Irish Music in the Seventeenth Century, 1650-1700

William H. Grattan Flood
Chapter XIX

ONE of the most renowned harpers in 1650 was Pierce Ferriter, of Ferriter's Castle, County Kerry,[1] whose fame is not confined to tradition. We read that he was presented with a beautiful harp by Edmond Mac an Daill (son of Donnell Mac an Daill), of Moylurg, County Roscommon, on which occasion he wrote an Irish poem of twenty-six stanzas. The "gentleman harper" (as he was called in County Kerry), headed a band of troops to defend his property, but surrendered on condition of quarter for his men and himself. Notwithstanding this he was thrown into a filthy prison, where, however, he had the happiness of being consoled by the ministrations of Father Maurice O'Connell, a Jesuit, who, in the guise of a labourer, gave him the last sacraments. Pierce Ferriter was led out to execution in the year 1652, at Killarney, on Cnocán na gCaorac, now Fair Hill, and was hanged. The Rinuccini MS. adds that though famous as a Confederate leader, he was still more famed as an orator and bard—"et praesertim Hibernica lingua insignem"—especially for his genius as an Irish poet. Ferriter composed many fine airs, but I have failed to recover any of them save the caoine on the death of the Knight of Kerry in 1642—published by Crofton Croker.[2] The Puritans, not content with hanging the Kerry bard, also hanged his brother-in-law, Father Thady Moriarty, Prior of the Dominican Convent, Tralee, whose martyrdom is chronicled on October 15th, 1653.

In 1649, the Irish regiments, who still were faithful to the faithless Stewarts, kept Irish pipers on their staff. Among the companies who thus returned one piper each, as recorded in the State Papers, are those of Captain Donogh O'Kennedy, Major Conor O'Callaghan, Captain Laurence O'Byrne, Captain John FitzMaurice FitzGerald, Captain Sorley MacDonnell (with seventeen soldiers belonging to Colkitto, the hero of Knocknanoss), Captain Tadhg O'Connor, Captain Phelim O'Connor, Captain Mooney, and Colonel Conway. Their pay was 28s. a month—equivalent to almost £20 of our present money. In 1650, Sir James Dillon's regiment was conspicuous for its many pipers, whose names are a sufficient proof of their nationality. One of the best known bagpipe tunes of this period is "Cold and Rough," which the great English composer, Henry Purcell, utilised as a bass part for a Royal Birth-day Ode in 1692—and which was annexed by our "brither Scots" as "Cold and Raw."

As early as September 25th, 1650, there was a Proclamation issued by Ormonde against Tories and Wolves. The proclamation describes the Tories as Idle Boys who were masterless and out of protection, and consequently traitors. On December 20th, 1652, a public hunt was ordered by the State to destroy the numerous wolves in County Dublin. As is well known, priests, schoolmasters, and minstrels were put in the same category as wolves, and were outlawed. In 1654, all harpers, pipers, and wandering musicians had to obtain letters from the magistrate of the district where they hailed from before being allowed to travel through the country, and this passport contained full particulars as to the age, stature, beard, colour of hair, condition of life, etc., of the recipient.

A melodious tune of this epoch has been fortunately preserved in John Gamble's MS., dated 1659, and which was picked up by some of the Puritan troops in Ireland. It appears under various names, and is called "I'll never Love thee more," by Gamble, but the Irish tune was previously adapted to other words by James Graham, Marquis of Montrose, who was executed in 1650. The Irish character of the melody is very marked.

Another pretty melody, which dates certainly prior to the year 1660, is "Cailin dear," to which variations were added by Lyons, the Harper, in 1698. Bunting calls it "A lovely lass to a Friar came," but he was apparently unaware that the tune had been printed under this name in Gay's "Beggars' Opera" in 1728, and by Thomas Odell in 1729, after which it became very popular in England.

