Irish Music before the Anglo-Norman Invasion (continued)

William H. Grattan Flood
Chapter VII

IT would be merely slaying the slain to bring forward any of the silly arguments that formerly were availed of by Dempster and others to claim as natives of Scotland the ancient Irish Scots. It is now universally conceded that even at the close of the eleventh century the Irish were called Scots; and John Major says that "it is certain the present (fifteenth century) Scots of Caledonia owe their origin to Ireland."

Even England must acknowledge its indebtedness for music to Ireland, "the lamp of learning in the West," from the fifth to the twelfth century. It was our Irish missionaries who introduced Irish music and inaugurated plain-chant at Lindisfarne, Durham, Ripon, Lichfield, Malmesbury, Norfolk, Suffolk, Cornwall, Glastonbury, etc. St. Bede and St. Aldhelm vie with each other in their eulogies on Irish scholars.

Old neumatic notation is to be found in a copy of the Codex Amiatinus, one of the three books which Ceolfrid, Abbot of Jarrow, took with him, in the year 716, to Rome, as a present to Pope St. Gregory II. These neums, which were written about the year 704, are set for the Lamentations of Jeremias; and the saintly Abbot died on his way to the Eternal City, in 716. Ceolfrid was the tutor and predecessor of St. Bede; and, as is well known, the monks of Jarrow and Wearmouth were taught by the Irish monks of Northumbria, of which district our Irish St. Aidan was first Bishop.

The learned Alcuin studied at Clonmacnoise, in 755-760, under St. Colgu the Wise, whom he styles his "blessed Master and dear Father." In 803, as an old man, this great English scholar, when he had resigned his scholastic labours, querulously informs Charlemagne of "the daily increasing influence of the Irish at the school of the Palace."

Suidhne Mac Maelumai (O'Molloy), the thirty-fourth Abbot of Clonmacnoise, is justly styled by the old chroniclers as doctor Scotorum peritissimus, whose best known pupil was Dicuil the Geographer. In the year 890, he was one of the three Irish sages who were summoned to England by Alfred the Great, to devise a scheme of studies after the manner of the Irish Universities.

During the winter of the year 941, Muircheartach of the Leathern Cloaks (heir apparent to the throne of Tara) made a circuit of Ireland, and brought away with him the provincial princes or their sons to his palace at Royal Aileach, on the eastern shore of the Swilly, near Derry, where he detained them for five months, after which he sent them to the Ard Righ of Ireland, Donogh II. His secretary, Cormac an Eigeas, has left us an account of this circuit of Ireland, in which we read that the evenings were generally devoted to music:—

"Music we had on the plain and in our tents—
Listening to its strains we danced."

Towards the close of the eleventh century, Gilbert, Bishop of Limerick, made an effort to displace the existing Irish liturgical "uses" in favour of the Roman Rite, but was not successful. In his De Usu Ecclesiastico he tells us that there was a great diversity and variety in the Church offices in Ireland, so much so that even a learned cleric, accustomed to one particular form of liturgy, would be quite bewildered in a neighbouring diocese, where a different Use obtained. It is more than probable that the Ambrosian chant—introduced by St. Patrick—and the Irish modification of the Gregorian chant continued to be sung in most of the Irish churches till the year 1125.

St. Malachy, Legate of the Holy See, got the Roman chant adopted throughout the archdiocese of Armagh in 1148; and, a few years later, Donogh O'Carroll, Prince of Uriel, got a complete set of liturgical books—Antiphonaries as well as Missals—copied by an Irish scribe. This Donogh O'Carroll, the founder of the Abbey of SS. Peter and Paul, Knock, County Louth, and a munificent benefactor to Mellifont Abbey, died, according to the Annals of Ulster, on Thursday, the tenth of the moon, Kalends of January, 1170; and "he it was for whom were written the Book of Knock Abbey, and the chief office-books (books used for the singing of the Divine Office) for the ecclesiastical year, and the chief books of the Mass." [1]

John of Salisbury, about the year 1165, highly extols the music of Ireland; and his testimony is all the more valuable as he was not very favourable towards this country. He declares that in the Crusade of Godfrey of Bouillon, in 1099, there would have been no music at all had it not been for the Irish Harp, or, as Fuller says, "the consort of Christendom could have made no musick if the Irish Harp had been wanting."

The great St. Laurence O'Toole, Archbishop of Dublin, in 1165, dissatisfied with the Dano-Celtic system of liturgical chant in Christ Church Cathedral, introduced the Arroasian Canons of the Order of St. Victor—a reform of the Augustinians—who sang the Divine Office daily, presided over by the Archbishop himself.

