Irish history brought to life through music

Irish history brought to life through music
The first performance of Macalla 1916 – the Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann centenary celebration of the 1916 Rising took place at the Barbican in London last Friday week (4 March).

This new suite of music by distinguished composer and musician Michael Rooney, reflects the period of Irish history from the famine to the present day. Prior to the concert, Daniel Mulhall Ambassador of Ireland to Great Britain welcomed guests including President of Comhaltas Ann Finnegan, and John Concannon Director of Ireland’s 1916 Commemoration programme.

Ambassador Mulhall thanked Comhaltas in Britain 1916 Committee for showcasing the first performance of Macalla 1916 in London. He expressed pride in the organisation’s huge contribution to ensuring Ireland’s cultural heritage is kept alive for Irish people abroad.


Macalla 1916 was presented by the National Folk Orchestra of Ireland which, fittingly, included musicians from Britain. Michael Rooney also conducted the performance.

The first movement was gentle and reflective – the pre famine years, when landed gentry lived very differently to the native Irish who were frustrated and powerless.

But, Irish natives did not give up, leading to the song The Bold Fenian Men (aka Down by the Glenside) which is an anthem from that period for the men who fought to free Ireland.

A rousing March signals the second movement inspired by the new nationalism sweeping through Ireland after the sad years of the famine. The GAA and The Gaelic League were founded with the aim of reviving Ireland’s culture sport and language. The stage backdrop of a selection of images from National Archives of Ireland and RTE stills are excellent choices.

The third movement began with Ulster flavour – a fife and drum march countered with a reel reflecting the nationalism of the Irish Volunteers. There was also a lament for the men north and south who fought in World War 1.

The Fourth Movement brought the audience to the Easter Rising. Óró Sé do Bheatha Bhaile sung by Shauna McGarrigle and Tadgh Maher was poignant. This song was popular with Irish Volunteers during Easter week 1916. The music also captured the confusion following Roger Casement’s arrest and the hours leasing up to the Insurrection.

The narration for Macalla 1916 was delivered eloquently by Ciana Campbell and Diarmuid De Faoite. Capturing the courage of the Easter 1916 – this tense, sad, frightening event, would test any orchestra or band. Full marks to everyone for holding the audience spellbound while the Proclamation of the Irish Republic was read aloud as the musicians played marches reflecting death and laments for those who died.

The Foggy Dew rounded of this part of the suite. The fifth Movement echoes the deep thinking as survivors of World War 1 returned to an Ireland with a new parliament and a civil war at home.


Everyone at the Barbican would relate to Queen Elizabeth’s visit to the Garden of remembrance in Dublin in 2011 where she honoured those who fought against Britain for Irish Independence. Michael Rooney employed traditional Irish, folk and classical genres to convey the feeling of joy and happiness at the symbolism of a new dawn of understanding between Ireland and England following the success of the Royal visit.

Macalla 1916 shows the wealth of talent in the National Folk Orchestra of Ireland – it was amazing to watch classical musicians play from memory and in harmony with the traditional players.

Two standing ovations were deserved – for Michael Rooney who composed and conducted, the musicians, narrators and not least the production team who were directed by Jim McAllister.

The next performance will be in Dublin on Easter Saturday 26 March at Dublin, Ócáid Stáit do Ghaolta, a State event for the descendants and families of those who took part in the events of 1916.


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