Irish Pipers in the Eighteenth Century

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

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Chapter XXIII....concluded

It was also the custom in the first half of the eighteenth century to have bonfires on St. John's Eve and St. Peter's Eve, with dancing and music. From an advertisement in Faulkner's Journal I find that on June 19th, 1742, the Lord Mayor of Dublin, William Aldrich, issued a proclamation, forbidding the customary social gatherings on the eve of St. John and on that of SS. Peter and Paul. This was owing to the growing movement in favour of the Young Pretender.

For centuries Irish harpers and minstrels had accompanied the Irish troops. Irish pipers, too, went with the Irish brigade, and took part in the memorable battle of Fontenoy on May 11th, 1745. It is on record that the two tunes played at Fontenoy were "St. Patrick's Day in the Morning" and "The White Cockade." This is probably the last appearance in battle of the Irish Piob mor (war pipes) of which there is any mention.

One of the most distinguished pipe players about the year 1760 was Piper Jackson (a brother of "Hero" Jackson), regarding whom John O'Keeffe has a couple of references. Jackson lived at Ballingarry, County Limerick, and was not only a good violinist and bagpipe player, but was also a remarkable composer. A volume of his airs was published by Sam Lee, of Dublin, in 1774, entitled Jackson's Celebrated Irish Tunes, a reprint of which was issued in 1790 by Edmund Lee, 2, Dame-street, price 2s. 2d. O'Keeffe writes:—"Hero Jackson had a brother, a fine gentleman of great landed property, and a complete musician on the pipes; they named him 'Piper' Jackson; he composed 'Jackson's Morning Brush.' I wrote a trio to it for my 'Wicklow Mountains,' which was sung by Richardson, Johnson and Fawcett." Many of Jackson's best airs are called after himself, such as "Jackson's Maggot," "Jackson's Strinkin," "Jackson's Coggie," "Jackson's Cup," etc. Among the printed airs, many of which were composed long before Jackson's day, are a few that appeared for the first time, like "Cuma Liom" (It is indifferent to me, or I don't care).

To O'Keeffe we are also indebted for a notice of Piper MacDonnell. Writing of the period, 1770, he says;—

"MacDonnell, the famous Irish piper, lived in great style—two houses, servants, hunters, &c. His pipes were small and of ivory, tipped with silver and gold. You scarcely saw his fingers move, and all his attitudes, while playing, were steady and quiet, and his face composed. On a day that I was one of a very large party who dined with Mr. Thomas Grant, of Cork, MacDonnell was sent for to play for the company during dinner; a chair and table were placed for him on a landing outside the room, a bottle of claret and a glass on the table, and a servant waiting behind the chair designed for him; the door left wide open. He made his appearance, took a rapid survey of the preparation for him, filled his glass, stepped to the dining room door, looked full into the room, saying—'Mr. Grant, your health and company,' drank it off, and threw a half-crown on the table, saying to the servant, ' There, my lad, is two shillings for my bottle of wine, and keep the sixpence for yourself.' He ran out of the house, mounted his hunter, and galloped off, followed by his groom.

"About the same season I prevailed on MacDonnell to play one night on the stage at Cork, and had it announced in the bills that Mr. MacDonnell would play some of Carolan's fine airs upon the 'Irish organ.' The curtain went up, and discovered him sitting alone in his own dress; he played and charmed everybody."

The reference to the bagpipe as the "Irish organ" was anticipated by Roger North in 1680, as he writes:—"The equipment of the town barge was very stately, for ahead there sat four or five drone bagpipe—the North Country organ—and a trumpeter astern."

Another famed piper of this period was Parson Sterling—not to be confounded with Orange Sterling, who was also a musician. Parson Sterling was a native of Lurgan, and was not only an excellent performer on the pipes, but also shone as a composer.

From 1740 to 1770 numerous "Laments" commemorative of Rapparees and Highwaymen were popular. In particular, "Crotty's Lament" (1742), and "Freney's Lament" (1760), were well known in the counties of Waterford, Kilkenny, and Wexford. Freney, was subsequently pardoned; was appointed to a minor post in the Customs at New Ross; and died full of years in 1790, being buried at Inistioge.

One of the most celebrated bagpipe tunes in 1770 was "Brennan on the Moor," a setting of a song written in praise of a noted Irish Tory or Rapparee, William Brennan. The melody, with its rousing refrain, is now almost forgotten, and the ballad has not been heard in recent years. In 1775, Rev. Dr. Campbell was delighted with the Irish bagpipes, as also with Irish dances. He was Rector of Galoon and Chancellor of Clogher, and was a friend of Edmund Burke, Johnson, Boswell, and Goldsmith. He died June 20th, 1795. One tune in particular pleased him vastly (as Pepys would say), namely, "The Rock of Cashel," which he saw danced at Cashel. Whilst a guest at the house of Mr. MacCarthy, of Spring Hill, County Tipperary, he noted some of the native social customs as follows:—

"Here we are at meals, even on Sunday, regaled with the bagpipe, which, to my uncultivated ear, is not an instrument so unpleasant as the players of Italian music represent it. After supper I, for the first time, drank whiskey punch, the taste of which is harsh and austere, and the smell worse than the taste. The drinkers of it say it becomes so palatable that they can relish no other. The spirit was very fierce and wild, requiring not less than seven times its own quantity of water to tame and subdue it."

