Review of A Terrible Beauty by Heather L. McGuinness
A Terrible Beauty: the Poetry of the Easter Rising, directed and MC’ed by Liam Gillespie for Bloomsday in Melbourne. Mounted with support from the Celtic Club of Melbourne on Friday 15th April 2016, at the Celtic Club, Melbourne.
One hundred and thirty folk crowded upstairs into the Celtic Club in Melbourne’s Queen St for an evening of storytelling, poetry, harp music and singing. Many in the house were on their feet by the end of it, giving a spontaneous ovation to those young poets, rebels, heroes and idealists.
Commemoration means many things to many people, and to those with Irish heritage or claim, Easter 2016 was always going to be big. This night was sombre and reflective, but laughter was no stranger. As folk do at countless funerals, rousing song in which all could participate lifted the mood. The Rising produced many satiric songs deemed seditious by the British. They were sung a cappella in order better to hear the words and make our own judgments about their content. We learnt refrains, which might have landed us in jail in General Maxwell’s Dublin, and sang ‘The Soldier’s Song’ in English and the national anthem in Irish, and were encouraged, in a rare act of linguistic assertiveness by the MC, to sing it in Irish (as it should be, and with the help of a phonetic script).
The structure of the evening was simple, allowing for those with no prior knowledge to become acquainted with the key events, background and consequences of the Rising, immediate and within the decades to follow.
It began with the Proclamation of the Republic, read aloud by Liam Gillespie, MC, writer, actor, and director of this poetry reading.
The poem The Old Woman Remembers was next. A candle was lit at the end of each stanza to mark each of the key people reflected and the centuries preceding the Rising, marking each pulse of history (over 800 years).
Following were the poems and narrated tales of maybe 10 rebels, some very familiar to those who know the story of the Rising, and some not, interspersed with harp music and song. Two experienced actors (Renée Huish and Steve Gome) led the team of mainly young performers (Anna-Rose and Atira Shack, Aaron Bhat, Jack Callahan, all with an association with Newman College), delivered each piece with skill and accuracy.
Behind the actors, photographs and descriptive single words were projected, to encapsulate the complex, conflicted and ambiguous nature of the key protagonists, their sisters, brothers-in-arms, friends and mentors, including those with pacifist views and philosophies. The solo harpist was a student, Quinlan Hames, from the Bellarine Peninsula. He played traditional songs featuring ‘harps that once’, and broken court harps (Thomas Moore’s melodies), and O’Carolan softly behind the most moving of the poems.
The Narrator delivered an informative script, telling the story for an audience who could have walked in from the street with no prior knowledge. The youth of the protagonists and the high percentage of artistic predilection among them, particularly poetry, struck the scriptwriters. Many of the participating poets had been enthusiastic supporters of the Gaelic League – Irish language advocates, poets, playwrights, newspaper writers on cultural and socialist matters. Their loss must have been a severe one to the emergent Irish Free State.
Responses to armed struggle have inspired countless artists, whether poets, painters, composers, or musicians. They have caused priests to speak out and face the sometimes murderous consequences.
In recent history, as a response to the horrors of war, assassination, pandemic disease and all types of mass destruction, such artists have given a voice to our outrage through their work. Whether deliberately commissioned or working from their own consciences, they have shown us beauty, so that we might contemplate in our own time and ways.
9/11 was the catalyst for much work and reflection worldwide in 2001 and the years that followed.
Bruce Springsteen, the American-born singer-songwriter and humanitarian wrote The Rising album and title song in response to the conversations he held with 9/11 victims’ families. Springsteen also penned one of his most widely acclaimed songs ‘Philadelphia’ for the film of the same name, commissioned by the director in 1993 (in response to the expected pandemic of HIV/AIDS). He won an Academy award for the Best Original Song, and four Grammys. His canon includes the anthemic ‘Born in the USA’, written in 1984, a reaction to the way that Vietnam veterans were being treated including some of his band members and friends.
Were I Lady Gregory, and had I her eloquence at my keyboard, I might write a stanza describing each of the following artistic contributors:
- Sir Karl Jenkins- Welsh-born, composer, wrote The Armed Man: a Mass for Peace (dedicated to victims of the Kosovo crisis).
- Rebecca Horn- German-born, installation artist; created her Love-Hate knives, Knuckle Dome for James Joyce, in 2004.
- Mark Seymour, Australian singer-songwriter and then band member of Hunters and Collectors, wrote What’s a Few Men track and album in 1987, based on the memoir of Albert Facey in response to the words of a British army colonel at Gallipolli. Renamed Fate for the American audience it was released there a year later.
- Pablo Picasso painted the huge Guernica in 1937 (in response to the bombing of Guernica during the Spanish civil war).
- Claude Monet, French-born impressionist painter, refused to be evacuated during World War 1 but stood his ground at his beloved house and garden in Giverny, northern France. He stated that he would prefer to be shot in front of his life’s work rather than flee.
- Hans Feibusch, German-born artist, fled to England in the 1930s to escape Nazi persecution and painted expressionistic murals on the walls of Anglican churches in England.
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German Lutheran pastor, spoke out against Hitler and the Nazi regime, was imprisoned, then executed by hanging on 9 April 1945.
- Saint (Archbishop) Oscar Romero, El Salvador; murdered in 1980 while offering Mass in church.
Whether you are reading this while walking across the Bridge of Peace in Derry, humming the tune of a protest song, sitting on the banks of a river in a city, or reading a poem penned in haste and in prison, gazing into one of our oceans, or contemplating a striking work of art, think on this. Our lives weave and weft, through joy and sorrow, war and peace. Choose peace.
Heather L. McGuinness
Heather is a visitor from London with a strong interest in theatre, languages and Irish matters. Patrons of Bloomsday will remember her late husband, Simon McGuinness who directed the first Bloomsday in Melbourne in 1994, and acted in many subsequent performances.