Irish Music in the Seventeenth Century, 1601-1650

William H. Grattan Flood
Chapter XVIII

POLITICALLY, no more gloomy outlook could be imagined of any country than the state of Ireland during the last years of Queen Elizabeth's rule. The capitulation of Kinsale was signed on January 13th, 1602, and Dunboy Castle was taken on June 18th. A deliberately planned famine ensued. Red Hugh O'Donnell died on September 10th; Rory O'Donnell submitted on November 14th; and the great O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone, agreed to accept the terms offered by Mountjoy on March 24th, 1603.

Numerous pardons to Irish minstrels appear in State documents for the years 1601 and 1602, and their names —though little more is known of most of them—are a distinctly valuable addition to our musical history, the majority being unknown to Walker, Hardiman, Bunting, or Petrie.

On March 18th, 1601, pardon was given to John O'Lynch, harper, and to Murtagh MacCoyne, of Kilmallock, piper; on March 28th, to Art MacGillegrome MacDonnell and Geoffrey M'Glade, harpers; also, to Tadhg O'Dermody, harp-maker, County Kilkenny, whose son Donal made the famous Fitzgerald (Dalway) harp in 1621—remarkable as being the oldest dated Irish harp now in existence. Two days later a piper called Owen MacHugh na bralie was pardoned.

On April 11th, 1601, there is chronicled a pardon to Nicholas dall, of Ratoo, County Kerry, harper. This is none other than the famous Nicholas dall Pierce, the blind harper of Ratoo, in whose praise there were three different odes written, as O'Curry mentions. O'Curry, however, merely conjectured that he lived about the year 1625, but the State pardon of April, 1601, is a convincing proof that Nicholas dall must have exercised his art at the very commencement of the seventeenth century.

John intlea, a wandering piper from County Cork, was pardoned on April 25th. On May 5th, Cosney MacClancy, of Cloonanna, County Limerick, piper, was received into favour. Two days later a similar clemency was extended to Dermot O'Sgingin, of Donore, County Westmeath, harper, and to Donogh O'Phelan, of same, rhymer.

Pardon was granted to David MacDonal O'Rahilly, of Schull, Co. Cork, rhymer, on May 14th—the ancestor of the famous Egan O'Rahilly, who flourished a century later. On May 15th, four pipers from County Wexford were received into favour, namely, Bryan MacGillachrist, Fergus O'Farrell, Donal MacFergus O'Farrell, and Patrick oge O'Farrell—the last mentioned surviving till the period of the Confederation.

On May 28th, 1601, Donal MacConmee, of County Westmeath, harper, was taken into favour on giving due security, and on the following day pardons were granted to Daniel O'Cullinane, and Conor O'Cullinane, of Burren, County Cork, pipers. On May 30th, Richard Forstall, of Cloughnageragh (Wilton), County Wexford, harper, was pardoned, as was also Richard buidhe MacJames, of County Wexford, piper. Two days later, Turlogh Piper, of Tubberdower, piper, was pardoned, and, on June 10th, two other pipers, Owen and Dermot O'Delaney, of the Park, Queen's County, were received into favour, as was also James O'Nolan, of Donore, County Westmeath, harper.

A distinguished harper called Tadhg MacDonal MacRory, of Townagh, County Clare, received pardon, on July 21st, whose name is imperishably associated with the lively air known as "Teague's Rambles," printed by Playford in 1651.[1] He is also credited with the composition of "Fort Mountjoy," called in honour of the new fort built by his patron, Lord Mountjoy.

On August 3rd, 1601, five of the family of Halpin (MacAlpin, or Halfpenny) were outlawed, and, as was customary by the Irish bards, a lament was composed for one of the ladies of this family, ever since known as "Molly MacAlpin." The air is known in Scotland as "Gilderoy," in consequence of the Irish air being adapted to new verses, written on the execution of Gilderoy (Gilla-ruadh), who suffered death in July 1636. It was printed as far back as the year 1719 by Tom D'Urfey, who got the air from the Irish actor, Thomas Dogget, about the year 1700. Matthew Concannon, an Irishman, selected it as the ninth air in his version of "The Jovial Crew," in 1731.[2]

Eneas ruadh O'Heffernan, of Shronehill, County Tipperary, a famous bard, was pardoned on August 6th, and on the following day pardon was extended to John O'Treacy, of Liscarrol, County Cork, piper, and Melaghlin O'Duane, of Clogh Kelly, harper. On August 30th, Donagh O'Cullinane, of Mara, County Cork, piper, was received into favour.

On September 24th, 1601, pardon was granted to Cathal O'Kelly, Donogh buidhe O'Byrne, and Donal the Piper—all three County Wicklow pipers—at the special instance of the Lord Deputy, Lord Mountjoy. From this date until May, 1602, no pardon was granted to Irish musicians, indicating clearly that the minstrels had thrown in their lot with those who had flocked to the standard of O'Neill and O'Donnell. In fact, the date of the last-mentioned pardon (September 24th) almost coincides with the landing of the Spanish troops at Kinsale.[3]

Donal O'Killeen, of Cloghan, County Westmeath, piper, and Owen O'Killeen, of Ratra, Co. Roscommon, piper, were pardoned on May 6th 1602; and on the same day two harpers, Gillaglass and Owen O'Shalvey, both of Annaghmore, received a pardon, on a warrant by the Lord Deputy. On June 12th, John O'Moloney, of Pallas, County Longford, harper, was taken into favour, and on July 2nd Rory albanach, of Castleroe, County Westmeath, harper, was pardoned. This Rory albanach (the Scot) was the eldest brother of two celebrated harpers, John and Harry Scott—albanach signifying "a Scot"—of whom Bunting makes mention.

