Sunday, June 1, 2008

"Oh! Shrive Me, Father"

I'm just back from giving a concert at a very unsual place, a land trust operated by a lay Benedictine organization. Their concert hall is in a building called Saint Cecilia, which also houses a tiny chapel where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved. The program was one that I have done often, a selection of Victorian salon music with one of the foremost performers on the English concertina. One of our pieces is the Londonderry Air, sung not with the familiar text ("Danny Boy," by Fred Weatherley), but with the earliest known lyrics, published as "The Confession of Devorgilla" in 1814.

Devorgilla was a twelfth-century Irish princess, the wife of Tiernan O'Rourke, prince of Breffni. At the age of forty-four she eloped with a rival chieftain, Dermot MacMurrough, and a war ensued between the two factions. Dermot invited Henry II of England, known as Strongbow, to come to his defense, thus paving the way for the first Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland. In the end, Devorgilla returned to her husband, and spent the rest of her life in good works, one of which was the establishment of the abbey at Clonmacnoise, County Offaly, pictured above. James Joyce is referring to Devorgilla in Chapter 2 of Ulysses when Deasy remarks to Stephen Dedalus: "A faithless wife first brought the strangers to our shore here, MacMurrough’s wife and her leman, O’Rourke, prince of Breffni" (he mixes up the identities of the two men, however).

The song pictures the penitent Devorgilla in the confessional, seeking shriving -- absolution -- from the priest:

'Oh! shrive me, father - haste, haste, and shrive me,
'Ere sets yon dread and flaring sun;
'Its beams of peace, - nay, of sense, deprive me,
'Since yet the holy work's undone.'
The sage, the wand'rer's anguish balming,
Soothed her heart to rest once more;
And pardon's promise torture calming,
The Pilgrim told her sorrows o'er.

The charms that caus'd in life's young morning,
The woes the sad one had deplor'd,
Were now, alas! no more adorning,
The lips that pardon sweet implor'd:-
But oh! those eyes, so mildly beaming,
Once seen, not Saints could e'er forget! -
And soon the Father's tears were streaming,
When Devorgilla's gaze he met!

Gone, gone, was all the pride of beauty,
That scorn'd and broke the bridal vow,
And gave to passion all the duty
So bold a heart would e'er allow;
Yet all so humbly, all so mildly,
The weeping fair her fault confess'd,
Tho' youth had viewed her wand'ring wildly,
That age could ne'er deny her rest.

The tale of woe full sadly ended,
The word of peace the Father said,
While balmy tear-drops fast descended,
And droop'd the suppliant sinner's head.
The rose in gloom long drear and mourning,
Not welcomes more the sun's mild ray,
Than Breffni's Princess hail'd returning
The gleam of rest that shriving-day.

Two of the lay Benedictines told me separately after the concert that they believed my performance of the piece showed too much fixation on my own penitence. "God loves you," one of them said simply, an amazing thing to be told after a performance, and a good thing to hear.


Anonymous said...

Carol King once said that it's easier to write songs than to sing them. When you are singing in front of an audience, you are naked and you lose part of yourself, that part you give for the audience. After she said this (in some documentary on songwriters of the 1960s and 1970s), they showed her performing in the early 70s. She sang and played well and obviously made herself vulnerable to the audience.

I can tell from your writing that your singing is a way you really show yourself to the world. The monks are right. Sometimes it's hard to believe you are loved or forgivable, much less forgiven.

Pentimento said...

Thanks for your thoughtful comment, T.Q. I've been thinking about quitting singing for a while now, because it's so hard to practice every day with a two-year-old, let alone book gigs, and I'm still trying to finish my dissertation. But one of these Benedictines, someone who knows me quite well by now, told me after the concert, "You have to find a way to make this work." He put my singing in the context of the new evangelization called for by JPII, but, he said, that didn't mean I ever had to sing songs that were as explicit as "Devorgilla." I really hope I can find a way to sing in the way that he suggested. It's a bit of a mystery to me right now.

Interesting about Carole King; she was an unselfconscious and excellent songwriter, but, as I learned from the book Girls Like Us, it took her years to feel comfortable singing her own work. I guess it is a different kind of vulnerablility.

Sean said...

Good Irish Catholics would never say
The name was imposed on Derry by the unwanted & greedy British.
Lovely Derry, but never London.

Pentimento said...

Point taken.