Gods and Fighting Men: The Fianna, by Lady Gregory, adapted and read by Felicity Hayes-McCoy (79mins, Crimson Cats, £9.99)
When Daire Donn, high king of the great world, took his armies across the sea to conquer Ireland, Fionn mac Cumhaill (say “Finn MacCool”), leader of the Fianna, brought his warriors to the shore to meet them. “Then the creatures of the high air answered to the battle, foretelling the destruction that would be done that day; and the sea chattered of the losses, and the waves gave heavy shouts keening them, and the water-beasts roared to one another, and the rough hills creaked with the danger of the battle, and the woods trembled mourning the heroes, and the grey stones cried out at their deeds, and the wind sobbed telling them, and the earth shook, foretelling the slaughter; and the cries of the grey armies put a blue cloak over the sun, and the clouds were dark . . .” No one tells stories about gods, battles, heroes, hunters, princesses, enchanters, doom, death and glory better than the Irish. Greek mythology is grander, Icelandic darker, Indian weirder, but Lady Gregory’s version of ancient Irish legends adds something indefinable to the mandatory brew of drama, romance and magic. Music? Poetry? Wit? Yes, all of those and more. Yeats sums it up in his introduction to the book, first published in 1904, when he describes the stories as “so full of power, and set in a world so fluctuating and dreamlike, that nothing can hold them from being all that the heart desires”. I’ll second that – though I’m not sure, having heard his own bumbling, batty-old-man intonation of “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” in the British Library sound archives, what WB would make of Felicity Hayes-McCoy’s reading. Lily-gilding is not her forte. She’s brisk, matter of fact, business-like. “So now,” she says, “here’s how it happened.” I love it. You almost expect her to add “‘and don’t be tormenting me with questions”. We wouldn’t, there’s no need. Once you’re there with the Fianna, fighting, feasting, chasing enchanted pigs, meeting princesses as dazzling as Niamh, daughter of the King of the Country of the Young, in “a dark cloak of silk down to the ground, having stars of red gold on it; and her skin whiter than the swan upon the wave, and her lips as sweet as honey that is mixed through red wine” you just listen, and marvel. And want more.
The Playboy of the Western World, by JM Synge, with Cyril Cusack, Siobhan McKenna, Milo O’Shea and cast (1½hrs, Naxos, £10.99)
Synge, O’Casey, Behan – I saw most of their plays at the Abbey or the Gate in my Dublin student days and feel honour-bound to admit that this was my least favourite. It’s an unlikely tale. Christy Mahon, a young turniphead, stumbles into an illicit drinking den in County Mayo and becomes a hero overnight – with the women especially – when he boasts that he has murdered his tyrannical father back home on the farm. After its premiere at the Abbey in 1907, the famous Playboy riots broke out, with the nationalists accusing Synge of wilfully portraying decent Irish country folk as, well, turnipheads. Listening to this acclaimed 1957 Abbey Theatre production I could feel myself thawing – who wouldn’t, with all those famous voices? What a cast.
All the Dead Voices, by Declan Hughes, read by Stanley Townsend (9¼hrs unabridged, Isis, £29.99)
Somewhere along the criminal trail I seem to have missed out on Ed Loy, Dublin’s answer to Philip Marlowe, Bernie Gunther and the rest of the hard-hitting, wise-cracking, womanising PI pack. My mistake. This is the fourth, with tantalising references to Loy’s chequered past. I got to 14 then gave up counting Stanley Townsend’s different Irish accents.
Footnote: no review of Irish voices would be complete without mentioning Seamus Heaney reading his Collected Poems (Faber, £50), but they’re out of print and the promised MP3 is still only distant thunder. Angry letters might speed things up.