Irish Music in the Sixteenth Century (continued)

William H. Grattan Flood
Chapter XIII

Chapter XIII.

PARDON was granted to MacLoughlin roe O'Brennan, harper, on October 4th, 1581; and, in 1582, there are grants of pardon to Thomas reagh (the brown), of King's County, piper, on May 8th; Maelmurry MacTuathal MacKeogh, of County Carlow, rhymer, on August 27th; Walter Brenagh (Walsh), harper, on August 30th; Owen MacLoughlin MacEgan, brehon, on September 19th; and Donogh O'Creedan, of Synon, harper, on November 13th.

In the articles between the Privy Council of Ireland and Sir John O'Reilly, of Breffni, Co. Cavan, on August 28th, 1583, there was a special covenant: "That he shall not keep any Irish brehons . . . nor keep within his house any Irish bard, carroghe, or rhymer," etc.[1] Subsequently, there were similar articles of agreement entered into at the Camp, near Dunluce, on September 18th, 1584, between Sir John Perrott and Donal gorme MacConnell of the Glens, the ancestor of the MacDonnells of Antrim.

Between the years 1581 and 1584, Edmund Spenser, author of the Faerie Queene, had a very good opportunity of studying Irish music, which he praises very highly, shrewdly remarking the then prevalent mode of elaborately embellishing the simplest airs. This meretricious adornment of old melodies, as noticed by Spenser (whose residence for three years at Kilcullen, New Abbey, Co. Kildare, has, strangely enough, been overlooked by almost all his biographers), continued till the close of the eighteenth century, with the natural result that it is most difficult to get accurate versions of sixteenth and seventeenth-century tunes. Petrie collected fifty "settings" of one particular melody, many of them widely different; and I myself, some twenty-nine years ago, sent Dr. Joyce—one of our best living authorities on ancient Irish music—five or six variants of certain seventeenth-century melodies which I had noted down in different parts of Ireland.

Spenser assures us that the bardic verses "are taken up with a general applause, and usually sung at all the feasts and meetings by the racraidhe, whose proper function that is, who also receive for the same great reward and reputation amongst them" He adds:—"I have caused divers of these [Irish] poems to be translated to me that I might understand them; and surely they savoured of sweet wit and good invention .... sprinkled with some pretty flowers of their natural device, which gave good grace and comeliness unto them." For the benefit of the English reader it is as well to explain that the Racraidhe above mentioned included those who sang to the music of the cruit or harp, and who also recited the poems of their master. Spenser instances a case he had known where forty cows were paid by an Irish noble for an effusive ode or dan.

The author of the Faerie Queene alludes to "the wandering women called Mona Shull." These female ballad singers—mna siubhail—are also described by Derrick in his Image of Ireland (1581), and were under the rule of a leader called Lucas, having only one eye. Severe enactments were passed against these mendicant women-rhymers, as also against aesulla, or ishallyn, as the name is written in the State Papers of Elizabeth. Camden thus writes in 1586:—"They [the Irish] have their Brehons [judges], Historians (who record their exploits), Physicians, Poets called Bards, and Harpers, each of whom have lands assigned them; and each of these [five] professions, in every territory, form distinct families, as Brehons of one lineage and name, Historians of another, and so of the rest."[2]

A Presentment of the Grand Jury of County Cork for November, 1584, gives the names of 72 persons who were then living as "poets, chroniclers, and rhymers," including O'Cuill (Quill) and O'Cahill, rhymers; Art na caoine, bard; Maelconry MacShane, of Castletownroche, harper, Shane O'Dwyer, of Aherlow, chronicler, Cormac O'Daly, the Lord Barrymore's rhymer, etc.; also Mary ny Donoghue, a she barde, and Mary ny Clancy, rhymer. An Inquisition of same year returns John MacDonnell as "Rhymer" or "Ollamh re Dan of Desmond."

Although Hardiman was of opinion that the famous Munster song, Seaghan O'Duibhir an Gleanna—"John O'Dwyer of the Glen"—only dated from after the year 1651, in reference to Colonel John O'Dwyer, of Glynn, Co. Waterford, I am strongly inclined to the view of O'Daly, in his Poets and Poetry of Munster (2nd series), that it really dates from the last quarter of the sixteenth century, and was composed for the Shane O'Duibhir, of the Glen of Aherlow, Co. Tipperary, living in 1584, who figures in the above Presentment, as quoted in the Carew MS., No. 627. The clearing of the forests alluded to in this grand old song began as early as the fifteenth century, and was well nigh completed by the "Undertakers" under Elizabeth, who were anxious to make all the ready money they could fearing that the Irish would soon dispossess them. Moreover, the very construction of the air seems to point to the second half of the sixteenth century, rather than the middle of the seventeenth century.

In the list of pardons issued in 1584 are the names of Morgan the piper (who made the Indenture with Sir Henry Sydney in 1570) and Alexander the piper, both of "The Park," near Gorey, Co. Wexford, on April 10th; Donal MacKeogh, of Co. Carlow, rhymer, on April 28th; Russell MacRussell, of Ballinacarrig, Co. Cork, harper, on June 4th; and John Piers, "chief musician and piper to Sir Gerald Fitzgerald," of Dromana, Co. Waterford, on July 13th.

The viceroyalty of Sir John Perrott (a natural son of Henry VIII.), who was sworn in on June 21st, 1584, proved fairly beneficial to Ireland; and he held a Parliament at Dublin, on April 26th, 1585, in which a statute was passed regarding costume, and another. against sorcery and witchcraft. This Deputy ordered stocks to be made for punishing "idle persons, spies, bards, gamesters," etc.

