Eithne Project

Dublin’s Opera Theatre Company recently revived the first Irish-language opera, Robert O’Dwyer’s Eithne. Although Eithne was well-received by contemporary critics for its contribution to the Gaelic revival movement and as an attempt to establish a national opera tradition, the opera has been mysteriously forgotten for over a century. In celebration of the long-overdue revival, ITMA has delved into its resources to uncover the historical background of the piece.
Eithne No Text
Image courtesy of Opera Theatre Company

In celebration of the long-overdue revival, ITMA has digitised and made available online its copy of the 1910 publication, and delved into its resources to uncover the historical background of the piece. Additional research materials, including the original manuscripts, contemporary news articles, and miscellaneous ephemera were found in the National Library of Ireland's collection.

Listen to soprano Orla Boylan, singing the role of Eithne in rehearsal (2017)

The Bird of Sweet Music

By the time O'Dwyer composed Eithne in July 1909, a long tradition of incorporating ancient Celtic legends and mythology in opera had been established by foreign and native Irish composers. As one would expect, Eithne, was based on a pre-Christian Irish folk-story “Éan an Cheoil Bhinn” which translates to “The Bird of Sweet Music.”  In the story,

a man follows a sweet singing bird into a cave under the ground, and finds a country where he wanders for a year and a day, and a woman who befriends him while there, and enables him to bring back the bird, which turns out to be a human being. At the end of the tale the narrator mentions quite casually that it was his mother whom he met down there. This touch shows that the land where he wandered was the Celtic Hades, the country of the dead beneath the ground. 1

O’Dwyer’s adaptation of the legend provides a much more elaborate version of events. The hero, Ceart, is the eldest son of the High King of Ireland who narrowly escapes banishment after a false accusation that he killed the King’s favourite hound. Ceart’s redemption arc to not only further prove his innocence but also his suitability as heir to the throne takes place in the second act. 

While on a hunt, the High King is captivated by a mysterious singing bird and the apparition of a sorrowful but beautiful maiden, which vanish into a nearby cave. Ceart bravely volunteers to enter the cave and discover the secret of the bird and the maiden. 

In the cave, Ceart must defeat a giant guardian spirit to enter Tir-na-n-Og (The Land of Youth, a supernatural realm in Irish mythology), where he must defeat the king of Tir-na-n-Og to undo the curse placed upon the bird and Eithne. Lyrics and a full synopsis of the plot can be found in the Opera Theatre Company’s programme of the revival performance.

Synopsis as printed in Gaelic League programme (1910), image courtesy of National Library of Ireland

Opera in Ireland (1700 – 1900)

Although proponents of the turn of the century Gaelic Revival lamented at the absence of a national opera tradition in Ireland, foreign operas enjoyed minor but steady popularity in Ireland from as early as 1705. Some English operas such as John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728) incorporated Irish airs and traditional songs, and popularised a tradition of comedic ballad opera (or light opera) in Dublin. Despite the arrival of other foreign opera traditions, English and Irish ballad operas proved to be the enduring form of opera in Ireland. In the classical era (1775 – 1830), Irish composers, writers, and artists tended to leave Ireland for more steady work in London. 

One such writer, John O’Keeffe, was particularly influential in providing libretti on Irish subjects and traditional tunes for Irish characters to English composers. As noted by Axel Klein, 

knowingly or not he contributed to the stage-Irish or image of Irish people as poor servants, drunkards, or petty criminals that aroused mockery and laughter in London theaters.2

However, Irish stages did see an increase in English-language works more complimentary to Ireland, drawing from mythological themes throughout the nineteenth century although by this time Romantic Italian operas were preferred. As the style of music in vogue, Europeans looked to foreign operas to familiarise themselves with the national life of foreign nations. Yet despite a small, but healthy, appetite for opera in Ireland, a large resource of fascinating folklore and song, and prolific writers, Ireland had failed to establish an operatic tradition that would fill the Irish with pride and delight foreign audiences.

Eithne's original performance ran from 2 August 1909 through 5 August 1909 at Dublin's Rotunda Round Room (image c. 1890-1910), image courtesy of National Library of Ireland
Despite a small, but healthy, appetite for opera in Ireland, a large resource of fascinating folklore and song, and prolific writers, Ireland had failed to establish an operatic tradition that would fill the Irish with pride and delight foreign audiences.

Gaelic Revival

Given the lack of a genuine Irish opera tradition, It is understandable that proponents of the fin de siécle Gaelic Revival called for the establishment of Irish-language operatic works. The Gaelic Revival movement inspired by Irish nationalism largely focused on the revival of the Irish language, history, and folklore. Although literature was naturally the most popular medium for a language-based movement, the role of traditional music in Irish life and as a vehicle for folklore naturally brought music into the movement's discourse. The desire for the revival to honour the past while simultaneously propelling Ireland into the future meant that incorporating contemporary artistic tastes such as opera had a welcome place in the revival.

