Irish Music in the Seventeenth Century, 1601-1650 (2)

William H. Grattan Flood
Chapter XVIII | Start of chapter

Rory O'Cahan died at the house of Lord Macdonald, leaving to that nobleman his harp and exquisite tuning key. The late William Elliot Hudson was strongly of opinion that the so-called "Lude" Harp (whose history cannot be traced further back than 1650) was really the favourite harp of Rory dall. Gunn, in 1807, describes it as 38 inches high, furnished with 30 strings, and it has all the characteristics of an Irish harp. Moreover, Dr. Johnson, in his Tour in the Hebrides, tells that in 1773 a valuable harp key, finely ornamented with gold and silver, and with a precious stone, worth eighty to a hundred guineas, was then in possession of Lord Macdonald, who presented it to Echlin O'Cahan. But the matter seems placed beyond doubt by the manuscript autobiography of Arthur O'Neill, wherein it is stated that Rory's harp and tuning-key had been left by the great Irish minstrel at the house of a Scotch nobleman, whose descendant, in 1773, presented the key to Echlin O'Cahan (incorrectly called "Ackland Kane"), who sold it in Edinburgh. Sir Walter Scott introduces Rory dall as the musical preceptor of Annot Lyle in his Legend of Montrose. Bunting prints three of his tunes, including "The Hawk of Ballyshannon," also known as "Port Athol," and retouched by O'Carolan as "O'Moore's Daughter."[8]

From various "Relations" sent by the Irish Jesuits to Rome between the years 1608 and 1640, it appears that Irish was universally spoken throughout Ireland, and that even in Leinster it was more generally used than English.

Dr. Geoffrey Keating, the author of the "Forar Feara ar Éirinn," or History of Ireland (finished in 1634), kept a harper named Tadhg O'Coffey, whom he thus addresses in a beautiful Irish poem of nine stanzas, about the year 1615:—

"Who is the artist by whom the harp is played,
By whom the anguish of the envenom'd spear's wound is healed,
Through the sweet-voiced sound of the sounding-board,
Like the sweet-strained peal of the organ."

During the first decade of the seventeenth century, or probably earlier, was composed the exquisite air, "Ceann dub Dilir," or "Black-headed Dearie," printed by Playford in 1713. It was known in Scotland as "The Auld Jew," and in England as "The Irish Round, or Kennington Wells."[9] Burke Thumoth (1740) styles it "Currie koun dilich."

About the same period was composed the plaintive "Uilleacán Dub Ó," to which, in 1746, Donogh MacConmara (Macnamara), or Donncad Ruad, adapted the well-known song, "Bán Cnuic Éireann Óg"—"The Fair Hills of dear Eire." The air was printed by Walker in 1786.

Captain Barnaby Rich (who fought for forty years in the Irish wars, and was a voluminous pamphleteer from 1574 to 1624), in his New Description of Ireland, in 1610, says: "The Irish have harpers, and those are so reverenced among them that in the time of rebellion they will forbear to hurt either their persons or their goods, but are rather inclined to give to them; and they are very bountiful either to rhymers or fools." Moreover, he adds, that "every great man in the country hath his rhymer, his harper, and his known messenger to run about the country with letters."

In 1615 William FitzRobert FitzEdmond Barry, a famous blind harper, was a retainer of Lord Barrymore, and in 1620 we find Daniel MacCormac dubh O'Cahill as harper to Viscount Buttevant. Even the "great" Earl of Cork, one of the most unscrupulous adventurers that ever came to Ireland, kept an Irish harper in his service.

In 1616 Father Nicholas Nugent, an Irish Jesuit, was taken prisoner at the house of his relative, Lord Inchiquin, and was imprisoned in Dublin Castle for four years, During his imprisonment he solaced himself by composing Irish hymns, set to old tunes, which, as his biographers tell us, "became very popular, and were sung throughout Ireland."

Between the years 1618 and 1625 Father Robert Nugent, S.J. (who spoke Irish equally well with English), laboured in County Westmeath, a very musical county. The better to win over the native population, he cultivated the Irish harp so assiduously that he became a most proficient performer. Not content with excelling as a harper, he invented a new form of harp, minutely described by Archdeacon Lynch, author of Cambrensis Eversus.

