Irish Music in the Sixteenth Century (continued)

William H. Grattan Flood
Chapter XIII | Start of chapter

On January 28th, 1590, Patrick Fox, of Dublin, a Government spy, wrote to Walsingham that Hubert O'Ferrall, son of Fergus O'Ferrall, "had sent a harp as a token to Feagh MacHugh, by one Richard O'Quinn, a priest, well knowing MacHugh to be a bad member," and that he had stayed a week with the said Feagh "to establish friendship betwixt Feagh and O'Rourke and his own father."

Queen Elizabeth was particularly incensed against Hugh O'Neill, Prince of Tyrone, but yet, when that nobleman presented himself at court, attended by a numerous retinue, including his chief bard (O'Gnive) and piper, he was restored to favour, notwithstanding the malignant efforts of Cecil.[4]

The inauguration of Hugh O'Donnell as "The O'Donnell of Tyrconnell," on May 3rd, 1592, followed by the English defeat at the Ford of the Biscuits, in 1594, and the recall of Lord Deputy Fitzwilliam (who was replaced by Sir William Russell on August nth, 1594), induced Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone, to sever his connection with the Hiberno-English faction. We read that the bards and minstrels were rejoiced at the alliance between O'Neill and O'Donnell; and numerous harpers and pipers from Munster and Connaught flocked to the standards of the Northern Chiefs. Lady Morgan writes:—"Although Ulster was never deemed poetic ground, yet, when destruction threatened the bardic order in the southern provinces, .... hither they fled for protection, and, at different periods, found it from the Northern Princes." Various successes following on the victory of Clontibret, in 1595, induced Queen Elizabeth to come to terms with O'Neill, in April, 1596, but the Prince of Tyrone refused the conditions; and, on July 6th of that year, the Ulster chiefs wrote to their brethren in Munster to league with them in a war for religion and country.

Many fine old songs and ballads date from this epoch. The bards of County Wicklow strung their harps in praise of the noble Feagh MacHugh O'Byrne,[5] whilst those of Munster had for their theme the gallant deeds of the Earl of Desmond. The lovely tune known as "The Foggy Dew" is certainly as old as the year 1595, and it was used by Denny Lane for his ballad "The Irish Maiden's Lament." Who has not heard the grand air "Roisin dubh," which was written and composed in praise of Hugh Roe O'Donnell? "Seaghan Ruadh" (Shaun Rua) was composed for John of Desmond, whilst the Geraldines of Kildare were not forgotten by the harpers.

The English, too, availed of the services of Irish harpers as "intelligencers," and there is a report in the State Papers, under date of July, 1595, wherein a certain spy called Peter MacMahon, of Drogheda, detailed much secret information acquired in the household of Lord Louth. The better to ingratiate himself with the followers of O'Neill, he assiduously practised the harp, and was able to play well on the instrument.[6]

Turlogh Luineach O'Neill, who died early in September, 1595, was a great patron of bards and rhymers. His mansion house was at Strabane, Co. Tyrone, and it was ever open to minstrels. One of his bards, Ferdoragh MacConmidh (MacNamee), is described in a State Paper as "the richest rhymer in Ireland," and Turlogh himself —who had assumed the title of "O'Neill"—was wont to invite, during the Christmas holidays of every year, all literary and musical persons as honoured guests, "not one of them departing dissatisfied, or without being supplied abundantly."

From the State Papers we learn that on August 2nd, 1597, Sir Conyers Clifford availed of the services of an Irish harper to bring a message to O'Rourke.

Edmund Spenser published his View of the South of Ireland, in 1596, in which he expresses the conviction that the Irish people, if managed on his lines, "would quickly consume themselves and devour one another." It seemed like a retribution when, on a certain October evening of the year 1598, Kilcolman Castle was attacked and burned by the Irish, and Spenser with his wife barely escaped. As is well known, the poet actually died of starvation at a tavern in King-street, Westminster, on January 16th, 1599.

Feagh MacHugh O'Byrne was at length betrayed by a relative to the Lord Deputy, and was killed on the 18th of May, 1597; and on May 22nd, Sir William Russell was superseded by Thomas, Lord Borough. A pardon was granted to Dermot MacGrath, piper, at the suit of the Lord of Upper Ossory, on June 6th, which was the first and last act of clemency exercised by the new Deputy. Lord Borough died on October 14th, and was succeeded by Sir Thomas Norris, who resigned in a month, being replaced by Loftus and Gardiner as Lords Justices.

Early in September, 1597, was fought the Battle of Tyrrell's Pass, in which Captain Richard Tyrrell, with 400 men, utterly defeated the Anglo-Irish of Meath, under Lord Trimlestown, near Fertullagh, Co. Westmeath. MacGeoghegan writes:—"While the English were passing the place where O'Connor (Tyrrell's lieutenant) lay in ambuscade, this officer sallied forth with his troops, caused the drums and fifes to play 'Captain Tyrrell's March,' this being the signal agreed on for an attack. The English army, having got between two fires, were cut to pieces; and so general was the slaughter that only one soldier escaped."