Music was an especial feature in the school of the Culdees at Armagh, as has been amply demonstrated by the late Bishop Reeves. The Annals of Ulster give a lengthened obituary notice of Flann O'Gorman, "chief lector of Armagh and of all Ireland," in 1174, "on Wednesday before Easter, the 13th of the Kalends of April [March 20], in the 70th year of his age." He had been President-General of the Universities throughout Ireland, and was held in the highest esteem.[2]

Even after the formation of a Chapter in the Cathedral of Armagh, the Prior of the Culdees was invariably Precentor, or Chief Chanter, whilst the brethren of the Colidei acted as Vicars Choral.[3] These Culdees were the representatives of the old Columban order of monks; and their school at Armagh lasted from the close of the ninth century to the time of Elizabeth. The diocese of Meath is still a silent witness of the ancient Celtic monastic form of church government, and has never had a cathedral body or Chapter, nor yet a Cathedral. Under date of the year 1171 the Annals of Ulster give the following entry:—"A.D. 1171 The timpanist Ua Coinnecen, Ard-Ollamh of the North of Ireland, was killed by the Cinel-Conaill, with his wife and with his people."

Irish bishops, priests, and clerics were accustomed, in the twelfth century, to carry round with them small harps, both for the purpose of accompanying the sacred chant, as also for their own delectation. This fact is expressly stated by Archdeacon Gerald Barry, from personal observation at the close of the same century:—"Hinc accidit, ut Episcopi et Abbates, et Sancti in Hibernia viri cytharas circumferre et in eis modulando pie delectari consueverint."[4]

The neums or accents of the Irish corresponding to the Latin Acutus, Modicus, Gravis, and Circumflexus, are: Ardceol, Ceol, Basceoil, and Circeoil, indicating pitch; whilst the mediaeval Irish had their own characters to represent mensural music, corresponding to the Longa and the Brevis, that is to say, practically our modern Semibreve and Minim. Unison was called caomhluighe, or lying together; the fifth was termed Tead na feithe olach, or string of the leading sinews; the octave below was cronan, etc. In tact, each string of the harp had its own particular name; and the ancient minstrels had an infinite variety of terms for musical rhythm and expression.[5]

In regard to the old Irish form of "organising," O'Curry writes: Rind was music consisting of full harmony, while Leithrind, or half Rind, was one or other of the two corresponding parts which produced the harmonious whole; and these parts were the bass and treble notes, or the bass and treble strings—the Trom Threda, and the Goloca, or the heavy and the thin strings." Coir is another Irish term for harmony, and is mentioned in the Brehon laws.[6] From a passage in the Life of St. Brigid, by Anmchad, Bishop of Kildare, who died in the year 980, it is evident that the harp was at that period employed as a favourite accompaniment for part-singing.

The commentary on the Elegy on St. Columba, which was certainly written before the year 1100, contains musical allusions, including the ceis and the "bass chord in the harp of Crabtene." From the well-known passage of our Irish John Scotus Erigena, in his tract De Divisione Naturae, written about the year 864, it is perfectly clear that the free Organum of the Fourth, or of the Diatesseron, was well known to the Irish of the ninth century—that is to say, a hundred and fifty years before the appearance of the Scholia Enchiriadis and the Musica Enchiriadis. Professor Wooldridge, in the Oxford History of Music, says that "Erigena's description of the alternate separation and coming together of the voices quite admits of application to this method." For the benefit of the musical student, I give the Latin passage of Scotus:—

“Organicum melos ex diversis qualitatibus et quantitatibus conficitur dum viritim separatimque sentiuntur voces longe a se discrepantibus intensionis et remissionis proportionibus segregatae dum vero sibi invicem coaptantur secundum certas rationabilesque artis musicae regulas per singulos tropos naturalem quandam dulcedinem reddentibus.”

From Coussemaker it appears that a monk who wrote soon after the death of Charlemagne alludes to the art of "organising," and he concludes that the practice of harmony was certainly known in the early part of the ninth century.[7]

Brompton, writing in the reign of Henry II., waxes enthusiastic over the very advanced skill of Irish musicians in the twelfth century on the cruit, timpan, and bagpipe; and he extols "the animated execution, the sweet and pleasing harmony, the quivering notes and intricate modulations of the Irish"—"crispatis modulis et intricatis notulis, efficiunt harmoniam" (Hist. Anglic. Script, p. 1075).

