Irish Music in the Middle Ages (2)

William H. Grattan Flood
Chapter VIII (concluded) | Start of chapter

The Annals of Ulster particularly praise the musical powers of Mac Cerbhaill, whom they describe as "the blind Cerbhail, namely, Maelruanaigh, the most eminent timpanist in Ireland and of Scotland, and of the whole world." The cognomen caoch was given to him "because his eyes were not straight, but squinted"; and, Clyn adds, "if he was not the inventor of chord music, yet, of all his predecessors and contemporaries, he was the corrector, teacher, and director." The author of the Annals of Clonmacnoise further informs us that "no man in any age ever heard or shall hereafter hear a better timpanist."

According to Hardiman, this harper, O'Carroll, composed the lovely song: "Eleanor Kirwan," but "every effort," he adds, "to recover the music has proved fruitless, although it was well known in Galway in the last [eighteenth] century." The air "is supposed to have died out with an old musical amateur of the name of French, who resided in Galway a few years ago; and thus perished, perhaps, the last known relic of the genius of O'Carroll."[9]

It must, however, be borne in mind that the battle of Bragganstown was in reality an Anglo-Irish feud; and an ancient chronicler relates that an old nurse distinctly gave warning to the Earl of Louth and his attendants of their approaching doom, in a song commencing: "All the joy of my heart is the hearing." I may add that on the Patent Rolls of Edward III., a pardon, dated May 31st, 1330, was granted to those Anglo-Irish who took part in the conflict, and, amongst others, to John the harper, of Ardee, Co. Louth.[10]

A charming legend is told in connection with the founding of the Franciscan Friary at Irrelagh—better known as Muckross Abbey, Killarney—in the year 1340.

MacCarthy Mor, i.e., Donnell, son of Tadhg, had vowed to build a monastery for Franciscans in thanksgiving for his delivery from a great danger. He found it difficult to select a suitable locality. While he hesitated a vision appeared to him, warning him to erect the convent nowhere but at Carraig-an-chiuil (the Rock of Music). He knew of no such place, and dispatched a number of his followers in various directions to make inquiries. The search was unsuccessful; no one had even heard of the name. They were returning in despair when they heard the most enchanting music issuing from a rock in Oirbealac [Irrelagh]. They hurried home in all haste, and related their experience to MacCarthy. He concluded that this was Carraig-an-chiuil—the Rock of Music spoken of in the vision—and commenced to build the monastery without delay."[11]

Under date of 1345, an Irish musician appears in the dual capacity of bard and minstrel. In the celebrated Leabhar na h-Uidhre, or Book of the Dun Cow (compiled and transcribed, in the year 1100, by Maelmuire Mac Kelleher), there is an entry, at page 37, from which we learn that Sigraidh O'Cuirnin, who had carefully perused said volume, in the year 1345, begged a prayer for the writer of the book. This Sigraidh O'Cuirnin, hereditary poet and ollav of the O'Rourkes, therein described as "poet and musician," died on a pilgrimage to Clonmacnoise in 1347.[12]

In reference to the hospitality extended by the Irish people of all classes to minstrels and bards, we read in the Annals of Clonmacnoise, under date of the year 1351:—

“William MacDonogh maenach O'Kelly invited all the Irish poets, brehons, bards, harpers, etc., in Ireland to his house, upon Christmas of this year, where every one of them was well used during the Christmas holidays, and gave contentment to each of them at the time of their departure, so as every one was well pleased, and extolled William for his bounty.”

Thierry thus writes —"Every house preserved two harps, always ready for travellers, and he who could best celebrate the liberties of former times, the glory of patriots, and the grandeur of their cause, was rewarded with a more lavish hospitality."

For the year 1357, there is a record of the demise of Donlevy O'Carroll, "an excellent musician," and "a noble master of melody, the person that was best in his own art in Ireland." Three years later, according to the Annals of Ulster, died Gilla-na-naem O'Conway, "ollam of Thomond as Timpanist," whom other annalists describe as "chief professor of music in Thomond."

In 1361, the obit is chronicled of Magrath O'Finn, "chief professor of Siol Murray (Sligo) in music and minstrelsy," followed, three years later by that of Bryan O'Brien—also called Bran Ua Briain—an eminent timpanist—or performer on the tiompan.

A terrible blow was given to music in Ireland by the passing of the iniquitous Statute of Kilkenny, in 1367, which made it penal to receive or entertain Irish bards, pipers, harpers, minstrels, rhymers, etc., the ostensible reason being that "these and such like often came as spies on the English." However, as Dr. Joyce writes, "it was intended to apply only to the English, and xvas framed entirely in their interests—its chief aim being to withdraw them from all contact with the 'Irish enemies,' and to separate the two races for evermore."[13]

From the Annals of Clonmacnoise, we learn that John Mac Egan and Gilbert O'Barden, two most famous harpers of Conmaicne (Ardagh), died in 1369; and Andrew Mac Senaigh, "master of melody," died of the plague, at Tuam, in 1371—whose name is given as "Amhlaim Mac Senaigh, accomplished emperor of melody," by the Ulster Annalists.

