Anglo-Irish Music in the Sixteenth Century

William H. Grattan Flood
Chapter XVI

IN the first half of the sixteenth century there is very little to chronicle, save what has already been quoted in the preceding chapter in connection with sacred music. What we would now call "scientific music" had made very little headway in Ireland until the reign of Queen Mary, when di Lassus visited England.

Between the years 1505 and 1535 there are evidences of clavichords, harpischords, and spinets or virginals, having been introduced into Ireland. The name "Virginals" was given to the Spinet as being the favourite instruments for ladies or "virgins," and Henry VIII. is said to have been a good performer on the Virginals.

Music was regarded as an important accessory to the Mystery or Morality plays, and, in 1509, there is a record quoted by Sir John Gilbert in reference to Dublin. The historian of the city of Dublin tells us that, in the year 1509, "a sum of 3s. 1d. is charged for Thomas Mayo acting with seven lights at Christmas and Candlemas, and 4s. 7d. for the Players with the great and the small Angel and the Dragon, at Whitsuntide."

From the opening years of the sixteenth century it was customary for the several Corporate guilds of the city of Dublin to invite the Chief Governor to a play at St. George's Chapel, on the anniversaries of their patron saints. Stanihurst, writing in 1584, thus laments the fate of St. George's Church in South Great George's Street:—

“This chappell hath beene of late razed, and the stones thereof, by consent of the assemblie, turned to a common oven, converting the ancient monument of a doutie, adventurous, and holie knight to the cole-rake sweeping of a pufloafe baker.” [1]

In 1528, during the Christmas holidays, plays were acted every day on College Green, before Piers Butler, Earl of Ossory, Lord Justice of Ireland, wherein the tailors acted the part of Adam and Eve;, the shoemakers represented the story of Crispin and Crispianus; the vintners acted Bacchus and his story; the carpenters that of Joseph and Mary; the story of Vulcan was represented by the smiths; and the comedy of Ceres, the goddess of corn by the bakers.[2] An entry in the chain-book of Dublin Corporation supplies the information that the music consisted of four trumpets.

Sir James Ware, writing of the rejoicings got up by the Palesmen in Dublin after the proclamation of King Henry VIII. as King of Ireland, in June, 1541, enumerates comedies as having been performed on that occasion. However, it is more than probable that the so-called comedies were merely the morality plays given, as customary, during the octave of the Feast of Corpus Christi, as said Parliament formally opened on the day following the great festival of the Blessed Sacrament—the proclamation formally taking place "on the Sunday within the octave," in St. Patrick's Cathedral.

On Sunday, August 20th, 1552, a performance was given by the schismatic Bishop Bale of Ossory, at the Market Cross of Kilkenny, of a tragedy, "God's Promises in the olde lawe," and a comedy, "St. John Baptiste's Preaching"—both written by Bale himself—"which were accompanied with organe plainge and songes very aptly." After each act there was a choral arrangement of the Advent Antiphon O Sapientia, to the accompaniment of a positive organ.

In a manuscript in Trinity College, Dublin, it is stated that in August, 1557, after the return of Lord Deputy Sussex from a successful expedition against James MacDonnell, "the Six Worthies was played by the city, and the Mayor gave the public a goodly entertainment upon the occasion, found four trumpeters's horses for the solemnity, and gave them twenty shillings in money."

Four years later, namely, in June, 1561, when Lord Sussex was sworn in Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, he was invited to dinner by the then Mayor (Thomas Fitzsimon), at the conclusion of which the play of the Nine Worthies was acted. At the evening entertainment the Corporation band discoursed music, "after which the Mayor and his brethren, with the city music, attended the Lord Lieutenant and Council to Thomas' Court, by torchlight." [3]

Under date of 1566, there is a manuscript "Love Song" (without music however), written by Donal, first Earl of Clancarty. A few years previously, an Anglo-Irish Song was written to the tune of "Greensleeves." In a Morality play by William Bulleyn, in 1564, a minstrel is decribed as "dancing Trenchmore and Heie de Gie," that is, the Hey of the arms, or, as the Italians call it, da braccio, as in the case of the Viola da Braccio. Thus, as early as the year 1564, two Irish dances—popular in the pale—anglicised as "Trenchmore" and "Hey," had found their way to England, just as the Irish corr had become known as the Reel. Trenchmore is introduced by Fletcher into his Pilgrim, and it is referred to by Stanihurst, in 1584, as follows: "And truly they suit a Divine as well as for an ape to frisk Trenchmore in a pair of buskins and a doublet." I shall merely add that the music of this dance tune was printed in Deuteromelia, in 1609.