Among the fiants of Elizabeth, the pardons for the year 1585 include:—William MacCruddan or Creedan, "harper and yeoman," on February 26th; Mahon O'Heffernan, rhymer, Eneas roe O'Heffernan, rhymer, and Donogh O'Casey, piper, on May 14th; Ulick O'Maelconry, of Clonea, Co. Roscommon, "gentleman and rhymer," Gillananeave caoch (the blind), of Clonpluckane, rhymer, and Paudheen oge O'Mulconry, rhymer, on June 1st; Melaghlin roe O'Brennan, of Co. Galway, harper, on June 27th; Murtogh MacRory O'Heffernan, of Derrycloney, rhymer, Donogh MacCormac, of Co. Limerick, piper, and Conor O'Heffernan, of same, rhymer, on July 8th.

The pardons granted during the year 1586 include Gillaglass O'Shallow, harper, on May 29th; Dermot MacGrath, of Hospital, Co. Limerick, harper, on May 31st; and Flann MacEneas oge MacGrath, of Garristown, Co. Tipperary, rhymer, on September 2Oth. This is the renowned bard, Flann Magrath, who wrote a fine elegy on Thomas, Earl of Ormonde, published by O'Donovan in 1850, from the MS. of John Murphy, of Carrignavar, Co. Cork, dated 1726. O'Donovan only knew of Magrath's existence by the fact of his name being signed to some poems, about the year 1586; but the State Paper entry is an interesting addition to our scant knowledge of this Irish bard.

Notwithstanding all that Perrott had done for the "English interest" in Ireland from 1584 to 1587, he was a "marked" man, owing to the machinations of Loftus, Wallop, Bingham, Fenton, and Bagnall. One of the accusations against him was a leniency towards bards, minstrels, and others who had sounded the praises of the dispossessed Irish princes and nobles. Accordingly, an order was issued on March 20th, 1588, to John Kiernan, Seneschal of MacKiernan's Country (County Cavan), "to prosecute, banish, and punish by all means, malefactors, rebels, vagabonds, rhymers, Irish harpers, bards, etc. From a letter written by the ill-fated Sir Brian O'Rourke, Lord of Breffney, on October 6th, 1588, to MacMahon, Lord of Oriel (Co. Monaghan), it would appear that this order was stringently carried out. The scarcity of the Irish harp is lamented by O'Rourke, who thus writes:—"And what you request us to send you, as a harp and a great spear, we do assure you we cannot; there is never a good harp in our country, but we will provide one for you, and will send two great spears, and two skeins of the best made in our country."[3]

On May 4th, 1588, pardon was granted to "Grany ny Malley, Sadh Bourke ny Davy Bourke, widow. Theobald Bourke MacRichard enieran, gent., Margaret O'Flaherty, daughter of Grany," and others. This Grany ny Malley, or Grace O'Malley was none other than Grania Maol (daughter of Owen O'Malley, of the Owles, Co. Mayo, chieftain of Burrishoole), the widow of "Iron Dick." About this time was composed a fine old song in honour of this Queen of the West; and the name Graine Maol (pronounced Grania Uaile) was used by the bards, in after days, to symbolize Erin—the affix maol, meaning "bald," personifying the desolate condition of Ireland from wars and famine. Though the original words of the song, as well as the tune of "Graine Uaile," are almost forgotten, an excellent Irish version was furnished by John Claragh MacDonnell, about the year 1730, which is printed in Hardiman's Irish Minstrelsy where the original lyric may also be found.

Sir John Perrott, fairly disgusted with the viceroyalty of Ireland, besought the Queen to recall him to England; and, on June 30th, 1588, he delivered the sword of state to his successor, Sir William Fitzwilliam. The destruction of the Spanish Armada in the late summer and early autumn of the year 1588 accentuated the strained relations existing between England and Ireland; and, on October 28th, 1589, another proclamation was issued against "rhymers, Irish harpers, idle men and women," etc. Lady Morgan writes:—"Elizabeth, jealous of that influence which the bardic order of Ireland held over the most puissant of her chiefs, not only enacted laws against them, but against such as received or entertained them; for Spenser informs us that, even then, 'their verses were taken up with a general applause, and usually sung at all feasts and meetings.'" The Earl of Cumberland paid a visit to Dingle, Co. Kerry, in 1589, as is recorded in Hakluyt's Voyages (published at London in 1599), and he gives an interesting account of the social state of the country at the period. Inter alia he writes:—"Here we wel refreshed ourselves whilest the Irish harpe sounded sweetly in our eares."


[1] See Hardiman's Irish Minstrelsy, vol. ii., p. 159. However Hardiman erroneously gives the date as A.D. 1584, whereas it should be 1583.

[2] Gough's Camden vol. iv., p. 467.

[3] Sir Brian O'Rourke was betrayed by James VI. of Scotland in 1590, and handed over to Queen Elizabeth—being sent as a convict in chains. Elizabeth "ordered him to be hanged without even the form of a trial," and, to add insult to injury, assigned him in his last moments, by way of a ghostly father, Miler Magrath, the Protestant Archbishop of Cashel, "who exhorted him," as MacGeoghegan writes, "to conform to the religion of the Queen and of the state," However, Lombard tells us that the ancient Prince of Breffni refused Miler's ministrations, and added: "As for me, I shall die in the religion which you have deserted." O'Rourke's death (on November 3rd, 1591) was amply avenged by his son, at the Battle of the Curlew Mountains, on August 15th, 1599, when Clifford and his 1,500 men were utterly routed by O'Rourke's force of only 200. Amongst the slain were Sir Conyers Clifford, Sir Alexander Ratcliffe, and others.