music sample available:
Final scene:
performed by Anthony Campbell (tenor: Óisin), Pendyrus Chamber Choir and New Celtic Orchestra conducted by the composer
the relevant passage which is highlighted in the text shown below
This chamber opera, employing words from the old Irish legends in a new adaptation by Leon Wiltshire and specifically designed for church performance, was first performed in St Catherine’s Church Pontypridd in 1979 and was then revived in 1981 in a fully staged performance at the Sherman Theatre Cardiff. The scoring, as befits a church opera, includes a major part for church organ.

above: photograph by the composer of the ruins of Muckross Abbey in the west of Ireland



Óisin, the great Bardic poet of the old Celtic legends, set sail in the days of his youth to seek contentment in the Uttermost West, leaving behind him his father Fionn and the other heroes of the Fianna. Returning to Ireland after many years of wanderings, he finds that the land of his youth is now under the rule of Saint Patric and the armies of the Church. He is converted to Christianity and enters a monastic order.

The action opens as Óisin, now near to death, is aroused from his sleep by Saint Patric, who seeks to turn his mind towards God and the glory of the heavenly destiny awaiting him. Óisin cannot at first comprehend him, since his memories are full of the long-distant past: I have heard the song of the blackbird. Patric warns him of the perils of Hell into which his old companions have already fallen, but Óisin in increasing ecstasy finds in himself no response to Patric’s admonitions. He relates his own death, as an old blind man in a monastery, to that of his father— Fionn was lucky—and spurns Patric’s increasingly urgent evangelism.

At last he rouses himself to call on his dead friends to come to his aid, and Patric’s protestations—It is my King that formed the Heavens—no longer move him. But the only voices that respond to his summons are the voices of the priests, who as he dies chant a requiem for the soul of the hero. The final words are left to the orchestra, who play the melody formerly heard when Patric declared It is better to be with God for one hour, than the whole of the Fianna of Ireland forever. It is on this question—to hope or to despair?—that the drama draws to its close.




above: a photograph from the Western Mail showing a rehearsal for the first performance of The Dialogues of Óisin and Saint Patric

left to right: Anthony Campbell (Óisin), Michael Morton (producer), Phil Jones (designer), Leon Wiltshire (librettist) and the composer


 The lights rise. Óisin and Patric are seated in large chairs after a vigil of prayer. Both have fallen asleep

PATRIC [stirs and opens his eyes]  Rise up and listen to the song of the Psalm, Óisin; you have slept long enough. No more for you the sound of battle and bloody conquest; age has sapped your strength and vigour.

ÓISIN [opens his eyes]  I have no pleasure in the song of the Psalms or the priests who sing them, and my strength and manhood have only deserted me since Fionn and his armies are no more. It is the songs of battles that I love.

PATRIC   Come now, there has never since the world was young been sweeter music than the Psalms and the words of God; it is time now to forget the war-trumpets and serve in the armies of the priests. [He rises and moves towards an alcove]

ÓISIN   Your memory fails you. In my time I have also served the priests, and until now no-one has accused me of doing otherwise. Yet I still say that I have heard much sweeter music than the sound of the monastery bells or the chanting of the priests.

    Patric in the alcove pours water and washes

I have heard the song of the blackbird in Leiter Laoi, and the sound of the Dord Fian: the sweet notes of a thrush in a shady vale, the sound of the keel of a boat rasping on a shingle shore. Why, the baying of the hounds was of more joy to me than all your church music: yes, even the twelve hounds that belonged to Fionn, when he unleashed them from the Suir, their notes were sweeter than all your harps and pipes. [Patric brings water and Óisin, also washes, rising from his seat. Patric sits again]  And now that Fionn is no more, do you wish me to forget those sounds and memories?  Better for me to have died with him!  For I tell you bluntly, that the priests and their missals and myself will never see eye to eye, and that if Fionn and the Fianna were still alive, I would leave this monastery with its bells and priests and follow him, as would a fawn follow the deer through the valleys. And were I you, Patric, I would ask God in Heaven to send to earth again Fionn of the Fianna and all his race, for you will never see or hear the like of him again.

