A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Irish Music

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IRISH MUSIC. Although it is not long since the opinion was generally entertained that Ireland had been sunk in barbarism until the English invasion, historical and antiquarian researches have established the fact that the island was in early times the seat of Christianized learning and a remarkable artistic civilization. Her music, however, and in particular her ancient school of Harp-playing, have from early times been in high repute, having been lauded in the writings of Brompton, Giraldus Cambrensis, and John of Salisbury (12th cent.). The latter writes thus: 'The attention of this people to musical instruments I find worthy of commendation, in which their skill is beyond comparison superior to that of any nation I have seen.' Fuller's words are equally strong: 'Yea, we might well think that all the concert of Christendom in this war [the Crusade conducted by Godfrey of Boulogne] would have made no music, if the Irish Harp had been wanting.' Fordun (13th cent.), Clynn (14th cent.), Polidore Virgil and Major (i5th cent.), Vincenzo Galilei, Bacon, Spenser, Stanihurst, and Camden (16th cent.), speak with equal warmth. Written music being however comparatively modern, no remains are existing, like the beautiful Irish illuminated MSS. and examples of ornamental Celtic metal-work, which would substantiate the praises of the above writers.

Three Irish airs, extracted from Queen Elizabeth's Virginal Book, are given in vol. ii. p. 793 of Mr. Chappell's 'Popular Music of the Olden Time'—(1) 'The Ho-hoane' (Ochone), (2) an 'Irish Dumpe,' and (3) 'Callino Casturame.' They are all in 6-8 measure, and seem deficient in the characteristic features of Irish melody. To the latter air there is an allusion in Shakespeare, Henry V, act iv. sc. 4, where Pistol addresses a French soldier thus:—'Quality! Calen o custure me!'—an expression which has greatly puzzled the critics. It is evidently an attempt to spell as pronounced the Irish phrase 'Colleen, oge astore!'—young girl, my treasure!

The earliest published collections of Irish music are by Burke Thumoth (1720); by Neill of Christ Church Yard, in the vicinity of the cathedral of that name in Dublin, a few years later; and by the son of Carolan in 1747. But these being for flute or violin, supply no idea of the polyphonic style of the music for the Irish Harp, an instrument with many strings of brass or some other metal: the Harp preserved in Trinity College, Dublin (commonly but erroneously called the Harp of Brian Boru), having 30 strings; that of Robin Adair (an Irish chieftain), preserved at Hollybrooke in co. Wicklow, 37 strings; and the Dallway Harp (1621), 52 strings. [See Harp, vol. i. p. 686a.] During the incessant wars which devastated the island in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, the art of music languished and decayed: there had indeed been many famous performers upon the Harp, the national instrument had appeared on the coinage of Henry VIII, and had also been appended to some State papers A.D. 1567; but the powers of the law had been brought to bear upon the minstrels who sympathized with the natives, struggling at this time against the English power. When the wars of Elizabeth, Cromwell, and William III ceased, the distracted country had peace for a while. Soon afterwards the Hanoverian Succession was settled, and foreign musicians visited Ireland, and remaining there, introduced the music of other countries; the nobility and gentry too, abandoning their clannish customs, began to conform to the English model: and the Irish melodies went out of fashion.

Some of the celebrated harpers of the 16th and 17th centuries were Rory Dall O'Cahan (whom Sir W. Scott makes the teacher of Annot Lyle); John and Harry Scott; Gerald O'Daly (the composer of Aileen-a-Roon); Miles Reilly (born 1635); Thomas and William O'Conallon (1640); Cornelius Lyons; Carolan (1670); Denis Hempson (1695), who in 1745, when 50 years old, went to Scotland and played before Charles Edward; Charles Byrne (1712); Dominic Mungan (1715); Daniel Black (1715); Echlin Kane (1720), a pupil of Lyons, before named—Kane, who travelled abroad, also played for the Pretender, and was much caressed by the expatriated Irish in Spain and France; Thaddeus Elliot (1725); Owen Keenan (1725); Arthur O'Neill (1734); Charles Fanning (1736); and James Duncan, who having adopted the profession of a harper in order to obtain funds to carry on a law-suit in defence of his patrimony, was successful, and died in 1800, in the enjoyment of a handsome competence.

