Irish Music in the Fifteenth Century

William H. Grattan Flood
Chapter IX

ALTHOUGH the first quarter of the fifteenth century was a most troubled period in Ireland, yet there were not wanting many learned men and musicians. In 1405, the Annals of Ulster chronicle the death of Gilladubh Mac Curtin, who is described as "Ollav (Doctor) of Thomond in Music," and who was also distinguished as an historian and writer. The same year is memorable for the demise of Carrol O'Daly (Cerbhall Ua Dalaigh), composer of "Eiblín A Rúin," whose obit is thus quaintly given by the annalist of Clonmacnoise:—"Keruell O'Daly, chief composer of Ireland, dane of the country of Corcomroe, died."

A great benefactor of the Irish minstrels—Tadhg O'Carroll, Prince of Ely O'Carroll—was gathered to his fathers in 1407. Conal Mac Geoghegan thus writes of him:—"This Teige was deservedly a man of great account and fame with the professors of poetry and music of Ireland and Scotland, for his liberality extended towards them, and every of them in general." According to the Annals of Ulster, Tadg Ua Cerbaill was defeated and slain by the Lord Deputy Scrope, who himself died of a pestilence in May, 1408.

The lovely song '"Deirdre deag-gnuireac"—Englished "The Blooming Deirdre"—was composed, in 1409, for the marriage of Thomas Fitz John, 6th Earl of Desmond, to Catherine, daughter of William Mac Cormac Mac Carthy, a romantic wedding which cost the bridegroom his inheritance. Certain it is that the unfortunate Earl, in whose honour the song was written, was compelled by his own family to surrender his title and possessions, and he died an exile at Rouen, on August 10th, 1420. Deirdre is used by the Earl's bard as representing the ancient Irish heroine of that name, who is the central figure of the "Fate of the Children of Usnach." Founded on the same story is Moore's lyric: "By the Feale's wave benighted."

As illustrating the satirical powers of the bardic family at this period, it is recorded by the Four Masters, in January of the year 1414, that the bard Nial O'Higgins satirised Sir John Stanley, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, for having plundered his property, and so fierce and stinging was the satire that the English Deputy died from the effects of it. In a word, O'Higgins literally rhymed him to death: and we know from the chronicles of Henry of Marlborough that Sir John Stanley, who had landed at Clontarf, in October, 1413, died at Ardee, Co. Louth, in January, 1414. The same annalists chronicle a second "poetical miracle" performed by the same family of rhymers against a hostile tribe. By way of retaliation, Sir John Talbot, Lord Furnivall, despoiled many of the Irish rhymers, as is recorded in the Annals of Ulster.

Under date of 1429, the Four Masters give us the obit of a distinguished Ulster musician, as follows:—Matthew, the son of Thomas O'Kiernan, Ollav of Breffni, and universally learned in history and music, died in his own house."

In 1433, as appears from the Annals of Ulster, occurred the death of Aedh O'Corcrain, a remarkable harper; and, early in 1435, Seanchan Mac Curtin, "historian, poet, and musician," was gathered to his fathers. From the MS. Annals of Ireland, by Duald MacFirbis, we learn that the year 1433 was memorable in Irish musical history by reason of the "two general invitations" given by Dame Margaret O'Carroll, wife of Calbach Ua Concobair, Prince of Offaly, to bards, minstrels, and learned men. The first general invitation (reception) took place on March 25th, at Killeigh, King's County, when 2700 persons assembled—"besides gamesters and poor men"—and each person was given a generous gratuity before dinner. The second reception was given on August 15th, at Rathangan, which was equally well attended.[1]

At this epoch, the enactments of the Statute of Kilkenny were utterly ignored, and this is confirmed by the Patent Rolls of the 15th of Henry VI. (1435) From this State Paper, it is quite apparent that the provisions of the statute were practically inoperative. It is distinctly stated "that Mimi, [Comedians], Irish Clarsaghours [Harpers], Tympanours [Timpanists], Crowthores [performers on the cruit], Kerraghers [Chess-players], Rymours [Rhymers], Skelaghis [Storytellers], Bardes, and others, contrary to the Statute of Kilkenny, went amongst the English, and exercised their arts and minstrelsies, and afterwards proceeded to the Irish enemies, and led them upon the King's liege subjects."[2]