In the notes appended to Spenser's Shepherds Calendar, by a certain Mr. E. K., in 1579, the Hey is explained as "a country dance or round." The Irish Hey, or Hay, is, therefore, the origin of the English Round or Country Dance. We are the more certain of this, as one of the earliest Rounds known is stated by Sir John Hawkins to be "Sellenger's Round," which Sir Anthony St. Leger saw danced in Ireland, in 1540, and which, on retiring from the Viceroyalty in 1548, he brought back with him to England, where its popularity was so great that it was arranged by the famous master, Dr. William Byrd.[4]

"Trenchmore" is an Anglicised corruption of Rinnce Mor or the Rinnce Fada, that is, the Long Dance, whilst the Hey was danced in a circle. Allusion is made to both these Irish dances in The Complaint of Scotland, in 1549.

Nor must we pass over the antiquity of the Irish port or Jig. Strangely enough, many writers, including the late Sir Robert Stewart, only regard the Jig dance as borrowed from the Italians, in the latter half of the seventeenth century. However, there is ample evidence of its existence in Ireland in the middle of the sixteenth century, at least in 1550. Sir Henry Sydney, in a letter to Queen Elizabeth, in 1569, waxes enthusiastic over the dancing of Irish jigs by the Anglo-Irish ladies of Galway, whom he describes as "very beautiful, magnificently dressed, and first-class dancers." Indeed, the Irish Jig is distinctly sui generis, but is so named from the Geige (or Fiddle) just as in the case of the Hornpipe.

From 1560 to 1580 appeared a class of Anglo-Irish ballads, of which Stanihurst, in 1583, published a good imitation, which he styled: "An Epitaph, entitled Commune Defunctorum, such as our unlettered Rithmours accustomably make upon the death of everie Tom Tyler, as if it were a last for every one his foote, in which the quantities of sillables are not to be heeded." In 1576, a ballad on the death of the unfortunate Walter Devereux, Earl of Essex, in Dublin, was sung to the Irish tune of "Fortune my Foe," under the title of "Welladay, or Essex's Last Good-Night."

I am the more particular in mentioning this "lamentation song" on Essex (who died on September 22nd, 1576), as he was a generous patron of music. From a State Paper we get a fair indication of his musical proclivities, in the account of his expenses as "Lord General of Ulster," in 1574 and 1575. To the "singing men" of Mellifont, then tenanted by Sir Edward Moore, he gave ten shillings; to the Earl of Ormonde's musicians, twenty shillings; whilst a harper at Sir John Bellew's received three shillings. However, a princely largesse was bestowed on "Crues, my Lord of Ormonde's harper"—namely, forty shillings, equivalent to £35 of our present money. This Anglo-Irish harper is thus praised by Stanihurst, in 1584:—

"In these days lived Cruise, the most remarkable harper within the memory of man. He carefully avoids that jarring sound which arises from unstretched and untuned strings; and, moreover, by a certain method of tuning and modulating he preserves an exquisite concord, which has a surprising effect upon the ears of his auditors, such that one would regard him rather as the only, than the greatest harper." [5]

But a more famous lamentation song was written in June, 1584, on the martyrdom of Archbishop O'Hurley of Cashel, dealing in a special manner with the perfidy of Thomas Fleming, Baron of Slane, who had arrested the saintly prelate. It was entitled: Slane's Treason; or, the Fall of the Baron of Slane, set to music by Richard Cruise, the distinguished harper above-mentioned, " [6]