Walker, writing in 1786, says: "The Irish harp received considerable improvements from the ingenuity of Robert Nugent, a Jesuit, in the fifteenth century, who resided for some time in this kingdom." Passing over the absurdity of making Jesuits exist in Ireland in the fifteenth century, it is merely necessary to mention that Father Robert Nugent laboured for forty years in Ireland, his native country. He was a cousin of Elizabeth, Countess of Kildare, who, in 1634, gave him Kilkea Castle, County Kildare, for a novitiate of the Order, of which he became Superior in 1640. His improvements mainly consisted in having a double row of strings extended along the framework of the harp, giving two strings to each sound (after the manner of a bi-chord pianoforte), which, when vibrating in unison, "produced a rich and sonorous quality of tone, also affording increased facilities for the uninterrupted progression of the passages with either hand." [10]

Nor are we left to mere descriptions of the harp as used in Ireland in 1620. We have still preserved a splendid instrument, dated 1621, made for Sir John FitzEdmond Fitzgerald, of Cloyne. Bunting gives a long account of it in his second volume (1809), but he fails to identify the maker, whose name appears as "Donatus filius Thadei." This harp maker is none other than Donal MacTadhg O'Dermody, whose father received pardon on March 28th, 1601, as previously mentioned. The inscription proudly proclaims—"Ego sum Regina Cithararum," and, in truth, it is a queenly instrument. The name "Dalway" harp is incorrectly applied, the explanation being that the instrument was for a century in the family of Noah Dalway, of Bellahill, near Carrickfergus.

King James died March 27th, 1625, and was succeeded by Charles I., under whom there was a lull in the persecution against Irish minstrels, owing to the expectancy of the "graces," in consideration of the sum of £120,000 to be paid to the King. The Irish harp was even fashionable in England from 1626 to 1676, and there was a book of instructions published for it in London in 1630, arranged by Martin Pierson, Mus. Bac., Master of the Children of St. Paul's Cathedral—remarkable as being the first printed work in which tunes were arranged for the Irish harp.

There is a quaint letter from the Earl of Cork, Lord Justice of Ireland, dated October 14th, 1632, to his friend, Captain Price, in London, which I quote from the State Papers [11] as follows:—

"Thank you for kindness to my son. The bearer is to give the Lord Keeper an Irish Harp, and Lady Coventry a runlet of mild Irish uskebath sent unto her ladyship by my youngest daughter Peggie, who was so much bound to her ladyship for her great goodness and care of her. ... I pray help Mr. Hunt to deliver them, and let me add that if it please his lordship next his hart (?) in the morning to drink a little of this Irish uskuebagh, as it is prepared and qualified, it will help to digest all raw humours, expel wind, and keep his inward parts warm all the day after, without any offence to his stomack."

A popular air of the period 1615-1630 was "An Cnotad bán," or "The White Cockade," the song of which was written by Muiris mac Daibhi mac Gerailt (Maurice FitzDavid FitzGerald), in reference to a then prevalent fashion of white-ribboned plumes worn by the ladies of Munster on festive occasions. It was one of the two airs played by the war pipers of the Irish Brigade at Fontenoy on May 11th, 1745. The Scotch subsequently appropriated it, but it was not printed as a Scotch air till 1778. About the year 1730 Seaghan Claragh MacDonnell adapted a rousing lyric to the air of "An Cnotad bán," which will be found as the very first song in Father Dinneen's excellent edition of that great Irish poet.

Some years later was composed a jig-tune, "An Cota buide," or "The Yellow Jacket," which was printed by Playford in 1652 as "Buff-coat; or, Excuse Me," and was afterwards altered by the Scotch as "The Deuks gang o'er my daddie" in 1740. Our Irish air appeared as one of the tunes in the ballad opera of "Polly," in 1729, and Moore tells us that it was also adapted to a popular song commencing: "My husband's a journey to Portugal gone."

About the year 1635 was composed a variant of the lively Irish tune, "Ir Cuma liom," that is "It is indifferent to me," or "I don't care," which was printed in London in 1680. It was variously known as "The Nurses' Song," "Mad Moll," and "Yellow Stockings." Dean Swift was much enamoured of the melody, and set it to a nursery song, entitled "Hey, my Kitten, my Kitten," in 1705.