On July 6th, 1596, Lyon, Protestant Bishop of Cork thus writes to Lord Hunsdon, Lord Chamberlain of England:—"Some strict order must be taken for idle persons, as carroghes, hazards, rhymers, bards, and harpers, which run about the country, eating the labours of the poor, carrying news and intelligence to the rebels, and bruiting false tales. Also, the rithmers make songs in commendation and praise of the treasons, spoilings, preyings, and thievings made. They flock to the cuddies, or night-suppers," etc.

The Battle of the Yellow Ford was a glorious victory for O'Neill, on August 14th, 1598, when Marshal Sir Henry Bagenal, with the flower of his army (about 2,000 troops), bit the dust; and it was followed by the surrender of Portmore, concerning which so many songs were written. Had the Irish forces, under O'Neill and O'Donnell, marched on to Dublin at this crisis, the English power in Ireland would have been annihilated.

At the terrible "disaster" of Ranelagh, Co. Wicklow, on Tuesday, May 29th, 1599, in which Sir Henry Harrington, with 600 men, was utterly defeated by Phelim MacFeagh O'Byrne, we read in the State Papers that, on the evening preceding, "the rebel Phelim MacFeagh sent a messenger of his own, being a Rymer, to pray Sir Henry to forbear doing of any hurt to him, and that he would submit himself to the Lord Lieutenant." The Privy Council, in their letter of June 2nd, describe briefly how O'Byrne destroyed Harrington's "whole regiment, and brake them with a lamentable slaughter of the most part of the companies of foot."

On August 15th, 1599, a fiant was issued granting a pardon to Fineen Fitzjohn, piper, at the suit of Edmund, Viscount Mountgarret. Two famous musicians of this epoch were Dermot O'Dugan, bard to the Earl of Desmond, and Rory dall O'Cahan, the harper and composer. Many a well-fought field resounded with the martial strains of Lamh dearg abu and O'Donnell abu; and the close of the year 1599 found Hugh O'Neill practically King of Ireland. Perhaps nothing more signally demonstrates the absolute freedom enjoyed by the harpers, pipers, tympanists, and minstrels at this epoch than the non-appearance of any State pardons in the various official documents from 1586 to 1600—save the solitary one to Fineen Fitzjohn, above mentioned.

One of the saddest pages in Irish history is the account given, both by native annalists and English writers, of the last twelve months of the career of James, Earl of Desmond—better know as the Sugan Earl. This great Anglo-Irish noble, who is described in the State Papers as "the most powerful of the Earls of Desmond," fought against terrible odds, and, at length, was defeated, on September 17th, 1600, on his way to the Glen of Aherlow, by Captain Greame. Fortunately, he managed to get away, with about 400 men, and retreated for a time to the well-known fastness of Aherlow, immortalised by the lovely song Seagan o Duibir an Gleanna (John O'Dwyer of the Glen), which I have previously alluded to. In the following month he was joined by Dermot MacCraith, Bishop of Cork and Cloyne; and the two "outlaws" lay concealed till the close of November in a cabin at Lisbarry, near the woods of Drumfineen.[7]

In all his hair-breadth escapes the Earl was assisted by his faithful harper, Dermot O'Dugan, who acted as a devoted sentinel, and gave due notice to his master of the approach of the soldiery. We read that during the Christmastide of 1600-1, the only companions of Desmond were Father John Shanahan, two of the Baldwin family, and the harper, O'Dugan. The noble Geraldine was at last captured, on May 29th, 1601, by his own kinsman, the White Knight (in a cave near Clogheen, Co. Tipperary), by whom he was given up to Sir George Thornton, receiving for his treachery the then large sum of £1,000.

Native Irish minstrelsy was now in a sore plight, and was destined to experience further persecution under James I., as we shall see in a succeeding chapter.



[4] In 1593, Elizabeth sent an order to the magistrates of North Wales, directing them "to regulate certain abuses that had crept into the bardic profession."—(Trans., R.I.A., vol. ix., 1803.)

[5] On April 18th, 1590, Gerald Byrne wrote to the Lord Deputy that, "the son of Fergus O'Farrell, with another horseman, well furnished with horse and armour, and a harper, riding upon a hackney with them" had recently been on a visit to Murrogh MacEdmund, whose daughter was married to the son of the dauntless Feagh MacHugh.

[6] Calendar of State Papers (1592-1596), p. 350.

[7] At length, being discovered (through the agency of a spy) by the Earl of Thomond, Sir George Thornton, and Captain Roger Harvey, the Earl fled. Carew writes:—"MacCraith was met by some of the soldiers, clothed in a simple mantle, and with torn trousers like an aged churl, and they, neglecting so poor a creature, not able to carry a weapon, suffered him to pass unregarded."