We now come to an epoch-making event in the musical world, namely, the publication of the first printed book on musical theory in English, by an Anglo-Irishman, William Bathe, in 1584. Ireland has every reason to be proud of the fact that the first published theory book on music in the English language was due to a young Dublin man, who was then studying at Oxford University. Its title was as follows:—

“A brief Introduction to the art of Music, wherein are set down exact and easy rules for such as seek but to know the truth, with arguments and their solutions for such also as wish to know the reason of the truth. Which rules be means whereby any of his own industry may shortly, easily, and regularly attain to all such things as to this art do belong. To which otherwise any can hardly attain without tedious, difficult practice, by means of the irregular order now in teaching, lately set forth by William Bathe, student at Oxenford. Imprinted at London by Abel Jeffes, dwelling in Sermon Lane near Paule's Chain, anno 1584.”

This extremely rare work, in small oblong quarto, black letter, was dedicated by Bathe to his grand-uncle, Gerald FitzGerald, Earl of Kildare. However, the author was not satisfied with this treatise, and so he thoroughly revised it, such that it may be regarded as almost a new book, which, however, was not published till the year 1600, entitled:—

“A brief Introduction to the Skill of Song, concerning the practice, set forth by William Bathe, gentleman. In which work is set downe ten sundry wayes of two parts in one upon the plain song. Also, a table, newly added, of the comparisons of cleffs, how one followeth another for the naming of notes, with other necessarie examples to further the learner. London: Printed by Thomas Este, 1600.”[7]

The following extract from the latter work, written in 1587, will be of interest:—

“Wherefore, seeing sufficiently others to labour and travail in other sciences, I thought good to bestow my labour on music, seeing that pains might so much prevail, as by the fruit of my labour may plainly appear.

“I took the matter in hand upon this occasion, though it were far distant from my profession, being desired by a gentleman to instruct him in song. I gave him such rules as my master gave me; yet could I give him no song so plain, wherein there chanced not some one thing or other to which none of those rules could directly lead him. …

“In a month, or less, I instructed a child about the age of eight years to sing a good number of songs, difficult, crabbed songs to sing at the first sight, to be so indifferent for all parts, alterations, cleves, flats, and sharps, that he would sing a part of that kind of which he had never learnt any song; which child for strangeness was brought before the Lord Deputy of Ireland to be heard sing, for there was none of his age, though he were longer at it, nor any of his time, though he were elder, known before these rules to sing exactly. There was another, who had before often handled instruments, but never practised to sing (for he could not name one note), who, hearing of these rules, obtained in a short time such profit hy them that he could sing a difficult song of himself without any instruction.

“There was another, who, by dodging at it, harkening to it, and harping upon it, could never be brought to tune sharps aright, who, as soon as he heard these rules set down for the same, could tune them sufficiently well. I have taught divers others by these rules in less than a month what myself, by the old method, obtained not in more than two years. Divers other proofs I might recite which here, as needless, I do omit.” [8]


[1] Stanihurst's Description of Ireland (Holinshed's Chronicle), p. 23.

[2] Robert Ware's MSS., quoted by Walker in his Essay on the Irish Stage.

[3] Harris's History of the City of Dublin, sub. an. 1561. The Earl of Sussex, writing to the Secretary of State, in October, 1561, quotes a "ditty," then popular, condemning his government, called "The Land of Perdition."

[4] A copy of Byrd's arrangement is in Lady Neville's MS. music book, dated 1590, and it also appears as No 64 in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. See also Chappell, page 69, where the melody is printed.

[5] Stanihurst's De Rebus in Hibernia Gestis. 4 Books. Antwerp 1584. 4to.

[6] O'Sullivan's Catholic History (Chap. xix.), published, in 1621 at Lisbon.

[7] There are copies of this book in the British Museum, the Bodleian Library, and Sion College. The British Museum copy was presented to that library by Sir John Hawkins, May 30th, 1778.

[8] British Museum copy: a small unpaged octavo of 25 pages, of which six pages have musical notation.