Irish Music before the Anglo-Norman Invasion (continued)

William H. Grattan Flood
Chapter VI

DR. LEDWICH gave it as his opinion that "the incomparable skill of the Irish harpers, as attested by Giraldus Cambrensis, could never be predicated of unlearned, extemporaneous, bardic airs, but implies a knowledge of the diagram [sic], and an exact division of the harmonic intervals." On the other hand, Brompton, in the reign of Henry II., says that "the Irish harpers taught in secret, and committed their lessons to memory."

The truth is that though the pre-Christian Irish had their ogham music-tablature, and the Irish of the seventh-eleventh century had the neumal accents, after which the Guidonian system was adopted, very little use was made of written music, inasmuch as the "divine art" was mostly taught orally, according to traditional rendering, just as the Gregorian Chant was taught on the continent. At the same time there were written copies of the musical services; and Gerbert gives a "memoria technica," from the Breviarium de Musica, a manuscript of the eleventh century, in which the neumatic names and the signs corresponding thereto are given in hexameter verses.

However, in a country so tenacious of its language, music, and customs as Ireland, it is not such a very great loss that no notated copies of our religious tunes or folk-songs exist prior to the eleventh century, as, even if such notated manuscripts survived, they would be absolutely unintelligible to latter-day musicians, and would only possess an antiquarian value. The self-same must be predicated of all written music until the year 1100. Dr. Haberl thus writes: "During the course of the twelfth century the various manuscript codices written in neums were transferred into the clearer and larger staff-notation. But, the character of these translations was very much determined by locality, as the possibility of multitudinous interpretations and renderings of the neumatic signs gave rise, in the eleventh century, to different ways of chanting one and the same text, according to the teaching which the singer received in the several cathedrals and cloisters." And, in proof of the comparatively small number of written copies, he adds: "The old teachers relied for the method of singing the neums principally on oral traditions. They committed very little to writing, and that little was by no means clear or determined."[1]

To this opinion may be added the view of the late Mr. H. B. Briggs, in his Structure of Plainsong, who says that "Plainsong is recitative," and "no notation can exactly express the rendering that will be given to it by a good singer." It is as well to state that the one-line stave, suggested by the Irish ogham scale, was drawn horizontally across the parchment over the words which demanded a musical setting, and the letter F was placed at the beginning of it, meaning an F line, that is to say, indicating the nomenclature of all the neums on the line as F, thus affording a basis for musical pitch, from which was naturally evolved the present musical staff or stave.

In the new organum of the eleventh century we find in use dissonances of the major and minor third, with the major sixth, and even the second and the seventh, as well as concords. At the close of this century and during the first half of the twelfth, many examples are preserved of hymns and songs containing "imitation" passages, which gave rise to Rondel. But, more particularly, the basis of the mensural system was laid when the Virga became the Longa, or long note, and the Punctum the Brevis, or short note.

I have mentioned above that there are old Irish airs preserved in Morris's Welsh collection, dating from the twelfth century, and which are quoted by Dr. Burney. This fact demands a brief reference to Wales, and to the debt which she owes to Ireland for her music.

In consequence of the constant intercourse between Ireland and Wales from the third to the eleventh century, Irish immigrants introduced Celtic minstrelsy, and taught the Welsh people the music of ancient Erin. This musical cult was most warmly taken up during the reign of Howell the Good (915-948). Numerous entries in the Irish Annals, from 950 to 1095, testify to the exodus of Irish harpers to Wales, culminating in the celebrated Eisteddfod of Caerwys, in 1100, which became the model on which the subsequent Welsh festivals were based.

About the year 1059, the King of North Wales was forced to seek an asylum in Ireland, and, whilst abiding with his Queen as an honoured guest in the "Sacred Isle," his son and heir, Griffith ap Conan, was born, who was carefully fostered and instructed in all the polite learning of that period. We are told that the young prince was particularly enamoured of Irish music, especially the martial tones of the bagpipe. Dermot Mac Maelnambo, King of Leinster, was at this time supreme monarch of Ireland, which position he maintained till his death, on February 6th, 1072. His rule is highly praised by Caradoc of Llancarvan (1156), who frankly asserts that "the Irish devised all the instruments, tunes, and measures in use among the Welsh."[2]

When Prince Griffith came to man's estate, he returned to Wales in order to assert his undoubted right to his father's patrimony, then in the hands of a usurper called Traherne; and the decisive battle of Carno, in 1080, eventuated in his being placed on the throne of North Wales. No sooner was he securely established as king than, between the years 1085 and 1095, he invited over some Irish bards and minstrels, so as to put the music of Wales on the same lines as the Irish musical code.

At the Eisteddfod of Caerwys in 1100, King Griffith, in order to introduce the Irish bagpipes, gave particular prominence to pipe performances, and we read in the Welsh Annals that "the prize was carried off by an Irishman, who received from the monarch a silver pipe as a reward for his skill." However, the crowning glory of this epoch-making Eisteddfod was the evening Feis, held under the presidency of the monarch himself, in which laws were enacted for the proper regulation of Welsh minstrelsy.