No words can adequately describe the horrors of the Cromwellian rule from 1650 to 1660. The pages of Prendergast, Gilbert, and Moran supply sickening details of that dreadful period. As regards music, it is a commonplace of history that the Puritans destroyed all the organs in the churches—Protestant as well as Catholic—regarding them as savouring of Popery. They also broke all the harps they could find, as a contemporary writer, Archdeacon Lynch, states. In fact, to such an extent was the harp-breaking mania carried that Lynch was of opinion that within a short time scarce a single instrument would be left in Ireland.

Apropos of the harp, Evelyn, the diarist, under date of 1654, waxes most enthusiastically, and thus records his opinion:—"Such music before or since did I never hear, the Irish harp being neglected for its extraordinary difficulty; but, in my judgment, far superior to the lute itself, or whatever speaks with strings."

Yet in spite of the Cromwellian atrocities, the harp still was heard in tuneful lays, accompanying the dear old tongue of the Gael, in strains that appealed even to the Puritans themselves. Who will deny that the harp was a potent factor in softening the hearts of the grim Ironsides? Anyhow, within thirty years from the pious Oliver's landing in Ireland, many of the children of the planters were completely absorbed by the native Irish, and had adopted not only the Roman Catholic faith, but were found to speak nothing but Irish. A rare pamphlet, written in 1697, bewails the degeneracy of the Williamite settlers as follows:—

“We cannot so much wonder at the degeneracy of the present English when we consider how many there are of the children of Oliver's soldiers in Ireland who cannot speak one word of English; and what is strange, the same may be said of some of the children of King William's soldiers, who came but t'other day into the country. This misfortune is owing to the marrying Irish women. 'Tis sure that no Englishman in Ireland knows what his children may be, as things are now; they cannot well live in the country without growing Irish.”

The story of the Act of Settlement is trite, and it were an ungracious task to touch on it, except to mention that the dispossession of the ancient proprietors, confirmed by that abominable Act, drew forth some exquisitely-plaintive caoines and laments. In an old manuscript, the date, 1664, is assigned to that quaint tune "Iom bó Agur um bó," to which new Irish words were set by Geoffrey O'Donoghue, of Glenflesk, a few years later, as may be seen in Father Dinneen's excellent little volume of that popular Kerry poet, who died in 1690.

Another very characteristic melody of the pre-Resto-ration epoch is the well-known "Atáim im' codlad 'r ná dúirig mé," or "I'm asleep, and don't waken Me." Although Mr. Moffat failed to trace it farther back than the year 1726, we have ample evidence of its existence in 1645, and it was printed by John Playford in 1652. It appeared in Scotland fifty years later, and was printed in Allan Ramsay's Tea Table Miscellany in 1726, under its Irish name. Charley Coffey, of Dublin, adapted the air to a song in the "Beggar's Wedding" in 1728, commencing:—

“Past one o'clock on a cold, frosty morning.”

We read in an old manuscript that this air was generally used by the "hedge schoolmasters" of the last years of the seventeenth century, set to the first Ode of Horace.

Not only did the Scotch purloin the air itself in its original state, but they evolved a new melody out of it by a simple change of rhythm, calling it "Peggy, I must Love Thee." In 1687 this transformed version was printed as "a Scotch tune in fashion," arranged by the celebrated Henry Purcell, England's greatest composer of that period.[3]

Tom Moore, in 1810, utilised this lovely air for his lyric "When Cold in the Earth," keeping fairly close to the original. In Moore's Melodies Restored, by Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, there is a note that "Moore's version is wholly different from Bunting's and Carolan's, and is probably his own," a statement that is absurd, suggesting, indeed, that the restorer never examined the old versions.

Amongst the harpers of the period 1660-1670, the most celebrated were Myles O'Reilly and the two Connellans. Of O'Reilly no particulars have come down, save the imaginings of Bunting. However, the brothers Connellan (Thomas and Laurence) were famed not only in Ireland, but also in Scotland. Thomas O'Connellan was born at Cloonymahon, County Sligo, about the year 1625, and spent twenty years in Scotland —famous alike as a bard and a harper. He returned to Ireland at the close of the year 1689, and died in 1698, at Bourchier's Castle, near Lough Gur, County Limerick, being at the time an honoured guest at the house of Mr. Bayley, agent to the Earl of Bath. His remains were reverently interred in the adjoining church-yard of Temple Nuadh, and over his grave a few pipers appropriately played, by way of funeral dirge, the introductory and concluding phrases which Connellan had added to "The Irish Tune," the version being known as "The Breach of Aughrim."

