Cross-Border Beethoven – Frank McNally on a surprise connection between Beethoven and Big Tom

An Irishman’s Diary

Apart from being musical giants of one kind or another and all beginning with the letter "B", what do Beethoven, Bob Dylan, and Big Tom have in common? Well, widely different as their artistic missions were, they converged on at least one geographical point, however briefly. All three men wrote music that was been inspired, indirectly or otherwise, by my native county Monaghan.

Big Tom’s achievements in that sphere need no reiteration. Dylan’s are reasonably well known too. Circa 1963 in New York, he heard Dominic Behan’s ballad The Patriot Game, which tells the doomed tale of a young Monaghan man killed in the IRA’s Border campaign, and turned it into a different song, the anti-war “With God on Our Side”.

But that still had the same traditional air (“The Merry Month of May”) and enough lyrical echoes of the original – including the narrator’s reference to age and place of origin in the opening verse – that an irritated Behan joined a growing queue of people who would accuse the Bard of Duluth of plagiarism.

As for Beethoven's link with the Oriel County, it had somehow passed me by until Conor Murphy emailed me the story. Conor is descended from McKennas – the dominant tribe in those parts – via his grandmother, and as a child in the 1970s used to spend holidays at their home in the parish of Truagh: "the last house in Monaghan before the Tyrone Border on an unapproved road."


It was near there, according to tradition, that Red Hugh O’Donnell also once stayed with a McKenna clan during his long, fraught journey back to Donegal after escaping Dublin Castle in 1592.

Nobody knows for certain if he did: it’s folk history. But in the best Irish tradition, there was a song written to commemorate it anyway: The Truagh Welcome, describing bardic-style the feast that the McKennas were pleased to lay on for Red Hugh, and also their high-class security arrangements, viz (as translated into English): “In the green woods of Truagh thou art safe from thy foes;/Six sons of Mackenna thy steps shall attend,/And their six sheathless skeans shall protect thy repose.”

More than two centuries later, in 1813, this by then old lyric was among the Irish poems and songs for which Beethoven composed settings, as commissioned by a Scottish music collector George Thomson, albeit that in the published version, the placename (pronounced simply "True" in the local dialect) had turned into "Traugh".

There is, by the way – and further to previous columns here this week – yet another St Columcille link in the story of how a teenage Red Hugh was captured in the first place. In that case, it concerned Columcille’s famous prophecies, one of which seemed to predict the rise of an O’Donnell answering his description as a great Irish liberator.

The English had heard about it too, their Lord Deputy warning Queen Elizabeth of an ancient prophecy whereby, when a Hugh succeeded a Hugh as chief of the O'Donnells, "the last Hugh forsooth shall be a monarch in Ireland, and banish thence all foreign nations and conquerers".

Hatching a dastardly plan to kidnap the young nobleman in 1587, they sent a ship, disguised as that of a Spanish wine and beer merchant’s, to Lough Swilly. O’Donnell was tempted aboard to taste the produce and this rather expensive wine reception was to cost him five years in the castle, along with the two toes he lost to frostbite during his eventual mid-winter escape.

Getting back to Beethoven, his local fame around Emyvale notwithstanding, he is better known elsewhere for his symphonies, all nine of which are being performed at venues across Europe this weekend as part of continuing celebrations of his 250th anniversary.

Ireland may not have qualified for the continent’s imminent football championships, also being held at multiple venues. But it has at least made the cut for “Nine Symphonies, Nine Cities”, which begins at 1pm this Sunday in Beethoven’s native Bonn and ends around 10.30pm in Vienna.

Dublin will be second in the line-up, with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra performing the symphony of that number in the National Concert Hall at 2.10pm (and live on RTÉ 1).

The Second Symphony is not as famous as the Third, or Fifth, or Ninth, but it is interesting as a bridge between his earlier and later work. It is notable too for being written at a time of crisis, when he realised his hearing difficulties might be incurable.

On a lighter note, the symphony is eccentric for a series of musical jokes at one point, widely suspected of being inspired by the gastric problems to which Beethoven was prone, especially at times of stress. The orchestra’s wind section may be more than usually important.