Before it even premiered on 2 August 1909, Eithne was already attracting praise from Irish nationalists and proponents of the Gaelic Revival movement. In an unnamed Belfast newspaper, an anonymous author expressed their desire for a national opera in a July 1909 column on Eithne,

The revival …  cannot pass by any of the arts, because the arts are a large part of life, and while they express a national character honorably to the outside world they also shape it within itself. Ireland of old was one of the lands of music ... the modern Ireland and the Ireland to come may still be a land of music, national here, too, as in other forms of living. There has always been in this country a wealth of exquisite melody, a “folk-music” that the great outside world has loved when it has known ... and the traditional music is even more in honour now than it has been for perhaps a hundred years. But by the side of this loveliness in simplicity we have to learn to think of the grandeur and symphony and chorus, the splendor and power there is in the immense harmony of many instruments and many voices. As no country, small or great, that has a full national life is without its national opera, peculiarly expressive of the country of its conception, but understood also by all other peoples, so in Ireland too, we must have our national opera. A great school, we may hope, will spring up of composers whose inspiration shall be wholly Gaelic, but whose form shall appeal though some fresh and strange touch, to all the nations.3

Considering this clear enthusiasm for Eithne, it comes as no surprise that the opera was generally well received by opera attendees and critics alike. Although some commentators found flaws in O'Dwyer's Wagner influence, many more forgave this and called for more performances. Unfortunately, the opera was only reprised once from 16 – 21 May 1910 at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin. Nevertheless, the positive contemporary reception and the fact that the opera was originally performed in Irish (with the English version produced many years later) make Eithne all the more deserving of its title as the first Irish opera. Some may argue that this title really belongs to Thomas O'Brien Butler's Muirgheis, written in Irish in 1903, however Muirgheis was first performed in English and was so poorly received that it was likely never performed again.4

Robert O'Dwyer, Thomas O'Kelly, and the creation of Eithne

Robert O’Dwyer was born and raised in Bristol, England to Irish parents where he was classically trained in music, beginning his career as a chorister and assistant organist at various churches. At age 27 in 1889, O’Dwyer began conducting amatuer orchestra and worked with various touring opera companies until he settled in Dublin in 1897 to work as an organist and teach music at the Royal University of Ireland. At the time of the 1911 census, O’Dwyer lived with his family at 97 Rathmines Road and later at 9 Upper Leeson Street.

With increasingly nationalistic views upon his move to Dublin, O'Dwyer ultimately became a leading voice to establish a national school of Irish art music composition.5  In 1910 he won a Feis Ceoil competition for his orchestral overture, Rosalind, and began conducting and arranging music for the Gaelic League choir in 1901. O’Dwyer’s contemporaries praised as one of the most progressive musicians on the Feis Ceoil Executive Committee.6 In addition to these musical pursuits, he also began writing articles about nationalist music for The Leader, a weekly review of current affairs, politics, literature, art, and industry in Dublin. Described as a ‘colourful character,’ O’Dwyer expressed his sentiments towards Irish nationalism “with more vitriol and less polish than was his editors’ wont,” going to great lengths such as adding the patronymic prefix to his name in order to appear more Irish.7

Robert O'Dwyer in his study (c. 1910-1920), image courtesy of Ciaran O'Dwyer

Despite a steady career in music and academia (upon the success of Eithne, he was awarded the Professorship of Irish Music at University College Dublin), O’Dwyer’s efforts outside of Eithne paled in its shadow and were largely forgotten. However, a visit to view the original Eithne manuscripts at the National Library of Ireland reveals the extent of how well known O’Dwyer’s work was in both nationalist circles and to choristers. Inside the covers of the manuscripts are pages and pages of articles written by O’Dwyer’s contemporaries praising both Eithne and his other accomplishments. One article, unfortunately from an unnamed newspaper and author, includes an interview with O’Dwyer revealing his passion for the place of Irish music in nationalism,
The Irish peasant, undoubtedly has still the gift to turn a phrase, to vary, or even invent a melody, which natural inspiration, with knowledge (as we educate in all other arts and sciences) might, nay often must, become a work of art … how prodigal, neglectful, wasteful, we are of such a treasure; while we strive for mastery in other arts, in which we barely succeed, we close our door upon this our own, our chief inheritance, and go, with qualm of conscience, to the chimney corner, to listen for a departing echo.8

Given his dedication to his beliefs, it comes as no surprise that someone like Robert O'Dwyer would take great care in selecting the person with whom he would collaborate with to provide Eithne's libretto. He entrusted the task to Father Thomas O'Kelly (1879 – 1924), a priest from Sligo who also worked as a playwright, librettist, and held teaching positions. O'Kelly was likely brought to the attention of O'Dwyer after he received a first prize at the 1904 Samhaim Competition in 1904 for authoring the first translation of William Butler Yeats's Cathleen Ni Houlihan.9

