Irish Music in the Sixteenth Century

William H. Grattan Flood
Chapter XII

MANY of our old annalists tell of the fame of harp making in Ireland during the first decade of the sixteenth century. This statement is accentuated by Dr. Petrie, who describes for us a very beautiful harp, which bore the date 1509, but which has, unfortunately, disappeared since 1810. "It was small," he writes, "and but simply ornamented, and on the front of the pillar, or forearm, there was a brass plate on which was inscribed the name of the maker and the date—1509. The poor harper [a wandering minstrel in 1809], had often expreseed his intention of bequeathing this harp to his kind entertainers [Mr. Christoper Dillon Bellew and his lady, of Mount Bellew]; but a summer came without bringing him to his accustomed haunts, and the harp was never forwarded, nor its fate ascertained." For contemporary criticism of this period, one may adduce the learned John Major, (d. 1525) who gives unstinted praise to Irish music and musicians, especially to harpers: "Hibernenses . . . qui in illa arte praecipui sunt."

To those who are interested in the bag-pipes, it is worth mentioning that though we have no pipes of the sixteenth century now existing, there is, in Vienna, an excellent representation of an Irish piper, with the date 1514, from the world-famed master-brush of Albrecht Dürer; and, in Ferguson's Dissertation, there are two illustrations given of a piper and pipes of this period. Galilei, whose Dialogue on Ancient and Modern Music was published at Florence, in 1589, thus writes:—"The bagpipe is much used by the Irish, To its sound, this unconquered, fierce and warlike people march their armies, and encourage each other to deeds of valour. With it also they accompany their dead to the grave, making such mournful sounds [caoines] as to invite, nay almost force, the bystanders to weep."

In the early part of this century, Gerald, Earl of Kildare, was a great patron of Irish harpers, pipers, rhymers, bards, etc. He befriended various members of the clan MacWard, famous Ulster rhymers, who paid him as a gratuity, or honorarium, six beeves yearly. In 1518, we find Dermot O'Coffey, rhymer, as tenant of this Earl, holding a carucate of land in Ballysallagh, in Machairecuircne, barony of Kilkenny West, Co. Westmeath. All readers of Irish history are familiar with the dramatic incident which happened on June 11h, 1534, when O'Nealon (some authors call him Nelan), harper to Silken Thomas, struck up an Irish song in praise of his lord, at St. Mary's Abbey, Dublin, with the result that the impetuous Geraldine threw down his sword of state, and went into rebellion.

The first enactment against Irish bards and minstrels, in this century, was, on the recommendation of an Anglo-Irish noble, Patrick Finglass, Chief Baron of the Exchequer, about the year 1520, who in his Breviate proposed as follows:—"That noe Irish minstralls, rymers, ne bardes, be messengers to desire any goods of any man dwelling within the English Pale," upon pain of forfeiture of all their goods, and their bodies to be imprisoned at the King's will. This recommendation was ostensibly acted on, but the magnates of the Pale, following the example of the Earls of Kildare, Desmond, and Ormonde, defied all such legislation, and retained each an Irish harper. Under date of 1533, the Annals of Ulster chronicle the death of O'Sullivan Beare, who is described as exceedingly bountiful to bards, ollamhs, pilgrims, and learned men. Five years later, the same Annals have a similar entry in connection with the death of Hugh O'Donnell.

In 1533, there was issued a proclamation in England to suppress "foolish books, ballads, rhymes, and other lewd treatises in the English tongue." Evidently, Robert Cowley, Collector of Customs in Ireland, was of opinion that seditious ballads in the Irish language should be also suppressed, and, accordingly, in 1537, he wrote to Secretary Cromwell that "harpers, rhymers, Irish chroniclers, bards, and isshallyn commonly go with praises [elegies] to gentlemen in the English Pale, praising in rhymes, otherwise called danes [danta], their extortions, robberies, and abuses, as valiantness, which rejoiceth them in that their evil doing," etc.

