Category: Performance & Poetry

Finding Bridget

Maz O’Connor came to the Festival’s attention in 2018 when she discovered and shared the history she had unearthed about her family’s Irish connections.

Those findings inspired her next album, Chosen Daughter and a feature we ran (article on page 24). Maz played as part of our Visible Women in 2019 and last year, told us how she had uncovered the story of Bridget Cleary and was writing a piece of work that would bear witness to her story (link, page 26). We pick up with Maz, as she and her team work through Covid-19; testing songs, text and stage directions to help master storytelling, production values and character complexities, to find Bridget and pay tribute to her life. >>>

Image: Musicians working on Maz O’Connor’s musical theatre piece (c) Matt Jolly.


Since 2017, I’ve been working on a piece of music theatre based on the remarkable true story of Bridget Cleary, a woman from Co. Tipperary who, in 1895, was burned to death by her husband and family because they believed her to be a fairy changeling. The fairy ritual they performed was intended to bring ‘the real Bridget’ home, but, instead, she was killed.

As I wrote in my piece of October 2020, the Liverpool Irish Festival has been supporting me through the development of this project. Festival Director Emma Smith offered me mentorship when we first went into lockdown, and helped me move the piece to the next stage: collaborating on the script with London-based Irish writer Alan Flanagan, and giving the project a week’s research and development (R&D) at Britain Pears Arts (Snape Maltings, Suffolk).

Supportive spaces

Britten Pears Arts have been supporting me as a composer for a few years, and when I wrote to them about the project and explained that what I needed most was space and a week to explore with other creatives, they invited me to R&D the piece at their concert hall. The residency was would feature as part of their annual Festival of New (27 Feb 2021, programme here), for which they invite artists across different disciplines to develop something that takes them out of their comfort zone. The emphasis is on taking creative risks. In 2020, though, we were faced with risk of a different kind.

The offer was made in the Summer, and the residency was booked for September. I was so excited, but for those few weeks in between—with the constant changes to the rules around COVID-19—I wouldn’t let myself believe it was actually going to happen until we were in the concert hall at Snape Maltings. I invited director Tinuke Craig, movement director Martin Bassindale, the aforementioned dramaturg Alan Flanagan, seven actor/singers, and two musicians, hoping all the time that we’d actually be able to meet and explore the piece together. Thankfully, we were; albeit with two metres between us at all times.

Image: Our home for the week.


Once we’d all settled into Snape, the two-metre rule didn’t get in the way of how thrilled we all were to be making something. After such a stressful year, it felt very special to be collaborating with such talented creative people, and to have such a rich story to explore. The moment I heard the musicians start up, I was giddy with excitement. Besides the fact that it had been months since I’d heard live music of any kind, hearing what I’d written manifested by these fantastic players made me realise what magical potential the piece might have.


Image: Violinist Nicola Lyons and guitarist David Delarre, at their socially-distanced musicians’ station.

Open processes

The aims of the week were a little uncertain even as it began. Although we were aware that a film maker was coming in on the Friday to record us for the Festival of New, we decided early that we were not going to try and produce some version of part of the show. We only had a week, after all; but more than that, we wanted to use the time to play and explore, not fix things down.

The time at Snape was very special in that they didn’t expect anything from us at the end: no production, not even a particular outcome. And that’s very unusual in the arts, which is a shame, because sometimes I find that the pressure of an outcome actually makes the work worse.

You rush into decisions that don’t serve the piece because the deadline causes panic and it’s a relief to find any solutions at all. It’s important in creative work to allow time to let things grow and change. Because once things are fixed down, you become attached to them, and it’s very difficult to jettison them later, even if you can see that they’re all wrong. It would be like learning to cook a meal before exploring the basics of flavours: you can cook one meal, sure, but whether you like it or not, you’ve no idea how to change it. And besides, I still only had a first draft of the songs, and a very rough idea of scenes and dialogue. I needed to stay open to major changes in the plot, characterisation, and style (a challenge to my ego, but the best thing for the piece!) so that I could come out of the R&D able to write a decent second draft.

I also had lots of things I wanted to try out musically with the actor-singers, having never heard the songs I’d written except in my own demos, where I’d layered up my own voice on my recording software to represent a group of characters.

