PATRICK CASSIDY was born in County Mayo in the west of Ireland, where the Famine was particularly virulent. He now lives in Dublin. "A Famine Remembrance Symphony" was commissioned in 1995 by the Irish Echo newspaper. He composed it in a neo-Classical style, employing an orchestra, mixed chorus with soloists, organ and bagpipes. Cassidy's melodies are recognizably Irish in their inspiration and the nine movements unfold with dignified melancholy and tenderness. The piece has been performed twice at Saint Patrick's Cathedral in New York and elsewhere in the United States. A CD featuring most of the live cast was released by Windham Hill Records on March 11, 1997. A couple of days later, we meet over tea on the New York's upper east side.
Cassidy doubts that the "Remembrance" would have been composed except as a commission. "I feel that a piece of art that would commemorate the Famine would properly be a commission." he says with a shake of his long, wavy dark hair."It entails a huge responsibility. I think it would have taken a certain amount of arrogance to have spontaneously sat down and written a piece." That the work was commissioned by Irish Americans strikes him as appropriate. "Within ten years of the start of the Famine, two and a half million people arrived in America from Ireland. Because of how important the family is in our society, because half of the Irish people were living on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, there was a continuous pull."
Cassidy studied mathematics in college, but was soon concentrating exclusively on music. The harp was his instrument and he reconstructed how music by Carolan and other composers would have been played by Irish chamber ensembles during the 17th and 18th centuries. His original compositions often drew on legends and epic poetry, notably "The Children Of Lir". "These legends are there, and somebody may as well use them." he comments, "Typically, the way they are written, you have a section of prose, followed by a section of poetry. I literally just take the libretto. It's there!"
The texts for the "Remembrance" required more digging. Two movements are based on "Saint Patrick's Breastplate", a prayer for protection sung in Gaelic and Latin. The poetry of Lady Jane Wilde, who wrote under the name of "Speranza" and was the mother of Oscar Wilde, was an unexpected find. Two of her poems written during the Famine appear in the work, both of nearly unbearable poignancy. "The real piece of luck," says Cassidy "was finding poetry by Speranza. Even in Ireland, she is very obscure, not her name, but her poetry. She's known as Oscar's mother. I think the "Supplication" is very much in the style of Oscar's "The Ballad Of Reading Gaol." A Latin setting of the Roman Catholic "De Profundus (From The Depths)" is the final chorus. "I thought it would be very relevant," he says, "At the time of the Famine, there was so many people dying that they couldn't say a Requiem Mass for each individual. They tied the "De Profundus" onto the end of each Low Mass that was said. That tradition continued right up to Vatican II. It's a part of the Office For The Dead, as well." The remaining movements are the "Lament" and a meditation on the tragedy at "Skibbereen". The "Remembrance" opens and closes with a "Funeral March", for the million plus who never had one.
He agrees with Kirwan that the Famine destroyed the communal nature of Irish life, but not that the victims felt abandoned by God. "In their culture, they considered it a privilege to be able to feed and shelter a stranger. When the potato blight happened, they couldn't understand how the government was exporting the food that should have been given to them. It was a total sense of bewilderment. It was so alien. They knew it wasn't God. They blamed the landlords." He feels that Irish-Americans tend to get overly emotional about a history they haven't lived with. "Irish-Americans who know their history probably didn't learn it when they were children. They're more angry than Irish people and they're not as familiar with the politics. It's second hand, they're not there experiencing it. I can't be angry with England because England is a mess!" He notes, however, that the Famine is even more important to Americans than to the Irish. "That is the reason you're an American!"
In any case, politics were not a priority while composing the "Remembrance". "When I was writing this Famine piece," he says thoughtfully, "I decided it was better to try to transcend politics completely - just write a liturgical piece. Keep it simple and noble like the people at the time themselves, you see? Because that's what they were."