Irish Dancing, Music, and the Harp Society

In strolling back leisurely to the hotel, we were attracted by the merry sounds of a fiddle issuing from a small public-house in the suburbs. On inquiry we learned that some young people of both sexes were assembled here for the purpose of recreating themselves with a dance. This fondness for dancing and music is not the least remarkable trait in the national character. Ireland has been happily called the land of song. Here the love of music is not an artificial or acquired taste; it is the genius of the people, that by an irresistible impulse prompts them to give vent to their feelings of mirth or sadness in the expressive language of the soul. Song seems to be a portion of an Irishman's nature; if he be merry he sings, as he says, "because he can't help it;" if sorrowful, "because it lightens the trouble at his heart." The peculiar character of the Irish music must strike even an indifferent observer—alternately joyous and pathetic, soothing and abrupt—mingling bursts of exhilarating liveliness with strains and cadences of the most touching melancholy. The spirit of sorrow seems to hang upon the chords of Ireland's harp; and though it still gives forth "the light notes of gladness," we feel the painful truth of her poet's passionate address to it, when he exclaims—

"So oft hast thou echoed the deep sigh of sadness,

That ev'n in thy mirth it will steal from thee still."

This mingling of the wild and beautiful—of gloom and sunshine—of tears and smiles—which marks the scenery, the climate, and the history of Ireland, has impressed its character upon her music, and thrilling in her exquisite melodies, awakens emotions in the heart of the listener which none but those who have experienced them can comprehend.

While upon the subject of Irish music, we may remark that an association called "The Irish Harp Society" was established by private subscription in Belfast, in the beginning of the present century, by some lovers of ancient Irish music, who, with praiseworthy patriotism, endeavoured to revive the declining taste for the national instrument. The Marquis of Hastings and the Irish in the East Indies subscribed liberally for the purpose. Mr. Bunting, who in his valuable collection of "The Ancient Music of Ireland" has rescued some of the most beautiful airs of the country from oblivion, was also one of the founders of this interesting society, which we regret to say has lately been suffered to fall to the ground.

But the Irish harp and the Irish harper have passed away; the first is now only to be found in the cabinets of the curious, and the other in the memories of those who can look back distinctly forty years; when a poor travelling harper, bending beneath the load of his loved instrument, might be met wandering on foot from house to house—one of the last mournful relics of the ancient bards—of those honoured minstrels whose place was at the board of princes, and whose songs perpetuated the valiant deeds of heroes, or the romantic lays of love and legendary lore. The personal appearance of an old harper, who once used to travel the western counties, is thus described by a living writer who had seen him in his youth: "Freney could not then have been less than ninety years old. He was about the middle height, but much bent by age, with a head of the Homeric cast, and venerably crowned with the whitest hair. His harp was a dark-framed, antique-looking instrument, closely strung with thin brass wires, which produced that wild music that might be compared to the ringing of a fairy chime. The effect of this was heightened by the old man's peculiar expression of intense, and sometimes placid attention to his own music as he stooped forward, holding his head close to the wires."