Outside expertise

Tinuke was keen to explore the theatrical language of the piece; how it might look and—with Martin’s input—how it might move. She was particularly interested in how to dramatically express the fairies, especially to an audience who might not be familiar with the specificities of Irish folklore. How naturalistic was the piece going to be? Did we need named characters and an ensemble, or could we work with a core group of actor-singers who moved between roles?

Alan wanted to me to make sure that the themes of the piece were as realised as possible; namely the fairies, Irish nationalism, and the role of the Catholic Church in this community. He gave us a series of fascinating presentations on these themes, and led discussions afterwards that really helped me to anticipate what an audience’s reaction to them might be.

A series of exercises led by Tinuke helped very much with my questions on character. She created Bridget’s village, Ballyvadlea, in the concert hall, and had the actor-singers move through 24 hours of their typical day. So much content was generated for me out of that single exercise. Bridget’s aunt Mary, for example, had a bad hip, and her cousin, Johanna, was stuck inside all day looking after her children and older brothers. I saw how each meal had to be made from scratch, how every drop of water had to be fetched from the well. This was a hard life. These details told me a lot about these people and their world, and were woven into my second draft.

The first song we got onto its feet was the opening number: Trouble Always Comes to a Woman Like That. This introduces Bridget to the audience. It is three days since she went missing, and the villagers gossip about her marriage, her fondness for the fairies, and her ‘wild ways’.

Martin laid a grid out on the stage and there were certain rules about how the actor-singers could move within it. The effect was reminiscent of ritualistic movement, and very effective. A theatrical language was glimpsed.

Image: Nicola teaching the basics of Irish step dancing to the group.

Fruitful developments

At the end of the week, our draft of the first twenty minutes of the show was filmed and recorded live. It’s immensely helpful for the development of the piece to have this record. The footage, edited to include an interview with me, will be featured as part of Britten Pears’ Arts’ digital Festival of New on 27 Feb. Although COVID-19 continues to disrupt the piece’s development, I hope it won’t be too long before we’ll have a full production on the way. Perhaps by next St Brigid’s Day.


Image: The end of a fruitful week.

<<< The Liverpool Irish Festival supports artists at various stages in their career, sharing their journey with you to help inspire others and to demonstrate what a substantial commitment it is to be an artist. Maz’s tenacity, work ethic and clarity of vision -to tell a hard-to-hear story- has brought her to this point and helped forge creative connections that may last a lifetime. To have achieved this, under the imposed restrictions of 2020, is to be applauded!

Finding Bridget, via character interpretation, song and improvisation is time consuming. It also requires an ability to process sources, interpret stimuli and a team commitment to bring the world to life. Despite being over 125 years old, Bridget’s story is, sadly, one that continues to chime today. Misuses of education and folklore continue to influence murderous and abusive practices, specifically to harm women. Thus, it is an important story, told by a brave voice, that needs to be heard and understood by those with a power to make change. We continue to work with Maz in the hope of bringing this musical theatre piece to Liverpool, when it is possible, and to paying homage to Bridget’s experience. We hope you’ll join us.

This article’s production was funded by the Irish Government‘s Emigrant Support Programme‘s creative community fund.


Since the onset of Covid-19, cultural organisations and artists have suffered a lack of creative opportunities because of restrictions on arts venues and engagements. #CreativeCommunity is a once-off initiative by the Embassy of Ireland to Great Britain, the Consulate General of Ireland (Cardiff), and the Consulate General of Ireland (Edinburgh) that provided creative opportunities for Irish artists living in Britain to produce cultural content, shared online. Through Creative Community, the Embassy of Ireland in London and the Consulates General in Edinburgh and Cardiff have supported arts and culture-focused projects with eight organisations, directly engaging with at least 40 Irish creatives across Britain to produce and show their work.

The artists Liverpool Irish Festival has commissioned using this programme, include: Cathy Carter / Andrew ConnallyEdy Fung (via Art Arcadia)Alison Little / Maz O’ConnorCiara Ní ÉThe Sound Agents. The links will take you to the individual commissions.