From this period must be dated the once popular air, "Maggie Laidir," to which new words were adapted by John O'Neachtan about the year 1676. Hardiman writes:—

“The air, as well as the words, of 'Maggie Laidir,' though long naturalised in North Britain, is Irish. When our Scottish kinsmen were detected appropriating the ancient saints of Ireland, they took a fancy to its music. Not satisfied with borrowing the art, they despoiled us of some of our sweetest airs, and amongst others, that of 'Maggie Laidir.' This name signifies in the original, strong or powerful Maggy, and by it was meant Ireland.”

One thing is certain, that John O'Neachtan, about the year 1676, wrote the original Irish song of "Maggie Laidir," of which Hardiman, in 1831, published a version from a transcript made in 1706. However, Hardiman merely relied on tradition for the Irish origin of the air to which the song was set, and could give no proof. Fortunately I have succeeded in tracing the tune as far back as the year 1696, when it was sung by the Anglo-Irish actor, Thomas Dogget, in his comedy of "A Country Wake," and again by him, in the variant of the same play, under the title of "Hob, or the Country Wake," at Drury-lane, in 1711.

It was utilised in the "Quakers' Opera," in 1728, and again by Charles Coffey, in 1729, in his "Beggar's Wedding," under the title "Moggy Lawther." The Scotch version was first printed in 1729 in Craig's Collection, the melody being set to words in celebration of Maggie Lauder, a reigning courtesan of Crail.

The English diarist Evelyn writes under date of November 17th, 1668:—

“I heard Sir Edward Sutton play excellently on the Irish harp; he performs genteely, but not approaching my worthy friend, Mr. Clarke, who makes it execute lute, viol, and all the harmony an instrument is capable of. Pity it is that it is not more in use; but, indeed, to play well takes up the whole mart, as Mr. Clarke has assured me, who, though a gentleman of quality and parts, was yet brought up to that instrument from five years old, as I remember he told me,”

Apropos of Irish harps, there is still preserved a fine specimen known as the "Fitzgerald Harp," or the "Kildare Harp," inscribed "R. F. G., 1672"—having been the property of Robert FitzGerald (second son of George, sixteenth Earl of Kildare), who died in January, 1698. Another beautiful harp is the "Fogarty Harp," dating from 1680, formerly belonging to Cornelius O'Fogarty, of Castle Fogarty, County Tipperary, a captain in the army of King James II. An excellent drawing of the latter appeared in the Dublin Penny Journal in 1838, and it was stated as being then in the possession of James Lanigan, Esq., Castle Fogarty. Amongst those killed at Aughrim on July 12th, 1691, was Edward FitzGerald, the last Baron of Cluain (County Kilkenny), formerly known as "Edward the Harper," from his skill on the harp. He was a member of the Confederates from 1644 to 1649, and was attainted in person and property under Cromwell, but got back a small portion of his ancestral lands in 1661.


[1] Ferriter's Castle was dismantled by a gale in May, 1845.

[2] The definitive edition of Pierce Ferriter's Irish poems has recently been published by the Gaelic League, Dublin, edited by Rev P. Dinneen. The poem on the harp is particularly interesting, as giving the Irish names for the corr (harmonic curve or crosstree), the lámcrann (front pillar), and the com, or soundboard, of the harp given to Ferriter by Mac an Daill. It was designed by MacSithduill, made by Cathal, bound and emblazoned by Bennglan, and decorated with gold by Parthalon mor MacCathail.

[3] Robert Burns wrote a song, "'Twas past one o'clock," to this "beautiful old Irish air.