Great Women: the words and lives of four powerful 20th-century Irish women are brought to life by composer Gráinne Mulvey and soprano Elizabeth Hilliard

Born Constance Gore-Booth in County Sligo in February 1868, Countess Constance Markievicz was a co-commander in the 1916 Easter Rising and the first Irish woman elected to Parliament.  Alongside Markievicz during the occupation of Stephen’s Green in 1916 was the trade union activist and founder of the Irish Women Workers Union, Rosanna ‘Rosie’ Hackett.  In 1990, Professor Mary Robinson was elected as the first woman President of Ireland, serving until 1997, since when she has continued her advocacy for equality, peace justice, as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, as a Special Envoy on climate change for the UN.  Robinson was succeeded as President in 1997 by Professor Mary McAleese who served until 2011.  The theme of McAleese’s Presidency was ‘building bridges’ and reconciliation between communities, and between the North and South of Ireland.

The voices of these four Irish women, historic figures who have shaped modern Ireland, and whose voices span the whole of the 20th century, are brought together in Gráinne Mulvey’s new composition, Great Women for voice and electronics.  Commissioned by the Dublin International Chamber Music Festival (with support from the Arts Council) to mark its 50th anniversary in 2020, this 26-minute work received its world premiere in June, during the 2021 online Festival, when it was performed at St Patrick’s Hall in the State Apartments of Dublin Castle by soprano Elizabeth Hilliard

Mary Robinson

Great Women overlays recordings of readings by Hilliard of the four women’s letters, writings, statements and speeches, which Mulvey has collated and layered with some atmospheric sound recordings, and live sections sung by Hilliard using many extended vocal techniques such as overtone singing, fragmentation of text and vocalise.  Mulvey has described how, at the start of the work, guttural sounds evolve into a striking statement by Markievicz: ‘We have got to get rid of the last vestige of the harem before woman is free as our dream of the future would have her.’  The work then progresses into what Mulvey terms a ‘mantra’, a moment of calm with a lot of overtone singing – “a union of women coming together and a galvanization of thoughts”.

Constance Markievicz

In the 1916 Easter Rising, Markievicz served as an officer in the Irish Citizen Army.  She was sentenced to death but, because of her gender, her sentence was commuted to a life sentence.  Given amnesty in 1917 and released from Aylesbury Gaol, she was re-imprisoned in 1918 for her part in anti-conscription activities, and was in Holloway Prison when she was elected as a member of Sinn Féin; although she never took her seat in Westminster she served as the Minister of Labour between 1919 and 1922.  In 1926 she joined Éamon de Valera and other revolutionaries to form a break-away party, Fianna Fáil, but just a year later, in July 1927, she became ill and died, aged 57.

The recordings include readings from Markievicz’ letters and poems, written when she was in jail.  Mulvey has explained how she selected a poem in which Markievicz describes the “weariness and drudgery of being incarcerated”, the bleak surroundings and stark brick walls, seeking to emphasise the fact that Markievicz was constantly incarcerated throughout her life.  However, a letter that she wrote to her sister Eva Gore-Booth, expressing her longing to see her sibling, contrastingly conveys her social, caring side, which co-existed with her militant activism, and Mulvey hopes that such text conveys the Countess’s compassionate and humane qualities.

Mulvey had less primary material to work with when selecting texts associated with Rosie Hackett.  Hackett was born in Dublin in 1892 and was still a teenager, and working as a messenger in a Jacob’s Biscuits factory, when she organised a labour strike in protest at conditions for working women.  Two weeks later, with Delia Larkin she founded the IWWU, and subsequently worked tirelessly to provide striking workers with basic food and moral support during the 1913-14 Dublin Lockout, activities which cost Hackett her job.  She became connected with the Irish Citizen Army and after the Rising, re-founded the IWWU which, at its strongest organised over 70,000 women, and continued her work in Liberty Hall for over 40 years.  In 1970, she was awarded a gold medal for giving 60 years of her life to the trade union movement.  She died in 1976, aged 82.  Mulvey includes excerpts from Hackett’s witness statement in the weeks leading up to the 1916 Rising and draws, too, on her significant involvement with James Connolly. 

Rosie Hackett

The contemporary women are represented by extracts from their inaugural presidential speeches, which are embedded in the textures of the live and taped parts.  Mulvey has focused on significant aspects of their tenure as Presidents, in the case of Robinson her emphasis on ‘plurality’ – as represented by her reference to the old concept of the Fifth Province which expresses this emerging Ireland of tolerance and empathy: ‘The old Irish term for province is coicead, meaning a ‘fifth’; and yet, as everyone knows, there are only four geographical provinces on this island.  So where is the Fifth?  The Fifth Province is not anywhere here or there, north or south, east or west.  It is a place within each one of us – that place that is open to the other, that swinging door which allows us to venture out and others to venture in … If I am a symbol of anything I would like to be a symbol of this reconciling and healing Fifth Province.’ 

