Irish Music from the 6th to the 9th Century

William H. Grattan Flood
Chapter II

THE Carmen Paschale of our Irish Sedulius (Shiel), written in the fifth century, was, according to Dr. Sigerson, "the first great Christian epic worthy of the name," the Latin metre of which is decidedly Irish in its characteristics. But, from a musical point of view, the beautiful Introit of the Mass of the Blessed Virgin—"Salve Sancta Parens enixa puerpera Regem," which is still sung throughout the Western Church, is the most glowing tribute to the estimation in which this worthy Irishman's compositions were held by the compilers of the Roman Missal and Gradual. Again, in the Roman Liturgy we find our Irish composer's abecedarian hymn commencing "A Solis ortus cardine"; and, as Dr. Healy writes, "several other expressions in the Divine Office are borrowed from the Carmen Paschale of Sedulius."

Some critics have, as might be supposed, questioned the nationality of Sedulius (for there is no contrary opinion as to the authenticity of his writings), but this point is set at rest by another Irish scholar of European fame, Dicuil the Geographer. This Dicuil, who flourished about the year 795, wrote a celebrated treatise De Mensura Orbis Terrarum, and, in the second section of his fifth chapter, he quotes twelve poetical lines from Theodosius, regarding which he observes that the faulty prosody had the authority of Virgil, "whom in similar cases our own Sedulius imitated." Needless to add that the mention of "noster Sedulius" by Dicuil, fellow-countryman of the Christian Virgil, should be held as conclusive.

In 544, Amergin MacAmalgaid mentions the Irish Harp; and, at one Feis there were over a thousand bards present—each ollamh having thirty bards in his train. It is interesting to notice that the last Feis at Tara was held by Dermot MacFergus, in 560. As a result of the Synod of Drumceat, near Limavady, in 590, the chief minstrels were prohibited from pursuing the nomadic life they had previously been leading, and were assigned apartments in the mansion houses of the princes and chiefs.[1] The Annals of Ulster chronicle the death ot Ailill the Harper, son of Aedh Slaine, who was killed in the year 634.

Another early reference to the Irish Harp is in a distich on the death of St. Columba (d. 596), wherein we read of a "song of the Cruit without a ceis," that is, "a harp-melody without a harp-fastener [ceis]," or an air played on an untuned harp. Regarding our Irish cruit Sir Frederick Gore Ouseley, Bart., Mus. Doc., says:—"From its very construction we must assume that Harmony was known to the ancient Irish." Moreover, the Irish Harmony was distinctly in advance of Hucbald's (840-930), which only allowed fourths, and fifths, and octaves, with occasional elevenths and twelfths, whereas the Celts admitted major and minor thirds as consonant intervals.

Not only were our ancestors acquainted with Harmony in the sixth century, but they had an acquaintance with discant or primitive counterpoint. From a passage in Adamnan's Life of St. Columba we gather that the Irish monks sang canticles in counterpoint. St. Adamnan uses the phrase "modulabiliter decantare," which clearly indicates discant; and, in the ancient Irish glosses of the eighth century "modulantibus" is glossed by donaibhi bindigeddar, that is, "to those who make melody." Hucbald, in the ninth century, describes organising as "modulatio." Furthermore, John Scotus Erigena, the world-famed Irish philosopher, who died circ. 875, is the first authority to allude to discant or organum, which subsequently developed into counterpoint. This he does in his tract De Divisione Naturae (864), as will be seen in Chapter VII.

In connection with the subject of ecclesiastical chant it is as well to emphasise the fact that whilst the Irish at the close of the sixth century had a form of music tablature, a knowledge of the diatonic scale, harmony, counterpoint, and musical form, the plain-song of Rome was in a very elementary stage, and was only known traditionally until collected and arranged in an Antiphonarium by Pope St. Gregory the Great, in 593. Dr. Haberl adds:—"Whether Pope Gregory made use of the letters of the alphabet or of symbols (points, accents, etc.) to designate the sounds is uncertain; but it is certain that whatever signs he adopted they were not adequate to determine the intervals with exactness." In fact, not a single authentic liturgical chant-book in existence goes back farther than the eighth century, or early in the ninth, as some assert.[2]

All musical persons have read of the world-renowned monastery of St. Gall, in Switzerland, but the fact is too often ignored that its foundation, in the year 612, was the work of the Irish saint Cellach, whose name has been latinized Gallus or Gall. This great Irishman, a student of Bangor, Co. Down, the friend and disciple of St. Columbanus, died October 16th, 646, and, at his demise, the fame of his music-school became known far and near.

About the year 653, St. Gertrude, of Brabant (daughter of Pepin, Mayor of the Palace), abbess of Nivelle, in Brabant, sent for St. Foillan and St. Ultan, brothers of our celebrated St. Fursey (Patron of Perrone), to teach psalmody to her nuns. These two Irish monks complied with her request, and built an adjoining monastery at Fosse, in the diocese of Liege.

St. Mailduff, the Irish founder of Mailduffsburgh, or Malmesbury, in England, flourished in 670, and composed many beautiful hymns. He is best known as the tutor of St. Aldhelm, who tells us that the English students of his time flocked daily in great numbers to the schools of Ireland "of unspeakable excellence," and that Erin, "synonymous with learning, literally blazed like the stars of the firmament with the glory of her scholars."

Davey, in his History of English Music, mentions, with pardonable pride, the fact that St. Aldhelm (d. 709) is the first English writer who alludes to neums, or musical notation signs, but he conveniently ignores the equally well-known fact that the illustrious Saxon saint owed his knowledge of neumatic music tablature and liturgical chant to our countryman, St. Mailduff.


[1] At this Synod, according to Dallan Forgail, were: "Twenty Bishops, two score priests, fifty deacons, and thirty students;" and he adds that the Bishops and priests were "of excellence and worth," and were famed for "singing psalms—a commendable practice."

[2] Gevaert adds:—"The compilation and composition of the liturgical chants traditionally ascribed to St. Gregory is, in truth, a work of the Hellenic Popes, at the end of the seventh and the beginning of the eighth centuries."