The Garden of Martyrs springs from a true story local to Western Massachusetts, where both members of the creative team live and work. In 1805, Irish immigrants Dominic Daley and James Halligan were arrested for the murder of a traveler on the road from Albany to Boston. Despite their protests of innocence, the two men were tried, convicted, and sentenced to death amid a climate of nativist hysteria. A French immigrant priest, Jean Cheverus (himself a refugee), travelled from Boston to the county seat of Northampton to speak on the men’s behalf as the hour of execution approached. Though he did not succeed in saving their lives, Cheverus’ bold actions moved the public to sympathy and remorse. Today, Daley and Halligan are memorialized as “the Irish martyrs,” and a monument stands to them in Northampton near the hilltop where they were hanged.
Michael C. White’s novel The Garden of Martyrs (2004) powerfully depicts these events, imagining the relationships of the principals and their families, as well as the story’s legal and political dimensions.. White’s novel was brought to Eric Sawyer’s attention by a cast member from his previous opera, and Sawyer approached Harley Erdman, who was immediately taken with the subject matter and its potential for operatic treatment. Both composer and librettist have written previous operas based on American historical subjects: Sawyer in Our American Cousin, a poetic, evocative treatment of Lincoln’s assassination using multiple levels of theatricality, and Erdman in The Captivation of Eunice Williams, a retelling of the Deerfield raid of 1704, focusing on Native American/Puritan encounters on the early American frontier. Both love engaging with period language and culture, while viewing past events through a contemporary, 21st-century lens. Situated in the early days of the American republic, when the achievements of the Revolution were still fresh, and the young nation’s cultural traditions still inchoate, this story offers startlingly rich musical and linguistic points of departure for creation of a new opera.