John Scott composed the "Lament for the Baron of Loughmoe" (1599), whilst Harry composed a "Lament for the Baron of Galtrim" (1603), "Kitty Scott," etc.

On July 26th, 1602, another distinguished harper was pardoned, namely, Owen MacKiernan, of Kildare; and on the same day a similar favour was extended to Tadhg O'Laffan, of Scablerstown, harper, and his wife, Margaret Tyrrell.

During the autumn and winter of the year 1602, Irish music was fashionable at the Court of Queen Elizabeth. Nay, more; the virgin Queen kept an Irish harper, Donal buidhe, in order to sooth her nerves. In the previously quoted letter from the Earl of Worcester to the Earl of Shrewsbury, dated September 19th, 1602, it is distinctly stated:—"Irish tunes are at this time most pleasing." Some of these Irish tunes are in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book (a manuscript dating from the first quarter of the seventeeth century), three of which are arranged by Dr. William Byrd, one of the greatest composers that ever England produced.[4]

On December 6th, 1602, pardon was granted to Edmund O'Gibney, of Mulrankin, County Wexford; and, on the 4th, to Shane ballagh M'Geough, of County Monaghan, harper, and to another harper, named Cormack MacGillecosgelie, of a Levitical family in the diocese of Clogher, erenachs of Derrybrusk.[5]

Now that the war was over, severe measures were taken against the minstrels. On January 28th, 1603, a proclamation was issued by the Lord President of Munster, by the terms of which the Marshal of the Province was strictly charged "to exterminate by marshal law all manner of Bards, Harpers," etc. Within ten days after said proclamation, Queen Elizabeth herself ordered Lord Barrymore "to hang the harpers wherever found, and destroy their instruments."

The last three pardons to Irish musicians under Elizabeth were to Owen MacDermot reagh, of Mallow, harper, on February 28th, and to Donal MacDonagh gankagh, of County Cork, piper, and to Dermod O'Dugan, of Garryduff, harper, on March 30th.

Queen Elizabeth died on March 24th, 1603, and on the same day the great Earl of Tyrone agreed to accept the terms offered by Lord Mountjoy, being present at the proclamation in Dublin, on April 6th, of King James I., to whom he formally submitted in London on June 7th.

During the year 1604, eleven bards and five harpers were pardoned. All the bards were of one clan, namely, MacConmidhe (MacNamee or Conmee). However, before the close of that year, Sir John Harrington (whose brother was killed at the battle of the Black-water), Seneschal of County Wicklow, was ordered "to banish bards and rhymers out of his limits, and whip them if they did not quit after proclamation duly made." (2 James I.) Any bard who failed to leave the country of the O'Byrnes within twenty days was to be tried by court-martial and executed.[6]

The one great harper and composer under King James's rule was Rory dall O'Cahan, who spent most of his life in Scotland between the years 1601 and 1650. He was a close relative of Donal O'Cahan, chief of O'Cahan's country (of which Coleraine was the principal stronghold), and, in 1602, he attended the Scottish Court of King James. In 1603, in proof of his reconciliation with Lady Eglinton, he composed "Tabair dam do lám" ("Oh, give me your hand"), which is also known by its Latinised title of "Da mihi manum." It has been printed by Bunting and Dr. Crotch.

Rory dall is best known as the composer of numerous puirts, or Ports, like "Port Gordon," "Port Athol," "Port Lennox," generally called after the persons in whose honour they were written, somewhat akin to the Planxties of O'Carolan. In fact O'Carolan retouched some of the melodies or puirts of the old minstrel, which have, in consequence, been included among his own works, just as Samuel Lover dressed out anew some dozens of old Irish airs, now regarded as composed by himself.

In the Straloch musical manuscript, dated 1627-1629, appears "Rory dall's Port," and it was printed in Walshe's Country Dances, in 1750, being subsequently used by Robert Burns for his song commencing "Ae fond kiss, and then we sever." To many concert-goers his "Port Gordon" is best known, as re-touched by O'Carolan, adapted to the Irish song, "Máire béil ata h-Amnair." Another air of his is known among the Gaels of Scotland as "Lady Catherine Ogle" and "Bonny Katherine Oggy," printed in 1687.[7]


[1] The English title of this tune, as printed by Playford in 1651, is "The Irish Lady, or Anniseed Water Robin." It will be found in the first edition of the English Dancing Master, an exceedingly scarce book.

[2] It may be necessary to explain that "Molly MacAlpin" is now best known as "Remember the Glories of Brian the Brave," being Moore's setting, in 1807, from Bunting, Mr. Alfred Moffat, in his Minstrelsy of Ireland, seems not to be aware that "MacAlpin" and "Halfpenny" are the same names.

[3] On May 4th, 1602, O'Daly, the rhymer, was brought before Sir George Carew, charged with bringing messages from the Irish (to induce Owen O'Sullivan, a neighbouring Milesian chief, to join them), and was committed for trial.

[4] For a good account of the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, see Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians.

[5] The name "Gillecosgelie" is now written "Cuskelly."

[6] Sir John Harrington is best remembered as the translator of Ariosto into English. He presented copies of his English versification to the children of the Earl of Tyrone.

[7] Perhaps the most beautiful of all his compositions is "An bacac buide" (the lame yellow beggar)—printed in 1729.