Oileáin (Islands) for piano solo was commissioned by Cardiff University, and first performed there in May 1979 by Martin Jones. The piece draws its inspiration from the ancient Irish mythological saga “The Voyage of Maelduin”. In the legend, Maelduin sets sail along with seventeen companions in search of his father’s slayer. In the course of the search the voyagers encounter thirty one islands, each of which is characterised by a uniquely poetic vision. The islands can be viewed as images, possessing profound psychological insights and a contemporary relevance that transcends the centuries. The four islands used in Oileáin are:
An island of beasts like horses, tearing the flesh from one another’s sides until the island runs with blood – a highly dramatic movement making much use of clusters and the extremities of the piano’s registers.
An island of black mourners, all weeping and wailing One of Maelduin’s comrades joins them. He too weeps, and no longer recognisable, he is left behind – a sombre cortege gives way to sonorous declamations, which in turn recede into the distance.
An island of black and white. This island is divided into two by a brass palisade; black sheep on one side, white sheep on the other. Tending them is a big man who sometimes puts a black sheep among the white or a white among the black. Immediately it changes colour. Maelduin throws a peeled white wand into the black section and it turns black – contrasting musical gestures outlined in the opening bars transform and coalesce in the course of the movement.
An island whose people shout “It is they” at the voyagers, as though they knew of their coming and feared them – the octave theme heard near the beginning provides the main material for the development of the movement.