Shakespeare and Irish Music

From A History of Irish Music by William H. Grattan Flood

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Chapter XVII.

THE subject of Shakespeare's acquaintance with Irish music will possess for many, at least, the merit of novelty. Even to the ripe Shakespearian scholar the many Irish airs alluded to by the Bard of Avon are comparatively unknown, and, therefore, a separate chapter on such a theme may not be unacceptable.

With this object in view, I purpose to adduce some convincing arguments in favour of Shakespeare's knowledge of Irish minstrelsy. Let it be premised that Irish music was much in vogue in England during the sixteenth century, and had favour at Court during the last years of Queen Elizabeth's reign, as is evident from the oft-quoted extract from the Talbot Papers, under date of September 19th, 1602, written by the Earl of Worcester to the Earl of Shrewsbury:—"We are frolic here in Court; much dancing in the Privy Chamber of Country Dances before the Queen's Majesty, who is exceedingly pleased therewith. Irish tunes are at this time most pleasing." Let me also add that Viscount St. Albans, or Francis Bacon (whom many writers believe to have written Shakespeare's plays), says that "no harp hath the sound so melting as the Irish harp."

There are many Irish words used by the great English bard, such as feere (far = a man), geck (a fool), cam (crooked), cailleach (an old woman), sprag, kerne, gallowglasses, etc; whilst the parallelisms of Puck and Puca, Mab and Meave, Lear and Lir, Malvolio and Melville, are equally well known. And does not Mr. Alfred Nutt admit that Shakespeare's fairy mythology is taken from Celtic fairy tales? He says that Ireland possesses "a romantic literature which, so far as interest and antiquity of record are concerned, surpasses that of Wales, and which is obviously and undoubtedly more archaic in character"; and he adds that Oberon and Puck "are members of a clan of supernatural beings having the same origin as the Tuatha de Danaan wizard hero or princess of Irish romance." But with these matters I am not concerned, and, therefore, must fain content myself with the definite topic of Irish tunes, Irish musical allusions, and such kindred matter to be found in the works of Shakespeare.

There are eleven Irish tunes mentioned under various aliases by the bard of Avon, of which two have been previously identified by Malone, Dr. Petrie, Dr. Sigerson, and others. For the identity of the remaining nine I alone am responsible. Taking the list in order, on each of which I shall say a few words, the eleven airs are:—

  1. Callino custurame.
  2. Ducdame.
  3. Fortune my foe.
  4. Peg a Ramsay.
  5. Bonny Sweet Robin.
  6. Whoop! do me no harm, good man.
  7. Weladay, or Essex's Last Good-night.
  8. The Fading.
  9. Light o' Love.
10. Yellow Stockings.
11. Come o'er the bourn, Bessy, to me.

As regards "Callino custurame," we learn from Halliwell that a ballad of this name was entered on the books of the Stationers Company in 1581-2, and it was printed in A Handful of Pleasant Delites in 1584. It is also found in William Ballet's Lute Book, the manuscript of which is in Trinity College, Dublin, dating from cir. 1590. In the FitzWilliam Virginal Book (incorrectly called Queen Elizabeth's Virginal Book), which dates from between the years 1602-1622, our Irish air appears as "Callino custurame," arranged by Dr. William Byrd (called the English Palestrina), who died, as he lived, a good Catholic, on July 4th, 1623. It was subsequently printed by Playford, in 1673, arranged in four parts, and headed "An Irish Tune." The only difficulty is in equating the correct Irish for Shakespeare's phonetic rendering. Boswell's Malone gives the name as equivalent to "little girl of my heart for ever and ever." Dr. Petrie, Dr. William Stokes, and Sir Robert Stewart regard "Callino custurame" as an attempt to spell as pronounced "Colleen oge asthore," which is also the view of Dr. Sigerson, with a slight modification. However, the "me" at the end persists in all the readings, and so I should venture to give the correct Irish as Cailin og a' rtuire mé, an old synthetic ending now obsolete, which is concurred in by my friend, Mr. David Comyn, the editor of Keating.

2. In the fifth scene of "As You Like It" there is reference to "Ducdame," an invitation calling fools into a circle, and "a verse to this note." Now "Ducdame'' is an anglicised form of the Irish invocation—An d-tiocfaid = "Will you come," which is sung twice in the third verse of "Eileen a roon." "Verse passages" in the sixteenth century meant passages for solo voices; and here Jacques sings the song in answer to the preceding song. An almost equally well-known seventeenth-century Irish song was An tiocfadh tu a bhaile liom. As very properly pointed out by Dr. Sigerson, the real ballad containing this apparently enigmatical name is Eiblín a rúin, which was then exceedingly popular in England. Another phrase which occurs in the same lovely song is the well-known cead mile fáilte, or "a hundred thousand welcomes"—and it is remarkable that Shakespeare makes Agrippa greet Coriolanus with "a hundred thousand welcomes," a purely Irish form of salutation. More remarkable still is the employment of the invocation, "diuca tu"—"Will you come," in the form of "Ducket" and "Tucket," by Shakespeare in "Henry V." (Act IV., Scene 2). The ordinary explanation equating tucket with the Italian toccata is absurd for many reasons. Shakespeare gives the word as meaning a signal or call for the trumpets or drums to sound—"Then let the trumpets sound the tucket sonance." This explanation is borne out by a stage direction in the "Devil's Law Case," in 1623, when we read: "Two tuckets by several trumpets," i.e., two trumpet calls; and in an eighteenth-century ballad we find a soldier complaining bitterly to his mistress of the cruelty of the tucket sound with its reiterated burthen of "Will you come, will you come."

