Pre-Reformation Church Music in Ireland

William H. Grattan Flood
Chapter XIV

THERE are still in existence two canons of a Synod held by St. Patrick about the year 450, relative to church music. Various Missals, Antiphonaries, and Hymn Books from the eighth to the twelfth century, attest the Irish form of the Roman Liturgy.[1] Tirechan, a writer of the seventh century, tells that a proper Preface was always sung for the National Apostle, in the Mass for the feast of St. Patrick; and all liturgical scholars are familiar with the old Irish Liber Hymnorum. I have already treated of the great Continental schools of music founded by Irish monks, especially that of St. Gall's; and reference has also been made to the Culdees of Armagh, who had a world-renowned music school, from the eighth to the sixteenth century.

Under date of 1224 we read of the death of "Maurice the Canonist, son of King Roderick O'Conor, one of the most eminent of the Irish for learning, psalm-singing and poetry."

From the close of the thirteenth century the Sarum Use obtained in the majority of the Irish churches, and continued till 1560. Inasmuch as Christ Church, Dublin, may be regarded as a typical cathedral, the following notices, from its archives, relating to music, together with other kindred matter, will supply a lacuna in our ecclesiastical annals.

In 1217, Henry de Londres, Archbishop of Dublin and Lord Justice of Ireland, convened a Synod, in which it was decreed that the singing of the canonical hours should be rendered "distinctly and clearly, with due reverence and devotion," and that "there should be no skipping or slurring of the notes of the liturgical chant." Two years later, this prelate erected St. Patrick's Collegiate Church as a cathedral, and founded the dignities of Precentor, Chancellor, and Treasurer, ordering that the Use of Sarum should be observed; and he died in July 1228. After eighty years dissension, a settlement was come to on March 2nd, 1300, whereby Christ Church, as the Mother Church (receiving three ounces of gold, annually, from St. Patrick's), was confirmed in its precedence over St. Patrick's, yet both Cathedrals were to be metropolitan, and both Chapters were to have a voice in the election of Archbishop.

Although Pope Clement V. on July nth, 1311, issued a Bull for the erection of a University in Dublin, yet it was not till 1320 that Archbishop de Bicknor was able to formally open it, and he also framed a code of statutes for the infant University, the studium generale being in St. Patrick's Cathedral.[2]

In 1328, according to the Annals of Clonmacnoise, died Maurice O'Gibellan, Master of Arts, learned in civil and canon law, a philosopher, Irish poet, and exact speaker of the speech which in Irish is called Ogham; a Canon and singer in Tuam, Elphin, Achonry, Killala, Annadown and Clonfert, as also Vicar-General. In 1343, according to the Annals of Ulster, "Donnchada O'Mael-Brenainn [O'Mulrenin] the cleric, Canon-chorister of Elphin, was killed by one shot of an arrow by the people of David Mac William de Burgh the Brown."

From the Statutes of the Provincial Council held in Dublin, in 1348, under the presidency of Alexander de Bicknor, Archbishop of Dublin, it is evident that the study and cultivation of sacred chant was insisted on as an essential part of the duties of clerics. (Can. 23). These statutes, according to Ware, are preserved in the White Book of the Church of Ossory.

John of St. Paul, Archbishop of Dublin, built the choir of Christ Church Cathedral in 1358, and subscribed to the fund for a new organ, which was presided at by one of the Canons, generally designated as "clerk of the organs." His successor Thomas Minot (a relative of Laurence Minot, the famous war-song writer), who was consecrated on Palm Sunday, 1363, almost rebuilt St. Patrick's Cathedral, and added a steeple to it.

About the year 1370 was transcribed the exquisite Psalter of Christ Church, now preserved in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. Mr. Mills, of the Dublin Public Record Office says that "this work must be acknowledged to be the most elaborate extant work of Anglo-Norman art in Ireland."

In 1390, John de Sandale, Precentor of Christ Church, effected some improvements in the musical services. The ordinary choir dress for the Canons was the same as at Salisbury, that is, "black copes down to the feet, and surplices beneath them," whilst the choir boys wore cottae and rochettae, or shortened albs—the acolytes generally being vested in "scarlet cassocks with a scarlet hood over the surplice."