Letter from Thomas O'Kelly to Robert O'Dwyer, discussing changes for the opera's second performance in May 1910 at the Gaiety Theatre. This would be the final performance for a over century.
Eithne Letter
Zoom in to view, image courtesy of National Library of Ireland


25 II 1910

A chara,

Eithne travelled back by registered post last evening.
I couldn't possibly have it ready sooner, and it is always good to give a printer as little excuse for errors as possible.
It will be pretty difficult to have it ready in the time. You will see that I haven't altered very much. On pp. 74 & 75 I have restored the words I sent in altered to suit the music. 
I have thought this better than to allow Ceart to begin his solo with the impersonal speech already used by the chorus.
Look at my query on division of syllables of Coinagileon top of page 83.
On page 127 you have omitted last stanza of my wish and as it says to the words I am inclined to think it must have been thro' inadvertence. If so please put it in (i.e. "Brave Diarmuid etc. )
The cast is fine as far as I know the artists. I'm glad Miss Duffy + Reynolds are retained. I hope they'll do as well as before.
Sincerely yours,
 Thos O'Kelly

Eithne was written for the 1909 Oireachtas na Gaeilge, an Irish language festival organised by the Gaelic League, upon the request of the festival organisers the previous year. Although O'Dwyer agreed on the condition that he would set the music if a story was provided to him, nothing had been done by December 1908 when he decided to take matters into his own hands. O'Dwyer read countless stories in English and Irish until he decided on "Éan an Cheoil Bhinn." O'Kelly and O'Dwyer then collaborated through letters to create the libretto and set it to music, completing the work on 31 July 1909, just two days before it's premiere. The pair continued their correspondence to edit Eithne for its second and final performance of the century that took place in May 1910 at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin

Pages from Act I of the original manuscript, courtesy of National Library of Ireland

Otc Eithne Master Images

Eithne Today

Eithne was revived by the Opera Theatre Company on 14 October 2017 at the National Concert Hall in Dublin with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra. A significant addition to the cast was Dr. Gavin Ring, baritone, as the High King of Ireland. Dr. Ring is a prominent scholar on the opera whose doctoral thesis examined the political and cultural reasons for Eithne's neglect and argued for the necessary performance considerations for a revival adaptation. A full list of the cast as well as additional background information on the piece can be found in the Opera Theatre Company's programme linked above.

The performance was recorded by RTÉ Lyric Fm and can be viewed below or on youtube.

Written & researched

Emily Fitzsimmons


23 November 2017


Ceoldrama is the rough Irish translation used for opera, a combination of the words for music and drama.


Ciaran O'Dwyer, National Library of Ireland, Opera Theatre Company


1. Hyde, Douglas, Beside the Fire: A Collection of Irish Gaelic Folk Stories, (London, 1890), preface xxxviii-xxxix

2.  Klein, Axel, ‘Opera and music theatre’, in H. White & B. Boydell (eds), The Encyclopaedia of Music in Ireland (2 Vols, Dublin: UCD Press, 2013), ii, 786-78

3.  Anon. 'New Opera in Irish - "Eithne" at the Rotunda During Oireachtas Week,' unknown newspaper, July 1909. Dn MS L 294 (1)

4. Eagan, Casey, "Composer of first Irish opera was among Lusitania victims," Irish Central, 4 May 2015. Accessed 18 November 2017. https://www.irishcentral.com/r....

5. Ring, Gavin, Performance Considerations for Robert O'Dwyer's Eithne (1909): A Contextual Study and Edited Vocal Score (Doctoral thesis, Dublin City University, 2016), 38.

6. Ibid, 38.

7. Ibid, 38.

8. Anon. 'The Music of Ireland. XLIV - A Professor of Irish Music,' unknown newspaper, N.D., Dn MS L 294 (1) 

9. Ryan, Joseph J., ‘Opera in Ireland before 1925’, in G. Cox & A. Klein (eds), Irish Musical Studies 7: Irish Music in the Twentieth Century (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2003), 46

Works Consulted

Larkin, David, ‘O’Kelly, Thomas [Revd] [Ó Ceallaigh,an tAth. Tomás; pseudonym Íbh Máine]’, in H. White & B. Boydell (eds), The Encyclopaedia of Music in Ireland (2 Vols, Dublin: UCD Press, 2013), ii, 773-774

Klein, Axel, Celticism in Irish Opera

Klein, Axel, ‘O’Dwyer, Robert’, in H. White & B. Boydell (eds), The Encyclopaedia of Music in Ireland (2 Vols, Dublin: UCD Press, 2013), ii, 760

Klein, Axel, ‘Opera and music theatre’, in H. White & B. Boydell (eds), The Encyclopaedia of Music in Ireland (2 Vols, Dublin: UCD Press, 2013), ii, 785-790

O’Kelly, Thomas, Letter from Thomas O’Kelly to Robert O’Dwyer (unpublished 1910). Dn MS L 294 (1)

Ring, Gavin, Robert O'Dwyer, The 'Colourful' Fellow