Ancient Irish Musical Instruments

William H. Grattan Flood
Chapter III (concluded) | Start of chapter

Let me here mention a comparatively unknown item of musical history in regard to Irish surnames. The CURTIN (MacCurtin) family is so named from a hereditary skill on the cruit; whilst the family names TUMPANE and TUMPANY are derived from a musical ancestry—famous timpanists, or performers on the timpan. The music of this latter instrument was generally known as a dump; and various dumps are to be met with in MS. music books of the sixteenth century. A similar musical origin is traced for the surnames Harper, Piper, Fiddler, etc., whilst the family of MACCROSSAN (now Englished CROSBIE) are so-called from the Irish word Crossan—a travelling musical comedian. The CRONINS or CRONANS are in like manner designated from a family of street singers.[1]

The Buinne was a primitive oboe, or a flute, and it is glossed by Zeuss as equivalent to tibia. O'Curry equates it with "trumpet in the shape of a horn," whilst Dr. O'Sullivan says that it is the Romance Buisine, or Bassoon, but I am more inclined to the view of the eighth-century Irish monks, which makes it a sort of pipe, or flute, or cambucus (crooked flute, as it is styled by Archbishop Kilwarby, in 1275). Moreover, we read that the Irish were wont to sing to the accompaniment of the cruit or the buinne, which renders it most probable that this latter was a delicate instrument of the flute genus. In a poem by William de Machault, a writer of the fourteenth century, there is a reference to our Irish buinne as "La flaute bretaigne," which, in English, was given the name of "Recorder," or "Flute a Bec."

In the twelfth-century manuscripts we meet with allusions to the bennbuabhal, a horn of a very resonant character, and corn (Chaucer's "corn pipe," and the Welsh "pibcorn,"[2]) which were horn-pipes. From the Irish corn-pipe came the instrument (as also the dance) called hornpipe, which instrument survived till the seventeenth century. As we have the hornpipe dances called from the horn-pipe, so we have the jig dance from the geige or fidil. The term "lilt" is from lilt-pipe, a form of shepherd's pipe—in fact a simple reed—replaced in after days by the human voice singing the syllables la la la to the tune—and hence called "lilting" a tune. Chaucer writes thus in his House of Fame:—

"Many a flower and liltyng horne,
And pipes made of greene corne."

The Guthbuinne was also a horn, but more of the bassoon character. (Compare the "gait-horn" and the "wayt" or oboe.) Of course there is no difficulty in identifying the feadan with the fife; and O'Curry has given many references to it from ancient manuscripts. The Stoc and the Sturgan were forms of clarions or trumpets, though some authors assert that they were horns—whence the name "stock-horn." We learn from the Brehon Laws that cooks and trumpeters were to have a special supply of "cheering mead."

Although there is mention of the bagpipe in the Brehon Laws of the fifth century,[3] this instrument did not come into prominence until the eleventh century. Dr. W. K. Sullivan tells us that the old Irish bagpipe was inflated by the mouth, "and was in every respect the same as the Highland bagpipe of to-day." In the State Papers of the fourteenth century, the bagpipe is expressly termed "the music of the Irish Kernes."

One of the earliest drawings of this warlike instrument is in a MS. in the British Museum, dated 1300, describing the Irish who accompanied King Edward to Calais, in which manuscript there is an illuminated initial letter with the quaint device of "a pig, as gravely as possible, playing on the bagpipes." Lovers of mediaeval art will be interested in knowing that there is a splendid painting still preserved at Vienna of an Irish piper, by the celebrated Albrecht Dürer, dated 1514; and in Ferguson's Dissertation (in Bunting) there is an illustration of "a piper heading an irruption of the native Irish into the English Pale in the sixteenth century."

We are given by Stanihurst, in 1584, a most graphic description of the Irish bagpipes of his time, as follows: "The Irish, likewise, instead of the trumpet, make use of a wooden pipe of the most ingenious structure, to which is joined a leather bag, very closely bound with bands. A pipe is inserted in the side of this skin, through which the piper, with his swollen neck and puffed-up cheeks, blows in the same manner as we do through a tube. The skin, being thus filled with air, begins to swell, and the player presses against it with his arm [fore-arm]; thus a loud and shrill sound is produced through two wooden pipes of different lengths. In addition to these, there is yet a fourth pipe, perforated in different places, [having five or six holes], which the player so regulates by the dexterity of his fingers, in the shutting and opening of the holes, that he can cause the upper pipes to send forth either a loud or a low sound at pleasure."

