RTÉ had another ‘Riverdance moment’ last night
Centenary, which gathered together some of Ireland’s most talented musicians and performers, gave everyone goosebumps.
It took 600 people, 21 choirs, 18 dancers, 10 actors, six aerial dancers, the RTÉ concert orchestra and 80 crew members to put it together. And last night, RTÉ’s Centenary show – which was a year in the planning – was deemed a massive, goosebump-inducing success. The ambitious 85-minute-long show, which was broadcast live from the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre was broken up into 18 chapters, and told Ireland’s centenary story through song, dance and poetry. Some of Ireland’s best known singers, musicians and performers – like Imelda May, Jack L, Gavin James, The High Kings, Iarla Ó Lionáird, Sharon Shannon, Dónal Lunny, and Celine Byrne - were gathered for what RTÉ dubbed “a special one-off cultural celebration”.
It didn’t feel like the same faces trotted out for another appearance. Instead, there was a sense of new ground being broken, with an eye to the path just trod.
This was more than a historical retelling: it was also proof of how important arts and culture are for Ireland itself, and how essential music and storytelling is for the Irish psyche.
When Imelda May sang her version of The Muppets’ song Bein’ Green, what was a musical risk turned into a rousing celebration of the highs and lows of being Irish. In another unexpected moment, just after May’s performance, members of over 20 choirs stood up from their seats, momentarily confusing those around them, to join Celine Byrne for a rendition of You Raise Me Up. The audience became the performers, in a wonderful bridging of the gap between what was happening on stage and off.
As Colm Wilkinson sang U2′s One, portraits of Irish people flashed up behind him. The variety in the range of smiling faces was both striking and heartwarming, as Wilkinson sung of how difference does not preclude unity.
Over 85 minutes, Centenary tracked the history of Ireland, touching on not just the positive times but also the darker elements of Ireland’s past. It explored the impact of the Great War, the Suffragette movement, the Rising itself, Michael Collins, the 1913 Lockout, emigration, Italia 90, the church sex abuse scandals, and the marriage referendum.
In a nod to Ireland’s beloved Reeling in the Years, it included archive footage of lump-in-the-throat moments over the past 100 years.
The Easter Rising was conceived by people who believed in the power of Irish culture. Centenary paid tribute to their beliefs by highlighting the importance of the arts in Ireland, not just as a source of entertainment, but as a way of celebrating and interrogating our country’s past.
The show hit so many high notes that it was compared by viewers to when Riverdance was performed during the interval of the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest.
As a measure of how successful an event – particularly one which celebrates Irish culture – has been, that’s certainly the best comparison those behind Centenary could have wished for.
The significance of the show (which is available to watch on the RTÉ Player) was not lost on those involved in putting it together. Ahead of her performance, Imelda May – whose grandparents were involved in the Rising – commented:
To commemorate [the Rising] with music, art and poetry across our country is very fitting considering that the Rising was led, not by traditional soldiers, but by poets and artists fighting with passion and pride. It is no accident that the emblem of our free country is a harp; a musical instrument. I think of that and those men and women every time I look at my passport… with gratitude and pride.
Managing Director for RTÉ Television Glen Killane described arts and culture as being “at the very heart of the Irish identity”, saying that it is “fitting that Centenary is the culmination of RTÉ 1916, to reflect on the Rising itself and the nation we have become”.