On the Patent Rolls of the year 1375 (49 Edw. III.), we find a license granted to Donal O'Moghan, an Irish minstrel [Ministrallus Hibernicus], "for that he not alone was faithful to the King, but was also the cause of inflicting many evils on the Irish enemies," permitting him, contrary to the Statute of Kilkenny, to dwell within the English Pale.[14] Hardiman adds: "This recreant bard was one of the very few traitors of his Order, of which Patriotism was the motto and ruling principle. Like Alfred, the Irish bards went amongst the enemy to learn their situation, strength and intentions, which they never failed to report to their countrymen."

Under date of 1379, the Four Masters chronicle the obit of Gillacuddy O'Carroll, "the most delightful minstrel of the Irish," who is called by the Ulster Annalists, "William, son of Gillacuddy O'Carroll." Evidently the musical abilities of the O'Carroll family had not diminished since the days of Maelroony O'Carroll—so lauded by the Irish chroniclers, as also by the Anglo-Irish annalist, Clyn, who died in 1349, as Guardian of the Franciscan Friary, Kilkenny.

One of the many legends that for long obtained currency was the ascription of the song, "Eiblín A Rúin."—vulgo "Aileen Aroon"—to Donogh mór O'Daly, of Finvarra, Cistercian Abbot of Boyle, who was called "the Ovid of Ireland," and who died in the year 1244. Most writers concur in dating the music and words as from "the first half of the thirteenth century," whilst the more sceptical tell us that it was composed in "the latter portion of the sixteenth, or the first half of the seventeenth century." The sober truth is that this exquisite melody, so admired by Handel (as we learn on the unimpeachable testimony of the Venerable Charles O'Conor, of Belanagare), was written in the last quarter of the fourteenth century. It was composed by Carrol mór O'Daly, about the year 1390, in honour of Eibhlin Kavanagh, of Polmonty Castle, near Bunclody, Co. Wexford; and all readers are familiar with the romantic story of how our Irish harper and composer successfully won the hand of Kavanagh's fair daughter.[15]

The minstrel O'Daly, who is described by the old annalists as "chief composer of Ireland, and Ollav of the country of Corcomroe," died early in 1405.

As a proof of the estimation in which Irish minstrels were held at this epoch, we learn from Froissart that, during the Christmas and Spring of 1394-5, at the sumptuous banquets given by King Richard II. to the Irish chieftains who visited him, these princes, contrary to English ideas, "had their minstrels and principal servants sitting at the same table, and eating from the same dish as they themselves."

In connection with the year 1399, the death is chronicled of Conla MacNeal O'Neill, "a great benefactor of the professors of Irish poetry and music."[16] During the same year died Boetius Mac Egan of Breffni, "a learned man in laws and music," who is described in the Annals of Ulster as "ollav in jurisprudence."

It scarcely comes within the scope of this work to touch on literary Irish personages, yet I cannot well resist the temptation of citing a little-known item of information, namely, the appointment of an Irishman as Lecturer in Oxford University. This eminent divine—Matthew O'Howen (Owens), son of the Aircinneic of Inishkeen on Lough Erne—lectured continuously at Oxford for fourteen years, and died on September 4th, 1382. His son, Matthew, was chaplain of Inishkeen, whose death occurred on October 11th, 1393, as is recorded in the Annals of Ulster.

On February 8th, 1396, died Matthew O'Luinin, "Herenach of the Ards [near Enniskillen], namely, an expert, learned man, both in poetry and history and melody and literature and other arts"—(Annals of Ulster).

The advent of Sir John Stanley as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, in December, 1399, is memorable for renewed hostility to Irish Bards and Minstrels, and as a consequence, his Viceroyalty was most unpopular. He left the country in May, 1401, and in the August following he was succeeded by Stephen Scrope, Deputy for the Duke of Clarence. This brings us to the fifteenth century, which demands a chapter all to itself.



[9] Hardiman's Irish Minstrelsy, vol. i., p. 361.

[10] Calendar of Patent Rolls, 4 Edward III., p. 532.

[11] History of the Franciscan Order in Ireland, sub. "Irrelagh."

[12] Facsimiles of National MSS. of Ireland, by Sir John T. Gilbert.

[13] Joyce's Concise History of Ireland (1895), p. 108.

[14] Hardiman's Irish Minstrelsy, vol. i, p. xviii.

[15] Cormac Comyn (Cormac dall) was the first to furnish an account of the circumstances under which "Eiblín A Rúin" was composed. This he did in 1750; and it will be found in Walker and Hardiman. O'Conor's testimony, quoting Handel, may be found in his Dissertations, p. 58. From the concluding stanza the Irish motto: Cead míle fáilte has been taken.

[16] Annals of Clonmacnoise, p. 322.