Irish Music

Patrick Weston Joyce

60. From very early times the Irish were celebrated for their skill in music. Our native literature abounds in references to music and to skilful musicians, who are always spoken of in terms of the utmost respect.

During the long period when learning flourished in Ireland, Irish professors and teachers of music would seem to have been almost as much in request in foreign countries as those of literature and philosophy. In the middle of the seventh century, Gertrude, abbess of Nivelle in Belgium, daughter of Pepin mayor of the palace, engaged SS. Foillan and Ultan, brothers of the Irish saint Fursa, of Peronne, to instruct her nuns in psalmody. In the latter half of the ninth century the cloister schools of St. Gall were conducted by an Irishman, Maengal or Marcellus, under whose teaching the music school there attained its highest fame.

61. The cultivation of music was not materially interrupted by the Danish troubles. Giraldus Cambrensis, who seldom had a good word for anything Irish, speaks of the Irish harpers as follows:—"They are incomparably more skilful than any other nation I have ever seen. For their manner of playing on these instruments, unlike that of the Britons to which I am accustomed, is not slow and harsh, but lively and rapid, while the melody is both sweet and sprightly. It is astonishing that in so complex and rapid a movement of the fingers the musical proportions [as to time] can be preserved; and that throughout the difficult modulations on their various instruments, the harmony is completed with such a sweet rapidity." For centuries after the time of Giraldus music continued to be cultivated uninterruptedly; and there was an unbroken succession of great professional harpers, who maintained their ancient pre-eminence down to the seventeenth century.

62. It is only when we arrive at the seventeenth century that we begin to be able to identify certain composers as the authors of existing airs. The oldest harper of great eminence coming within this description is Rory Dall (blind) O'Cahan, who was the composer of many fine airs, some of which we still possess. Died 1600.

Thomas O'Connallon was born in the county Sligo early in the seventeenth century. He seems to have been incomparably the greatest harper of his day, and composed many exquisite airs. Died about 1700.

A much better known personage was Turlogh O'Carolan or Carolan: born at Nobber, county Meath, about 1670, died in 1738. He was blind from his youth, and ultimately became the greatest Irish musical composer of modern times. A large part of his musical compositions are preserved.

63. The harp is the earliest musical instrument mentioned in Irish literature. It was called crot or cruit, and was of various sizes from the small portable hand harp to the great bardic instrument six feet high. It was commonly furnished with thirty strings, but sometimes had many more.

The Irish had a small stringed instrument called a timpan, which had only a few strings—from three to eight. It was played with a bow or plectrum.

The bagpipe was known in Ireland from very early times: the form used was that now commonly known as the Highland pipes—slung from the shoulder: the bag inflated by the mouth,. The other form—resting on the lap, the bag inflated by a bellows—which is much the finer instrument, is of modern invention. The bagpipe was in very general use, but it was only the lower classes that played on it: the harp was the instrument of the higher classes.

64. The music of ancient Ireland consisted wholly of short airs, each with two strains or parts, seldom more. But these, though simple in comparison with modern music, were constructed with such exquisite art that of a large proportion of them it may be truly said no modern composer can produce airs of a similar kind to equal them.

65. It was only in the last century that people began to collect Irish airs from singers and players, and to write them down. The principal collections of Irish airs are those of Bunting, Petrie, Joyce, Horncastle, Lynch, and Hoffman. Other collections are mostly copied from these.

The man who did most in modern times to draw attention to Irish music was Thomas Moore. He composed his exquisite songs to old Irish airs. The whole collection of songs and airs—well known as 'Moore's Melodies'—is now published in one small cheap volume.

66. We know the authors of many of the airs composed within the last 200 years: but these form the smallest portion of the whole body of Irish music. All the rest have come down from old times, scattered fragments of exquisite beauty, that remind us of the refined musical culture of our forefathers. To this last class belong such well known airs as Savourneen Dheelish, Shule Aroon, Molly Asthore, The Boyne Water, Garryowen, Patrick's Day, Eileen Aroon, Langolee, &c. To illustrate what is here said, I may mention that of about 120 Irish airs in all Moore's Melodies, we know the authors of less than a dozen: as to the rest, nothing is known either of the persons who composed them or of the times of their composition.