In order that the future Eisteddfodau should have a genuine Irish character, King Griffith sent to Murtogh O'Brien, styled by St. Anselm "Muriardach, the glorious King of Ireland," for an eminent professor of music, to confer with three Welshmen in drawing up a musical code. King Murtogh (1089-1120) selected a distinguished minstrel called by the Welsh chroniclers "Matholwch the Gwyddilian," or Malachy the Irishman, who, in conjunction with the three Welsh bards, drew up rules, according to the Irish system, for orchestration, musical theory, and metre. We read that these doctors "laid down rules for the performance on stringed instruments, the harp and the cruit; and they also drew up twenty-four musical canons, and established twenty-four metres."[3]

The Welsh annalists tell us that these enactments of the four learned bards were confirmed at a Feis held at Glendalough, Co. Wicklow, by the said Murtogh O'Brien, King of Ireland, "who ratified them by his prerogative and influence, commanding all to maintain them;" and thus was settled for ever the question of Welsh minstrelsy. It is interesting to add that a daughter of our Irish monarch was married to Arnuph de Montgomery, Earl of Pembroke; and King Murtogh himself died as a monk in the famous monastery of Lismore, Co. Waterford, on the fourth of the Ides of March, 1120.

Under date of A.D. 1110, the veracious Annals of Ulster chronicle the death of Ferdomnach the Blind, Lector of Kildare, who is described as a Cruitirecta, or "Master of Harping." Some years later, namely, in 1119, there is a record of the death of Diarmuid O'Boylan, "chief Music-master in Ireland," who was killed by some ruffians in his own house, as were also his wife and his two sons, "with 35 others, his guests and retainers."

In Dowling's Annals of Ireland in connection with the year 1137, there is chronicled the demise of Griffith ap Conan, King of North Wales, "born in Ireland of an Irish mother, who had led back with him from Ireland, harps, timpans, cruits, cytharae, and harpers." The intercourse between Wales and Ireland was very frequent at this epoch, and in 1142, Dowling has the following entry:—"Cadwallader, the son of Griffith ap Conan, was forced to fly into Ireland, and brought back with him, for 2,000 marks, the son of O'Carroll, captain of 1,000 fighting men, together with spoils and booty."

The Irish character of the verses written by Prince Howell, son of Owen, King of North Wales, about the year 1165, is most remarkable. This Howell (whose mother was the daugher of an Irish chieftain) assumed the government of his petty kingdom on the death of his father, in 1169, and ruled till 1171, when he came over to Ireland to claim the property of his grandfather, in right of his mother, the heiress. It is only pertinent to add that Welsh poetry and minstrelsy flourished exceedingly from 1140 to 1240, in which latter year Llewellyn the Great died.[4] With the decline of the Irish element, and the decay of the bards towards the close of the thirteenth century, came the conquest of Wales, and its annexation to the "predominant partner," in 1283.

Scotland, even in a greater degree than Wales, owes her music to Ireland, as a result of two colonizations from Scotia Major, or ancient Erin—the first under Cairbre Riada (a quo Dal Riada) in A.D. 130, and the second under Fergus, Lome, and Angus, the sons of Erc, in A.D. 504.

Giraldus Cambrensis, in the twelfth century, writes as follows:—"Scotland and Wales, the former by reason of her derivation, the latter from intercourse and affinity, seek with emulous endeavours to imitate Ireland in music." He adds:—"The Irish use and delight in but two instruments, the harp and the viol [cruit]; the Scotch in the harp, viol, and bagpipe; the Welsh in the harp, pipes, and bagpipe. The Irish also use brass wires for their harps in preference to those of gut."[5]

O'Donovan says that "the present language of the Highlands passed from Ireland into the Highlands about A.D. 504; and a regular intercourse has ever since been kept up between both countries, the literature and music of the one having been ever since those of the other."

Ruined churches and monasteries, shrines, wells, inscribed stones, and solidly founded tradition—all point to the very close kinship between the parent Scots of Ireland and their progeny in Caledonia, Alba, or Scotia Minor. Somerled MacGillabride, Chief of Uriel (Louth, Armagh, and Monaghan), was recognised as King of Argyle, that is, Lord of the Isles, about the middle of the twelfth century. In a naval battle which took place in 1156, this same Irish king (who died in 1164) captured Iona and the rest of the Southern Hebrides from Godred, Norse King of the Isles, and he induced Flaherty O'Brolcain (Brollaghan or Bradley), Abbot-Bishop of Derry, to take over the Abbacy of Iona in commendam, who accordingly did so, and retained his Presidency of the Columban monasteries till his death in 1175.

King Somerled's sons, Reginald, Dubhgall, and Angus, and their successors, held sway over the west of Scotland till the end of the fifteenth century, namely, 1493, when the Lordship of the Isles was surrendered to the Scottish Crown. "This will account for the old bonds between Scotia Major and Scotia Minor being drawn still closer, and for the number of Irish bards—O'Dalys and others—entertained at Dunstaffnage, Inverary, and other western strongholds, during this long period, and the vitality of the old stories and poems that originated in the native country of these minstrels."[6]



[1] Haberl's Magister Choralis translated by the Most Rev. Dr. Donnelly, Bishop of Canea, and Dean of Dublin.

[2] Powell's History of Cambria (1584), p. 191. See also the Notes to Michael Drayton's Polyolbion by Selden.

[3] See the "Celtic Origin of the Welsh Eisteddfod" by the present writer in the New Ireland Review for March, 1898.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Top. Dist. iii. c. xi.

[6] Dublin University Magazine for January, 1864.