Composed by Liam Bates
and Wexford Sinfonia Chorus
Orchestra leader - Teresa Doyle
Composed for the 20th anniversary of Wexford Sinfonia.
Premier performance at Wexford County Hall, 22nd February, 2014
On Friday 20th February 1914, a Norwegian schooner S.V. Mexico, went aground on the Keragh Islands, off the coast of Wexford, in southern Ireland. The lifeboat Helen Blake was duly launched with a crew of fourteen men from the nearby town of Fethard. On it's arrival, the lifeboat was struck by three heavy waves and was dashed to pieces upon the rocks. Nine of the crew were drowned. Four of them managed to struggle onto the island and a fifth was hauled on board the Mexico by her crew. The lifeboat men, who were now on the island, managed to take a line from the Mexico and hauled its crew and the one lifeboat man onto the island, before the ship broke up.
It must be remembered that lifeboats at this time were open boats with oars and sails and had no means of mechanical propulsion. Owing to the state of the weather, no rescue could be attempted until the following Monday, when another lifeboat, towed by a tug, managed to get to the scene and anchored into position. Then using the tug's punt, two men were sent on to the island on a line. Despite the punt being holed on a rock and then plugged up using a loaf of bread wrapped in oil skins, these two brave men managed to rescue the ten survivors in six successive trips. Another lifeboat managed to get a line to the island by means of a rocket and rescued the remaining survivors by hauling them through the waves using the line and a life buoy.
Heroes of the Helen Blake is an orchestral suite, in five movements:
1 Hymns and Sea Shanties
2 Strength and Grace
3 Courage and Peril
4 Vale of Tears
5 To Bring Them Home
The music is evocative of the sea in its various guises and it attempts to capture the spirit of faith, fear and bravery in those connected to the sea. Two old Wexford sea shanty tunes, The Coast of Malabar and Whiskey Johnny, are woven in and out of the various movements. The work also highlights the importance of the faith of those who go to sea and of those wait ashore, with the use of the great hymn tune, Hail Queen of Heaven, the Ocean Star.
The percussion section employs a battery of unusual instruments such as bars and plates of metal and an old ship's propeller, found in a ship repair yard in Kilmore Quay. Clashing together, they echo the iron and steel of the great ships of the 19th century. A ship's bell rings out several times in the piece.
The work, for me, investigates how, as human beings, we often seem at out best when we are in the action of helping others and that perhaps, in part, this is what we are designed for. This idea is expressed more so in the last movement, To Bring Them Home, which uses the text from a poem(below) of the same name.
The remarkable act of bravery and selflessness one hundred years ago still echoes through to the present and is evident in the many volunteers who are ready to serve. Heroes of the Helen Blake is dedicated to these volunteers and particularly to those who have paid the ultimate price.
TO BRING THEM HOME
On brave white horses that rise and charge,
Aloft the heaving breast of the wayward deep,
T'ward weary ships and solemn hearts:
Make fast my bond, my pledge to keep.
T'is oar and courage that tamed the wave,
Thus bearing souls adrift to a far-off place.
God surely loved them as cries they gave:
Thy mighty hand. Thy saving grace.
The storms unleash their insignia of light,
A flash to bathe the blue in a crimson blend.
She dips and skims the brimming plight
And man and boat both creak and bend.
With buckled hull and broken mast
And a leeward thrust to the rocky shore,
That of each one, mankind should ask
To bring them home to love once more.
Be there no sadness in our farewell,
as much in faith, I make to the boundless sea.
Beat hard the waves that drape my sense.
God's light, my compass ever be.
Liam Bates February 2014