Irish Music in the Sixteenth Century

William H. Grattan Flood
Chapter XII | Start of chapter

Under date of August, 1570, there is a record of a pardon to John O'Doran, of Brittas, Co. Wicklow, piper, at the reqest of the Protestant Archbishop of Dublin.

The Elizabethan enactments against bards, minstrels, pipers and rhymers, were enforced after the promulgation of the Bull of St. Pius V. in 1569, though Elizabeth herself retained in her service, an Irish harper called Donogh. In 1570, there was a beautiful poem written by an unknown Irish bard in praise of the O'Brien harp which had, during the enforced absence of its owner, Conor, Earl of Thomond, been in temporary possession of a certain O'Gilligan, a famous sixteenth-century harper. The poet describes it as "a musical, fine-pointed, speckled harp," and though "sweet in the hands of O'Gilligan, it was sweeter by far in the halls of O'Brien." We have ample evidence that it is none other than the present "Brian Boru's Harp," which had been given to the Earl of Thomond by Lord Clanrickarde.

In the Indenture between Sir Henry Sydney and the Mac Damore Clan in County Wexford, dated June 26th, 1570, one of the principal freeholders was "Morighane piberre," that is Morgan the piper, of the Park, near Gorey. The appearance of this wealthy Irish piper as one of the parties to a treaty with the then Lord Deputy of Ireland is a sufficient proof of the estimation in which he was regarded; and he agreed to surrender his lands on the express stipulation of receiving them back by letters patent, "such lands to be held for ever at such rents and services as shall be expressed in the patents."

There is a letter in the State Papers written on December 7th, 1572, in which mention is made of Feagh Mac Hugh O'Byrne, Rory O'More, and others of the Leinster clans, "who were wont to come by daylight with bagpipes, and by night with torch-light" on their predatory incursions. About this time another proclamation was issued against "bardes, carroghs, and rimors"; and Conor, Earl of Thomond, displayed his loyalty by vigorously carrying out the decree, and actually hanging three bards, "for which abominable and treacherous act," as the Annalists say, "he was satirized and denounced." A few years later this recreant Earl sent his son Donogh to England as a hostage to be educated as a Protestant.

Between the years 1570 and 1577, Henry Colley, of Carbury, Co. Kildare, and John Bourke, of Derryvicklan, Co. Clare, were appointed Seneschals of their respective counties, "with power to banish all malefactors, rebels, vagabonds, rhymers, Irish harpers," etc.; and Myler Delamere, of Ross, Co. Westmeath, was given the chief sergeantship of "Delamere's country," on condition of apprehending and committing to Mullingar jail any Irish minstrels. On March 6th, 1571, pardon was granted to Brian Mac Mahon Fitz Philip, of Newcastle, Co. Meath, harper; and, on January nth, 1572, to James O'Harrigan, harper.

On November 5th, 1571, Gerald, Earl of Kildare, and Piers Fitz James, of Ballysonan, Co. Kildare, were commissioned to execute martial law in said county, and to punish by death, or otherwise as directed, all harpers, rhymers, bards, etc. A similar commission was given to Patrick Savage, Seneschal of the Ards, Co. Down, on March 22nd, 1572.

Among the pardons for the year 1572 are those of Conly Mac Fannin fionn, late of Dunamaggan, Co. Kilkenny, piper, and Manus the piper, on January 12th; and Thomas reagh MacShane, piper, and Brian FitzPatrick Mac Donegan, piper, of Queen's County on September 19th.[3]

On May 6th, 1573, Sir John of Desmond was pardoned on condition of not keeping any bard, carrogh, or rhymer in his train; and, early in 1576, orders were issued by the Privy Council of Ireland against "rimors, harpers, and other Irishmen," prohibiting same from allowing their horses to graze without payment ["a foyning"] in the barony of Rathdown, in the marches of Dublin

From a Grand Jury presentment of County Cork in 1576, it appears that the Ollamh dann and the various rhymers belonging to the lords of the soil "were wont to take the best apparel of the newly married wife of any freeholder in the county, or its value thereof"; and, as a case in point, O'Daly fionn, of Slieve Luachra, in Desmond, is quoted, "he being the chief rhymer, otherwise called ollave dane."[4]

The following pardons were issued, inter alia, in the year 1577: to Donal Mac Namara, of Galbally, Co. Tipperary, harper, on September 5th; to Donal MacRory O'Heffernan, of Shronehill, Co. Tipperary, harper, on September 12th; to Fergall Mac Maelmurry O'Heffernan, Magrath O'Heffernan, and Aherny O'Heffernan, of Shronehill, rhymers, on the same day; to Conor Mac Loughlin, of Moher, piper, on November 14th; and to Owen the piper, of Carrickmines, Co. Dublin, about the same time.

We are fortunately able to give an illustration of the Irish harpers and war pipers of 1578, as drawn by John Derrick, in his Image of Ireland. This extraordinary book, dedicated to Sir Philip Sydney, is extremely rare, and was published by John Day in 1581, though, as stated in the title, "made and devised anno 1578," The reader can judge of Derrick's artistic powers by the subjoined sketches "of the habite and apparell" of an Irish harper and an Irish piper:—

Irish Harper

As is well-known, the minstrels of Erin stood bravely by the proscribed religion, under Elizabeth; and, indeed, it may be said that music and verse contributed not a little to the preservation of the Catholic religion in Ireland during the last quarter of the sixteenth century. From the Religious Songs of Connaught, edited by Dr. Douglas Hyde, we can imagine what must have been the effect of these sacred effusions when rendered with due expression.

Irish Piper

On March 13th, 1578, Sir Lucas Dillon, Chief Baron, was ordered "to punish all malefactors, rebels, vagabonds, rhymers, Irish harpers," etc.; and, not long afterwards, Sir William Drury hanged Father O'Rourke, O.S.F., and Rory oge, a brehon. In the following year, on November 23rd, a proclamation was issued ordering that "no idle person, vagabond, or masterless man, bard, rhymer, or other notorious malefactor remain within the district of North Wicklow on pain of whipping after 8 days, and of death, after 20 days." The great victory at Glenmalure, on August 25th, 1580, when Fiacha Mac Aodha O'Byrne and Viscount Baltinglass utterly defeated Lord Grey de Wilton (Viceroy), and Sir William Stanley (the English loss being estimated as 800 soldiers, including Sir Peter Carew, Colonel Moore, and Captains Audley and Cosby), was celebrated by many a martial lyric. In particular, the fine song "dia lib, A laocrad gaoideal," written by Aengus MacDoighre O'Daly, bard of O'Byrne, dates from this period, but the air has long since disappeared.



[3] Fiants of Elizabeth, 12th Report of the D.K.I.

[4] O'Daly, of Muinter Bhaire, Co. Cork, was an important personage at this epoch, and, in a grant of certain lands to Thomas, Earl of Ormonde, for which a fiant was issued on December 10th, 1578, was included "a freehold, with the tithes of the same, which O'Daly the Rhymer lately held." Dinely, in 1681, writes:—"The suit and service expected from O'Daly and his successors for all that land unto Carew and his heirs was to be their Rimers, Poets, and Chroniclers of their actions."