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The Hunger Donnacha Dennehy’s Modern Cantata Remembering Ireland’s Great Famine

July 18, 2019

Alarm Will Sound Releases
The Hunger

Donnacha Dennehy’s Modern Cantata Remembering Ireland’s
Great Famine Performed with Soprano Katherine Manley
and Sean Nós Singer Iarla Ó Lionáird

Released August 23, 2019 on Nonesuch Records


New York, NY (July 09, 2019) — Alarm Will Sound, “one of the most vital and original ensembles on the American music scene” (The New York Times) today announces the release of its latest album The Hunger, out Friday, August 23, 2019 on Nonesuch Records. The Hunger is a riveting modern cantata by renowned contemporary composer Donnacha Dennehy rooted in the emotional, political, and socioeconomic devastation of Ireland’s Great Famine (1845–52) and features performances by Alarm Will Sound, soprano Katherine Manley, and sean nós singer Iarla Ó Lionáird. 

Alarm Will Sound tours the concert version of The Hunger to Princeton University, where Dennehy is an Associate Professor of Music and Ó Lionáird is a Global Scholar, on September 17, 2019 and to Kaufman Music Center’s Merkin Hall in collaboration with Irish Arts Center NYC on September 19, 2019, part of Ecstatic Music’s 10th anniversary season. The program travels to Boston’s Jordan Hall at the New England Conservatory for a September 20, 2019 performance in partnership with Oxfam America, a global organization working to end the injustice of poverty. All net proceeds from the Boston performance will be donated to Oxfam.

The Hunger’s libretto draws from rare, first-hand accounts by Asenath Nicholson, an American humanitarian so moved by the waves of immigrants arriving in New York that she traveled to Ireland to bear witness, reporting from the cabins of starving families. The cantata gives a unique perspective on a period of major upheaval during which at least one million people died, and another million emigrated — mainly to the US, Canada, and the UK — forever altering the social fabric of both countries.

Dennehy says, “To counterpoint Nicholson’s outsider, Anglo-American perspective, I invented an elderly Irish character, written for the sean-nós singer Iarla Ó Lionáird. I built the old man’s part from shards of one of the few songs in the sean-nós (old style) tradition to address the unfolding catastrophe, Na Prátaí Dubha (Black Potatoes), and a keening lament for a dead child that I first heard in an unaccompanied version by the astounding Donegal singer Cití Ní Ghallachóir. Gradually, as The Hunger evolves, Nicholson’s narrative line starts to assimilate some of the sean-nós material of the old man, mirroring the way that Nicholson began to cross the threshold from observer to empathetic participant. She ran her own soup kitchen briefly and became an activist, writing pleading letters to her important friends in both the States and England, seeking action that would ameliorate the deteriorating conditions for the Irish peasant class. The sense of how incapable bureaucracy is at dealing with a quickly transforming crisis, and how that bureaucracy can be used as a screen for being unfeeling, is implied by the narrative that Asenath tells of the old man’s dealings with the hunger relief station, and the way the music surges and fades, embodying the old man’s Sisyphean task.”

The staged version of The Hunger was commissioned by Alarm Will Sound and premiered at BAM’s Next Wave Festival in 2019. The project received financial assistance from New Music USA, The MAP Fund, and the Arts Council of Ireland.

About Donnacha Dennehy
Composer Donnacha Dennehy’s music is marked by a sonic and rhythmic intensity and a kind of volatile, dirty tonality that travels in and out of an overtone-based focus. His fascination with the way time and light stretch and contract through the seasons of the year in his native Ireland, and the psychological impact of such phenomena, has often influenced the structure of his music generally. The intersection between words and music, and the vocal sean-nós (old style) tradition has exerted a strong pull over him too since he was a child attending informal get-togethers at his grandmother’s house in Kerry. “There’s be long, all-night sessions in my grandmother’s house with singing and poetry, and people remembering 30-stanza poems,” Dennehy told NPR.

Returning to Ireland after studies abroad, principally at the University of Illinois in the US, Dennehy founded Crash Ensemble, Ireland’s now-renowned new music group, in 1997. Alongside the singers Dawn Upshaw and larla Ó Lionáird, Crash Ensemble features on the 2011 Nonesuch release of Dennehy’s music, entitled Grá agus Bás. Other releases include a number of NMC Records in London, Bedroom Community in Reykjavik and Cantaloupe and New Amsterdam Records in New York. He joined the music faculty at Princeton University in 2014, and now lives in America. In recent years, Dennehy has completed two operas with Enda Walsh, The Last Hotel and The Second Violinist. Learn more at

About Katherine Manley
English soprano Katherine Manley established her early operatic career in baroque music after studying at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, Glasgow and the Benjamin Britten International Opera School at the Royal College of Music in London. In recent years she has become more heavily involved in contemporary opera, and has premiered works by Michel Van Der Aa, among others, as well as appearing in the role of the Wife in Donnacha Dennehy’s first opera with Enda Walsh, The Last Hotel.

