Irish Pipers in the Eighteenth Century

William H. Grattan Flood
Chapter XXIII

THE old Irish Piob mor, frequently called the "War Pipes," was almost the same as the Highland pipes of to-day—slung from the shoulder and blown by the mouth, as described by Stanihurst, in 1584. Mediaeval writers give the name Cetharcoire, or four-tuned, to the "set" of bagpipes, and the term is to be met with in the "Bruden da Derga." The cethar-coire, as the Irish name implies, has reference to the tuning of the chanter, the long drone, and the two reed-drones. Another name for the "set" of pipes was tinne, whilst the pipers are called cuislennach. As before stated, Uilleann and Cuisle pipes are synonymous, inasmuch as we have Uille or Uilleann = elbow, whilst cuisle is the forearm. Uilleann was subsequently anglicised as "Union."

Almost coincident with the disappearance of the Piob mor, about the middle of the eighteenth century, was the gradual spread of the domestic or Union (Uilleann) pipes, blown by a bellows. The Scotch retained the war pipes (of which the earliest mention is made in 1574) and still use them.

During the first quarter of the eighteenth century flourished Pierce Power, of Glynn, County Waterford, whose best known song is "Pléraca An Gleanna," or "The Humours of Glynn," which was an especial favourite with Robert Burns, the Scotch poet. Burns was so enamoured of this lovely air (composed by O'Carolan) that he wrote his well-known song, "Their groves of sweet myrtle let foreign lands reckon" to it. Previously O'Keeffe had set the air to a song, "Though Leixlip is proud."

Even a more famous performer was Laurence Grogan, of Johnstown Castle, County Wexford. He was what was known as a "gentleman piper," and was also a composer. Most people have heard of one of his tunes, "Ally Croker," written and composed by him in 1725, on the vagaries of a disappointed suitor of Miss Alicia Croker, the sister of Edward Croker, High Sheriff of County Limerick. It was quickly taken up by all the ballad singers and introduced into the play of Love in a Riddle in 1729, being afterward popularized by Foote in his comedy, The Englishman in Paris, in 1753, and by our own Kane O'Hara in Midas in 1760. The charming heroine of the ballad was a reigning toast for years, and she married Mr. Charles Langley, of County Kilkenny, dying at an advanced age in 1770. Perhaps it may be necessary to state that the tune is now only known by Moore's song of "The Shamrock," to which it is adapted.

Sir Charles Villiers Stanford omits "The Shamrock" from his edition of Moore, giving as a reason that it is not an Irish air.[1] This he does, relying on the authority of the late Mr. Chappell, who claimed the tune for England on the ground that it first appeared in Love in a Riddle, in 1729. However, Larry Grogan wrote the words and music in 1725 (or 1726 at latest), as is amply proved by Crofton Croker. His name is immortalized in the opening lines of "The County of Limerick Buck Hunt," written in 1730 by Pierce Creagh, of Dangan, near Quin, County Clare:

"By your leave, Larry Grogan,
Enough has been spoken;
'Tis time to give over your sonnet, your sonnet."

The tune to which Pierce Creagh's verses were set is the well-known Irish melody, "Nach mBaineann sin Do" ("What's that to anyone"). There are six verses, all of a topical character, alluding to noted belles, the Misses Cherry, Singleton, Curry, Bligh, Prittie, and Persse, all of whom reigned in 1725-30. Crofton Croker was unable to identify either Miss Curry or Miss Singleton, but they were both well known beauties, the latter being the daughter of Henry Singleton, who was Prime Sergeant in 1726.

Grogan and Creagh were fast friends, and an evidence of this may be had in an announcement in Faulkner's Journal: "On Wednesday, August 31, 1743, the £10 prize at Loughrea Races was won by Pierce Creagh's horse, Larry Grogan." This gentleman-piper composed numerous jigs, reels, and hornpipes, including a jig known as "The Girl I Love."

Grogan will be best remembered by "Ally Croker," the tune of which was set to "Unfortunate Miss Bailey," in 1803, by George Colman.

In Walker's Hibernian Magazine for August, 1807, there is a capital Latin version of Grogan's song by D. Hickey, of Clonmel. I can find no trace of this distinguished piper after the year 1750, and probably he died soon afterwards. His nephew, Mr. Cornelius Grogan, Johnstown Castle, who had been a member of Parliament for Enniscorthy in 1782, was hanged on June 27th, 1798, for having joined the Wexford insurgents.

