam stem from a period in which Ireland maintained contact with North Africa and the Near East, both of a friendly (trade) and hostile (piracy, notably the Barbary Corsairs) nature, it is not unreasonable to consider that some variety of cultural exchange (not dissimilar to that between St Patrick and Caílte) influenced the extant transcriptions. My setting of this text, therefore, touches lightly on the two main roots of my own heritage.
Acallam, after all, tells us that, following his baptism by the saint, Caílte repays Patrick with a block of gold from the ‘Land of Arabia’. This is, no doubt, a reference to the Holy Land (from a different era altogether). For me, however, this precise moment, where continents, cultures, material goods and spiritual blessing intersect evenly, is the kernel of the entire work.