Polydore Vergil (Virgilius) in his History of England (published in 1534) writes thus of our Irish minstrels:—Cujus Musicae peritissimi sunt: canunt enim tum voce tum fidibus eleganter, sed vehementi quodam impetu, sic ut mirabile sit, in tanta vocis linguaeque atque digitorum velocitate, posse artis numeros servari, id quod illi ad unguem faciunt." [1]

Inasmuch as the people of the Pale adhered to Irish customs as well as music and language, a statute was passed, in 1537, by the obsequious Irish Parliament, enacting: "That no person or persons, after the 1st of May, 1539, shall be shorn or shaven above the ears, or use the wearing of hair upon their heads, like unto long locks called glibbes," etc. This statute expressly forbade the wearing of Crommeals or glibbes, or flowing locks of hair, by any resident whatever in Ireland, whether Palesman or native born; and is the celebrated enactment which Moore erroneously supposed to have called forth the exquisite melody and words of An Cuilfhionn or The Coulin—printed by Walker in 1786.

Chappell tells us that in 1537, John Hogan was arrested in London, for "singing with a crowd or a fyddyl" apolitical song to the tune of "The Hunt is up"—an old dance tune mentioned by Shakespeare. In the same year the Annals of Ulster place the death of O'Keenan, a famous instrumentalist—namely, Bryan son of Cormac O'Keenan—who is said to have composed the charming melody, Cailin og a stuir me.

A few years later, Stowe chronicles for us an item: "On July, 1st, 1541, John Davey, a Welsh minstrel, was hanged, and quartered, for singing of songs [in the Welsh language], which were interpreted to be prophesying against the King."

Lord Leonard Grey, Viceroy of Ireland, who had been censured by the English Privy Council for "plundering the rhymers on the mountain side," was recalled on April 1st, 1540, and was replaced after a short interval by Sir Anthony St. Leger. This St. Leger, or Sellenger, was sworn into office on July 25th, 1540, and was, on the whole a tolerant ruler. He pursued a policy of conciliation towards the chief minstrels and rhymers.

At a Parliament held at Limerick on July I2th, 1541, the Royal Commissioners enacted:—"That no poet or other person whatever shall make verses called auran [abráin] to anyone after God on earth except the King, under penalty of forfeiting all his goods." This decree, as is evident, was aimed at rhymers and wandering minstrels who "made songs" on those whom they visited, being paid liberally for such poetic expressions. The practice was not altogether extinct in the last quarter of the nineteenth century; and the late Michael Hogan, better known as the Bard of Thomond, excelled in rhymes of this class.

In 1541, we meet with an interesting entry in the State Papers, from which it appears that the doughty warrior Cahir Mac Art Kavanagh, Tanist of Leinster, gave a guarantee to Sir Anthony St. Leger, for the loyalty of his rhymers, "so as parcels of their land shall rest with the King for their offence." This agreement affords evidence that even in the sixteenth century it had been the custom to give fee-farm lands to harpers, rhymers, brehons, etc.

We learn of the existence of Tuathal Maelmuire Mac Keogh of Rathtorkill, Co. Kildare, rhymer, from a brief reference to him in the State Papers, where it is mentioned that he was indicted, in 1542, for stealing "one pork, of the price of five shillings," belonging to a brother rhymer named Patrick Mac Hugh of the same village. It is satisfactory, however, to learn that Mac Keogh was pardoned for this offence on May 11th, 1549, as is recorded in the same official sources.

Among the fiants of Edward VI. we meet with a pardon to Fergal Mac Thomas Mac Keogh, of Donard, Co. Wicklow, rhymer, on April 16th, 1549; and to Owen oge Mac Crossan, of Ballymacrossan, rhymer, on June 10th, 1550, Hugh boy (buide, the yellow complexioned) of Ballyedmond, Co. Wexford, piper—one of the retainers of Mac Edmund duff of Hy Kinsellagh—received a pardon on February 10th, 1552; and another performer on the bagpipes, known as "Cormac the piper," was accorded a similar mark of clemency in the autumn of the same year.

