Historian Jonathan Bardon’s Hallelujah, due for publication on October 30th, is an exercise in a type of micro-history of which there are unfortunately too few examples. Everyone knows that the first performance of Handel’s oratorio took place in Dublin’s Fishamble Street in 1742. But not much more is known of Dublin in this neglected time. Happily Bardon’s Hallelujah will end this state of ignorance. The author takes as his central focus the performance itself and around it builds a detailed and interlaced picture of everyday life in Dublin at the time. As we learn, it was a period of distress and famine. Indeed the performance in Fishamble street was organised as a fundraising event to relieve distress in the city. Reading Bardon’s book one is struck by the positive difference in public attitudes towards the starving from attitudes which were to prevail a century later, as the following suggests:
Every year energetic Dubliners rise early to climb Killiney Hill, south of the city, to greet the dawn on midsummer’s day. As they look down to watch the first rays touch some of the most sumptuous private residences in the country and brighten a part of the Irish Sea, often compared with the Bay of Naples, only a few of them will know why there is an obelisk at the summit, or why there are remains of a huge wall surrounding the hill. These constructions are evidence of a great relief scheme to provide work for the starving in 1741, funded by John Mapas of Rochestown, one of the few wealthy Catholic landowners remaining in south County Dublin at the time. And close to a grand Palladian mansion in Co. Kildare, Castletown House, stands another obelisk – huge, elaborate and 70 feet high – erected by the orders of Lady Katherine, widow of a former Speaker of the Irish House of Commons, William Conolly. This too had been put up at the same time and for the same purpose – to provide work for the starving. Two years later in 1743 a Major Hall of Churchtown, south of the city, erected a very large conical stone building, broad at the base and narrow at the top, with a spiral stairway on the outside. This was no gentleman’s folly: known for a time as the ‘Inkbottle’ and later as the ‘Bottle Tower’, it had been built as a barn to hold such a large store of grain so that no one in the area would ever starve to death again. These are modest reminders of what today is a little-known event, an episode which was nevertheless one of the greatest tragedies in the history of modern Ireland, a famine so terrible that it was recalled as bliadhain an air, ‘Year of the Slaughter’.
It was also a crisis that persuaded members of the Charitable Musical Society for the Release of Imprisoned Debtors in Dublin that an unprecedented step should be taken to raise the relief funds
so desperately needed. As tens of thousands were perishing from hunger and fever members of this charity joined forces with the governors of Mercer’s Hospital and the Charitable Infirmary in the city, to invite over from London the greatest composer they knew of, George Frideric Handel. They would ask him to conduct a benefit concert of compositions of his own choosing in the Society’s new Music Hall in Fishamble Street. It was in this way that the sacred oratorio, Messiah, came to be given its first performance in Dublin on 13 April 1742.