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The Irish Blackbird

Composer: Tim Porter. ballad opera,1982

Composer's note:

Some objections anticipated...

This play asks a series of fundamental questions, but it does not presume to answer them. In other words, there is no "message" (unless that message be "always question everything"). It thus follows that no character is represented as having an "answer"; if at any time this seems to be so, then question it. I don't side with any character or opinion; all seem equally flawed to me (both morally and musically).

A word about Morris, Grainger, and others...

When I decided to write an "updated" version of the Irish Fenian tales (which is what this play is), I thought at first to set it in the present day. However, the contemporary trend of escapist idealism which I intended to examine is still running its course, its outcome as yet unknown. So I settled for a previous emergence of similar sentiment c. 1900; this also provides a detached and objective viewpoint, which would have been difficult to sustain as regards the present day. The turn-of-century "back to nature" anti-industrial mentality, with all its emphasis on hiking, handicrafts, socialism, self-sufficiency and Celtic mythology, produced a number of remarkable figures, such as William Morris, Edward Carpenter, Richard Jefferies, Ruskin, C.R. Ashbee and Rutland Boughton, people whose great integrity and almost tragic quality far outweighed their occasional ludicrousness. One can't help feeling that the world failed them rather than vice versa! The folksong revival pioneered by Cecil Sharp and Percy Grainger forms part of the same ethos, and as "The Irish Blackbird" is a musical piece I have laid a particular emphasis on that aspect.

Another reason for setting the story in the early years of the twentieth century is a long-cherished plan to base an opera on the life of the Meath poet Francis Ledwidge (1887 - 1917). He was the original "Irish Blackbird" of the title, and though he no longer appears in person, aspects of him remain, lending colour to the tale. Amid so many middle-class intellectuals fleeing "back to the land", Ledwidge was rather unusual, being of artisan stock, and flourishing without ostentation in the countryside of his birth. When the artistic fraternity "took him up", it was unsure what to make of him, and he of it. His disappearance into the Flanders mud left the matter largely unresolved, since when critical opinion has largely repented of its brief enthusiasm for his natural talent.

Use of traditional material...

"The Irish Blackbird" conforms (up to a point) to the ballad-type opera, and makes use of the following traditional Irish melodies - "Coola Shore", "Narry the Piper", "Slieve Elva", "The Spring Lambs", "The Sound of the Waves", and "The Lake of Coolfin". I made the acquaintance of these airs while arranging music for the Tara Board Examinations in Irish Music, to whom my thanks. Translated portions of three ancient Irish poems ("Finn's Delight", "Song of Summer", and "The Blackbird of Derrycarn") appear in the text.

Tim Porter

Cast list


1 clarinet in A
1 bassoon (played by Mr Kelly)
1 violin (played by the conductor)
1 viola
1 cello


Aug 1982: Tour (West Country, Wales)
Summer 1985: Tour (England)

In the play:

In the  opera:

Edward Bright-Coulson*



Mr Kelly



Sophie King


Grania - soprano

Arnold Morna


Angus - baritone
Fiana 2 (Goll)
Voice in Tree

Mel, his wife


Dermot - contralto

Ozzie MacPherson



Celia, his wife


Fiana 1 - soprano
Voice in Tree


"natural" singing voice

* these two should have a "natural" singing voice