In 1779, Beranger, whilst on a visit to Connacht, found the bagpipe much in evidence at local amusements, and he saw "a rustic dance for a cake"—that is, the cake dance, as it is called. His diary is of especial interest as giving us the names of six dance tunes then popular. Those dance tunes he names as follows:—"Miss M'Leod's Reel," "Batha Buidhe," "The Geese in the Bog," "Madhadh na bplandie," "The Roscommon Hunt," and "The Hare in the Corn." We can, therefore, date these six dance tunes as prior to the year 1779—just one hundred and twenty-five years ago. Another tourist of this period alludes to a favourite air he heard played on the bagpipes, viz., "The Shamrock Shore." A few years later another tourist alludes to a popular Donegal pipe-melody, "Maggie Pickins," which went back to the seventeenth century. It was cribbed by the Scotch between the years 1715 and 1740, and adapted to a song- called "Whistle o'er the lave o't"—so indelicate that it had to be rewritten by Robert Burns in 1790. Neither Bunting nor Petrie noticed the interesting fact that this fine pipe-melody was utilized by the Volunteers as a marching-tune.

In the musical instrument room of the National Museum in Dublin, there are six fine specimens of Irish pipes in a case, the oldest of which is dated 1768. There are two others dated 1770 and 1789, made by the elder Kenna of Dublin. The gem of the collection is the set of "Union" pipes, said to have belonged to Lord Edward Fitzgerald, but I have grave doubts, from a recent examination, of their authenticity.[2] Another beautiful set is that which was made for Mr. Matthias Phelan, of Cappoquin, in 1790.

It may not be generally known that the first printed book of bagpipe tunes did not appear till 1784. This was "A Collection of Highland Vocal Airs, never hitherto published . . . and some specimens of Bagpipe Music, by Rev. Patrick M'Donald," followed, a year later, by Daniel Dow's collection.[3] However, the first distinctly Irish collection for the "Union" pipes was that by O'Farrell in 1799-1801. In addition to a variety of "slow and sprightly Irish tunes," there was added "a treatise with the most perfect instructions ever yet published for the pipes—with a vignette of O'Farrell playing on the Union pipes in the pantomime of 'Oscar and Malvina.'"[4]

In the last years of the eighteenth century, from 1790 to 1800, flourished John Crump, described by Petrie as "the greatest of the Munster pipers." His pipes were acquired by James Hardiman, who generously gave them to Paddy Coneely. Edward Keating Hyland, another Munster piper, composed the "Fox Chase" in 1799. He was an accomplished musician as well as piper, and got lessons in theory and harmony from Sir John Stevenson. When George IV. visited Dublin in 1821, he ordered a new set of pipes for Hyland, at a cost of fifty guineas, as a mark of recognition of his performance. Hyland, who was blind from the age of fifteen, died at Dublin in 1845. Other pipers of fame were Gaynor and Talbot, of whom Carleton writes eulogistically. James Gansey was of a later period.[5]

Irish pipers, even at the close of the eighteenth century and to this day, made no use of printed music, and taught orally, just as they had been instructed themselves. As late as 1773 Dr. Johnson, in his Tour in the Hebrides, alludes to the college of pipers in the Isle of Skye, which had been there "beyond all memory," and he tells of a similar college of pipers at Mull which had closed its doors sixteen years previously. It was only in 1828 that Captain Neill Macleod published "A Collection of Piobaireachd or Pipe Tunes, as verbally taught by the M'Crummin Pipers in the Isle of Skye, to their Apprentices"—a work distinguished by the use of an extraordinary notation of quasi-cryptic syllables.

But the most celebrated amateur piper of this period was the Rev. Charles Macklin, who is described by Lady Morgan as "a marvellous performer on the Irish bagpipes—that most ancient and perfect of instruments." Macklin, who was a nephew of the great actor of that name, was dismissed from his curacy for having played out his congregation with a solo on the bagpipes.

According to Dr. Kitto, William Talbot was certainly a talented musician as well as piper. Talbot was born near Roscrea, County Tipperary, in 1780, and lost his sight from small-pox in 1785, at which date his family removed to "the seaside, near Waterford." In 1793, being then but thirteen, he was already a piper of local repute, and was in request for all festive gatherings. From 1797 to 1801 he became a sailor and voyaged to various parts of the world, but again reverted to his first love, and became a professional piper in 1802. "At Limerick he made his first attempt to build an organ, in which he succeeded admirably without instruction from any person." Removing to Cork, he purchased an organ so as to become acquainted with the mechanism, and he soon constructed a fine-toned organ. From the experience thus acquired in the matter of reeds, etc., Talbot improved the "Uilleann" pipes considerably; and his improvements have been generally adopted by succeeding makers.

END OF CHAPTER XXIII.

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NOTES

[2] The date "1768" is engraved on the silver band of the Ivory Drones with the maker's name, Egan. Lord Edward was then in his fifth year.

[3] Rev. Patrick M'Donald and his brother had been collecting Highland airs from 1760 to 1780. The former was minister of Kilmore and Kilbride in Argyllshire, and his death took place in 1824, he being then in his ninety-seventh year. Joseph, his brother, died in 1782, whose Treatise on the Theory of the Scots Highland Bagpipe was published in 1803.

[4] The pantomime of Oscar and Malvina was produced in 1791.

[5] Gansey "the prince of Kerry pipers," died at Killarney in February, 1857, aged 90.