Lockdown Lights: The Simmy

In solitude I came at last on this exhausted ground,
Of tarmac, stone and railing
Where sandstone pillars bear quiet testament
To this abandoned field.
Sweet soil, that once gave birth to daffodils and snowdrops
To mark each year the hope of spring.
Now you lie trampled underfoot and barren
To hold on our behalf the burdens of the past,
As if it is that easy to forget.
Is there prospect of redemption here?
Should I stretch out upon this ground, as is the tradition,
To weep my tears into the soil?
Claw the senseless earth
Conjure it to life and claim it back?

Is there a city underneath this hardened skin?
Where souls more bone than flesh
Once came to rest here in the heart of Vauxhall,
America for them a dream too far?
No stones, no stunted grass or tarmac grit can now remember.
Nor children, nor passers-by.
Who now recalls that here a church once stood
To proclaim this derelict burial ground
Where old dead bones still tremble to the rhythm of the lorries’ thunder?

Here, your dignity in death was the kindness of strangers.
The grandeur of the church not granted,
The sky became your vaulted canopy
The salty mist your unction.
The merciful dark your coffin.
In threadbare winding sheet, by single candle-light,
They passed you down from hand to hand
Their solemn prayers each whispered to the wind.

Do lingering bones still cower here
Like the jagged ribs of some old shipwreck?
Are there skulls? Each an empty tabernacle
That once cradled memories of a life?
Here in this no-man’s -land
Light as a feather you were left.
And as they lowered you,
Might one last breath
Have been released,
To wing into the western sky
And escape this ground forever?

Written and provided by Greg Quiery, poet, historian and author.

Lockdown Lights is an open source project, collecting community stories about people’s experience of the lockdown during the 2020 Coronavirus restrictions. The project was funded by the Irish Government’s Emigrant Support Programme Covid-19 relief fund. We would like to thank all the participants and the Irish Government for their support.

Lockdown Lights: Eavan Boland tribute

Celebrated poet Eavan Boland passed away during 2020. To mark her passing and to the reflect the Coronavirus lockdown reegulations, we selected her poem, Quarantine, as one of two poems we asked people to record themselves reading and send back to us. The followin film was presented and debuted at the Festival’s digital #LIF2020 launch on 15 Oct 2020.


Eavan Boland, born Dublin, Ireland 1944-died Dublin, Ireland 2020.

In the worst hour of the worst season
of the worst year of a whole people
a man set out from the workhouse with his wife.
He was walking—they were both walking—north.

She was sick with famine fever and could not keep up.
He lifted her and put her on his back.
He walked like that west and west and north.
Until at nightfall under freezing stars they arrived.

In the morning they were both found dead.
Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole history.
But her feet were held against his breastbone.
The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.

Let no love poem ever come to this threshold.
There is no place here for the inexact
praise of the easy graces and sensuality of the body.
There is only time for this merciless inventory:

Their death together in the winter of 1847.
Also what they suffered. How they lived.
And what there is between a man and woman.
And in which darkness it can best be proved.

From New Collected Poems by Eavan Boland.
Copyright © 2008 by Eavan Boland.
Reprinted by permission of W.W. Norton.
All rights reserved.

Lockdown Lights is an open source project, collecting community stories about people’s experience of the lockdown during the 2020 Coronavirus restrictions. The project was funded by the Irish Government’s Emigrant Support Programme Covid-19 relief fund. We would like to thank all the participants and the Irish Government for their support.

Lockdown Lights: We Must Create

As part of our Lockdown Lights project, we selected two poems and invited people to record themselves reading them, so we could geneate a film, to share as part of this year’s digtal launch.

Active, positive and full of creative hope, Stephen James Smith’s poem We Must Create was selected in counterpoint to Eavann Bolanf’s Quarantine. We thank Stephen for allowing us to use the poem and share his version below. Loo jout for our film from 15 Oct 2020.

