The Brendan Voyage

Composed Shaun Davey / Soloist Liam O'Flynn


With his first major work, 'The Brendan Voyage' (1980), Shaun Davey opened up totally new musical territory. For the first time, in a suite especially written for uilleann pipes soloist Liam O'Flynn, a traditional musician was integrated with a classical orchestra. The uilleann pipe passages in the Brendan suite, capturing all the force, emotion and beauty of Irish traditional music, here blend with the symphony orchestra in a synthesis of old and new which has enchanted audiences around the world.

'The Brendan Voyage' is an emotive, symbolic work, seeming to answer a need in the Irish people to recognise and prove that a soloist representing an aural tradition can hold the stage on equal footing with members of a symphony orchestra.

The theme of Shaun Davey's seminal work is the epic voyage of historian Tim Severin who, in 1976, set sail in a small leather-covered boat to retrace the voyage undertaken by St. Brendan, Abbot of Clonfert in the year 500 AD.

According to Irish legend, St. Brendan, with a band of fellow missionaries, embarked in a fragile curragh to reach what many scholars believe was the New World. Tim Severin set out to test the legend, constructing his leather boat, 'The Brendan', in the ancient way and setting sail from Brandon Creek, Co. Kerry, on the first leg of a journey to Newfoundland. In Severin's account the boat takes on a personality of its own, becoming a parental figure which guides and sometimes carries its offspring through the elements and dangers. In Shaun Davey's suite, the uilleann pipes represent the boat and carry the listener before the wind, through ferocious gales, over gigantic waves, through floating pillars of ice... evoking the journey from a small Kerry harbour to the Faroes, the Cliffs of Mykines, to Iceland, the freezing waters of Labrador and finally, to safe harbour in Newfoundland.

The Brendan Voyage live with guitarist John Williams
Liam O'Flynn with the English Chamber Orchestra and guitarist John Williams, at the Royal Festival Hall.

The Brendan Voyage' was first performed in Rennes, France in 1982, and again the same year in Lorient. In 1983, it received its long-awaited Irish premier in the presence of the President of Ireland, Dr. Patrick Hillery and the explorer Tim Severin. This concert, greeted by a rapturous standing ovation from the capacity audience, marked the beginning of a history of sold out performances of 'The Brendan Voyage' in the National Concert Hall, Dublin.

The work, recognised as a unique concert experience and always attracting enthusiastic audiences, has also been performed at,
  • The Sydney Opera House
  • By the English Chamber Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall, London
  • By the Munich Rundfunk Orchestra at the Munich Gasteig
  • By the Quebec Symphony Orchestra at the Quebec Tercentenary Festival
  • At the New York Arts for the Festival
  • By the Ulster Orchestra at the Queen's Festival in Belfast and at Belfast's Waterfront Hall
  • By the Scottish Chamber Orchestra at the Edinburgh Folk Festival
  • By the RTE concert orchestra at EXPO '92 in Seville, Spain and EXPO 2000 in Hannover, Germany.
  • By the Lorient Interceltique Festiavl Orchestra on numerous occasions at the Lorient Interceltique Festival.
  • By The South Jutland Symphony Orchestra at the Tønder festival in Denmark
  • By The Battle Creek Symphony Orchestra at the W. K. Kellogg Auditorium of the Music Center of South Central Michigan

Typical press comments:

  • "If proof were need of the enduring love affair between the Bretons and the Irish, it could not have found a more emotional manifestation than in the closing moments of the headline concert of the first Saturday of the 34th Lorient Interceltique Festival.
    There was a sense of homecoming about Liam O'Flynn's return to the festival with The Brendan Voyage, Shaun Davey's musical interpretation of St. Brendan's sixth-century transatlantic odyssey, which the festival commissioned and premiered in 1980. Introduced as 'one of the musical references of contemporary Celtic culture', it was also fondly referred to by Ouest France newspaper as the Interceltique baby.
    As the final notes died away the near-capacity audience in the town's splendid new 1000-seat theatre refused to bid farewell to O'Flynn, calling him back for two encores. If that were not enough, a wave of the hand by the leader of the festival orchestra brought the 55 musicians to their feet for the final sequence, each clearly delighted to stand and play in tribute to the sturdy little uilleann pipes and a master piper. It was a gesture of respect that brought a smile of delight to the face of the famously sanguine O'Flynn and produced a roar of appreciation from the ecstatic audience."