Henry VI., as Renehan writes, "finding such laws ineffectual, and his lieges habitually paying grandia bona et dona, in exchange for Irish music, commissioned his Marshal in Ireland to imprison the harpers; and, in order to stimulate his activity, authorised him to appropriate, to his own private use, their gold and silver, their horses, harnesses, and instruments of minstrelsy."[3]

From the Annals of Ulster, under date of 1448, we learn of the death, at Kilconly, Co. Galway, of a munificent patron of minstrels, namely Tadhg O'Higgins, who is described as "preceptor in poetry and erudition of schools in Ireland and Scotland, and general entertainer of the litterati and pilgrims of Ireland."[4]

In striking contrast to the world-renowned fame of Irish musicians, England had no music-school of the least importance, even in the first decade of the fifteenth century. We have it on the authority of the late Rev. Sir Frederick Gore Ouseley, Bart., Mus. Doc., Professor of Music in Oxford University, that, of the English compositions which have survived, ranging from 1300 to 1510, "none seem to be of any great merit," and all betray "much crudeness and a sad lack of regular melody." Even Davey, the avowed eulogist of English music is forced to admit that "its condition in the fourteenth century was more barren than the thirteenth," and he adds: "Not a piece of music endurable by modern ears existed in England before 1400." In fact, the so-called "English School of Music" only dates from 1425, with John Dunstable as its founder, who died December 24th, 1453.

The wars of the Roses, which commenced in 1455, added materially to the existing strife in Ireland. We find the Geraldines of Kildare and Desmond, taking sides with the Yorkists, whilst the Ormondists threw in their lot with the Lancastrians, and of course, the Anglo-Irish and Celts participated in the general mêlée. Three-fourths of Ireland still belonged to the natives, and the English were obliged to pay heavy tribute to the Irish chiefs as a guarantee for peace. Thus, the barony of Lecale disbursed £20 a-year to O'Neill of Clanaboy; the county of Uriel £40 to the O'Neill; the county Wexford, £20 to Mac Murrough; the county Limerick £40 to O'Brien; the county Cork £40 to Mac Carthy of Muskerry; the counties of Kilkenny and Tipperary £40 to O'Carroll; the county Kildare £20 to O'Conor, etc., etc.

About the year 1455 flourished an Irish Cistercian monk, Brother Aengus, of Holy Cross Abbey, Co. Tipperary, who was a harper, organist, organ-builder, and composer. He joined the community of Duiske (Graignamanagh, Co. Kilkenny), in 1460, and was welcomed, notwithstanding the Statute of Kilkenny. The Annals of Duiske describe him in the most eulogistic terms. He especially won the favour of the then English Abbot of Duiske, by repairing the abbey-organ which had been, for many years, discarded owing to its bellows having proved a prey to damp and rats. The Anglo-Irish annalist adds:—"In truth, Brother Aengus excels in music any citharist (harper) ever heard in these parts; for not alone is he a master of psalmody and faux bourdon, as is evidenced by his setting of 'Benedicam Dominum,' but he is even a cunning performer on the cruit." In 1461, died Felimy O'Neill, described as "a man of hospitality and prowess, and head of the bardic bands and pilgrims of Ireland, and one that was a most extensive purchaser of poetic and erudite compositions, and was the greatest rhymer that was in Ireland in his time."—(Annals of Ulster.)

The Statute of Kilkenny, forbidding the English or Anglo-Irish of the Pale to receive or entertain Irish minstrels, was put in force by a new act, passed in 1481. Six different classes of bards are enumerated, and the strictest orders were given not on any account to permit harpers as guests.

In 1482 we meet with an interesting side-light of history in connection with the city of Waterford, showing clearly how the Urbs Intacta had resolved to maintain its "loyal" reputation, and uphold the penal enactments of the Statute of Kilkenny even against a Bishop who was a "mere Irishman." Nicholas O'Hennessy, Cistercian Abbot of Fermoy, had been "provided" by Pope Sixtus IV., on May 20th, 1480, to the united Sees of Lismore and Waterford, and was consecrated Bishop in 1481. This appointment was freely acquiesced in by the Chapter, clergy, and people of Lismore, yet the Waterford clergy and laity objected to the new Bishop on the plea that "he was Irish spoken, and did not understand the English language." On December 30th, 1482, the Pope bade the Archbishop of Cashel "to excommunicate the Waterford Chapter and clergy in case they should still be contumacious, and, if necessary, to invoke the aid of the secular arm." But, all in vain; the worthy Bishop deemed it prudent to retire to his abbey, and John, Rector of Baudrip, diocese of Bath and Wells, was appointed his successor—being duly consecrated on May 4th, 1483.[5]

Perhaps it is as well to state that (so general was the use of the Irish language in all parts of Ireland at the close of the fifteenth century, even in County Dublin) Archbishop Fitzsimon, by an Act of Parliament passed in 1484—and renewed in 1493—was permitted "to collate Irish clerics to benefices in his diocese, inasmuch as the English clerks were not expert in the Irish language, and such of them as were, disdained to inhabit amongst the Irish people."

