The story of Brigid is central to Irish Celtic mythology, and the legend of the goddess proves to be captivating subject matter for a song cycle for two sopranos and a small ensemble. Poet and composer Jodie O’Regan’s re-creation of the story of Brigid has the flavour of the oral tradition of epic poetry that pre-literate societies developed to enshrine and perpetuate their mythology.
Soprano Bethany Hill takes the role of the pre-Christian goddess of Ireland, Brigid. In a work comprising nine pieces, the songs are performed by Hill, who also plays the bodhrán (a frame-drum), and the Bard, soprano Emma Horwood, who accompanies herself on Celtic harp. This was the first performance of O’Regan’s extended arrangement for chamber ensemble of her Fire Songs, which was premiered in 2018, and the members of the invited ensemble include Ali O’Connell, handbells, Rachel Bruerville, cello, Kerryn Schofield, flutes and Irish pipe, with the composer herself playing bass drum and conducting.
In opening the performance, Schofield called the audience to attention with several powerful notes on a traditional horn and O’Regan then spoke of her development of the work and the mythology that inspired it. Brigid is the sister of the king of the Tuatha Dé Danann, a mythical people who have returned to their homeland after a period in exile and are then all but wiped out in a war with a supernatural race, the Fomorians, who represent darkness and chaos. But the Tuatha Dé Danann would not give up their land. In the absence of the incapacitated king of the Tuatha Dé Danann, Brigid then marries the king of the Fomorians so as to unite the two peoples and bring peace. She sings in celebration of the end of war, and she bears the Fomorian king a son. Amongst her many attributes, Brigid is herself a poet and a smith — she shows her son how to forge his own sword and instils in him the traditions of her people. But when war eventually returns, Brigid’s son instead fights on the side of the Fomorians against the Tuatha Dé Danann, and he is killed. Brigid grieves at her son’s death and the resumption of war, but ultimately, she rises into the sky, becomes a goddess, and in so doing brings peace.
Hill gives a commanding and passionate performance as the fiery Brigid, and O’Regan’s scoring makes full use of her wide vocal range, from alto to soprano. Horwood is an enchanting storyteller, and the composition beautifully supports the texts and the unfolding drama. Performed in a gracious stone church by candlelight, the unique and delightful sound of the Celtic harp combines with the wind instruments, cello and bells to create a magical atmosphere, with the drums evoking a march a, dance and at times a heartbeat.
O’Regan specialises in setting her own and other poets’ work to music and composing for solo voice and for choir, and she created the roles of Brigid and the Bard for Hill and Horwood respectively. Horwood is ideal for this role, having established herself over many years as a singer accompanying herself on harp and specialising in traditional Irish song. This arrangement of Fire Songs makes for a compelling concert, and the tale it tells resonates today in any society that resists an overwhelming aggressor.