Nearly 1,200 people perished when the RMS Lusitania sank off the coast of Ireland after being torpedoed by a German U-boat 100 years ago. Among the dead was Thomas O’Brien Butler, the composer of the first Irish-language opera.
Although now largely forgotten, O’Brien Butler was known in his day for his opera “Muirgheis,” which premiered in Dublin in 1903.
Born Thomas Whitwell in 1861, the composer later changed his name to the more Irish-sounding O’Brien. He briefly studied at London’s Royal College of Music, and it is believed he may have studied for a time in Italy. He also traveled to India for a time. There are reports that his opera was written while he was in India, but that is largely speculative. He did, however, dedicate one of his songs to Rajindra Singh, an Anglophile maharaja who was the first Indian to own a car, the Boston Globe reports.
Apparently, his opera was never performed again after the premiere, which was sung in English, not Irish.
Nora Chesson wrote the libretto. In the opera, the title heroine is to marry the chieftain Diarmuid, but the jealous Maire persuades Donn, the fairy king, to steal Muirgheis away. After failing to win Diarmuid’s love, Maire asks Donn to return Muirgheis, a request which will cost Maire her soul. However, the fairy king decides she will not die but will instead be transformed into a wave.
Reviews of the opera were mixed. While playwright John Millington Synge liked it, the Irish Times had a poor opinion of it, writing: “One would fain discourage Irish art, but it must be confessed that ‘Muirgheis’ does not possess the elements of popularity.”
O’Brien Butler traveled to New York in an attempt to arrange a second staging of the opera. In April 1915, he mounted a concert at New York’s Aeolian Hall, with a selection of his songs, his violin sonata, and excerpts from “Muirgheis.”
Two weeks later he boarded the Lusitania.