The closing section of Great Women shines a light on McAleese’s ambition to build bridges, and it issues a call from the end of the 20th century, by which time there had been gains in women’s equality and empowerment, into the 21st century, in hope that the women who had achieved power, and can do so in the future, use their opportunity to bring about further change.

Mary McAleese

Elizabeth Hilliard’s performance is a veritable tour de force of vocal sound, experimentation and expression.  In conversation, the Irish soprano explained to me that, as a soprano, she has been working with Gráinne Mulvey (who is a member of Aosdána and Professor of Composition at Trinity University Dublin Conservatoire of Music) for over a decade now.  Her initial musical training did not, however, begin in the field of vocal studies.  When an injury prevented her continuing her studies in piano and violin, Elizabeth switched to the voice, supported by a very active vocal department at the Royal Irish Academy of Music in Dublin.  She worked to improve her German and French language skills, to develop her vocal and operatic technique, but her curiosity about contemporary music was strong.  “I always wanted to explore contemporary repertoire as a pianist,” Elizabeth explains, “but I wasn’t good enough.  There is just so much information to absorb and process; but, with singing there was an immediate and instinctive path into the music.”    

She has a passion for literature and for “what’s going on in the world”, and began to work with a number of contemporary composers, giving up a part-time role teaching in 2016 to focus on performance and collaboration.  In 2018 she performed the world premiere of She dreams, she dances, a song cycle by Christopher Fox setting texts by W.B. Yeats, and she sang the world premiere of Four by David Bremner, a large immersive work on text by Irish poet Billy Mills, presented by Béal.  She has worked with regularly with Bremner, Fox, Jennifer Walshe and Ian Wilson, among others.  2019 saw Elizabeth perform the world premiere of Mulvey’s The Carlow Song-Cycle with guitarist Morgan Crowley in the Visual, Carlow.

Elizabeth Hilliard (soprano) (c) Mihai Cucu

Great Women requires Elizabeth to produce a wide range of vocal sounds, noises and textures, and I ask Elizabeth about her preparation of and approach to the text.  “I break the words down into sounds,” she explains, “into their sonic parts.  Great Women explores the inability of women to make their voices heard throughout the ages, and so the first four minutes or so are an exploration of sounds and an embodiment of that struggle.  The layering of voices conveys the way that women, historically and over time, have supported each other.  My live parts foreground the voices of Constance Markiewicz and Rosie Hackett, but in the background the words of the assemblage of voices sometimes cannot be clearly heard.  This conveys a lack of empowerment more generally; for example, Markiewicz’s brother had complete control of all her finances.  So, it’s not so much a question of ‘text setting’ in a traditional sense but of using sound, and voice, to embody the high brick wall that was a barrier to women’s equality, self-development and progress.”

Elizabeth feels that Mulvey has an innate ability to imagine what her voice can do.  “She hears things in my voice that I wouldn’t know were there.  In Great Women Gráinne pushes the vocal part quite low, and the tessitura is challenging, but she always takes care of me in the lines, and we’ve built up a trust.”  Elizabeth comments on how she relishes the way that Mulvey manipulates time.  “In one of her early pieces written for me she includes a long glissando, travelling over just a minor 3rd in eight seconds, then making a semitone last four seconds.  I’d never done anything like that before!  But, one just has to breathe as one would normally, making different sounds but always with an open throat, so that the manipulation is not happening around the vocal chords.”  She finds working with Jennifer Walshe a similarly instinctive, natural process.  “She asks for an incredible range of sounds, but she understands what I can do, not what I can’t.” 

Great Women also asks for more ‘conventional’ vocal sounds, and Elizabeth describes an episode describing high walls which pushes the voice upwards, repeating phrases and sounds, and which requires vocal beauty and lyricism.  There is also a passage about ideals of equality and injustice which sets a Latin text.  And, not all effects that might, to some, ‘sound’ experimental actually require particular advanced techniques.  “Glissandi, Monteverdi trills, portamenti – all can be used to great effect by composers.”

I sense, though, that – even if they are not designated ‘opera’ – such works are not so much ‘vocal’ compositions as pieces of theatre, and I wonder what sort of listener comprises her ‘usual’ audience.  Elizabeth explains that she often performs in contemporary arts centres and art galleries, where the audience have certain theatrical experiences and expectations.  The pandemic led to the cancellation of some performances, but there are forthcoming events planned and collaborations continuing, including on-going work on a new opera, and a new piece by Evangelia Rigaki..

Earlier this year, Elizabeth also recorded Great Women at Hellfire Studios with studio engineer Ben Rawlins, and this disc has been released by Métier/Divine Art Records.  A single continuum which reflects the struggle, aspiration and vision of Irish women throughout the 20th century, Great Women is a celebration of all women who strive against political oppression and patriarchy to liberate themselves and others.

Great Women was released in June 2021 by Métier/Divine Art Records.

Claire Seymour

ABOVE: Elizabeth Hilliard (soprano) (c) Mihai Cucu