Reading between the lines of musty parchment deeds and account rolls of the fourteenth century, we get a tolerable insight into the constitution of the choir and its general economy. Music was sedulously cultivated; and several Latin treatises on musical theory were written by eminent prelates and clerics, including a valuable work by Simon Tunstede, D.D., O.S.F., who died in 1369. I have previously mentioned that the earliest English treatise on music was written by an Irish cleric, Lionel Power, about the year 1390. It may also be added that there is a fine Antiphonarium of this period among the manuscript in Trinity College, Dublin.[3]

In the Red Book of the Exchequer there is a very fine transcript of the Gregorian Modes, and also the hymn for the feast of the Ascension and the Latin hymn to St. Nicholas. Folios 49-64 contain an early illuminated Missal comprising the chief festivals, following, to a great extent, the Use of Sarum, whilst folio 135 has the well-known hymn to St. John the Baptist, "Ut Queant laxis," from which Guido of Arezzo evolved the names Ut, Re, Mi, Fa, etc. It also contains an early Church Calendar, with various notices of events from 1264 to 1524.

King Edward III., in 1335, as a mark of favour to the Carmelite Friars of Dublin, granted the said White Friars the sole right of performing Divine Service in the Chapel of the Exchequer in George Street (near the present South Great George's Street), who were, for their labours, entitled to receive from the Court of Exchequer an annual payment of one hundred shillings. In 1347 or 1348 the Exchequer removed from George Street, and its site was granted to the Austin Friars on July 28th, 1362. Here it is as well to explain that there was always a Chaplain of the Exchequer Chapel, and it was a custom, from the close of the fourteenth century to the year 1869 (when the "Church of Ireland" was disestablished), for the choiristers of Christ Church, on the third day previous to the close of each Law Term, four times a year, "to proceed to the Court of Exchequer to do homage to the King before the Barons, in open Court, in order to secure their estates and privileges." On these visits the Chaplain recited the Latin prayers contained in the Red Book, and the choir sang appropriate antiphons and Latin hymns, "standing on the green cloth," at the conclusion of which they received a certificate that entitled them to all their revenues. An entry was then made in the rule-books of the Court to the effect that "the Chauntor of Christ Church brought into Court the Vicar's Choral, and performed their accustomed service and homage due to his Majestie," receiving their wonted fee of ten shillings sterling.[4]

In 1396, there is a record of the death of Matthew O'Lonan, Archdeacon of Ardagh, who is described by the old chroniclers as "a man versed in various arts and sciences, in history, poetry, music, and general literature."

Under Nicholas Staunton, Prior of Christ Church from 1420 to 1438, the musical services were very numerous, owing to the number of anniversary Requiem Masses. In an interesting inventory of the goods of Thomas Weston, Prior of the Hospital of St. John of Newgate, Dublin, enrolled among the deeds of Christ Church, there is mention of "three capes and two hoods, worth 6s. 8d.;" "a breviary, worth 20s.; " "a mass book," etc.; and he bequeathed his breviary "to the Prior of Holy Trinity, to be chained in the choir."

In 1431, Richard Talbot, Archbishop of Dublin (brother to the Earl of Shrewsbury), instituted six minor Canons and six Choristers in St. Patrick's Cathedral, who were not, however, to have a stall in the choir, nor yet a voice in the Chapter. Each of the six Choristers was to receive four marks, English money, and twenty marks to the Precentor.

On February 18th, 1438, Pope Eugenius IV. granted an indulgence of four years and 160 days to "those who, being penitent, and having confessed devoutly, visited Holy Trinity Church yearly, on the Sunday on which is chanted Laetare Jerusalem, and bestow alms towards its repair and preservation." Among the items of expenditure recorded in the Treasurer's book at this period we find "quires of paper for copying music," "mats for the choirs," "surplices and rochets for the choristers," "sconces for the quires," "a key to the quire door," "a quire of paper for songs," etc.


[1] Renehan's History of Music, p. 68.

[2] William de Rudyard, Dean of St Patrick's, was appointed first Chancellor. On August 14th, 1359, Edward III. endowed a Lectureship in Divinity in the University of Dublin; and, in 1364, Lionel Duke of Clarence founded a theological chair to be held by an Austin Friar—said lectures to be given in the vestry or robing-room of the Cathedral.

[3] No. 100 in Abbott's Catalogue of the MSS. in T C.D.

[4] Mr. Bumpus tells us that in the early years of the nineteenth century "four of the chorister boys and the two clerical vicars used to attend, escorted by the verger of Christ Church." Mr. John Horan, the veteran Organist of Christ Church, who had been a chorister from 1841 to 1846, is the last surviving member of the choir that took part in this quaint ceremonial—abolished since 1869.