83 – The View from the Orchestra Pit

In February, I worked on a production in Galway entitled An Encounter with the Archive: Elizabeth Connor’s Mount Prospect. To celebrate a forgotten female playwright from the Abbey Theatre, we decided not to stage the play, but to create an encounter with the archival traces of its 1940 premiere. The production was part-exhibition, part-radio play, part-musical recital. It was the latter because I insisted on including the classical music played by the orchestra on that night. Of all my crazy ideas, I wouldn’t relinquish this one. I hated the idea of a recording; we needed musicians to play Debussy and Rachmaninoff. For nothing. At short notice. On a keyboard, the only instrument we could fit in the studio.

Our amazing pianist: Ramin Haghjoo
Our amazing pianist: Ramin Haghjoo


Enter stage left Ramin Haghjoo, a Californian native transplanted to Galway, and a supremely talented musician. (Also: generous with his time.) There was wrangling over the correct instrument, a keyboard suitable for these  pieces, and then big enough to allow ‘four hands’ for the Debussy piece. Thomas was tearing his hair out; I gritted my teeth. (Then, I didn’t have to carry the keyboard up the stairs.) But as the evening ended, I nodded to Ramin to begin the closing number and the smile he gave me is my favourite memory of that night. If nobody else understood, here was a kindred soul. Ramin appreciated my need for the music, and what it contributed to the evening. He nodded, and well and truly ‘took it away’. His playing was exquisite and suitably dramatic. While the pieces played by the Abbey orchestra rarely had any direct connection to the plays performed, the musical contribution was vital to the atmosphere. The view of the Abbey stage from the orchestra pit is something I had never considered.

The conductor on the night Mount Prospect premiered was one Frederick M. May: a Dublin-born musician, educated at Trinity College and in Europe. In July 1936, he was appointed Musical Director at the Abbey. May was a fragile, temperamental sort, who struggled all his life with neurasthenia (‘his nerves’), his sexuality and his gradual deafness. Less than a year after his Abbey appointment, there were complaints that he was interfering in theatre business. He remonstrated when the Board attempted to reduce the orchestra size, from five to three. By June 1938, he was out of work sick and in July 1938 a letter from his father was delivered to the Board stating that Fred May was in a hospital suffering from a nervous breakdown and required three months leave. The leave was extended, and he eventually returned on a half-time basis in December, but there were continued complaints that he was “jiggy and irregular in attendance.” According to the Minute Books, the Board didn’t want him to return, but his father pleaded with F.R. Higgins, claiming work was the best cure for his condition. He did return and despite being suspended for appearing “on two occasions in the Orchestra Pit in a state of intoxication” he held the post until late in the 1940s. Some believe his promise as a composer was never realized. He ended his days in St. Ita’s Hospital, Portrane, an institution for those with mental illness, almost completely deaf.

In the 1940s, alongside his Abbey work, May was composing and arranging his own music, including a composition for the grand opening of University College Dublin’s first official theatre, the Aula Maxima, in March 1941. The opening production was a modern play by Maxwell Andersen, Winterset, a political tragedy in verse form.

UCD Dramatic Society

It was a special night for UCD’s Dramatic Society. The Irish Press cited the evening as ‘a step forward in their history’ and claimed that if the play had been fully co-ordinated with the impressive score, it would have been ‘an important moment in the theatre life of Dublin.’ There were problems with the ‘difficulties of moving props’ on the amateur stage, but the music was highly praised. The programme included the following note in bold letters:

As the music is an essential part of the production, we would regard it as a favour if the audience would observe strict silence during the performance.

It reads more like a command than a ‘favour’. Student audiences, eh? A rowdy lot.

I can see Fred, a thin, intense thirty-year-old, striding up Grafton Street, a sheaf of music under his arm, and galloping up the stairs of Newman House (bordering on St. Stephen’s Green) to find his musicians warming up. With cocked chin and a viola on her shoulder was Maire Larchet, daughter of the previous MD at the Abbey, John Larchet. Brian Boydell (who would later put the National Anthem to music) was playing the oboe. And sitting with them, wrapped around a ‘cello, was a twenty-one-year-old Newry-born undergraduate: Michael Murtagh: my maternal grandfather.

Winterset Programme (March 1941)
Winterset Programme (March 1941)


I had no idea about the connection between Fred May and my grandfather, before a game of ‘Archive Box Roulette’ in the National Library Ephemera Department last week. I’d gone seeking Gate Theatre programmes, and with half an hour to spare decided I’d make a random choice of boxes. (This is a nerd’s game, obviously.) I was thrilled to find Fred May’s name, and enthralled to find Michael Murtagh in the same orchestra. For the first time, I put my research experience to work on my own family history.

Michael was a decade younger than Fred May. It would be eight years before he would wink at a Dublin girl dancing on the stage of the Father Matthew hall from his conductor’s podium. He married Maura Hanlon on the 21st of June (today!) in 1949 and the first of five children, my mum, arrived the following year.