PATRIC   Though I admire you, Óisin, you are putting me on edge. Nor will I intercede with Heaven for the return of Fionn, for I abhor his way of living that only fills the valleys with the sound of the hunting horn and the baying hounds.

ÓISIN    Yet if you had been in the company of the Fianna, my monastic and cheerless friend, even you would  have  forgotten  your  priestly  robes  and          fellow clerics and followed him.

PATRIC   Blaspheming poet that you are, I would not forsake my faith in God for any man who has lived on this earth, east or west; and the priesthood will take sweet revenge on you if you carry on speaking in this vein.

ÓISIN   Oh, but don’t you see that it was Fionn’s delight to hear the baying of his hounds on the mountains, to see the wild dogs leave their lairs and to see the strength and pride of his armies?

PATRIC   Because Fionn took delight in those pursuits, it does not follow that every other man must delight in them. Remember Fionn and his hounds are now dead and forgotten by many; and you too, Óisin, will not live for ever.

ÓISIN   Fionn’s memory will never die. We might lie forgotten but his generosity will still live, and will be remembered by those who are not yet born.

PATRIC   Little good it does for him, or for you now!  However much gold you and he gave away, Fionn for his treachery and oppression is now lying chained in Hell.

ÓISIN    Even though you are appointed by the Roman Church with all its finery, I will not believe that Fionn, with all his generosity, is now in the hands of demons and devils.

PATRIC   I tell you truthfully, Fionn is in bonds in Hell. The man you thought so pleasant and generous, showed no respect for God; and for his sins suffers in the house of Hell.

ÓISIN    If only Fionn’s friends were alive, Morna’s sons, brown-haired Diarmuid and brave Osgar, they would storm any stronghold, be it Heaven or Hell, and release him.

PATRIC   Even if his friends were all alive and all the Fianna that ever were, they could not release him from where he is suffering the torments of the damned.

ÓISIN   Why did God inflict this awful punishment?  Fionn was generous, loved his hounds and his hunting, and always honoured the bards and poets.

PATRIC   You have just given the reason. Fionn honoured those above God. That is why he rots in Hell.

ÓISIN   You who know the Psalms, Patric, do you still say that the Fianna and the five provinces of Ireland with them could not release Fionn?  Where is your pity, Patric?...the Lord of the Fianna locked in Hell!...Fionn whose heart was without envy, without hatred, a heart full of courage. Is God unwilling to give food to the hungry and charity to the poor?  Fionn never refused to give to the rich or the poor, and yet you say he is locked in Hell!  If this is so, I say God is unjust. Fionn never asked for much: just to listen to the sound of Druim Dearg, to sleep at the streams of Eas Euadh, to hunt the deer along the bays of Gallimh, to hear the tune of the blackbird in Leiter Laoi, the bellowing of the ox at Magh Moir, and the lowing of the calf at Gleann da Mhail, the excitement of the hunt at Sliebh Crot, and sound of the fawns around Sliebh Crua, the scream of the seagulls away over Corrus, the screech of the carrion crows over the battlefield, the lap of the waves vexing the prow of a boat, the howling of the hounds at Drum Leis, the voice of  Bran at  Cnoc-an-Air,  the babbling of the streams around Sliebh Mis. [He rises and moves slowly towards Patric, who also rises to assist him]  O Patric! My heart cries within me, when I think of what I have become now: a bent old man without suppleness, without fleetness, without strength, going to Mass at the altar; a man with no more battles to wage, no more pleasure of the spoils of war; a man with no more agility for the games, or hunting—the two sports that delighted me.

PATRIC [thrusts him away]  Enough of this; your mind wanders. Let your past glories remain in the past. The Fianna are gone. Set your mind to what lies before you.