Among efforts to arrest the decay of the Irish Harp School may be mentioned the 'Contentions of Bards' held at Bruree, co. Limerick, 1730–50, under the presidency of the Rev. Charles Bunworth, himself a performer of merit; a meeting of harpers at Granard, co. Longford, organized by an Irish gentleman, James Dungan of Copenhagen, in 1781; and the assemblage of harpers at Belfast, 1792, when the promoters engaged the subsequently well-known collector, Edw. Bunting, to write down the music as performed. From this arose Bunting's three volumes of Irish Music, dating 1796, 1809, and 1840: accurate drawings, biographical notices, and some hundred airs have been left on record by Bunting, to whom indeed the subject owes whatever elucidation it has received. Ten performers from different parts of Ireland attended the meeting of 1792, and their instruments, tuning, and use of a copious Irish musical vocabulary agreed in a remarkable manner. The compass of the Harps was from C below the bass stave to D above the treble one. Their scale was sometimes C, but mostly that of G. Each string, each grace, each feature had a name peculiar to it. It was proved that the old harpers had played with their nails, not the fleshy tip of the fingers. They used other scales beside those above, but agreed that G major was the most ancient: in this lies 'The Coolin' (temp. Henry VIII):—

{ \set Staff.midiInstrument = #"orchestral harp" \time 3/4 \key g \major \partial 4 \relative d'' { d8 e16 fis | g4 g a8. fis16 | g4 d \times 2/3 { g,8 b d } | g8. fis16 \times 2/3 { g8 a b } a8. g16 | g4 fis g8. fis16 | e4 e8 fis16 g a g fis e | d4 b8[ d] g[ d] | fis16 e d c b4 a | g2 \bar "||" d'8 c | b8.[ a16 g8. a16 b8. c16] | d4 d8 e fis d | g8. fis16 \times 2/3 { g8 a b } a8. g16 | g4 fis g8 fis | e4 e8 fis16 g a g fis e | d4 b8 d g d | fis16 e d c b4 a | g2 \bar "||" } }

One of the most striking of the Irish airs is that called Colleen dhas, etc., to which Moore's lines, 'The valley lay smiling,' are adapted: it lies on a scale from A to A, but with semitones between 2-3 and 6-7, as follows:—

{ \set Staff.midiInstrument = #"orchestral harp" \time 9/8 \key g \major \partial 8 \relative a' { a16 b | c8 e c b d b a g a16 b | c8 e c b d b a4 a16 b | c8 e c b d b a g g' | e16 d c b a g e8 a a \grace { c16[ b] } a4 \bar "||" a16 b | c8. d16 e fis g8 a fis g b, a16 b | c8. d16 e fis g8 e g a4 a8 | g e e d b b a g a16 b | c8. a16 b g e8 a a \grace { c16[ b] } a4\fermata \bar "||" } }

It was of course to be expected, that singers, pipers, whistlers, or violinists, would not always adhere to the fixed semitones of a harp scale; hence this air is sometimes corrupted, and its pathetic beauty impaired by the introduction of G♯. This scale, it may be remarked, is that used for the Scottish pipes, where the upper G♮ is however frequently false; such Scotch airs as 'Johnnie Cope' are suitable to it.

An example of the scale

{ \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \key e \minor \relative e' { \cadenzaOn e1 fis( g) a b( c) d e s } }

E to E, semitones between 2-3 and 5-6, is found in the fine Irish air, ' Remember the glories of Brian the Brave!'