Although Dr. Geoffrey Keating—"clarum et venerabile nomen"—finished his History of Ireland in 1634, he did not write the Dionbrollac (preface or vindication) till 1635, when he was parish priest of Cappoquin and Affane, County Waterford. From this learned preface, so carefully edited by Mr. David Comyn, I quote the following passage:—

“Stanihurst finds fault with the people who play the harp in Ireland, and says they have no music in them. It is probable that he was not a judge of any music, especially of this Gaelic music of Ireland, he being unacquainted with the rules which appertain to it. ... And I am surprised that he did not read Cambrensis. . . . Likewise, it is not true for Stanihurst to assert that the greater number of Irish instrumentalists and vocalists are blind, for it is certain that when he wrote his History (1584) there was a greater number of persons with eyesight engaged in the arts of playing and singing in Ireland than of blind people, which is equally true of the present time (1635), as can be attested by all our own contemporaries.”

At the period of the Confederation of Kilkenny, from 1642 to 1648, Irish minstrely was much in evidence. One of the "laments" of that epoch was composed for Maelmuire O'Reilly, popularly known as "Myles the Slasher," who was slain on the bridge of Fenagh, near Granard, in 1642, by the Scotch Covenanters, and was buried in the Franciscan Friary, Cavan. Another glorious "lament" was composed on the death of Owen Roe O'Neill, in 1649, whose body was interred in the grave of "Myles the Slasher." No monument marks the graves of these two heroes in the now dismantled Friary of Cavan, but the "laments" are still well known to students of Irish folk music.[12]

M. Boullay le Gouz, writing in 1644, says:—"The Irish march to battle with the bagpipes, instead of fifes, but they have few drums." He adds:—"They are very fond of the harp, on which nearly all play, as the English do on the fiddle."

A splendid Irish war-march of this epoch is "Mac Alisdrum's March," the date of which is readily known from the fact that the gallant Alaster Mac Donnell, also known as Mac Alisdrum, or Colkitto, was slain at the battle of Knocknanoss (Shrub Hill), near Mallow, on November 13th, 1647. The ill-fated warrior, after having performed prodigies of valour, was basely assassinated whilst parleying with an officer. His remains were placed in the ancestral tomb of the O'Callaghans at Clonmeen, County Cork, and the Irish war-pipers who accompanied the funeral played a specially-composed death-march over all that remained of the brave soldier, described by the Papal Nuncio Rinuccini as "militem praestantissimum." [13]

In 1648 was composed the lovely air known as "Druimfionn donn dilir," or "The white-backed brown Cow," a version which was Englished by the Irish actor, Thomas Dogget, and sung by him, in 1690, as "Colly, my Cow."

We are also safe in dating the ever-popular "Gramachree " as from the period of the Confederation, as it is alluded to in a pamphlet printed in 1649. Mr. Alfred Moffat could discover no earlier edition of the melody than that issued in 1746, but it was printed in Dublin in 1737, and was purloined by James Oswald in 1742, whose rendering has the Scotch title of "Will ye go to Flanders, my Molly, O?" In 1759 George Ogle wrote English words to the Irish air, namely, "As down by Banna's banks I strayed," and it was subsequently utilised by Sheridan in "The Duenna." It is almost unnecessary to add that the melody is now best known as "The Harp that once thro' Tara's Halls."

Four other airs of the same period are "Old Langolee," "'Twas down in a Meadow," or "Contented I am"; "Oonagh," or "While gazing on the Moon's light"; and "Paisthin Fionn."

Bishop Dease of Meath (1622-1650) was alike famous as a timpanist and an Irish song-writer. He made his will in 1648, and bequeathed, as a valuable heirloom, his tiompan, which solaced him during his last years. His death occurred at the Jesuits' residence in Galway, in 1651.



[8] On March 8th, 1607, Sir John Egerton, son of the Lord Chancellor of England, wrote to Sir John Davies, Attorney-General for Ireland, reminding him of his Irish Harp, (Cal. S. P., Ireland, March 8th, 1606-7.)

[9] Moffat, in his Minstrelsy of Ireland, says that the air is printed in Playford's Dancing Master, vol. ii., 1728, but I find it in the 1713 edition, at page 146.

[10] Conran's National Music of Ireland, p, 187. The full Latin description will be found in Cambrensis Eversus.

[11] Calendar of State Papers relating to Ireland—Charles I. (1625-1632), p. 674.

[12] In February, 1653, Primate O'Reilly died at Trinity Island, and was buried in the tomb of Myles the Slasher and Owen Roe O'Neill, in Cavan Friary.

[13] Dr. Charles Smith, writing in 1750, says:—"There is a very odd kind of Irish music, well known in Munster, by the name of 'MacAlistrum's March,' being a wild rhapsody made in honour of this commander, which to this day is much esteemed by the Irish, and played at all their feasts."—(History of Cork.)