‘The Blind Poetess of Ulster’ song cycle by Jacqui Rutten

A (Musical) Traveller’s Tale by Jacqui RuttenFB

My interest in Frances Browne

As a composer and singer, my interest in Frances Browne arose through a love of Irish music and song. I was cantor at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne from 1999 to 2005. I give concerts of sacred, classical, improvised, and Celtic music, through my small business http://sacredstage.com.au, often for charity and with other talented musicians. We have performed a lot of Irish inspired music. I also travelled to Ireland in 2014 to speak at an international music conference, ‘Composition in the 21st Century’ about vocal composition and improvisation, at Trinity College Dublin, and had the opportunity to be Composer in Residence at The Tyrone Guthrie Centre, county Monaghan. While in Ireland I visited the birthplace of my ancestors: Catherine Mahony from Clonakilty (Cloch na Coillte or Clann na Coillte) and Mary Butler, Michael Lawlor, and Catherine Moloney from Kilkenny (Cill Chainnigh). I also visited many tourist destinations, especially sacred sites and learned something about Irish traditional music through singing at daytime sessions, also attending sung masses, for example, the Blessing of the Graves ceremony. I had played through all of O’Neill’s 1001 Dance Tunes of Ireland and sang books of Irish songs. As a composer, I am always looking for Irish women poets to set to music. This research and journey led me to Frances Browne.

A Profile of the Blind Poetess

The Blind Poetess of Ulster or The Blind Poetess of Stranorlar (Srath an Urláir) was from County Donegal. This account is an addition to the available research on Frances Browne, much of which can be found online, and adds another Australian connection. According to History Ireland, a previously unknown photo of Frances Browne was unearthed in Brisbane by a distant relative (see https://www.historyireland.com/18th-19th-century-history/blind-poetess-of-ulster-photo-recently-discovered/).

Frances was blind at 18 months old due to smallpox, but her interest in words developed through attendance at Sunday school. Frances’s siblings read her stories and her mother told her fairy stories. She also had a good school teacher, Mr. Granaghan, who gave her scholarly books to read.  Gradually Frances had many articles, poems and stories published in many magazines, journals, and books, such as The Irish Penny Journal, The Atheneum, and Frazer’s, the Keepsake. Frances also wrote books, including The Legends of Ulster, and children’s books.

Her best known book is Granny’s Wonderful Chair, a best-seller published in 1857.

Her most famous poem is ‘Songs of Our Land’, a nationalistic poem, first lines of which appear on the wall behind the statue of Frances Browne in Stranorla

Frances left Ireland in 1847 during the Irish famine to go to Edinburgh, and moved to London in 1852.



A Visit to Ireland

In 2014, I applied to The Tyrone Guthrie Centre to be Composer in Residence for two weeks to compose six songs with words by Frances Browne from her collection, Lyrics and Miscellaneous Poems (published by Sutherland and Knox, Edinburgh, 1847). It is a song cycle I titled The Blind Poetess. I had already visited the centre twice, and was very pleased to be going back a third time. The place is very inspiring, the grounds beautiful, and the other artists and staff supportive.

Jacqui Rutten with Patrick Bonar.

I also had the opportunity to travel to Stranorlar just before my residency, and visited the statue of the Blind Poetess. Her birthplace is one of twin towns: on the other side of the river, is Bealach Féich (Ballybofey). I had written to Northern Ireland to local historian Patrick Bonar, who kindly sent me his book The Life and Works of Frances Browne. He also sent a CD: Ode to Frances Browne, and a book by Raymond Blair titled The Best of Frances Browne. I met Patrick Bonar briefly in the Ballybofey Post Office, where he works, and where he has installed a Frances Browne display. 

Setting poems to music

Carrickmacross Workhouse

One of the key contextual factors when appreciating Frances Browne’s work is the devastating Irish famine of 1845-1852, documented so movingly by Cecil Woodham-Smith in The Great Hunger (1962). Frances Browne lived in Ireland through the famine.  My own ancestors also left during or just after the famine. On my visit I made a point of gaining as much knowledge as I could about the famine, visiting the Skibbereen Heritage Centre about the famine as well as an extensive exhibition at the Irish Emigration Museum in Dublin. I saw a replica of a coffin ship and did a tour of Carrickmacross Workhouse, a parting point for many
orphan girls to the safety of Australia. The photo shows the box of belongings the girls travelled with. I even sang a verse or two of the folk song ‘Skibbereen’ with the officials at the Skibbereen Tourist Information Centre and read widely about the subject. One of my songs ‘Famine Letters’, is based on letters written during the famine, to family abroad.