We must create to know who we can be
I say this for you, I say this for me
We must create to know who we can be

Early beginnings, heart beat warmth and you
First breath, eyes open a new point of view
Hands touch, ears hear, clocks ticking I am who?
We must create to know who we can be

Screaming out from within with a voice here
Notes flowing on air lulling the fear
Melody all around this atmosphere
We must create to know who we can be

Hearing truth in onomatopoeia
Boom, boom, belch, zoom, zap, playing with grandpa
While cookie cutting, baking for grandma
We must create to know who we can be

From scrawling with crayons to Lego bricks
From knitting needles, soft textile fabrics
To air-guitaring auld Jimi Hendrix
We must create to know who we can be

There are creative accountants, CVs
Tinder profiles where you look the bees knees
But best not to force it, it comes with ease
We must create to know who we can be

We heard a song sung, it helped ease the pain
We didn’t feel so lonesome as we sang the refrain
We forgot that feeling until we heard it again
We must create to know who we can be

From nursery rhymes to white collar crimes
What have you to say in uncertain times?
Have you a chance to change the paradigms?
We must create to know who we can be

Do you remember the time you heard an opening allegro
Or when that beat dropped and how it made your head go?
Some things make no sense unless you’re in flow
We must create to know who we can be

You may rise then fall, or fall then rise
An arc of a story contains no surprise
But how you tell it, therein the art lies
We must create to know who we can be

Artistry gives rise to community
We’re all part of a changing tapestry
There’s art history in identity
We must create to know who we can be

If you do it for the money you’ll be called a fraud
If you think you’re great company and you might be God
Delusions of grandeur aren’t that odd
We must create to know who we can be

There’s all sorts of forms, disciplines, levels
To challenge yourself in the intervals
Where you’ll find rivals and reasons for approvals
We must create to know who we can be

If it’s saved you from yourself
And now there’s no other way
It doesn’t matter how it moved you, welcome to the ballet
You’ve just found the peak of Parnassus, fair play!

We must create to know who we can be
I say this for you, I say this for me
We must create to know who we can be
We must create to know who we can be.

From Here Now by Stephen James Smith.
Copyright © 2019 by Stephen James Smith.
Reprinted by permission of Pace Print and the poet.
All rights reserved.

Lockdown Lights is an open source project, collecting community stories about people’s experience of the lockdown during the 2020 Coronavirus restrictions. The project was funded by the Irish Government’s Emigrant Support Programme Covid-19 relief fund. We would like to thank all the participants and the Irish Government for their support.

Lockdown Lights: On Exchange Flags

Back in old glory days, long since forgotten,
The flags here were smothered in snowy white cotton.
Soft as a carpet beneath merchant feet
King Cotton was plenty, King Cotton was cheap
It came by the Mersey, it came by the seas
By white canvass aloft in the westering breeze.
By Liverpool sailors, nimble and yar
Tough as mahogany, weathered as tar.

It came from the rivers, it came from the mud
It came from the kick and the stick and the blood
It came from the work line, the whip, the plantations
It came from the fracture and breaking of nations.
For cotton is gentle, fragile and light
Cotton is pure and pristine and white.
But the commerce of cotton, darker than death
Would barter your soul and crush your last breath.

It went by the engine, the steam and the rail
It went by the hundredweight, bail over bail
It went by Manchester, Bury and Preston
Blackburn and Bolton, and Darwen and Nelson
Where there’s brass for the boss, and poor spinning Jenny
Works hour by long hour for less than one penny.
Where the air is so thick it smothers the lung
And thundering loom drowns the Lancashire tongue.

Cotton by boll, by bag and by bale
For smocks and for shirts, for duck cloth and sail.
Cotton for mills, for ships and plantations
Enriching mill owners, impoverishing nations
Cotton for tyranny, hardship and slavery
Cotton for unions, resistance and bravery
Back in its glory days, long since forgotten
It came by the Mersey, that snowy white cotton.

Written and provided by Greg Quiery (20 Aug 2018), poet, historian and author.

Lockdown Lights is an open source project, collecting community stories about people’s experience of the lockdown during the 2020 Coronavirus restrictions. The project was funded by the Irish Government’s Emigrant Support Programme Covid-19 relief fund. We would like to thank all the participants and the Irish Government for their support.

This poem was offered specifically in relation to the Black Lives Matter protests of summer 2020 following the brutal murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA on 25 May 2020. Black Lives Matter. Full stop.

The Strangest of Irish love stories

In:Visible Women have long been a focus of the Festival. We’ve seen many unveiled over the years; often the equally strong partner of a famous man (such as Constance Markievicz or Maude Gonne). Alternatively, they have had their light diminished because they did not fit the social-stereotype (Eva Gore-Boothe) or threatened the patriarchal order (Kitty Wilkinson) or their time. Gradually they are coming in to the light. Here, Helix Productions offer some additional background to their play Mrs Shaw Herself, a production we are moving in to the digital arena for #LIF2020 and hope you will attend.

