Facing the music – Frank McNally on Beethoven’s Ninth, Behan in prison, and post-Covid smiling unmasked

Ode to Joy

Celebrating 50 years of Ireland’s EU membership on Tuesday, the National Symphony Orchestra performed Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, joined by a 100-strong choir for the anthemic climax, Ode to Joy.

But not everyone in a packed National Concert Hall was feeling the emotion. From the moment a friend and I slipped in to the back row, just as Micheál Martin was delivering his pre-show oration, it was clear the woman beside us was having a bad night.

Old enough to have voted in the EEC referendum, I guessed, she was annoyed about everything, visibly and sometimes audibly.

It must have started with the coughing. And in fairness to her, I have myself previously lamented in this space the sudden onset of respiratory disorders that exposure to classical music seems to cause.


But between the mass throat-clearing, the shuffling-in of late arrivals like us, and the general fidgeting of those around her, the woman had a full-time job directing looks of stern disapproval.

People taking furtive iPhone pictures (including me, during the Taoiseach’s address) only added to her exasperation.

Then there was the outrage of the audience applauding each movement, in flagrant breach of the Geneva convention on how to behave at a symphony. She expressed her irritation at this by clenching her own hands to knees, grimly, as if in hope that she could suppress the incontinent clapping by force of will.

If there was an outstanding low point to her evening, however, it may have been when another of our neighbours tried to unfasten a Velcro shoe strap, quietly (and therefore in slow motion). Such was the sternness of that disapproving look, I feared it would result in a hernia.

It might be said in the joyless one’s defence that she appeared to have some support from Friedrich Schiller’s opening lines. “Oh friends, not those sounds,/Let us sing more cheerful and joyous ones,” runs his first verse, as translated, which could be an appeal against the Sturm und Drang of audience noise in the Weimar Theatre.

But our neighbour’s bad night was made even worse by the standing ovation. In keeping with my policy of resisting the current fashion for that sort of thing, I held out for over a while before joining in. Alas, I was still sitting when the annoyed woman hurriedly exited and – purposely, it seemed – stood on my foot.


We should be charitable, of course, because we never know what’s going on in the lives of others. Joy can be a high order at the best of times, especially in Ireland. And as we emerge from a pandemic, even those who can still experience it internally may be out of practice in its expression.

I see that in Japan, where the government recently removed the last mask-wearing restrictions, some face owners are now taking lessons in how to smile again. The fact that Japanese has a word for “smiling face” – Egao – does not mean the expression comes naturally to everyone there, especially after years of physiognomical cover-ups.

Now many people are paying for Egaoiku – “smile education” – from bodies such as the Egao Trainer Association, in the same way they might join yoga classes.

There was no need for the service at last week’s Experience Japan festival in Farmleigh, I’m happy to report. Thousands crammed into Dublin’s Phoenix Park for the occasion, enjoying balmy weather. Masks were non-existent and smiling ubiquitous. In fact, to coin a phrase, the event was something of an egao trip.


Dublin has an unusual relationship with the emotion celebrated by Schiller and Beethoven, if only because its best-known prison is known as “The Joy”. Perhaps, in the form of The Auld Triangle, the city may even be said to have an Ode to the Joy, no less pleasurable to sing in chorus the fact that its lyrical mood is one of misery.

Although often wrongly credited with composing the ballad, Brendan Behan did make it famous. And he wrote about prison life better than most, often somehow finding happiness in the experience. As Benedict Kiely put it, a lot of the best of Behan “is that very odd thing, a shout of laughter from the cell”.

Mind you, as Behan and my neighbour in the NCH might have agreed, joy/the Joy is something you can have too much of.

I’m indebted to Kiely’s That Old Triangle: A Memory of Brendan Behan for the knowledge that the street Behan grew up in used to have a brewery called Mountjoy and similarly abbreviated, so that its products included a “Joy Ale”.

There used to be an ad for it at the end of Russell Street, it seems, aimed partly at GAA fans attending nearby Croke Park. “Joy Be With You in the Morning” read the slogan, presumably echoing an old prayer but one not in keeping with the modern advice to drink alcohol sensibly.