The Four Masters, under date of 1488, chronicle the death of Henry Shelly, whom they eulogise as "the best singer of the Irish of Leath Cuinn [the North of Ireland]." The Annals of Ulster give his obit as occurring in that year, but describe him as "Henry Ua Selbaigh [O'Selby], the best chanter of the Irishry of the Half of Conn."

In 1489 is recorded the obituary of Arthur O'Hussey, described by the Four Masters as "a poet and a good scholar, and a youth honoured amongst the English and the Irish, who was distinguished for musical powers, both vocal and instrumental." This entry is thus given by the Ulster annalist:—"Athairne O'Hosey, son of John, poet, preceptor, instrumentalist, and vocalist, died."[6]

During the second half of the fifteenth century Irish minstrels were frequent visitors to Scotland; and, in Dauney's Scottish Melodies there are given several items regarding the visits of our Hibernian musicians to the Scottish Court, e.g.:—

"April 19th, 1490. To Martin, the clairseach player, and the other Irish harper, at ye King's command, 18 shillings.

“May, 1490. To an Irish harper, at ye King's command, 18 shillings.”

For the year 1490 there is an entry in the Annals of Ulster recording the sad fact that Dermot O'Carbry, harper, slew Aengus, "the son of MacDonnell of Scotland." Apparently O'Carbry must have been on a visit to Scotland, because the annalists are careful to inform us that his victim was called "the Lord of Aag," i.e., Angus Macdonald, son of Donald, son of Ranald of Clanranald, Dr. MacCarthy identifies "Aag" as "Hay," but the annalist says "Aacc," which most probably is Eigg, an island of the Inner Hebrides, of which the MacDonalds were then Lords. MacDonald, as we read, "was slain in treachery at Inverness, by an Irish harper, Diarmait Ua Cairpri." The family of Ua Cairpri, or Cairbre, supplied many musicians, but none of their compositions have come down to our time.[7]

At the close of November, 1494, Sir Edward Poynings, Lord Deputy of Ireland, assembled a Parliament at Drogheda, in which was passed the infamous enactment known as "Poynings' Law." Irish war-cries (such as Lam Dearg Abu) were forbidden, as also the exaction known as "coyne and livery;" and the Statute of Kilkenny was confirmed, with the exception of the unworkable ukase against the Irish language. But, as often happened before, these enactments were so much stage-thunder, and the great Hiberno-English Lords of the Pale openly set them at naught, retaining Irish brehons, bards, harpers, pipers, etc., whom they patronised in the most lavish style.

According to the Annals of Ulster, in the year 1496 is placed the obit of "Florence O'Corcoran, player on the harp and other stringed instruments, and a distinguished vocalist " and, in 1497, there is mention of the death of William MacGilroy, "a master of stringed instruments " [rai fir ted].

The peaceful condition of Leinster and Munster from 1498 to 1501 contributed not a little to the cultivation of Irish Music, but it was merely the calm before the storm, and already the days of medievalism were nearly over, with the "new learning" making its way, and the traditional folk songs gradually giving place to Anglo-Irish music.



[1] Miscell. Ir. Arch. Soc., i., pp. 227-8.

[2] The Mimi mentioned in above Patent Roll were Irish Mummers, a survival of the Druith Righeadh, or Royal Comedians, in the Irish Court train since the days of the feir of Tara.

[3] Renehan's History of Music, p. 164.

[4] Another bard named O'Higgins, i.e Bryan macFergal Ruaid Ua Uiccinn, named by the Four Masters as "Superintendent of the Schools of Ireland, and preceptor in poetry," died on Holy Thursday of the year 1477.

[5] Theiner's Vetera Monumenta.

[6] His son Cithruadh, described as "an eminent bard and a good teacher," died in 1518.

[7] In 1495, "a month before Lammas," our Irish annalists chronicle the visit of Hugh Roe O'Donnell to James IV., King of Scotland, who received the Irish prince with much distinction. O'Donnell returned to Donegal on Friday, August 7th, of same year.