ÓISIN   Yes!...and when I die, I hope, Patric, that you who have nagged and bothered my soul die with me. For I tell you that if the least of the Fianna were still alive you would not live long after me. [He in his turn thrusts Patric away from him] Fionn was lucky. The music that led him to the long sleep was the cackling of the ducks from the Lake of the Three Narrows, the scolding talk of the blackbird of Doire an Cairn, the grouse of the heather of Cruchan, the bellowing of the ox from the Valley of Berries, the whistle of the eagle from the Valley of Victories, or from the rough branches of the ridge by the stream; the call of the otter of Druim re Coir, the tune of the blackbird of Doire an Cairn. Ah! Never have I heard sweeter music; would that it would remain with me for ever!  Fionn was indeed lucky, for all I have left me is fasting, going without food or drink and praying. Better by far, if I had not been baptised!

PATRIC   In my opinion it did not harm you. You eat and drink enough and then you decry your religion.

ÓISIN    If you think that this is enough, I would rather eat Fionn’s crumbs in the banqueting hall of Hell than receive the last sacrament from you.

PATRIC   Fionn ate what he got from the fruits of the fields, or whatever he could kill on the rough hills. He got his fill of Hell at the end for his disbelief.

ÓISIN    No!...that was not the way!  We ate our fill of all good things and shared with everyone who needed. O Patric, you priest of Rome! Please let me remember the old days; let me talk of Diarmuid and Goll and of the straight-speaking Fergus.

PATRIC   Indeed you may remember and speak of the old days as much as you like, but only after you have made your peace with God and heeded His words. For, let me tell you, you are reaching the end of your days and senility is come upon you.

ÓISIN    Answer me a question if you please, since it is you who have the knowledge of spiritual matters. Will my dog be allowed into Heaven with me, when I go to meet my Maker?

PATRIC   Are you mad?  Have you lost all sense of reason?  No dog or hound of yours will be allowed in the courts of God Almighty.

ÓISIN   Well, if ever I were to meet God and my hound were at my side, I would make whosoever would provide me with food should also provide for my dog; and I think also this, that I would rather have one of my warrior friends of the Fianna at my side than your idea of the Lord of Piety and you together.

PATRIC   Oh Óisin of the sharp and gleaming sword!  It is better to be with God for one day, than the whole of the Fianna of Ireland forever!

ÓISIN    Because I am old and cannot defend them, I tell you, Patric, do not pour scorn and abuse on the great men of the Fianna.

PATRIC   Come now, it’s foolish to be always talking of the Fianna. Remember you are near to death and you should be talking more about the Son of God. It is He that will help you.

ÓISIN    When I was young I would sleep out on the mountain under the grey mists, and if there were deer about I would never sleep hungry.

PATRIC   Your age makes your mind wander. You lose your way between the straight and narrow path and the crooked one. For your own sake, keep away from the crooked path that leads to Hell; take the straight, and the angels of God shall come under your head.

ÓISIN   Were I able to be with Fergus the generous and Diarmuid now, we would choose any path, and the devil take you and your priests!

PATRIC   Say no more, Óisin!  Do not speak out against the priests that travel the whole world spreading the message of God, or you will have to answer to him in a terrible fashion!

ÓISIN     Listen, Patric, I fear no more your priests. In fact, when I hunted the boar in the valley and I could not find it, it would sorrow me more, than to see every priest in the world beheaded.

PATRIC   It is pitiful hearing you talk like this; it is more pitiful than your blindness. For if you had the sight within you, great would be your desire for Heaven.

ÓISIN    What desire would I have for Heaven, that beautiful City, without Caoilte, without Goll, without my father being with me?  Were I with them, the leap of the buck or the sight of badgers between two valleys would be of more delight to me than all the delights of Heaven that you tell me about.

PATRIC   Your thoughts run away with you and will come to nothing. The pleasure and the mirth that you possessed when young and have departed with age; and what is more, if you do not take my advice to give reverence to God this very night, the entry to Heaven will be closed. There will no choice either way.

ÓISIN   Were myself and the Fianna on top of some hill with spears and with drawn bows, we would choose any way, despite your books and priests and Church bells.

PATRIC   You and the Fianna were never united enough. You were like wisps of smoke, or like a stream that flows through a valley. You were like a swirling wind on top of some hill.

ÓISIN    Yet if I were in the company of my strong armed friends that you so decry, I would not be starved through fasting but would be going to sleep with a full stomach at the day’s ending.