In addition to her growing reputation in the contemporary operatic repertoire, Manley has played Creuse in David McVicar’s production of Charpentier’s Medée and The Return of Ulysses (the Young Vic) at the English National Opera and Messaggera/Proserpina in Orfeo with Richard Egarr and the Academy of Ancient Music at the Barbican Centre London. She made her US stage debut as Oriana in Handel’s Amadigi for Central City Opera in Colorado. Over the past seasons, Manley has been a popular guest artist at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, featuring in the leading roles of Eliza Doolittle in Robert Carson’s My Fair Lady and Maria in The Sound of Music. Proving equally at home in high profile musical theatre productions, she also sung Maria for Central City Opera and Julie in Carousel for Opera North at the Barbican Theatre. Learn more at

About Iarla Ó Lionáird
Born and raised in the Irish-speaking Cúil Aodha area in West Cork, Iarla Ó Lionáird started singing as a boy of 5, learning traditional songs passed down from his mother and aunt, who in turn had learnt them from their mother. Iarla is one of the founding members of The Gloaming, a group made up of some of the most prominent and experimentally inclined traditional Irish musicians.

A twice Grammy-nominated artist, Ó Lionáird has worked with a stellar cast of composers internationally including Donnacha Dennehy, Dan Trueman, Nico Muhly, Gavin Bryars, and David Lang and he has performed and recorded with such luminaries as Peter Gabriel, Nick Cave, Robert Plant, and Sinead O’Connor. Ó Lionáird’s radio series “Vocal Chords” on the mysteries of the human voice, for Ireland’s National Classical Music Broadcaster, RTE Lyric FM, won both Gold and Silver Awards at the “New York Radio Festival” 2017. His voice has graced the silver screen also, with film credits extending from The Gangs of New York to Hotel Rwanda and most recently as featured singer in the film Brooklyn starring Saoirse Ronan. He is the vocalist with the critically acclaimed Irish/American band The Gloaming. Learn more at

About Alarm Will Sound
Alarm Will Sound is “one of the most vital and original ensembles on the American music scene” (The New York Times). A 20-member band committed to innovative performances and recordings of today’s music, they have established a reputation for performing demanding music with energetic virtuosity.

With classical skill and unlimited curiosity, Alarm Will Sound takes on music from a wide variety of styles. “Stylistically omnivorous and physically versatile” (The Log Journal), their repertoire ranges from European to American works, from the arch-modernist to the pop-influenced. Since its inception, Alarm Will Sound has been associated with composers at the forefront of contemporary music. The group itself includes many composer-performers, which allows for an unusual degree of insight into the creation and performance of new work.

A recent collaboration with jazz trio Medeski, Martin and Wood was featured on the 2019 Winter Jazzfest. In 2013-14, Alarm Will Sound served as artists-in-residence at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, premiering works by composers Tyondai Braxton and Kate Soper, choreographer John Heginbotham, and writer/director Nigel Maister. Alarm Will Sound is the resident ensemble at the Mizzou International Composers Festival which features eight world premieres by early-career composers.

Alarm Will Sound may be heard on fifteen recordings, including its most recent, Omnisphere with Medeski Martin and Wood, and the premiere of Steve Reich’s Radio RewriteAcoustica, their genre-bending, critically-acclaimed album, features live-performance arrangements of music by electronica guru Aphex Twin. For more information, visit Alarm Will Sound’s website at

The Hunger Track List
1. I Have Seen And Handled The Black Bread (11:36)
2. I Feared He Would Die (11:17)
3. Black Potatoes (6:35)
4. Keening (3:12)
5. Dreadful Winter (13:07)

Katherine Manley, soprano
Iarla Ó Lionárd, sean-nós singer
Alarm Will Sound
Alan Pierson, conductor

Produced, engineered, and mastered by Adam Abeshouse
Recorded at Drew University Concert Hall, Madison NJ, on August 19 & 20, 2018
Executive Producer: Robert Hurwitz

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