Patrick Cassidy, the composer for the 2014 film Calvary, jokes about the film’s grimness: “It’s not exactly a date movie.” He’s right: The film follows a lonely Irish priest as he shepherds a cold and bitter village. Its harsh realism is profoundly humbling. Heavy as the film is, it is lifted by Cassidy’s classical score.

Cassidy got his start outside film, composing Irish semi-liturgical pieces. In 1993, he wrote The Children of Lir, becoming the first to write a cantata in the Irish language, and in 1996 he wrote Famine Remembrance, a setting of Irish prayers and liturgical texts for the 150th commemoration of the Irish Famine. Yet John McDonough, the film’s director, didn’t want excessive Irishness to rob Calvary of its universality, a choice reflected in Cassidy’s score. Cassidy recalls, “I remember I did a cue early on and I put in an Irish instrument and he didn’t want it. He was very adamant. And he was right.”

Cassidy sees The Children of Lir as evidence of an historical dynamic in Ireland, where Christianity transformed Paganism but retained much of its symbolism. It retells the Irish legend of children bewitched into swans, the spell only broken when St. Patrick comes nine hundred years later. “It seems to me like the story predates Christianity in Ireland but later became Christianized. A lot of Irish culture is like that.” His work on Calvary bears a similar tone: Ireland, moving past its Catholic identity to modern secularism, lingers in the past through its Catholic symbols and habits.

Throughout, Cassidy’s score bears a deep nostalgia for home - both for Ireland’s past and a lost Catholicism. “When I was growing up, there would have been universal respect and reverence for priests, you know? And, especially in the cities, like Dublin and Limerick, I just don’t see that anymore.”

Now, Cassidy says, priests tend to go out in their “civvies” rather than wearing their collar because they don’t want to be spat upon or cursed. “In one generation, Ireland went from being quite a poor country to being a quite wealthy country, and people with money are not as religious—that’s just a fact, you know? And also the abuse scandal—the two things together caused Ireland to change in a very, very rapid way. What might of taken a few generations in other countries, took one generation in Ireland. That in a sense is what Calvary is about.”

Cassidy thinks the Irish who reject the Church do so ambivalently: “People still love this Church, this culture—yet at the same time they’re rejecting it. Calvary’s villagers push Fr. Lavelle constantly, but the last thing they wanted was for him to break. Yet they couldn’t help themselves in trying to break him and mock him. I think that’s kind of accurate to Ireland in a sense, you know?” Though it might signal a loss of faith, John McDonough uses Ireland’s detachment to narrate Calvary with black humor and irony. When the prospective murderer meets Fr. Lavelle on the beach, he asks him to reflect on his life, “Do you have any regrets?” Fr. Lavelle cavalierly replies, “I have, yah. Never got to finish Moby Dick.”

Cassidy thinks music can bridge this divide: “The music of the Church is one of the great attractions that the Church still has for people. It’s hard to see that classical music could have happened without the Church. I think it’s a direct result of Church tradition and culture.” Patrick hesitates and then ventures a thought, “Maybe that’s one of the reasons why classical music has been so poor in the twentieth century. This was the century when composers moved away from the liturgical forms.”

For Cassidy, art and faith are inseparable: “It would seem kind of pointless in a sense, you know? The reason I wanted to be a composer was to write pieces like the Mass and the opera. Yes, I love film music but the opportunity and challenge of writing a Mass is just on a different level. For me, it’s a more profound experience, absolutely.” In fact, Cassidy has written such a Mass for Ave Maria University, though it may be some months before it is published.

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