{ \set Staff.midiInstrument = #"orchestral harp" \time 4/4 \key g \major \partial 4 \relative e' { e4 | g e8. e16 e4 d8 e | a fis e8. d16 d4 g8 a | b4 a8 b a g e8. e16 | e2. b'4 | c d8 c b4 c8 b | a g a b d4 e8. d16 | d8[ b] a8.[ b16] a8[ g e8. e16] | e2. \bar "||" b'8 c | d b d e d4 c8 b | d b d e d4 b | e4 e8. fis16 e8 d b d | e2. e8 d | c4 d8 c b4 c8 b | a g b d e4\fermata e8. d16 | d8 b a8. b16 a8 g e8. e16 | e2. \bar "||" } }

Here again, in careless performance, D♯ may have been used instead of D♮, once or twice.

Very plaintive airs are found in the 4th scale

{ \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \key g \major \relative d' { \cadenzaOn d1 e fis( g) a b( c) d s } }

D to D, semitones between 3-4 and 6-7. In this scale lies the air 'Weep on!'

{ \set Staff.midiInstrument = #"orchestral harp" \key g \major \time 4/4 \partial 4 \relative d' { \repeat volta 2 { d4 | g4. a8 g fis e d | d4 fis8 a b4 d8 b | a fis e d \clef bass b a b d | d2. } \clef treble a'8 b | c4. d8 c b a fis | a4 b8 d d4 a8 b | c4. d8 c b d b | a fis e d b4 b' | c4. d8 c b d4 | d,8 e fis a b4 d8 b | a fis e d \clef bass b a b d | d2. \bar "||" } }

Moore seems to have noticed the peculiar wail, thrice repeated, of the second strain, but to have been unaware of the true cause, when he says, 'We find some melancholy note intrude—some minor third or flat seventh, which throws its shade as it passes and makes even mirth interesting.'

The bagpipe of Ireland is distinguished from the Scottish pipes by being blown with bellows instead of the [1]mouth: from this cause, and the delicacy of its reeds, the tone is softer. Dr. Burney remarked upon the perfection of the intervals of the Irish chanter (or melody-pipe), which he had never met with in the pipes of North Britain. The scale of the Irish bagpipe is from C below the treble stave to C above it, with all the semitones. The Irish instrument is also furnished with a sort of tenor harmony of chords:—

{ \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \clef bass <g b d'>4 <c g c'> <d g b> }

The pipe of Scotland has nothing of this sort, and, as previously noticed, its scale is only nine notes and is not very true in general. There generally are two drones in the Scottish pipe, A and its octave; and three in the Irish instrument, generally middle C, tenor C, and violoncello C. The ancient Irish bagpipe, like that of Scotland, was an instrument of shrill and warlike tone, by which, as Stanihurst tells us, the natives were animated—as other people are by trumpets. The bagpipe, perhaps the oldest and most widely known instrument in the world, still subsists in Ireland; the harp however is almost extinct: both have been in a great degree superseded by the violin and flute, which are cheaper, more readily repaired, and above all more portable: most of the ancient minstrels of Ireland found it necessary to maintain attendants to carry their harps. Of late years, during the Temperance movement and the various semi-military organizations which have sprung up in Ireland, brass and reed bands have become popular, and play through the streets of the towns; the music produced by them is however for the most part execrable. Choral classes are not popular throughout the country: they meet with no favour among the peasantry of the South and West. In the Eastern coast towns, like Dublin, Kingstown, Wicklow, and Wexford, choral music is not popular, and in the Northern town of Belfast, the only manufacturing community in the island, we seek in vain for choral associations like those of Leeds, Bradford, etc., among the artizans, although oratorios are fairly supported by the middle class.

