On 13th April 1742, Dublin City heard the world première of the Messiah oratorio (a bit like an opera but not quite), composed by George Frideric Handel. The choice of Dublin shows the importance the city had in the European Anglo world, probably second only to London at that time, the city in which German-born-and-raised Handel had based himself.
It may be also that Handel wished to remove himself from Anglican Church criticism and interference in of work built on religious material, problems he had encountered in London.
Incidentally, there is a tradition that Handel also played the organ in St. Michan’s (Protestant) church in Church Street (but not the organ that survives there today).
The oratorio was written in English, something of rupture in Handel’s work which had been firmly based in Italian-language opera. However, the fashion in London was changing and Handel gave in to it, writing first Esther in English, then the Messiah. The somewhat radical Englishman Charles Jennens wrote the libretto (like a script or text passages) for Handel to work in the musical score.
A COLONIAL CITY
Dublin in 1742 would have been primarily English-speaking, with pockets of Irish-speakers from the surrounding countryside and further afield, with linguistic artifacts of Irish and Norse audible in the English spoken by the lower social orders in the city, some of which survive to this day.
Ireland was then recovering from “the Irish Famine of 1740–1741 (Irish: Bliain an Áir, meaning the Year of Slaughter) in the Kingdom of Ireland, (which) was estimated to have killed at least 38% of the 1740 population of 2.4 million people, a proportionately greater loss than during the worst years of the Great Famine of 1845–1852.
“The famine of 1740–41 was due to extremely cold and then rainy weather in successive years, resulting in food losses in three categories: a series of poor grain harvests, a shortage of milk, and frost damage to potatoes. At this time, grains, particularly oats, were more important than potatoes as staples in the diet of most workers.
“Deaths from mass starvation in 1740–41 were compounded by an outbreak of fatal diseases. The cold and its effects extended across Europe, but mortality was higher in Ireland because both grain and potatoes failed. This is now considered by scholars to be the last serious cold period at the end of the Little Ice Age of about 1400–1800.” (Wikipedia).
Of course, it would not be the primary sufferers of famine, the poor (and largely the natives) who would attending the event and this was made clear by the advice to prospective audience members to leave their “swords and hoopskirts” at home so as not to overcrowd the premiere.
The main elements of the Penal Laws were still in place in 1742 and the Irish Parliament in College Green admitted only Anglicans, thereby barring representation not only from the huge majority of the Catholic faith but also from the next largest group, the Presbyterians and all the other ‘Dissenter’ groups.
However, the audience for the premiere may well have had wide representation from the higher social classes in Dublin across religious lines. Handel was, after all, a superstar!
A tradition arose over the years for audience members to arise as the Halleluyah chorus begins. This is based on a belief that King George was so impassioned by hearing it that he stood up, obliging the audience to do so too so as not to remain seated when the King was standing. Of course, knowing the reason for that tradition would be enough to to keep any democratic republican firmly seated. But apparently the story is without foundation and it is not even certain that the murderous Royal was even present at a London performance.
The Messiah was performed in the Great Music Hall in Fishamble Street (see video by Wayne Fitzgerald — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HHWDJjS_JkU — the white arch is all that remains of it today). That street was a busy medieval one, close to what was the seat of foreign domination since the Norse built their fortifaction by Dubh Linn some time around 841. The Normans, after driving them out in 1171 and banishing them to Oxmanstown, constructed their own castle there in increments as they gradually became the “English” and remained in formal control until 1921.
I watched (if that’s the right word) a performance of the Messiah some years ago in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, not far from Fishamble Street. I had bought tickets only as a favour to a friend visiting Dublin and I was really impressed with it. The performers often stood on the pews to deliver their lines and I remember, despite my atheism, being uncomfortable with this – cultural conditioning runs deep!
No wonder the oratorio was a raging success in Dublin in the 1740s and since. At the Dublin performance, “the alto soloist, Susanna Cibber, was an actress who had attracted scandal in the past, but legend has it that her emotional performance of ‘He was despised’ moved Dr Patrick Delany – the husband of one of Handel’s most ardent champions – to exclaim ‘Woman, for this, be all your sins forgiven’” (!) It took the London higher classes a little longer to take to the oratorios but they did so in time. One is reminded of Shaw’s comment that went something like this: “No-one could accuse the English of failing to note a work of genius — providing someone was kind enough to point it out to them.”