The stage version was originally commissioned by Alarm Will Sound with funding provided by the Arts Council of Ireland, MAP Fund, and New Music USA for Kate Manley (soprano), Iarla O’Lionáird (sean nós singer), and Alarm Will Sound (conducted by Alan Pierson).
The Hunger (stage version)
The Hunger (concert version)
The Hunger concerns itself with a big topic: the Great Irish Famine of 1845–52, which transformed Irish society irrevocably, resulting in the loss of approximately one million people to death and another million to emigration. This was a topic I had wanted to address in my music for a long time, but it took me a while to find my way in. Only when I discovered American reformer Asenath Nicholson's Annals of the Famine in Ireland, published in New York in 1851, was a route unlocked for me.
Nicholson's astonishing first-hand accounts of the famine became the piece's main narrative thread. She made the arduous journey from the United States to Ireland, when countless others were going in the opposite direction, and traversed the entire country, often on foot, and often staying in the homes of the suffering, in order to chronicle the conditions of starving Irish people. In Annals of the Famine, Nicholson directly quoted people who were suffering the worst. Nevertheless, the book is an outsider's, Anglo-American viewpoint.
To counterpoint Nicholson's perspective, I invented an elderly Irish character, written for the seannós singer Iarla ó Lionáird. I say "invented" because, in the words of noted Irish song collector George Petrie, there was an "awful, unwonted silence" during those years, musically.
One of the few songs in the sean-nós ("old style") tradition to address the unfolding catastrophe is Na Prátaí Dubha ("Black Potatoes"), most likely based on an original text by Máire Ní Dhroma, who lived in a particularly stricken part of the country: Ring, in county Wexford. In her text, Ní Dhroma was very critical of both the clergy and the highly ineffective "poorhouse" system that split families up as the crisis escalated. Because of this, she was a source of some controversy, particularly with the Catholic Church. I built the old man's part from shards of both Na Prátaí Dubha and a keening lament for a dead child that I first heard in an unaccompanied version by the astounding Donegal singer Cití Ní Ghallachóir. While the keen's melody is anonymous, the words were composed by Ní Ghallacóir, and I make use of them here with her kind permission.
Gradually, as The Hunger evolves, Nicholson's narrative line starts to assimilate some of the seannós material of the old man — and the overtone-based harmony that I connect to his material — mirroring the way that Nicholson in many ways began to cross the threshold from observer to empathetic participant: She ran her own soup kitchen briefly and became an activist, writing pleading letters to her important friends in both the States and England, seeking action that would ameliorate the deteriorating conditions for the Irish peasant class. A section from one of Nicholson's letters is quoted in The Hunger's final section.
On a larger socio-economic level, one of the terrible ironies of the famine is that while many were dying of starvation or associated diseases, the food that the majority of the populace could not afford continued to be exported from the large estate-farms. In fact, as the historian Christine Kinealy observes in This Great Calamity: The Irish Famine 1845-52, certain food exports actually increased during the famine. This is largely due to an ideological battle at the heart of the British government in London (Ireland was at the time under British rule), where an influential contingent did not want to interfere with the workings of the market, at least in Ireland. Of course, this was further complicated by the dynamics of colonialism, and one has to wonder if the famine would have lasted quite as long otherwise.
I made the concert version of The Hunger in 2017-18. The Hunger also exists in an extended version for stage (completed in 2016, revised 2019), incorporating video interviews with economists, historians and philosophers. In the concert version I dispense with this strand to concentrate entirely on the intersecting narrative developing between Mrs. Nicholson and the old, dying Irish man. More is implied rather than stated in this version. The sense of how incapable bureaucracy is at dealing with a quickly transforming crisis, and how that bureaucracy can be used as a screen for being unfeeling, is implied by the narrative that Asenath tells of the old man's dealings with the hunger relief station, and the way the music surges and fades, embodying the old man's Sisyphean task.
I am nevertheless deeply grateful to all my collaborators on the stage version, in particular Jocelyn Clarke (for his dramaturgical assistance) and Tom Creed (the director). I know that my thinking about the concert version is indebted to the discussions of the dramaturgical shape that I had with these two throughout the development of the piece. I am especially thankful to the historian Maureen Murphy for her unparalleled knowledge of Asenath Nicholson and her writings. Maureen has been not only a constant source of vital information but also of support. I consider getting to know her one of the great by-products of my working on this piece.
The Hunger was commissioned by Alarm Will Sound, and has received financial assistance from New Music USA, The MAP Fund, and the Arts Council of Ireland. It is dedicated to Courtney Orlando.
— Donnacha Dennehy