Musician in Residence: Dublin Festival of History

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Suffrage ChoirAs musician in residence I have been composing new music and one of those pieces of new music is a song I wrote for Dublin Festival of History. 2018 is the centenary of when the first women in Ireland got the right to vote and so I decided to write a song in celebration of that. When I started writing the song I made a short video about starting the process (you can watch it below) but I haven’t updated you on the progress! Well I’ve jumped the gun and finished the song! 

So there’s a good reason why I hadn’t updated the progress of the song sooner…I got stuck! I had written a few lyrics here and there and had an outline of some of the melody and harmony but every time I tried to finish it i just got stuck. I’m not a believer in letting writers block get in the way of a song though so I persevered. I tried a few different things to try to jumpstart creativity: 

I played the song on different instruments, sang using only my voice and loop pedal, sang it along while I played bodhrán (I really can’t play bodhrán at all so this was a challenge for me as much as anyone listening)…etc. Basically I tried singing it in as many different contexts as I could hoping that one of them would spark off an idea. 

I took walks while listening to music and podcasts about the suffrage movement (did you know Dolly Parton has a song about suffragettes? Also the Guilty Feminist is producing a musical called Suffrageddon). Sometimes you just need to give you brain a break and listen to something inspiring to come up with a new idea.

And the last thing I did, and in this instance it was the thing that worked, was I kept researching the topic. I went to Pearse Street Library where they have a great archive of historic books and papers.  I found some excellent ones on the women involved in the suffrage movement including the book that the original quote that inspired the song was taken from. I also went to a seminar in The National Print Museum called Protest Through Print and heard loads of really interesting historians speak about various aspects of the movement. 

In the end I decided instead of writing new lyrics for this song that I’d try to use quotes from the women who were involved with the suffrage movement at the time. I changed the quotes a little here and there to make it fit with the melody and theme of the song, let’s call it artistic licence. 

So here are the lyrics, and afterwards I will list the original quotes that they came from:

I was just a young girl dreaming when I saw her
On an evening in August by the Custom House we gathered.
She stood tall, called to us “Mothers of Ireland!
Speak out loud and the world will hear us!”

Her words electrified me
They filled me with some spirit of my own
And though much has changed
Those words live on.

For men and women equally the right!
From men and women equally the duties!


So arm you minds with histories and mem’ries
and arm your hearts with poetry and song.
Not yet they’ll say, not yet
But through it all
Our words live on.

The first is quote from Helena Moloney when she was asked how she first got involved in the Nationalist movement. Her exact quote is:

“I was a young girl dreaming about Ireland when I saw and heard Maud Gonne speaking by the Custom House in Dublin one August evening in 1903…She electrified me and filled me with some of her spirit. She made me want to help."

The protest in 1903 wasn’t actually directly about suffrage, it was a protest against a visit by King Edward VII. 

I knew I wanted to include a quote from Maude Gonne. Of course I didn’t know exactly what Maude Gonne said that evening in August so I was looking for something she might have said at some point that I could adapt, so I took a quote from a poem of hers called The Suppliant:

“Mother of Ireland, mothers of men

speak out loud that the world may hear”

The poem is also not directly about the suffrage movement, it was written to mothers to discourage their sons from enlisting in the British army, but I adapted it to fit my purposes into the lyrics:

The next quote I used was the motto of The Irish Citizen newspaper, published by the Irish Women’s Franchise League from 1912 to 1920, I removed the words “of citizenship because i felt it made it easier to sing:

“For men and women equally the rights of citizenship; from men and women

equally the duties of citizenship.”

The next quote I adapted more so than some of the others, it was from Constance Markievicz. I really wanted the song to be about the power of words rather than getting into the militant side of the work these women did and Constance Markievicz, along with Helena Moloney, was very pro arms. So I adapted this quote, took out the bit about martyrs, and added some words to make it fit the rhythm and theme of the song. The original quote was:

“Arm your minds with the histories and memories of your country and her martyrs, her language and knowledge, of her arts and her industries.”

Even that very last lyric “Not yet they’ll say, not yet” is adapted from a line of an article Helena Moloney wrote in Bean na hÉireann! 

So in the end giving myself the constraint of trying to derive the lyrics entirely from quotes was what helped me to finish the song in the end. Sometimes those constraints you have while writing a song, maybe trying to write a song on an instrument you’re less familiar with, or having a strict time limit, can help the creative process rather than hinder it. It gets you over the fear of the blank page in some ways! Hopefully soon I’ll have a demo recording of the song to share with you so you can hear how all those lyrics sound in context. 

Pop up suffrage Choir


Suffrage Choir

If you’re interested in songwriting there are songwriting workshops coming up in Dublin Central Library where there will be songwriting tasks given each week which will (hopefully!) culminate in a finished song by the end of the course. Dates to be announced soon, keep an eye on the music library events page in the meantime.

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