April 29, 1915.
My dear Mr. O’Rahilly:-
I am just now in receipt of a note from your friend O’Brien Butler telling me that he leaves on the Lusitania for home next Saturday.
He sent me your note of introduction from New York Feb. 20, having been there since before Christmas. I made two or three engagements with him which he was unable to keep and I furnished him with a temporary membership card in the Art Club which he has been unable to use.
I am sorry not to have met him for I should like to have shown him some attention for your sake and, when I knew him, perhaps for his own. He explained in his first note that he thought of giving a concert of his own music in Philadelphia. Had he done so I am afraid I could not have been of much use to him because, as I told him, I am very little in touch with the Irish and
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scarcely at all with musical people. Had he been able to keep his first engagement, I had arranged, however, to introduce him to a few musicians who were then to be met at a musical club room.
I fear your friend has not been overwhelmingly successful, but I do not want to anticipate his own account of his experiences.
We have a man from Ireland here now, my friend Arthur V. Willcox of Glendalough House, County Galway. He is a member of the Kildare St. Club and a strong Anti-homeruler- uncompromisingly pro-English in the infamous world-struggle. We avoid dissuasion by not talking of Irish affairs. I have known him since he was a very small boy and his father before him. He is a first rate fellow no matter what you may think of his opinions.
I hope you have not been touched poignantly by the war.
With love to Mrs O’Rahilly, to whom Mrs Gilbert sends her warm regards.
Edw. J. Nolan
The strong allure that the ocean held for Thomas O’Brien Butler can be detected in Muirgheis, his three-act opera. Arguably the most famous piece in the composer’s now largely forgotten body of work, Muirgheis takes as its setting the Atlantic coastal village of Waterville, Co Kerry and counts amongst its chorus an undefined number of “Sea-fairies”. The nautical theme is confirmed by the title of the play, which roughly translates as “Magic of the Sea”. As this month’s From the Archives document sadly attests, however, the impact of the sea on the life of O’Brien Butler would go far beyond the role of an operatic muse.
The document in question is a letter written by Edward Nolan to his friend Michael Joseph (The) O’Rahilly on the 29th of April, 1915. Nolan held the position of librarian at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, the city in which he is likely to have met The O’Rahilly during one of the latter’s American sojourns. While much about the letter arouses curiosity, such as the identities of the briefly mentioned “Arthur V. Willcox” and “Mrs Gilbert”, the most eye-catching part occurs in the first sentence, with Nolan’s casual mention of the word “Lusitania”. O’Brien Butler had ventured to America with hopes and aspirations of winning fame through his music. However, as with hundreds of others, including scores of Irish passengers such as the art collector Sir Hugh Lane, these hopes and aspirations became entangled in the more tragic fame destined for the Lusitania.
Although Nolan refers to O’Brien Butler as a “friend” of The O’Rahilly, the association between the pair had, in fact, been quite brief. That is not to say that they had little in common: both were men of means who held an interest in Gaelic culture, both were Kerrymen exiled in Dublin, and neither, it would seem, were impartial to having a romantically embellished moniker – the composer was born in Cahirciveen under the less poetic name of Thomas Whitwell. They certainly moved in similar circles, sharing mutual acquaintances in Eoin MacNeill and Thomas MacDonagh, with whom O’Brien Butler wrote the “Marching Song of the Irish Volunteers”, composing the music to MacDonagh’s lyrics. Nevertheless, it is quite possible that the two never actually met. This possibility is suggested by a small note that was sent to The O’Rahilly from O’Brien Butler in December 1914, which is the only record of their acquaintance that can be found in The O’Rahilly’s papers in the UCD Archives. In the note, the composer asks The O’Rahilly, whose name was suggested to him by MacNeill, for some letters of introduction to aid him in his planned trip to America, where he intended to stage a performance of his opera. As Nolan’s letter reveals, O’Rahilly acquiesced to the composer’s request, though there is no record of any further interaction between the two.
A voyage across the Atlantic was unlikely to have fazed O’Brien Butler, who had already visited the United States, and had previously ventured as far as Rome and India. He also lived for a period in London, where he briefly studied at the Royal College of Music. His travels seem to have nurtured his musical composition; a song entitled Mo Cailin Beag Ruadh was dedicated to “His Highness Rajendrah Singh, Maharajah of Patiala”. In fact, it was while staying in Kashmir that he composed the music for Muirgheis. His only large score, Muirgheis was an attempt to blend the traditions of Irish music and European opera. Set during the early days of Christianity in Ireland, it featured a young woman named Muirgheis and her sister Máire, who is jealous of her sibling’s impending marriage with Diarmuid, the local chieftain. Máire invokes Donn, the King of the Sand Hills, and his retinue of sea-fairies to take her sister into their realm, thus giving Máire the chance to gain the young chieftain’s heart. Although highly redolent of Irish folklore and mythology, it was a story of O’Brien Butler’s own concoction. He also composed the music, while the libretto was developed along with Nora Chesson and George Moore, and later translated into Irish by Tadgh O’Donoghue.