Dismissing the bagpipe, ancient or improved, we find among ancient Irish wind-instruments the following: (1) the Ben-Buabhill (pronounced Ben-Buffal), a real horn, generally that of a wild ox or buffalo; (2) the Buinne, a metal trumpet the horn and trumpet players were assigned regular places in the famous banqueting hall of Tara; (3) the Corn, a large curved tube, producing sounds of great power; (4) the Stoc, a smaller trumpet; (5) the Sturgan, another small trumpet. It is singular that all these pipes were curved: no straight pipe, like an oboe or clarinet, having been found in Ireland. (6) Some large horns were discovered, of which the embouchure, like that of the Ashantee trumpet, was at the side. Singular to say, the Irish possessed an instrument very similar to the Turkish crescent or 'Jingling Johnny' once used in the British army: it was called the 'Musical Branch,' and was adorned with numerous bells. There were single bells called clothra: the so-called crotals are merely sheep-bells of the 17th and 18th centuries. It should be remarked that the tympan was not a drum, as was formerly supposed, but a stringed instrument, and by the researches of the antiquary O'Curry it is proved to have been played with a bow. Some other allusions to music are found in Irish MSS., viz. the aidsbi, an union of all voices, a vocal tutti as it were: this was called cepoc in Scotland. The certan was some sort of chirping sound by female singers: the dordfiansa, a warlike song accompanied by the clashing of spears after the Greek manner. An interesting example was the Irish Cronan or drone bass, after the manner of the 'Ground' of Purcell's day, or of the Canon, 'Summer is icumen in.' The Cronan was softly sung by a [2]Chorus, while the principal voice sustained the solo. The following song (the air called 'Ballinderry') refers to various rustic localities on the banks of the Bann and Lagan rivers:—

''Tis pretty to be in Ballinderry,
'Tis pretty to be at Magheralin,
'Tis pretty to be at the Castle of Toome,
'Tis pretty to be at Aghalee,' etc.

To all of which the Cronan softly furnished the bass, 'Och-hone! och-hone!'

{ \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \time 6/8 \key g \major \partial 8 << \relative g' { g8\mf | b b c d4 d8 | c4 d8 b g g | b b c d4 d8 | c4 d8 b4 d8 | d b g g4 g8 | c b c d4 e8 | d4 b8 g b a | g4 g8 << { g4. } \\ { g'4.\( } >> b, a g\) g'\( b, a g\) s4 }
\new Staff { \clef bass \key g \major \relative g { r8 g4.\pp( b, a g) | g'( b, a g) | g'( b, a g) | << { g'( b, a g'\f^\markup { \smaller \italic chos. } ) | b a g g' | b, a g } \\ { s s s g, b a g g'( b, a g) s4^"etc." } >> } } >> }

[App. p.685 "for chos read Chor"]

Not only have Irish airs been often claimed as Scottish, as in the case of 'Limerick's lamentation' or 'Lochaber,' but the close resemblance between some Irish and Scottish airs has led to confusion, and an attempt to generalize. Thus it has been quoted, as an unfailing characteristic of Irish as of Chinese melody, to omit the fourth and seventh of the scale; this is quite erroneous. In many Irish airs, like 'I'd mourn the hopes that leave me,' these intervals are wanting; in others they both exist: in some Irish airs the 4th and 7th are omitted in the first strain, and present in the second part of the air. Many canons have been laid down: Bunting, an excellent authority, thought the emphatic presence of the submediant, or sixth of the scale, a never-failing test of an Irish air; but this note is emphatic in the Scottish air 'Auld lang syne,' and in many others which might be cited. An anonymous writer in a Dublin periodical, 'The Examiner,' Aug. 1816, seems to have remarked an interesting point of agreement in the structure of Irish melodies: 'They are formed,' says the writer, 'of 4 strains of equal length: the first soft, pathetic, and subdued; the second ascending in the scale, becomes more bold, energetic, and impassioned; the third, a repetition of the second, is sometimes a little varied and more florid, and leads, generally by a graceful or melancholy passage, to the fourth, which is always a repetition of the first.' To this model may be referred the pathetic 'Gramachree' in Moore's lines 'The Harp that once through Tara's Halls.'