“I found that my own objection to marriage had ceased with my objection to my own death”
George Bernard Shaw on his marriage to Charlotte Payne-Townshend in 1898

Let’s face it, this does not sound the most romantic start to a marriage; especially if you throw in that the groom and bride were both over 40 with a disdain for -if not downright aversion to- sexual activity. Add further that the groom was one of the most famous men in the world, at that time, and an avowed philanderer (albeit more on the page than in the sheets) and we can but wonder at how this marriage lasted over 40 years, ending with Charlotte’s death. Shaw once said “I could never have married anyone else”. So how is it that we know so little about her?

Creators and performers of Mrs Shaw Herself –Alexis Leighton and Helen Tierney- have found that after performances of the show, audience members frequently come up to tell them they were in fact unaware Shaw was married. Yet Charlotte’s is a fascinating story. It was a mammoth achievement to stay married to the Nobel Prize and Oscar-winning Shaw, in itself, but Charlotte needs to be remembered and indeed celebrated for so much more.

Like Shaw, she played an active part in the early Fabian movement, but it was her money -and it is her name- which gave the London School of Economics their beautiful Shaw Library. She gave financial assistance to many women who were studying medicine and supported the suffrage movement. She not only assisted Shaw with secretarial work, but in his research for plays; notably St Joan. Shaw thanked her with a commission of a St Joan statue to grace their garden at Ayot Saint Lawrence. She read voraciously and enjoyed an intimate and frank relationship with T.E. Lawrence, taking on a quasi-maternal confidence with him in letters.

Shaw and Payne-Townshend’s story is the most maverick of Irish love stories. Charlotte was born in Cork to an incredibly rich family; by coincidence George had worked briefly as a clerk in a land-registry office, owned by her family firm. She had given up on marriage, after failed love affairs, when she met Shaw and our show tells of the twists and turns of their courtship, noted by eagle-eyed Fabian Beatrice Webb. The marriage had its challenges. Shaw could not resist a pretty face and whilst it hardly ever led to physical contact, Charlotte sometimes felt the need to take him on long holidays abroad just to get him away, especially from actresses. Shaw’s infamous affair with Mrs Patrick Campbell was a particular low point, but the marriage weathered it and if nothing else, Mrs Shaw Herself is a lilting (and sometimes keening) Irish song of praise to the long-haul of marital love.

The Liverpool Irish Festival’s theme of “exchange” is embedded in the story of Mrs Shaw Herself. Both Payne-Townshend and Shaw exchanged Ireland for England, but never lost a sense of their roots. They were prominent in support of a united Ireland and of Roger Casement. As Irish Protestants in a sea of Englishness their outsider status brought with it an independent, if not downright maverick stance to life and matters; it is this element that many love in Shaw’s plays. Charlotte exchanged -as did George- a life-long suspicion of marriage for a compromise in what seems to be a celibate, but ultimately loving and supportive relationship. He did not exchange, however, her feminist stance and her determination to use her fortune -in part- to better the lives of women and, most importantly, to create systems for that. The care she took in supervising her scholarships at the LSE and the London School of Medicine is quite astounding. Whilst researching the play, Leighton and Tierney were given access to the wonderful collection at the LSE of photos taken by Shaw. You get a real sense of partnership and affection through the pictures; this between two very independent people.

Mrs Shaw Herself has been performed in many locations; cathedrals, theatres, libraries, centres and even at the wedding of Charlotte’s great-great niece Elisabeth Townshend. It was good to hear Charlotte’s words ring out in the Shaw Library for a conference on women at our LSE performance and at the church in Shaw’s home village of Ayot at which the organ, which Shaw occasionally played, sounded at Charlotte’s funeral scene as described in Shaw’s letters. We have taken the show to various festivals including Bloomsbury, Edinburgh, Crouch End, Watford and Bury St Edmunds, but it is wonderful now to bring an online version of the show to the Liverpool Irish Festival. Do come and hear the voice of the woman who was not only Mrs Shaw Herself, but so much more.

Mrs Shaw Herself is performed at the Liverpool Irish Festival at 8pm, Wed 21 Oct, online. Click here to book tickets, whilst available.


The show notes are also available, here.