It was this feature in particular which caught the attention of Irish revivalists upon O’Brien Butler’s return to the country at the turn of the century. Excerpts of the opera were performed in 1902 and a year later, having been championed by Eoin MacNeill, O’Brien Butler saw the first full rendition of Muirgheis performed at the Theatre Royal in Dublin, albeit with English lyrics. The reaction was mixed. The Irish Times stated that although “One would fain encourage Irish art… it must be confessed that Muirgheis does not possess the elements of popularity.” Edward Martyn was more positive, suggesting that if “the libretto of the play is tightened and translated into Irish and when the music is intensified in the most dramatic duets it will be a real delight to see it performed again for it contains some of the most beautiful modern music I know”.
Despite the mixed reviews, O’Brien Butler retained enough confidence in Muirgheis to endeavour to get it produced in the United States, where he set out towards the end of 1914 with O’Rahilly’s letters of introduction in his pocket. One of these letters was sent to Nolan but, as related in the account below, O’Brien Butler was unable to keep his engagement with Nolan, in spite of repeated attempts to rearrange. Although he regretted not having the chance to meet O’Rahilly’s “friend”, Nolan speculates that he would not have been of much use in furthering the composer’s musical ambitions.
While thus having never met in person, Nolan was still able to provide O’Rahilly with a patchy account of O’Brien Butler’s fortunes in America. His concert, initially fixed for Easter Monday, was postponed until the 19th of April. Nolan quoted a less than enthusiastic review from the New York Times, although he expressed his belief that the negative review may not have been reflection of Butler’s music, suggesting rather that “the poor man fell into the wrong hands”. He reckoned that the recital had been thrown into some sort of Irish entertainment evening, in which “the young son and daughter of the leading saloon keeper of the bailywick dance a jig, and a red-headed girl dressed in green sings (generally very badly) the Cruiskeen Lawn. Then the work of the evening is allowed to proceed and the judicious in the audience go home sadly discouraged and not a bit entertained.” Nolan later got in touch with Victor Herbert, a friend who had met the O’Brien Butler while in New York. He declared his admiration for the Kerry native’s music, but felt it would not succeed in New York, “where there are so many shrieking interests deafening the man who thinks he might go in for “Art” in its several departments”. Herbert considered that the music would stand a “much better chance” in Chicago, and, indeed, O’Brien Butler remained upbeat before his departure. He sent Nolan a letter just before he left, informing him that he hoped to return in the autumn, when further performances had been tentatively arranged for. However, as Nolan observed in one of his letters, the “proceedings in the fall” were to interest O’Brien Butler “not at all”.
The development which prompted Nolan’s sad remark was instigated in New York on the 1st of May, when O’Brien Butler stepped on board the Lusitania. Some weeks later, John Devoy would write in a letter to Roger Casement that “… poor O’Brien Butler went on that vessel in spite of personal warnings”. If he had ignored warnings regarding the Lusitania, he was not the only one. In the days preceding the ship’s departure, notices were placed by the German Embassy in American newspapers, often beneath the Cunard Line’s own advertisements, declaring that “the zone of war includes the waters adjacent to the British Isles” and that “vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies, are liable to destruction in those waters”. The captain himself had to be replaced shortly before the ship’s departure, reportedly suffering from the stress of wartime crossings. These foreboding signs did not prevent over 1,200 passengers, along with more than 700 crewmembers, from making the voyage, although the German warnings were not easily forgotten by all on board. Newspapers subsequently told of a traveller who became the “butt of many jokes” as he “was so obsessed by the German warnings in New York that he absolutely refused to remove his clothes or boots during the whole voyage”. Whether or not his precautions proved successful was not reported. The fate of O’Brien Butler, on the other hand, is shrouded in less uncertainty.
Newspapers carried the account of a passenger named Mrs Nash, who had befriended the composer aboard the ship. She told how he had been ill during the voyage, though had still managed to attend a concert, in which he had taken a “special interest”. The last she saw of him was on the afternoon of the 7th of May, when he left the dining hall to go to sleep after luncheon. Soon after, when returning to her own cabin, she noticed “a great commotion amongst the crew and passengers, and she then learned that the ship had been torpedoed.” Within 20 minutes of impact, the ship was submerged beneath the waves, condemning 1,198 passengers and crew members to death. Only 764 people survived. O’Brien Butler was amongst those of whom no trace was found.
While much of the historical debate surrounding the Lusitania has been, and will continue to be, taken up with discussions on the rules of war and the impact that the sinking had on America’s belligerence, this document helps to provide a greater understanding of the human tragedy suffered. Nolan’s letters paint a patched, but nevertheless insightful picture of the final weeks and months of a life lost in Lusitania. When one considers the fate of O’Brien Butler and his fellow passengers, the libretto of Muirgheis takes on a haunting quality in places, such as when the jealous sister Máire is condemned by the fairies to “the sorrow of the sea”:
We take thee for our own,
A wave upon the sea…
The wind shall drive thee homeward midst the foam,
But never bring thee home.
UCD School of History and Archives