One of the most distinguished harpers of this epoch was Edmond O'Flynn, of Meylerstown, Co, Kildare; and his compositions are said to have been numerous, but, none of them have come down to our time. He was chief harper to an Anglo-Irish nobleman, Walter Bermingham, and received a royal pardon on February 8th, 1553. (Fiants of Edward VI.)

In Smyth's Information for Ireland, dated May 5th, 1561, there is mention of four classes of rhymers, namely, brehons, shanachies, aois-dana (men of songs), and fileas or poetic story-tellers; also, female ballad singers called mná riubail. Sir William FitzWilliam, Lord Justice of Ireland, thus writes to Cecil, on April 14th, 1562: "These rhymers set forth the most 'bestlyest' and odious parts of men's ancestor's doings and their own likewise, for whom the rhymes are made. Such be caressed and defended, even with their priests, and rewarded with garments till they leave themselves naked [metaphorically], besides the best piece of plate in the house, and chiefest horse away with them; not altogether departing empty-handed when they come among the Earls and others the nobility of the English race."

As might be expected, severe measures were now ordered to be taken against all classes of musicians. From 1523 to 1563, notwithstanding the ordinances above-mentioned, wandering bards and harpers had freely exercised their avocations, and were even welcomed by the Lords of the Pale. "These laws," as Dr. Joyce writes, "were almost wholly inoperative; for the people went on speaking Irish, shaving, riding, and dressing just the same as before." In fact Irish music was almost at the zenith of its glory at this epoch, and was inseparably associated with the Irish language.

The first Elizabethan enactment against "Rymours, Bardes, dice players," etc., was on December 20th, 1563; and the reason alleged for such legislation was because "under pretence of visiting, they carry about privy intelligence between the malefactors in the disturbed districts." From this enactment, which is to be found in the Patent Roll, 6th Eliz., it appears that the nobles of the Pale often gave as much as 100 marks "as a reward for lewd rhymes," i.e. rhymes of a deluding nature, viewed politically. It was decreed that "if anyone in future gave a reward for such rhymes, a fine would be exacted of double that amount to the Queen, and the poet was to be fined at discretion." Some readers of the twentieth century will doubtless marvel at the interesting fact here disclosed, namely, that over £500 of our present money had been then frequently given in return for a song. A song writer was surely a person to be envied in those days—"'twas something then to be a bard,"—but, alas ! the professional rhymer could scarcely have foreseen that in days to come "the price of a song" would be synonymous with the merest trifle.

In connexion with the above statute, let me explain that as the person of a bard, harper or rhymer, was deemed sacred, these worthies were, in consequence, enabled to act, as a sort of intelligence department for the Irish chiefs, whilst often accepting largesse from the English enemy. The English themselves made use of bards or rhymers as spies, and in 1561, Fardoragh MacNamee is mentioned in a State Paper as conveying "secret information" to Captain Piers, Governor of Carrickfergus.

Father William Good, an English Jesuit, who taught a school, at Limerick, in his "Description of the Manners and Customs of the Wild Irish"—written in 1566, at the request of Camden, says: "They love music mightily and, of all instruments, are particularly taken with the harp, which, being strung up with brass wire and beaten with crooked nails, is very melodious." The Scotch harp of this period was exactly the same as the Irish, as may be proved by an examination of Mary Queen of Scots' Harp, still preserved. This harp is 31 inches high, and 18 inches from back to front, and was furnished with twenty-nine brass strings. It was richly ornamented, and was embellished with her portrait and the royal arms, which however were stolen in 1745.[2]

The first pardon to a musician under Elizabeth was in 1565, when Richard O'Malone, of Donore, Co. Westmeath, harper, was received with favour. In the following year, on May 31st, William the piper was pardoned. On March 4th, 1569, pardon was granted to Donogh Mac Crydan, of St. John's, Nenagh, Tipperary, harper, and to Thady Credan, of Drangan, Co. Tipperary, harper.


[1] Angliae Hist. lib. xiii.

[2] On March 12th, 1904, this harp was sold by auction in Edinburgh, for 850 guineas. It was purchased by the Antiquarian Museum.