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Noirin and the abbot give voice to the spirit of Yeats

The line, "I looked on my cold baby, when the morn grew frosty and clear," rang out in Noirin Ni Riain's hauntingly beautiful voice, and a collective intake of breath could be discerned among the audience at the National Library on Tuesday.

From Ballads to Byzantium was Noirin and Abbot Mark Patrick Hederman's contribution to the Library's annual celebration of William Butler Yeats' creativity. Audiences at Summer's Wreath 2010 have already enjoyed readings and reflections by the actors Anjelica Huston and David Kelly, feminist academic Germaine Greer, TD Mary O'Rourke, and writers Declan Lynch, Brian Keenan and Polly Devlin.

Patrick, Abbot of Glenstal Abbey in Limerick, scripted Tuesday's very special performance in word and song. He believes that his challenge was to convince the audience of Yeats' spiritual aspect, given that the poet was well known for his keen interest in mysticism and the occult sciences.

"People don't take his spiritual side seriously, because he wasn't interested in normal churches," he explains. "Yeats was interested in things like the tarot cards, Madame Blavatsky and the Golden Dawn, in which he found his own esoteric way. Irish people thought he was a great poet, but they tended to laugh at him, thinking that he was a foolish person."

In a seamlessly narrated and spellbinding performance, Noirin and Patrick explored Yeats' three passions in life: art, Ireland and Maud Gonne.

When the invitation to participate in Summer Wreath 2010 came to Glenstal, Patrick says he knew instantly that he wanted to collaborate with Noirin.

"We have always found that her voice is somehow an incarnation of an Irish sound, that is buried in the songs and tradition of music in Ireland," he says.

The seamless interchange between Noirin and Patrick reflects the long and close relationship that has existed between them, since they first met on a train in 1977.

"We formed an instant friendship, and knew at that moment that we would be soul friends," explains Noirin, who now lives in an old hermitage at Glenstal Abbey, following her divorce from Micheal O Suilleabhain.

They made an engaging pair on stage. The glamorous Noirin alternately narrated, sang, and played her Indian harmonium, while the mellifluous speaking voice and gravitas of the abbot permeated the seminar room. Indeed, there could scarcely have been a lovelier sound to grace the beautiful building before, than that of Noirin's voice on The Ballad of Moll Magee, Down By The Salley Gardens, Innisfree, and The Song of Wandering Aengus.

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From Ballads to Byzantium was completely booked out, and such was the demand for places that a screen was set up in the cafe upstairs to cater for more people.

And as it ended, we all emerged, spellbound, into the moonlight of Kildare Street, with the strains of Byzantium ringing in our ears and pondering this fresh perspective on Yeats' spirituality. A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains/ All that man is/ All mere complexities/ The fury and the mire of human veins.

Summer Wreath 2010 continues tomorrow with Celtic Poetry and Song by Cerys Matthews (former lead singer of Catatonia). See www.nli.ie for further information. For details of Noirin's chant workshops and Glenstal Abbey, visit www.theosony.com and www.glenstal.org

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