Ullan Pipes and Cuisle Pipes are synonymous, according to Vallancey, inasmuch as Ullan is derived from Uilleann = elbow, whilst even in the last century pipers called their bellows bolg cuisleann = fore-arm bellows. Walker adds: "In Ullan Pipes we have, perhaps, the woollen Bagpipe of Shakespeare, to which he attributes an extraordinary effect" (Merchant of Venice, Act iv., scene 1). The late Professor Morley, in his English Literature, says: "The familiar presence of the bagpipe indicates a former Celtic occupation of the fens;" and he adds that "the drone of a Lincolnshire bagpipe is one of Falstaff's similes for melancholy." Other Shakesperian commentators assert that the "drone of a Lincolnshire bagpipe" is not the music of that instrument, but is intended to typify "the croaking of frogs in the fen country." From the seventeenth century the Irish "Union" pipes were played as at present, that is, the wind being supplied by a bellows (worked by the forearm), just as were the regal, or portative organs, organs of that date.

Regarding the introduction of the organ into Ireland, Walker says that "there is no mention of an Organ in our Ecclesiastical History till the year 1641, at the Friary of Multifarnham," etc. This truly absurd statement will give the reader an idea of the value to be attached to many of the facts (?) detailed by Walker, and goes far to justify the strong language in which O'Curry denounces such charlatans on the subject of ancient musical history. Other writers have asserted that the earliest notices of the organ in Ireland date from about the middle of the fifteenth century; but recent research has shown that we can go back to the first decade of the ninth century for the use of "the king of instruments" in our lovely Hiberno-Romanesque churches.[4]

About the year 140, according to Optatian, the organs then in use had fifteen pipes, namely, fourteen notes for the seven modes, and one additional for the Proslam-banomenos, but, in A.D. 350, they were increased in size to twenty-six pipes. In the year 660, Pope Vitalian (657-672), as we learn from John the Deacon, introduced organs into the service of the Church; and they were soon adopted in the Irish Church, as also by the Anglo-Saxons. Under date of the year 814, in the Annals of Ulster, we read that the organ in the Church of Cluaincrema (Cloncraff, Co. Roscommon) suffered destruction by an accidental fire. It is almost unnecessary to add that the Irish word orgán (oircin) is a loan-word from the Latin organum; and organum in the Vulgate always means a pipe. Before the death of Charlemagne (814) the organs had fifty-two pipes, with two stops; and subsequently, many improvements and additions were made. During the Middle Ages it was the custom to designate the king of instruments as "a payre of organs,"[5] a designation which obtained as late as the year 1680.

The next chapter will be appropriately devoted to a brief explanation of ancient Irish scales, and a summing-up of the characteristics of our old melodies.



[1] Similarly, the family name Mac an Bhaird, or Ward, which really means "son of the bard," is derivable from a bardic origin, just as the Brehons (who in some cases changed their names to Judge) are the descendants of Irish Judges.

[2] The "Pibcorn" was played in Wales till near the close of the eighteenth century.

[3] In one of the ancient Irish historic tales describing the palace of Da Derga at Bohernabreena (Bothar-na-Bruighne), it is stated that "nine pipers, who came from the fairy hills of Bregia," did honour to King Conaire, by their performances. Their names were Bind, Robind, Riarbind, Sihe, Dihe, Deichrind, Umal, Cumal, and Ciallglind, and they are styled "the best pipe-players in the whole world." In this tale the set of pipes is called tinne, whilst the band of pipers is named cetharchoire, indicating the four parts of the pipe.

[4] Walker also informs us that "the Irish harp received considerable improvements from the ingenuity of Robert Nugent, a Jesuit, in the 15th century [sic], who resided for some time in this Kingdom "Even assuming that 15th is a slip for 16th, Father Robert Nugent did not flourish till the 17th century. As is well known, the Jesuit Order was not founded till the year 1549 by St. Ignatius; and it was only in 1561 that Father David Wolfe, S.J., founded the Jesuit mission in Ireland.

[5] In the 14th century organ pipes were generally called "flutes," and hence the subsequent corruption of flue pipes for flute pipes. In 1667, Pepys, in his diary, under date of April 4th, alludes to "a fair pair of organs."