{ \time 4/4 \key ees \major \partial 8 \relative e' { ees8 bes'8. c16 bes8 g c8. d16 ees8 c | bes8 g f8. g16 ees4. \bar "||" bes'8 | ees8. d16 ees8 f ees d c bes | c bes ees g, bes4. \bar "||" bes8 | ees8. d16 ees8 g16 f ees8 d c bes | c bes aes g c4 \bar "||" d | ees8. d16 c8 bes c d ees c | bes g f8. g16 ees4 \bar "||" } }

So also the fine marching tune, 'Byrne of Ballymanus':—

{ \time 4/4 \key c \major \partial 4 \relative g' { g4 c c e,4. f8 | g8. a16 g8 f e4 d8 e | f e d e c4 c | c2. \bar "||" g'4 | c4. d8 e4 d8 e | f e d e c4 d8 c | b g a b c4 c | c2. \bar "||" g4 | c4. d8 e4 d8 e | f e d e c4 g | c c8 d e4 c | a2 g4 \bar "||" a8 b | c4 c e,4. f8 | g8. a16 g8 f e4 d8 e | f e d e c4 c | c2. \bar "||" } }

It has been noticed that many Irish tunes end upon the fifth of the key, such as that adapted to Moore's song, 'Come, send round the wine!' Again, to commence as in the next example, and reiterate the ending note of the strain, has been described as the 'narrative form' of Irish melody, e.g. 'St. Senanus,' to Moore's lines, 'O haste and leave this sacred isle':—

{ \time 3/4 \key ees \major \partial 4. \relative a' { aes8 g aes | bes4 aes8 bes c d | ees4 g f8 ees d bes | c2 bes8 bes | bes4. \bar "||" } }

and it has not failed to be remarked that Moore's fourth line, 'A female form I see,' in obliterating this peculiarity, does injustice to the melody by rendering the repetition impossible.

A few words about the dances of Ireland will not be out of place. These are (1) the Planxty, or Pleraca, 6-8 time, with strains of unequal number of bars. (2) The Jig, or Rinnce, with an equal number of bars. The Jig was, as its name implies, an imitation of the giga of Corelli and Geminiani, both very popular in Ireland during the 18th century: of these there were (a) the Double Jig, (b) Single Jig, (c) Hop Jig, and (d) Moneen, or Green-sod Jig. (3) The Reel, similar to that of Scotland, of which it is the national dance. (4) The Hornpipe. (5) Set dances, chiefly by one dancer, and (6) The Country dance. Many of the dances in 6-8 measure were originally march tunes; for it is remarkable that the 'slow march,' as used by other nations, never prevailed among the Irish, whose battle music was frequently in the 6-8 measure, with two accents in the bar.

Every civil occupation in Ireland had also its appropriate music; thus milking the cows (an occupation in which the ancient Irish took peculiar delight), spinning, and ploughing, had each its tune.

Such are a few of the characteristics of a native minstrelsy second to none in the annals of aboriginal art. But the lines of demarcation by which national peculiarities were preserved are being daily obliterated: steam has worked many wonders, of which this is not the least remarkable. Ireland at the present day differs but little from England, Wales, or Scotland. The tunes whistled in the Irish streets are not the melodies to which Moore in 1808 supplied words, but 'The March of the Men of Harlech,' 'Mandolinata,' and 'Stride la vampa' from Verdi's 'Trovatore.' The terrible famine of 1847, followed as it was by fever and a gigantic emigration that laid whole districts waste, could not fail to produce sweeping artistic as well as social changes. Much of the antient music must have perished with the population. Petrie's volume probably represents the last comprehensive effort to collect the aboriginal strains of Irish music: although given to the world in 1855, it embraced the labours of many previous years.