But before that, Granda was busy, completing his BMus and playing his ‘cello. He performed more solos in the Aula Maxima with the UCD society, displaying “a good sense of tone and phrasing” according to the Irish Independent. By 1946, a journalist was describing him as a “26-year-old Newry man, [who] will go places.” At that time, he was the musical director of the Dublin Operatic Society. He was just back from three months training with Sir John Barbirolli of the Halle Orchestra in Manchester, where (he told the reporter) one of the rehearsals he attended took 28 hours. He was as fastidious in his preparation as he was passionate about music.

Evening Herald 1946
Evening Herald 1946


Granda died suddenly on the 22nd November 1988, the feast of St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music. He had just begun rehearsals for a production of Carousel and I was ten. I wish I’d known him as an adult, and not only to ask about his student days. He remains a magical figure in my memory. I knew he was magical because he could read and play music on sight as I endlessly opened pages saying, ‘What does this sound like? And this one?’ Possibly my earliest memory is sitting on a chair in an empty hall with rows of seats, swinging my legs, as the orchestra warmed up. To this day, it remains my favourite sound: the cacophony loaded with promise and anticipation.

Michael Murtagh - Silhouette from a photograph
Michael Murtagh   (1920 – 1988)                                Silhouette created from a photograph


After photographing the programme in the National Library and emailing it to my Mum and her siblings, I wander from the National Library up through St. Stephen’s Green. At the south gate, Gardai are putting a rowdy drug addict into a van, to the violent remonstrations of his girlfriend. The man shouts at her, and bangs so loudly against the inside of the van that it shakes and rocks. I stand outside Newman House, the grey Georgian structure, trying to imagine the ornate interior. The dis-used Aula Maxima has apparently fallen into disrepair. The rest of the building is used for conferences and events; the campus of UCD is now in Stillorgan. The Garda van departs and in the quiet, I strain to hear the reverberations, the echoes of May’s orchestral music. There’s nothing there. But I do hear them elsewhere.

Granda’s ‘cello, bought in Belfast and played by Robert Murtagh, who passed it to his nephew who was going to study music in Dublin, remains in the family. After Granda’s death, my uncle Tommy took it from the music room and arranged lessons. Always musically adept, Tommy now plays ‘cello for a number of orchestras and the Pentetetra Quartet. Two years ago, he played Brahms 4th Symphony, the score Barbirolli gave as a gift to my grandfather in 1945.

Brahms Autographed by Barbirolli

Last year, Tommy arranged and played the music at my wedding, with his quartet.

Tommy Murtagh. Note the second instrument in the background, in case.
Tommy Murtagh. Note the second instrument in the background.


After the ceremony, I thanked him for playing a certain section of the entrance music. It’s a gorgeous instrumental section – easily (often) omitted to repeat the melody. ‘I knew you’d reached the top and I should stop,’ Tommy said, ‘But I thought: This is the good bit. They can wait and listen.’ I heartily agreed.

More a command, than a favour. Frederick M. May would appreciate that.

7 comments on “83 – The View from the Orchestra Pit

  1. What a lovely post, Ciara! Personal connections make all the difference. Tommy so looks like his father.

  2. What an amazing connection Ciara. No question that pursuing Aideen’s life … is now a destiny. This beatiful connection with your grandfather only proves it and seals it….. And am sure Tommy played Debussy on that cello many times. Lots of love, Hana Xxx

  3. What a wonderful article Ciara I enjoyed reading it very much. Thanks to your uncle Tommy for pointing me towards it.

  4. Hi Ciara, I’m the oldest of the Newry cousins and was very close to your mum Deirdre when we were growing up. I recognise her love of language in your writing and the interest in theatre and music goes right back to Michael’s parents – your great grandparents. We have photos of them performing in Gilbert and Sullivan. So you are keeping the genes alive.

    Michael was not just a wonderful musician who had us all in awe of his talent. – he would toss off an arrangement in no time, whistling while he scribbled. Apart from the many arrangements for concert band, I have a couple of harp pieces that he did for me when I started learning – He was also one of the nicest people you could meet: interesting, intelligent, funny, game for a laugh but easy to talk to and someone you could have a serious conversation with, knowing you’d get a sympathetic ear and some worthwhile advice.

    He would be so proud of you and so quietly thrilled that Tommy has discovered the love of cello which also runs in the family. I’ve only heard Tommy play once but his skill and musicianship is exceptional.

    So lovely to know that Uncle Michael and Auntie Maureen ( known to us as Auntie MoMo – no idea why!) are so fondly remembered by the next generation.

    Well done Ciara!

    • Hi Eithne! Thank you for this beautiful contribution. They are both still very much missed and it was so lovely to find out more about him. I did meet Aiveen briefly last time was up, but I’d love to see those G&S photos so we may have to plan another visit! Love to you all, Ciara xx

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