Opera: Shamus O’Brien – Dr. Charles Villiers Stanford

“Shamus O’Brien” a romantic comic opera in two acts with music by Dr. Charles Villiers Stanford and text by George H. Jessop, founded on the poem by Joseph. Sheridan Le Fanu, was first produced in London in 1896.


Shamus O’Brien, “on his keeping,” outlawed. Father O’Flynn, the parish priest of Ballyhaunis. Captain Trevor, of the British army. Mike Murphy, a peasant farmer. Sergeant Cox, of Captain Trevor’s company. Nora O’Brien, wife of Shamus. Kitty O’Toole, sister to Nora. Little Paudeen, the heir of the O’Briens. Soldiers, peasants, villagers, etc.

The scene is laid in Ireland, after the suppression of the rebellion of 1798. Shamus O’Brien, a young Irish patriot, chafing against the heavy hand of England, has committed some act of insubordination and Captain Trevor and his men are on his track. It soon becomes apparent that Shamus is a hero worth having, for even before he appears, the various characters celebrate the merits of their ” darlint,” and we learn that

If Romulus and Ramus Had lived along o’ Shamus They’d be like two puppy jackals with a lion.

Such a conquering hero has succeeded, of course, in winning the girl of his choice and some time before the story begins, Shamus has married the charming Nora O’Toole, much to the distaste of the farmer, Mike Murphy, who has wanted her for himself. Murphy has vowed vengeance on his more fortunate rival and he is not the one to pass by such an opportunity to secure it as that of betraying Shamus into the hands of his pursuers. The prospect of receiving the blood-money and of recourting the widow Nora does away with any scruples he might have possessed. While on military duty, Captain Trevor falls in love with Nora’s pretty sister Kitty. The courting of rustic swains has left this lass unmoved, although she plaintively assures us that she has a heart ” if they could only get to it.” She is still coy but there is some indication that the captain is on the road at any rate which leads to Kitty’s heart.

Shamus comes and there is a scene in which he, the warm-hearted Father O’Flynn, Nora and Kitty figure. It is full of stanch Irish patriotism and traditional Irish hopefulness and we see for ourselves that Shamus is all that his associates think him. He is ready for any fate and, to quote his own words,

I’ve sharpened the sword for the sake Ould Erin, I’ve carried a pike when she called on her sons; I ran the risk then, and I will not be fearin’ The enemy’s gallows no more than his guns.

Shamus, as is usually the case, is followed by a crowd of villagers. Captain Trevor comes in upon them, making inquiries for the fugitive, who keenly appreciating the joke, gaily offers to act as guide in the search through the bogs and succeeds in completely blinding his pursuers. Poor Nora cannot share in the care-freeness which her husband exhibits and Father O’Flynn questions her as to her down-cast looks. She admits that for two nights she has heard the Banshee cry and that she fears the third cry, which will mean death for her Shamus. The gloom which her recountal has occasioned is banished by the arrival of the old Piper ready for a dance. Father O’Flynn tells them that he has

Looked upon sorrow of several types, But seldom seen one wouldn’t yield to the pipes.

and the crowd troops away to profit by the reverend counsel.

When night is falling, the traitorous Mike leads the Captain to the cottage of O’Brien and Shamus is seized. As he is led away, the Irishmen shout defiance to the oppressors.

Act II finds Captain Trevor lamenting the fact that, forced to obey the imperial decree in respect to Shamus O’Brien, he will lose the love of the latter’s pretty sister-in-law, Kitty. While plunged in gloomy meditation, he is approached by Mike who finding Glengall too warm for him, wants his blood-money in order that he may depart. Mike finds that the Captain has no gratitude to bestow upon him for making his duty all too plain.

Nora comes to plead for Shamus and is supported by the people, who argue that the rebellion is over and that clemency is in order. But with real regret, Captain Trevor reads the court’s decision that at dawn Shamus shall be hanged near Ballyhaunis.

In the third act, we find our characters waiting to take their last look at Shamus, who, like a true Irishman, tries to be debonair even at the hour of death. Father O’Flynn is there to furnish what comfort he may and there is a note of cowed desperation evident in the words of the people, who have learned the bitter lesson that struggling against the stronger power is futile. Free now to speak the truth with no fear of the consequences, Shamus makes his last oration to the British soldiers :

You call me a rebel, and still I defy you! You’re slaves and you’re cowards, again and again. If yourselves had a foe in your own land to try you, Perhaps the experience might make of you men.

Then Nora bravely lifts up the baby Paudeen for him to kiss and Shamus O’Brien goes to his death.

” Shamus O’Brien” is Dr. Stanford’s most convincing work. He has drawn upon the native music of his own country for his inspiration and the opera exhibits a warm sympathy for downtrodden Ireland. The text is happy with its seasoning of delectable brogue and the music has the matchless Irish swing which makes “The Wearin’ o’ the green ” and kindred melodies so fetching. Among the spirited numbers are Kitty’s query, “Where is the Man that is coming to marry me?” Nora’s song of the Banshee; Mike’s number, “When I used to be young ” and Captain Trevor’s songs, ” My Heart is Thrall,” ” I love old Ireland ” and ” Glengall.”