It remains but to notice the various collections of Irish music. These are—

  1. Burke Thumoth, cir. 1720.
  2. Neal of Christ-church Yard, 1721.
  3. Bunting's, first 1796, second 1809, third 1840.
  4. Francis Holden (cited by Geo. Petrie). 1806.
  5. Moore, with Stevenson, and subsequently Sir H. Bishop; ten numbers and supplement, 1808–1834.
  6. John Mulholland of Belfast, 1810.
  7. G. Thomson (Beethoven's accompaniments), 1814.
  8. Fitzsimons and John Smith, 1816.
  9. Hon. Geo. O'Callaghan with Stevenson, 1821–2.
  10. 'The Citizen' magazine, 1840.
  11. Horncastle, London, 1844.
  12. O'Daly, 'Poets and Poetry of Munster,' 1853.
  13. G. Petrie, in connection with the 'Society for the Preservation of Irish Music,' 1855. Of this valuable work but 1 vol. and part of a second appeared.
  14. Molloy, 1874.
  15. Joyce, 1875.
  16. Hoffmann, 1877.

Dance tunes only.

  1. R. M. Levey, 1858–78.
  2. P. Hughes, 1860.

Of these, few are reliable as authorities, save those of Petrie and Bunting, both honoured names in the annals of Irish music. It is to a Mr. Geo. Thomson, of the Trustees' Office, Edinburgh, who was much interested in national airs from 1792–1820, especially those of Scotland, and engaged Pleyel, Kozeluch, Haydn, Beethoven, Hummel, and Weber, as arrangers of them, that we owe the Irish music arranged by Beethoven between the years 1810 and 1819. Among 16 national airs, with variations, as duets for violin (or flute) and piano (op. 105, 107), are 3 Irish melodies—'The last rose' (a very incorrect version of the air), 'While History's Muse,' and 'O had we some bright little isle.' Although interesting in their way, these little works of Beethoven are very inferior to his Vocal Collections. Of these '12 Irish airs with accompaniments of piano, violin, and cello' (obbligato), were published in 1855 by Artaria & Co. of Vienna, as proprietors of Beethoven's MS. It is likely that Messrs. Power, owners of Moore's copyright lines, refused Mr. Thomson permission to publish them along with Beethoven's arrangements, for in the new edition of Breitkopf & Härtel, of which they form No. 258, the melodies are adapted to verses (some comic, and of extreme vulgarity) by Joanna Baillie and others; three are arranged as vocal duets; two have a choral refrain. Another collection of 25 Irish airs forms No. 261 of Breitkopf & Härtel's edition; they are arranged in similar form and are equal in excellence; some are found in Moore, others are of doubtful authenticity: of the air called 'Garryone,' Beethoven has different arrangements in each. That whoever furnished the great musician with the text of the airs must have been careless or incompetent, will be evident by a comparison of the air 'Colleen dhas,' as found in No. 9 of Artaria's edition, with that already given in this article: not only is the scale destroyed and the air deprived of its pathetic peculiarity, but whole strains are omitted altogether. (The air is here transposed for the sake of comparison.)

{ \time 9/8 \key g \major \partial 8 \relative a' { \repeat volta 2 { a16 b | c8 e c b d b a gis a16 b | c8 e c b d b a[ g!] e | c'8. b16 c8 e, a gis a4 } a16 b | c8. d16 e f g8 e c b g a16 b | c8. d16 e f g8 e gis a4\fermata \cadenzaOn \tiny a,8[^\markup { \smaller \italic cadenza } b16 c] d8[ c d e] f[ e f gis] \cadenzaOff \normalsize \set Timing.measurePosition = #(ly:make-moment -1 8) a8 g8. f16 e8 d e c b16[ g8.] a16[ b] | c8. b16 a8 e a gis a4 \bar "||" } }
Some Irish airs among others arranged by Beethoven, appear in No. 259 of Breitkopf & Härtel's edition, and No. 262 consists of 20 of them alone.

[ R. P. S. ]

  1. This is the distinction between the Musette and the Cornemuse, the former answering to the Scotch and the latter to the Irish Pipe.
  2. This explains the passage about the wild cats in the Story of Conall (Campbell's Tales and Legends of the W. Highlands, i. 167.