fb-pixel Skip to main content

Among Lusitania victims, composer of first Irish opera


May 7 marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Lusitania. The 787-foot cruise ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat — the vessel was, controversially, also carrying munitions — and went down off the Irish coast with the loss of nearly 1,200 lives. Among the dead was a true son of Éirinn: Thomas O’Brien Butler, now largely forgotten, but famous in his day as the composer of the first Irish-language opera.

The opera, “Muirgheis” (pronounced “Mir-yeesh”), was premiered in Dublin in 1903 — and, apparently, never performed again. (And the premiere was sung in English, not Irish.) Nora Chesson’s libretto remixed smithereens of Irish folklore: the title heroine is betrothed to the chieftain Diarmuid; the jealous Maire convinces Donn, the fairy king, to steal Muirgheis away.


The composer’s own story had its elements of fancy. Born in 1861, his original name was Whitwell; somewhere along the line, he changed it to the more Irish O’Brien. He possibly studied music in Italy; he definitely studied at London’s Royal College of Music, but for only three terms. He traveled to India for a time — one of his songs was dedicated to
Rajindra Singh, an Anglophile maharaja who was the first Indian to own a car — but reports that “Muirgheis” was, in fact, written in India are speculative.

Opinions of “Muirgheis” were divided. Playwright John Millington Synge admired it, but the Irish Times was almost apologetically disappointed: “One would fain discourage Irish art, but it must be confessed that ‘Muirgheis’ does not possess the elements of popularity.” The score reveals passing flair — the a cappella chorus of fairies is evocatively mercurial; the entrance of a genuine Irish lament is a striking coup de théâtre — but “Muirgheis” is rather like its composer’s biography: striking moments surrounded by material of more conjectural quality.


O’Brien Butler had come to New York to try to arrange the opera’s elusive second staging. He did mount an April 1915 concert at New York’s Aeolian Hall, accompanying a selection of his songs, his violin sonata, and excerpts from “Muirgheis.” Two weeks later, O’Brien Butler boarded the Lusitania.

In “Muirgheis,” having failed to win Diarmiud’s love, Maire admits defeat, asking Donn to return Muirgheis. The request will cost Maire her soul — as she well knows. But, Donn decides, she will not die; she will instead be transformed into a wave: “The wind shall drive thee shoreward mid the foam,/ But never bring thee home.”

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.