Sex, Song and Liberated Women – Sean Tyrrell on The Midnight Court
WHILE OUT for a walk, a poet is accosted by a giant hag and hauled before the court of Queen Aoibheal, where he is condemned for being unmarried and Irish men and priests are given the thumbs down not satisfying the sexual needs of the women of Ireland.This is Brian Merriman’s celebrated The Midnight Court/Cuirt an Mhean Oiche. Dating from the late 1700s, it is one of the greatest and funniest works of Irish literature.Cuirt an Mhean Oiche has also been an enormously influential work for writers such as Flann O’Brian, Seamus Heaney, and Thomas Kinsella, artist Pauline Bewick, and modern Irish funk-soul band the Republic of Loose.However, it’s most famous re-interpretation both in words and music is from the great Galway born folk-singer Sean Tyrrell. Sean’s highly acclaimed show The Midnight Court will be performed in The Crane Bar on Saturday November 8 at 7pm as part of Spirit Of Voice 2008 festival.On the night Sean will be joined by multi-instrumentalist Johnny Mullins and they will perform the songs Sean wrote inspired by and telling the entire story of the poem. On the stage will also be three large reproductions from Pauline Bewick’s own series of interpretation of The Midnight Court – Queen Aoibheal, the man, and the woman.“I got a call to perform some songs from my show The Midnight Court at the opening of Pauline’s exhibition in Waterford and in Kenny’s,” Sean tells me during our Tuesday afternoon conversation. “I got an amazing response to the songs and Pauline loved them.I asked her if I could use the three paintings and she said yes. Those three paintings spoke to me of what was being said in the poem. In the show I address the woman in the picture when singing about the women and to the man when singing to the men.”Sean has enjoyed great success and critical acclaim since he first performed The Midnight Court as a stage show in the Galway Arts Festival in 1992. He has since brought it all over Ireland and to the Edinburgh Festival. His dream is to next perform it in the USA.“I’m just back from playing the States and I did some songs from it over there,” says Sean. “People say it won’t be understood outside of Ireland but I say women and men are the same the world over.”
Back to the beginning though, when did Sean come across the poem? He had touched upon its opening verses in school but it was only later when he read the entire thing.“Many years ago I was working in a youth hostel in Killarney and I found a translation there by David Marcus and I brought it with me when I left,” he says. “I’m always sorry I mislaid it in the telephone box that used to be on O’Brien’s bridge.“When I went to Clare I bought another copy of it. I thought I might get a few comedy songs from it but then I found I was putting the whole thing to music. I must have sat on it for several years before I approached Maeliosa Stafford in 1992 about staging it in Druid. It went on to become one of the hits at that year’s arts festival.”Cuirt an Mhean Oiche is most famous for its sexual frankness and ribaldry. Also its tackling of issues such as female sexuality and clerical celibacy continue to make it relevant and modern. In this great battle of the sexes, Sean is very clear whose side he is on.“It’s a feminist statement written by a man and put to music by another man,” he says. “There’s the slagging between the men and the women and Queen Aoibheal pronounces in favour of the women. There is politics in there as well: ‘Our country raped and looking a coward’. It’s timeless.“During the show we segregate the audience to get a battle royal going. In Druid during the first performance of the show a woman’s shoe hit me in the chest so it can get the passions going.”Does Sean feel Cuirt an Mhean Oiche gives us an insight into an Ireland that English Victorian imperialism and Irish Catholic prudishness wanted to sweep under the carpet?
“Brian Merriman wasn’t very prudish and didn’t care to much for the morals of his time and I care less for them as they are now!” declares Sean. “I remember we wanted to stage it in the Town Hall one year around Easter. Mike Diskin was the manager at the time and he suggested starting it on a Good Friday. I said ‘Wait! Are you sure?’ There ended up being uproar from the clergy but I was even more delighted when I found it was a Protestant minister who was making the complaints. ‘We’re offending all sides’ I thought and that made me happy. It was the best publicity as we had three nights’ full houses.”What does Sean feel are the qualities that make Merriman’s work so influential and inspirational to so many different kinds of Irish musicians, artists, and writers?“Merriman was an accomplished fiddler so he was writing to the metre of music in his head,” he says. “The poem also appeals to the anarchy in us all. His approach is so off the wall for his time and off the wall even now.”
By Kernan Andrews.