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The Genius of Pól Brennan and his soundtrack for “The Irish Revolution”



Pól Brennan
The legendary Pól Ó Braonáin behind the mixing board

Not all the mythical tales of leprechauns and the ‘croc of gold at the end of the rainbow’ can disguise the often terrible, nearly 153-year guerilla war of Independence that the great – and proud – nation of Ireland has fought against British Home Rule. History – true history – will [mostly] absolve the Irish from guilt, because of the mirage that the sun would never set on the British Empire perpetrated everything British and ugly on the Irish – as it did wherever British colonialism raised its ugly head. To those in search of the truth, nothing tells truth to power like the RTÉ documentary series and nothing – absolutely nothing – brings it all alive with very little dialogue save the bitter heartache of it all than the soundtrack of the series that Pól Brennan, the undisputed tone poet and the Master of Musical Storytelling has evoked through his magnificent incidental music for this series.

One is struck by the almost unbelievable accuracy with which this incidental music describes – from one segment to another – the heart of The Irish Revolution. The excellent booklet notes play an important role in tracing the historical markers of The Irish Revolution, so one is moved to avoid repetition. But it is worth mentioning that there is, indeed, verity in the raison d’être in the truest sense of the term, which is “La raison d’être désigne, en philosophie ou en métaphysique, le sens, la cause véritable et profonde, de l’existence d’une chose ou d’un être”, which in plain English is nothing but “The reason for being designates, in philosophy or metaphysics, the meaning, the true and deep cause, of the existence of a thing or a being”.

The legendary Che Guevara, a great revolutionary was once asked why he fought a “war: to overthrow the corrupt Batista regime in Cuba and his response was utterly simple and revelatory. He said [and I paraphrase]: “We are not simply replacing one regime with another; we intend to revolutionise the heart and soul of a nation.” The Irish would understand as this is what the 153-odd year war was – and is – all about. Is one guilty [as charged] of editorializing here? Perhaps, but digging deep into this music one is, in fact, led into the very heart and soul of The Irish Revolution – the series, and Mr Brennan’s soundtrack that brings it so vividly alive.

The vivid cover design of The Irish Revolution by Saraah Wanstall

As a [storyline and] tone poem Mr Brennan has also created a palimpsest for other colonized nations to speak – and sing – truth to power. He would not be the first one to do so – Jean Sebelius did it with Finlandia, as did Edvard Grieg – and more recently Anthony Davis with his own groundbreaking opera, The Life and Times of Malcolm X – were all composers who, indeed, have been fired up by nationalism – and produced magnum opuses of their own inn this vein. It bears mention that Mr Brennan’s remarkable work holds its own even among this vaunted company. Mr Brennan’s The Irish Revolution loses nothing of its epic sweep; indeed, it gains more from its small-ensemble approach I think, than many of its bigger siblings, some of which have been referenced above.

Its emotional intensity and urgency are better suited to agility and immediacy a one-to-a-part performance brings, and the result can – and, indeed, is – a deeply compelling human drama. Characters come alive especially in segments such as A Gaelic People, WWI, An Chéad Dáil [The First Assembly], and a work unpopular group that came to be called the Ulster Unionists. We may have had several chamber/symphonic works such as this one in recent years, but this one from harpist Moya Brennan, his sister from the iconic group CLANNAD, and with strings player Aidan O’Donnell, keyboardist Steve Turner and percussion colourist Nicky Bailey really struck home for me achieving their vital results without extravagant overstatement, overt reference to gratuitous violence or self-conscious marking-out of the work’s architecture. Indeed, naturalness and emotional honesty are what emerge from this tight-knit and perfectly paced ensemble performance that brings alive the hurt and intensity of The Irish Revolution. Miniatures and other incidental works have surely seldom sounded so convincingly of a piece as in this soundtrack for The Irish Revolution.

Pól Ó Braonáin pendant le concert de Clannad lors du festival interceltique de Lorient 2013

This is not, by the way, a polite way of saying that the performance lacks expressive variety or that performing standards are modest. On the contrary, the increasingly impressive Mr Brennan’s work on a myriad of instruments, Mr O’Donnell’s mournful work on violin and viola, Mr Turner’s manipulation on the keyboards, not to mention the lightly coloured music redolent of Miss Brennan’s harp that is ever so often punctuated by the rolling thunder of the bodhráin of Mr Brennan and Mr Bailey. All of this strikes a balance in which declamation and lyricism are equally ardent and equally touching.

This is essentially an ensemble performance, but the radiant light of a soli breaks through the darkness of the music producing an effect pressing and urgent, but never hectoring, so that whether representing a mob braying for blood or a group of chastened or even horror-struck sinners, all of this comes across as a performance reflecting real people and real events in the making of a disembodied, yet hopeful nation. Each miniature is shaped with care and expressive sensitivity, but also never overcooked. Performances come across as having an uplifting freshness and immediacy.

There is also another unique layer to The Irish Revolution soundtrack for the work is set in the context of the entire sweep of the war of independence portraying both hope and betrayal. This is where Mr Brennan’s scholarship pays off for he clearly sees this work not as a dilution, but a historic intensification of the work’s message. Moreover, although the liner note by Cathal Goan is short, it makes key points of the history. This enables us – the listeners – to connect perfectly each [historic] event with the music that captures that specific event.

Finally, if Mr Brennan’s aim here has been to position this work in the listener’s imagination with a view to provoke a mix of truth and drama, then this is yet another spectacular example of the genius of Pól Brennan, in which he very probably has no peer. And on evidence of this work, that is truly classic understatement indeed.

Deo gratis…

Music – 1: Réabhóid (Revolution); 2: The Revolt; 3: A Gaelic People; 4: IRA Goes to War; 5: Nationalism; 6: WW1; 7: An Chéad Dáil (The First Assembly); 8: Black ‘n Tans; 9: IRA Strikes Back; 10: A General Election; 11: The Mansion House; 12: War Grinds On; 13: MacSwiney; 14: Ulster Unionists; 15: Volunteers and the Brigade; 16: Time to Call a Halt; 17: Partition; 18: Atlas of the Revolution.

Musicians – Pól Brennan: keyboards, whistles, flute, guitar, and percussion; Aidan O’Donnell: violin, and viola; Steve Turner: keyboards; Moya Brennan: harp; Nicky Bailey: percussion.

Recorded/Released – 2023
Label – ARC Music Productions [EUCD2876]
Runtime – 1:13:55

Based in Milton, Ontario, Canada, Raul is a poet, musician and an accomplished critic whose profound analysis is reinforced by his deep understanding of music, technically as well as historically.

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