In justice to Tom Moore it must be acknowledged that he pointed out the ridiculous error into which Walker and Bunting had been led, quoting from Beaufort, owing to a mistranslation of Brompton. Walker makes the foregoing extract as signifying that the Irish had "two sorts of harps, the one bold and quick, the other soft and pleasing"!!!

This brings us to the epoch of the Anglo-Norman invasion; and, as contemporary evidence is always of the first importance, I cannot conclude this chapter better than by quoting the following eulogy on the Irish school of harpers from the pen of Gerald Barry, better known as Giraldus Cambrensis, Archdeacon of St. David's, who came to Ireland in 1183:—

“They are incomparably more skilful than any other nation I have ever seen. For their manner of playing on these instruments [cruits, clairseachs, and timpans], unlike that of the Britons to which I am accustomed, is not slow and harsh, but lively and rapid, while the melody is both sweet and pleasing. It is astonishing that in such a complex and rapid movement of the fingers the musical proportions [as to rhythm] can be preserved, and that throughout the difficult modulations on their various instruments the harmony, notwithstanding shakes and slurs, and variously intertwined organising, is completely observed.”

The Latinity of Giraldus is not easy to give in an English dress, but he wishes to display his knowledge of musical technicalities as then in vogue. He describes "the striking together of the chords of the diatesseron [the fourth degree of the scale], and diapente [the fifth] introducing B flat, and of the "tinkling of the small strings coalescing charmingly with the deep notes of the bass"—clearly pointing to the Irish free organum of the fourth, and that of diapente, including the discord of the Imperfect Fifth interval. He concludes as follows:—"They delight with so much delicacy, and soothe so softly, that the excellence of their art seems to lie in concealing it."[8]

Not even a professed panegyrist of our twelfth-century Irish musicians could use more flattering language than the foregoing, and, therefore, such testimony from the prejudiced bishop-elect of St. David's should be highly valued. Rev. James F. Dimock, who has edited Giraldus, under the direction of the English Master of the Rolls, says:—"Giraldus had not an idea that anything he thought or said could by any chance be wrong"; and "he was replete with the exact qualities, the very reverse of what are needed to form an impartial historian," For all that, the observant Archdeacon was completely captivated by the charm of Irish music, and he has left us the above imperishable record. Well does Moore sing:—

"The stranger shall hear thy lament on his plains;
The sigh of thy harp shall be sent o'er the deep.
Till thy masters themselves, as they rivet thy chains,
Shall pause at the song of their captive, and weep."



[1] Annals of Ulster, vol. ii., pp. 160, 161.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Among the treasures exhibited in the Gregorian Congress, in Rome, during Easter week, 1904, was a copy of St. Gregory's Moralia, in the last page of which was inserted the hymn, "O Christi Martyr"—of the Irish St. Kilian, in musical notation of the twelfth century.

[4] Cambrensis, Topog. Hib., Dist. c. xii.

[5] The following is a brief description of the dress worn by ancient Irish harpers, as is chronicled in the "Bruidhean da Derga," one of the oldest Irish sagas now known, and contained in Leabhar na hUidhre: "I saw another row of nine harpers. Nine branching, curling heads of hair on them: nine grey winding cloaks about them: nine brooches of gold in their cloaks: nine circlets of pearls round their hands: nine rings of gold around their thumbs: nine torques of gold around their ears: nine torques of silver round their throats: nine bags with golden faces in the side-wall: nine wands of white silver in their hands." Dr. Hyde dates this saga as of the seventh century if not earlier.

[6] The seven Irish words for concerted music are:—cómseinm, cóicetul, aldbse, cepóc, claiss, clais-cetul, and foacanad. In Cormac's Glossary (p. 43) cómseinm refers to instrumental harmony, whilst cóicetul is given as "singing together"—clais-cetul signifying "choral singing."

[7] There is a manuscript translation into English of Erigena's valuable tract, made by the late William Larminie (whose death, in 1900, was a great loss to Irish studies), which is now in the National Library of Ireland, Kildare-street, Dublin. It is said to be the only English version of Erigena's work. The translation is in two quarto volumes, and was presented to the library by the author's brother.

[8] Topographia Hiber., Disp. iii., cap. xi. In the original Latin, the terms proportio, crispatos, modulos, organa, dispari paritate discordi, concordia, consona, etc., can only mean, as Renehan writes, "the rhythmical measure of time, the slur and graces, the organizing or counterpoint, the harmony of discords, and all the then latest inventions of modern music." (Renehan's History of Music, p. 163.)