The tune of "Eiblín a rúin" is too well known to need illustration, but I shall just mention that it was sung to phonetically written Irish words in 1731 at the old Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin, by Mrs. Sterling, in an opera epilogue to "Richard III.," and again by Mrs. Storer, as an interlude, in Shakespeare's tragedy of "Julius Caesar," at the same theatre, on December 15, 1743. Within twenty-five years of Shakespeare's death we find Joe Harris, an Irish actor, in London, singing Irish songs. In 1666, when "Henry V." was presented, one of the principal attractions was Harris's singing of a song in the Irish language. From Pepys we learn that the beauty of the Irish air, wedded to its original Irish words, completely captivated the audience. He thus writes: "Among other things, Harris, a man of fine conversation, sang his Irish song, the strangest in itself, and the prettiest sung by him that ever I heard."

3. "Fortune my Foe" is an exquisite sixteenth-century Irish melody, alluded to by Shakespeare, the music of which is to be found in William Ballet's Lute Book, in 1593; also, in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, and in William Forster's Virginal Book, dated January 31st, 1624, now the property of King Edward VII. As far back as 1565-6 it was licensed as a ballad, and is mentioned in "The Merry Wives of Windsor" (Act II., Scene 3). Chappell says that "Fortune my Foe" was known as the Hanging Tune, "from the metrical lamentations of extraordinary criminals being always chanted to it." In February, 1649-50, we read in a contemporary chronicle that the Irish pipers attached to Lord Inchiquin's army drew off from Naas to the march of "Fortune my Foe"; and in 1676 this Irish tune was used by Thomas Duffet, himself an Irishman, for the well known lyric, "Since Coelia's my Foe." The earliest tune to which Duffet's words were set is in Playford's, dated 1676, whereas another air, claimed as the "Irish tune," is "King James's March to Ireland," to be found in the Leyden MS., about the year 1692-3, also known as "Lochaber no more." "Fortune my Foe" is an early sixteenth-century air, whilst the Irish tune to which "Since Coelia's my Foe" was adapted in 1730, is "Limerick's Lamentation," dating from 1691, and translated by Dermot O'Conor in 1720.

4. "Peg a Ramsay" is another old sixteenth-century Irish tune, included in William Ballet's Lute Book. It is called a "dump tune" by Thomas Nash, in 1596, in "Have with you to Saffron Walden"; whilst in his "Shepherds' Holiday," in 1598, he alludes to "Roundelays, Irish Hayes, Cogs and Rongs, and Peg a Ramsay." Shakespeare makes Sir Toby call Malvolio a "Peg a Ramsay" in "Twelfth Night" (Act II., Scene 3), proving the popularity of our Irish "dump tune." Some persons may naturally wonder what was a "dump tune" or a "dump." Shakespeare makes mention of merry dumps and doleful dumps. Chappell says that a dumpe was a "slow dance," which is incorrect, whilst Mr. Comyn equates it with "the Irish duan or dan, a song or poetical composition of any sort." Neither of these explanations is satisfactory. The dump was the music of the old Irish instrument known as the tiompan, a small stringed instrument, akin to the harp, and which was very popular in England during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries; so much so that the English language was enriched with the names "dump" and "thump"—the music produced by plucking or striking the tiompan. Shakespeare, in the fourth act of "Romeo and Juliet," begs the minstrels to cheer him with a "merry dump" (which would, of course, be absurd were a dump synonymous with a slow dance), and later on he alludes to "doleful dumps," whilst in the third act of "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" he again mentions a "deploring dump." He refers to dull and heavy dumps in "Much Ado," whilst in "Titus Andronicus" he uses the phrase "dreary dumps."

Here, perhaps, it is well to explain Thomas Nash's "Roundelays, Irish Hayes, Cogs and Rongs, and Peggie Ramsay." Rounds and Roundelays are Irish terms, the word lay being admittedly Celtic. Irish Hayes were Irish round dances as distinguished from other forms of dances, the round being the old Irish corr or reel. In a printed book of 1588 the Irish Hey de gie is illustrated as danced by four men, with bare arms, in imitation of a combat, and the music for it is printed in Playford's Musick's Handmaid, in 1678. Shakespeare, in the fifth act of "Love's Labour Lost," written in 1591, says: "Let them dance the hay," whilst in England's Helicon, written in 1600, we read: "Shall we go dance the hay." In Martin's Month's Mind, written in 1589, there is reference to "Irish Hayes, Jiggs, and Roundelays," and Shakespeare, in the second act of the "Midsummer-Night's Dream," says: "Come now, a roundel and a fairy song." It is almost unnecessary to explain that a "fairy song" is the exact English equivalent of our Irish Ceól—ride; and the roundel was a reel or dance in a circle. Sir Henry Sydney, in 1569, in a letter to Queen Elizabeth, waxes enthusiastic over the dancing of Irish jigs by the ladies of Galway, whom he describes as "very beautiful, magnificently dressed, and first-class dancers."

5. "Bonny Sweet Robin" is another Irish tune quoted by Shakespeare, and has been known in Ireland since the sixteenth century.

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