A Pathway into Nature

music.jpgMy dear mother, Mary Knights-Rutten, a cellist and pianist and sound-healer, had asked me to compose something for voice and cello for us to play together, so the song cycle ‘The Blind Poetess’ was composed for her.  My settings of Frances Browne were composed outdoors, weather permitting, to be closer to nature. Even when I was composing indoors, there was always a bird singing in my ear, or cicadas singing which I could include in the music. I only point this out, because nowadays many people use computers or instruments to compose, whereas going into nature with pen and paper is a different kind of gift. I have composed music for orchestra like this – one has to imagine the sounds and notate them. I hope the songs have a sense of earlier days. There has existed a strong movement for many ages and cultures which the work of Frances Browne draws us to – a pathway into nature – the creative spirit connecting with nature. Humans are part of nature, and this is extremely relevant today as our earth is so fragile.

About the songs

Jacqui Rutten.jpg

Jacqui Rutten

This collection of songs called ‘The Blind Poetess’ was completed at The Tyrone Guthrie Centre, with dynamics added in Australia. Through rehearsal, minor corrections were made. The opening song, ‘The Australian Emigrant’, tells the story of a young girl who left Ireland, probably during the famine, bound for Australia. As mentioned, my great great grandparents all left Ireland during or just after the Irish famine, so I was drawn to this song. I composed the melody of this song in Stranorlar, the opening bars of the accompaniment at the Newbliss General Store in Monaghan, and the rest was composed at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre. I revised the last bars in Ireland after improvising at the piano. The opening bars are in the form of Recitative, a spoken singing, and hopefully give a sense of the leaving. I have chosen the traditional ¾ time signature for the rest of the song because this is often used for songs of the sea. The voice and accompaniment are not always moving together to give a sense of being separated from kindred ties, culminating in an intense expression of grief, yet hope.

Tyrone Guthrie Centre.png

Tyrone Guthrie Centre

The second song, ‘Trees’, I had hoped to compose entirely in the forest, but weather was not permitting. However the opening melody of the song was composed while I was walking along a forest track, and then I found the melody flowed. I hoped to create a sense of songs of old, and used certain compositional techniques to achieve this. For example, I drew on techniques and styles of playing and timing used by the viol, a predecessor of the cello which was found in Ireland, especially at the wealthy houses.

‘The Drowned Child’ was composed sitting at a lake’s edge in County Monaghan. I wanted the sense of an ancient chant or mourning song, influenced by sacred song, especially as found in Liber Usualis book of chant given to me by my father’s family. I drew on the sound, not only of the lakeside itself, but, also of the county’s music to achieve this. For example, I attended masses at different churches and listened to a CD called ‘Our Dear Dark Mountain with the Sky over It’ – recordings of Monaghan Folk. The song is also Baroque-like because of the ground bass, and reminiscent of Ann Boleyn’s ‘O Solitude’ and Barbara Strozzi’s cantatas.

‘Ancient Tombs’ is based on the wind I heard at a neolithic burial site: Loughcrew, in Ireland I visited on a day tour in 2016.  I hope the song through its rhythmic repetition keeps a Celtic spirit.

‘Flowers of May’ is something like sean nos, Irish unaccompanied singing, and indeed this song could be sung unaccompanied. In my cottage at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre was a book of sean nos by Nóirín Ní Riain. My setting of this poem is influenced by her notation, and my experience singing Irish song. (Please see photo). The spring weather allowed me to complete the melody outdoors. ‘The Birds of Spring’ was composed indoors and outdoors at the lake’s edge. The ornaments are based on birdsong, and traditions of singing. Bird-life is abundant at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre.

My thanks to the Tinteán editors for their advice and guidance in putting together this musical tribute to Frances Browne.

Jacqui Rutten

Jacquie is a Melbourne-based composer and performer. You can read more about Jacqui Rutten’s work at her website. She would like readers to know that there is a CD about Frances Brown available from http://ballybofeyandstranorlar.com. She can be contacted by email.