1812 Overture at Kilkenny Castle

1812 Overture at Kilkenny Castle

Eamonn Kiely

Tchaikovsky’s music , accompanied for the first time in Ireland by artillery fire, was featured for the opening of Arts Week on 23rd of August 1975. The distinguished audience included Uachtarain na hEireann Cearbhaill O Dalaigh, the 6th Marquis of Ormond, Charles Butler, The Mayor and Corporation of Kilkenny in their robes, and maithe and moruaisle an Airm.
The day was quite beautiful and provoked our President to recite some lines from Thugamar fein an Samhradh linn written by an O Dalaigh to mark the return to Ireland from exile of the Great Duke of Ormond in 1661. Of the musical offerings the 1812 Overture was to be the piece de resistance. It had first been performed in this fashion on US Independence Day in 1974 by the Boston Pops conducted by Arthur Fiedler.
The Irish version was being performed by the Band of the Curragh command under the baton of Company Sergeant Prendergast. They were located on the Castle steps on the Rose Garden side. The four 25 pounder guns of Kildare’s 6th Field Artillery were located round the corner and pointing Northwards over the river Nore. Fortunately they would be firing blank rounds, unlike that which landed on Moscow. Something as noisey as the proposed performance could not be rehearsed as it would have provoked heart attacks among the eldery who remembered the Civil War.
Synchronised firing at the appropriate point in the music was worked out and signals agreed. The Overture commenced with its slow build up and eventually reached the crescendo where the artillery fired. That part went well even if not much notice was given to possible hearing damage in those pre health and safety days. The suction caused by the firing of the guns acted on the windows of the as yet unrestored castle. Windows came crashing down behind the gunners. They never flinched and had reloaded and fired again on the next signal. More glass followed the first lot. Putty hadn’t been applied to secure the glass since the Butlers left in 1935. The audience thought there was someone employed to break glass for effect. Alas no, it was totally unscheduled. It was the most realistic rendition of Tchaikovsky’s famous work possibly ever done.
In his Irishman’s diary of the Evening Press on the following Monday Terry O’Sullivan waxed lyrical about the unprecedented performance. He saw the humour in it and as he was ex Army was able to name all the key players. The Ordnance officer Tommy O’Donnell had reduced the explosive charge but obviously not enough. Brian O’Connor commanded the battery and Frank Fahy had relayed signals to the guns. However Murphy’s law was operating and nobody alerted them to the parlous state of the Castle windows.
If any of you has a run down castle with some glass in place perhaps we could have an encore. It is unlikely that even a fully restored Kilkenny Castle will be risked again even for such a distinguished audience.

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