Gerard Manley Hopkins Poems In Musical Adaptations
Gerard Manley Hopkins Poems In Musical Adaptations
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I suppose I knew we were in Ireland as soon as we stood rather uncertainly waiting for our luggage to arrive from the boat. A redheaded man approached us by way of welcome as if it was his job. He was so friendly that the little English snake of suspicion made me hold back slightly. When he found out I was an O'Leary he was delighted, he informed me that my ancestors were all kings and they had enslaved his, who were Johnny-come-latelys, his having arrived by boat only 800 years ago. But to show there were no hard feelings he carried our luggage for us, made sure we were right as rain then left us with a big handshake and a blessing.
Photographs © Richard Austin 2005

We picked up our car from a car hire lady who was similarly kind and at a stroke wiped off 40 euros from our bill, as the car hadn't been cleaned. We climbed into our little muddy Micra and set off. This friendliness was repeated whenever we stopped. A young man winked in my direction and asked how was I doing I turned to see who he was talking to, of course it had been me. I was shamed but how was he to know that in certain parts of England we must carefully avoid all eye contact in case we get beaten up.

Eventually we arrived at Monasterevin and found our way to Marie's guesthouse, down a long winding lane through a wood. She welcomed us like family "Will yer have a pot of tea now?" she stayed and chatted a while and then we retired ready for the big day tomorrow.

Tomorrow came, sun shining and showing us that we were staying in a veritable mansion in the midst of its own grounds. True the mansion had seen better days and out the back windows were bits of tractors and the usual detritus of farm life. But the peace and quiet was like balm to my worried soul. Marie as kind as a mother.

Arrived at the Hopkins' school with Iulia and Belinda, we had only managed literally a twenty-minute practice as she had arrived tired and worn early afternoon. Iulia embraced and wished us well and Belinda and me gave each other a hug of consolation as we walked into this literary lions den. Belinda whispering "Just go for it".

The room was academic sized not concert sized which I felt instinctively was right. I laid the song lyrics not on a music stand but a lectern. I had on my t-Shirt which Iulia had made, me choosing the text from Wreck of the Deutschland which Martin Beek had sent to us: "Let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us, be a crimson-cresseted east"

The audience were milling around and all seemed to be drinking from wine glasses which was good, as we could set up without being seen as the incompetents we were. Richard Austin, who recites Hopkins work all over the world and who I had only talked to via e-mail came up to me and gave me a great big warm hug of welcome, that friendly gesture made me feel at home and helped dissipate my nerves. It transpired then that when I rose to sing, although tingling, I felt an inner confidence that it was right to be here. Richard rose and gave us a kindly introduction.

I started off by doing "Felix Randal". Any song that can bring tears to the eyes of Joe Potts and myself couldn't go far wrong. I then did Inversnaid, I felt the people were now with me. To seal it Belinda now stepped up and we did a sequence of songs together. . She inspires me with confidence. It felt good to be in that space with her at my side, both of us enjoying the moment and becoming bolder and freer in our improvisations. One time she started an echo of my words, which we had never before tried. At the end of one song there was a loud and heartfelt "Bravo", The applause was an embrace, I felt that we and the audience were now one. After all, we were all here because of our love for Gerard and his genius words, not because of us, because of this I could relax and enjoy performing for once.

Richard came up for one song (The Golden Echo) and did some recitation over my guitar backing. His performance grew as he got into the rhythm of my playing, his voice rising passionately with the words, which he so obviously loves (and knows by heart).

We finished on "The Woodlark" a song so long and complicated that if there were any fear at all I would not have attempted it without practice. Now though we just started out and listened to see what would happen. We finished and when I looked up I was shocked that we were in the middle of a standing ovation. This was a new one on me. I literally had no idea what to do so I just gave the blessed Belinda a hug and let her deal with it.

The set list was as follows:

Felix Randal
(with Belinda)

Pied Beauty
The Windhover
The Times Are Nightfall (virtually an improvisation)
Let Me Be To Thee As The Circling Bird
The Leaden Echo
The Golden Echo (also with Richard)
At The Wedding March
Thee, God, I Come From
The Woodlark

The rest of the conference was a joy. The people I met and the life changing conversations and the things I learned and the warm acceptance and love we received from all these people turned me around in some way. It could have turned my head but I think it just turned my heart to face in a slightly different direction. One a little bit more human and kindly.

One day over dinner, which was served to us not by sullen faced waitresses but by polite little angels, I remarked that I had found not one example of scholarly snobbery but only a humility (that was all the better for being hidden behind jokes and laughter.) We decided that the reason was obvious. Hopkins himself, who time and again emphasised that God, is first and foremost a kindly Father to all. I had the feeling that we were all part of his little band.

I must thank Desmond Egan who invited us to play at the festival without even hearing the songs and he and Richard O'Rourke, for showering us all with love and acceptance.

I also want to thank everyone who in any way gave me and Iulia help or a word of encouragement as we struggled our way through all this. Joe Potts said the kindest words of all when he said, regarding these songs, that if I died tomorrow my life would not have been wasted. Bless him and bless Martin for his kind actions. Thanks to those who on hearing previews of the songs were extremely enthuisiastic, especially Neil West and Annie Dollery and of course Richard Austin for all his help and proofreading and Kieron Walsh for all his practical help and encouragement, and everyone else who helped us or was touched by the work in some way.

I can relax in this because it is not by me you were touched but by Hopkins himself who still lives and exists in the communion of the saints.

We all thank you Father Gerard S.J.

God bless you all

© Sean O'Leary 2006