    Jane Coyle - The Irish Times
  • "It isn't every day that a uilleann piper gets a standing ovation in London's Festival Hall, so the fifteen minute standing ovation was a rare occurrence indeed."
    (Evening Herald)
  • "... It was Shaun Davey's Brendan Suite which was the unchallenged highlight of the evening."
    (The Stage)
  • "Shaun Davey's symphony transported me along with some 1,500 others in the audience to the wild shores of the ocean."
    (Ouest France);
  • "A work of beautiful lyricism."
    (Le Soleil, Quebec)
  • "This professional critic enjoyed the whole work for its nearly hour long duration with complete absorption...(at the end) the whole audience rose immediately to its feet in applause."
    (Irish Times)
  • "Enthralling, momentous music, the Brendan Suite is a tremendously moving, even awesome piece of music to hear performed live."
    (Belfast Telegraph)
  • "Davey writes splendid music."
    (The Gramophone)
  • "One couldn't help coming away elated from the performance,"
    (Staten Island Advance, NY.)
  • "..the artistic director of the Edinburgh Folk Festival deserves a medal for having moved heaven, earth and sundry bank accounts to mount last Sunday's Scottish premier of Shaun Davey's Brendan Voyage and Granuaile. Whatever it cost, it was worth all that and more!... Amid the power of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the delicious proximity of Liam O'Flynn's uilleann pipes I wasn't so much drinking from the cup as swimming in it ."
    (Observer, Scotland).
  • The featured piece of the evening was "The Brendan Voyage" by Shaun Davey. It was probably played for the second time in the United States, said Anne Harrigan, Battle Creek Symphony music director. The star of the performance was Christopher Layer playing the Uilleann pipes or Irish pipes. There was anticipation to hear how the pipes would sound against the backdrop of the orchestra. In a word: Majestic. The unique and fantastic music flowing from the pipes illustrated the excitement and uncertain adventure set before historian Tim Severin who sailed from Ireland to Newfoundland. For the most part the symphony and pipes blended well, especially the strings. However, there were moments when the orchestra almost, but not quiet, overpowered the pipes. The most intriguing parts of the piece came from the percussive arrangement. The piano, xylophone and drum set greatly enhanced the formation and intertwining of sounds. As the voyage continued Layer demonstrated the range and depth of the pipes with spirited, sustained notes in the upper register and fancy finger work. His fancy finger work was met with fancy footwork from two dancers of the Quinn School of Irish Dance. Their performance truly engaged the crowd. The audience rose to their feet in appreciation and sent Layer and the orchestra into an encore performance. The evening concluded with an explosion of heel-tapping and hand-clapping.
    LaToya Thompson - The [Battle Creek] Enquirer
  • The story of The Brendan Voyage Suite

  1. Introduction: The starting point of the voyage was Brandon Creek in Co. Kerry, a tiny harbour barely protected from the Atlantic.
  2. The Brendan Theme: Throughout the suite the pipes represent the boat. Here, where they enter, the 'Brendan' floats newly-launched and, as the orchestra joins the pipes, tentatively sets sail for the first time.
  3. Jig; Water under the keel: Running before the wind, the 'Brendan' is capable of quiet a turn of speed. The crew discover this for the first time in the Minch channel between the Outer Hebrides and the west coast of Scotland.
  4. Journey to the Faroes: Clouds pile up on the horizon above the distant islands. As the boat nears the Faroes it is swallowed by a swirling mist and caught by a powerful current that draws it in towards the hidden coast; the sound of birds through the mist; the mist rises to reveal cliffs.
  5. The Cliffs of Mykines: This continues out of the previous section. The cliffs are immensely high and wind and tide drive 'Brendan' sideways towards them. Thousands of birds swarm around the cliff face and at one point a whale surfaces ahead of the boat. Finally, to escape the danger of the cliffs, the boat has to run the gauntlet of a tide rip; 'Rounding the headland' is a point where the pipes return.
  6. Mykines Sound: The pipes continue with a reel as the boat rushes down a narrow channel between two of the Faroe Islands, unable to turn into the safety of a harbour, for fear of capsizing in a powerful following sea. The 'Brendan' was swept once more out into the Atlantic before eventually being able to reach land.
  7. Journey to Iceland: From the Faroes the boat sets off for Iceland. On the way it is the subject of fascination for a great variety of fish, including whales and dolphins. The middle section is a dialogue between the 'Brendan' and layers of fish in the waters below. The pipes use a C chanter to enable them to play in a lower and more mellow key.
  8. The Gale: Inevitably 'Brendan' and her crew had to weather storms, but none so ferocious as those in the waters off Greenland. Here the wind builds the sea into a procession of gigantic Atlantic rollers with the boat, like the pipes, bending to the pressure but refusing to be overwhelmed.
  9. Labrador: After sailing through fog into the clearer air of the ice edge off the coast of Labrador, the 'Brendan' has to run through open pack ice; a kind of ballet ensues between the frail-skinned boat and monster icebergs. After inevitable collisions, the crew believe the boat has escaped unscathed but, on sailing into clearer water discover that the leather hull is holed and sinking. A solo pipe lament marks the spot. With their arms in freezing water the crew repair the hole and, by now close to exhaustion, make their way towards the coast of Newfoundland. The section closes with the return of the birds that signify the nearness of land.
  10. Newfoundland: The pipes lead in a variation of the main theme to celebrate the boat's arrival in the new world and the end of the voyage.