PATRIC   Listen, and listen gladly. I will force you to leave all thought of your nonsensical Fianna and make you receive the sacrament of God, the star- maker.

ÓISIN    You make me laugh!...a priest as intelligent and  travelled  as  you  are, t o even think I would desert

such a noble body of men as the Fianna!

PATRIC   However great and noble you think the Fianna were, have you not noticed that the priesthood now get the best places at the feasts, and the best of the meat and the wine?  Your Fionn and the Fianna are slowly forgotten; let them lie where they are, on the flagstones of Hell!  You take the last rites, and take your place in Heaven!

ÓISIN    More lies from the priest who bears the shepherd’s staff!  But if God and my son Osgar were fighting it out hand to hand over the fate of the Fianna and God defeated him, then would I say that your God had a strong argument.

PATRIC   Be converted to God, before it is too late!  It is better to be with God for one hour, than the whole of the Fianna of Ireland forever!

ÓISIN    Why do you say that God and his priests are better than Fionn?  As Lord of the Fianna, a more generous and honourable man never lived. Yet you say a generous man never goes to Hell. Ask of God, Patric!  Ask does He remember when the Fianna were full of life; does He remember one of them who was not generous and valiant in the fight?  We detested treachery and falsehoods. We were victorious in battle because of our truth and strength. You think the sweetest sound is the voice of the priests singing Psalms in the church, to prove to God their sincerity; but are they more loyal or sincere in their words than Fionn or the Fianna?  If my comrades were still alive, I would leave this psalm-crooning monastery very quickly. Alas, they are dead, and the church-bells mock me. Come, my departed friends!  Come, Osgar my long-lost son!  Bring your sharp and victorious swords, and cut loose the chains of the Church that bind me!

PATRIC   Enough, you bumbling idiot!  It is my King that formed the Heavens; it is He that makes the trees to blossom, it is He that made the Sun and the Moon, the fields and the grass.

ÓISIN    If your King took delight in shaping these things, it was not so with my King. His delight was defeating the enemy, the company of his courtiers, the delight and excitement of the chase and seeing his name revered the length and breadth of the land. When the two great peoples came over the Sea, where then was your God?  Where, Patric?  I have heard that your King of Saints never reddened his hands with blood spilled on the battlefield, but many a bloody battle and victory were gained by the Fianna; and what is more, Patric, if Fionn saw your King chained and fettered he would fight tooth and nail to release him. Would it not be just and fair if your King would sever the bonds that bind Fionn in Hell?  In the name of mercy, tell me, Patric, that the Fianna will be received in Heaven by God!  Maybe your King owes me a favour, for am I not among His priests, without food through fasting, without fine clothes, without the sweet sound of the pipes, without honouring the song of the bards, without my hounds and the sound of the hunting horn, without the pleasure of defending the sea-coast, without courting and gaining the love of beautiful women.

Patric with a gesture of disgust leaves him. Óisin sinks  slowly  back  into   his   chair,   overcome  with


For all the suffering I bear through denying myself these pleasures, I forgive the King of Heaven in my will.

MONKS [offstage]  Kyrie, eleison!  Christe, eleison!

ÓISIN    The cold fog of death shrouds me deeply tonight!  Last night was long, I feel today will be much longer, and tomorrow will be longer still; without the chase of deer or stag and the sweet song of the harp, I yearn, but the hours pass slowly. Time is long.

MONKS   Kyrie, eleison!  Christe, eleison!

ÓISIN      The  cold  fog  of  death  shrouds  me  deeply

tonight!  Throughout the world no-one bears as much trouble as I; my youth and my strength are gone, chained forever by age; the cold fog of death shrouds me deeply tonight!

MONKS   Requiescat in pace!

ÓISIN    I am the last of the Fianna, great Óisin son of Fionn, listening to the voice of the bells; the cold fog of death shrouds me deeply tonight!

He dies. Patric advances towards the dead man, closes his eyes, and pronounces a final benediction

MONKS   Kyrie, eleison!

   The lights fade into darkness