Going back to the year 1720, we find that the football matches of that period were provided with a piper, who headed the contending teams as they entered the field. Matthew Concannen, who published a mock-heroic poem called "A Match at Football," in 1721, describes the enlivening strains of the piper as the rival clubs, six aside, in County Dublin, lined out for play.

A favourite pipe tune in 1726 was "Moll Roe," or "Sweet Molly Roe," written in praise of Miss Molly Roe, the daughter of Mr. Andrew Roe, of Tipperary. The song consisted of ten verses, each of which was written impromptu by ten bucks one night at the County Tipperary Clubhouse, in 1726. I have a long manuscript account of the circumstances under which this once very popular ballad was written, and communicated to a long since defunct magazine, in July, 1773, by Thomas Amory, the last of the assembled guests on the occasion. The concluding verse was as follows:—

"Come, fill up in bumpers your glasses,
And let the brown bowl overflow,
Here's health to the brightest of lasses,
The queen of all toasts—Molly Roe."

The old Irish tune to which this song was set was introduced under the name "Moll Roe" in Henry Brooke's Jack the Giant Queller, in 1748, and it was also called "Moll Roe in the Morning." O'Keeffe included it in his Poor Soldier, in 1783, and O'Farrell printed it in his now scarce work, A Pocket Companion for the Irish Pipes, in 1810.

During the period of the iniquitous Penal Laws—from 1703 to 1746—Catholic priests occasionally went about in the guise of pipers, and even bishops are recorded to have passed as performers on the pipes. Cardinal Moran writes as follows:—

“Some few years ago [1885] an English gentleman paid a passing visit to the house of the venerable Bishop of Kilmore [Dr. James Brown]. He was very much struck by the portraits of the Bishop's predecessors which adorned the sitting-room, but could not conceal his surprise that the place of honour between two of these portraits was allotted to a Highland piper in full costume. Still greater, however, was his surprise when he learned from the lips of the Bishop that that was the portrait of [Dr. Richardson] one of the most illustrious of his predecessors, who, being a skilled musician, availed himself of such a disguise in order to visit and console his scattered flock.”

Apparently, Irish pipers were not infrequent performers in England in 1730, as, from the London Evening Post, under date of June 17th, 1732, there is mention of "a noted Irish bagpiper" who was concerned in a quarrel in a brandy-shop "by Mermaid Court, near Charing Cross."

It will probably be of more than passing interest to mention that Handel, during his nine months' stay in Ireland, was much struck with the sound of the bagpipes. We all know the story of his marked preference for "Eileen Aroon," but apparently he must have been even more impressed with an old pipe melody called "The Poor Irish Boy," as we find it copied out in musical setting in his MS. sketch book, now in the Fitzwilliam Museum.

In 1744 was written "The Kilruddery Hunt"—the joint production of Thomas Mozeen and Owen Bray, of Loughlinstown, County Dublin, set to the old Irish tune of "Sighile ni Ghadharadh," or Celia O'Gara. It soon became enormously popular, and is called by Ritson "The Irish Hunt," who, however, incorrectly ascribed its authorship to Mr. St. Leger. It was published in a volume called The Lyric Pacquet by Mozeen, in 1764, and is quoted with eulogy by John O'Keeffe, who tells us that the tune was utilized by Kane O'Hara, in Midas, in 1760. "The Kilruddery Hunt" was a prime favourite with Theobald Wolfe Tone, as we find him, under date of April 25th, 1797, quoting a line of it: "Set out from Cologne 'at five in the morning by most of the clocks,' on my way," etc. Moore's adaption of the old melody to his song, "Oh, had We some Bright Little Isle of our Own," is well known, and was published in 1813.

The Jacobite period—1715-1776—was productive of hundreds of beautiful lyrics, mostly wedded to older tunes, but there are many pipe melodies of this epoch, specially inspired by the feeling in favour of the King over the water, James III., or Prince Charlie. In Henry Brooke's now forgotten musical comedy of Jack the Giant Queller, produced at Smock-alley Theatre, Dublin, in 1748, a piper played some Irish airs.

A few of the songs were regarded as Jacobite, and the play was prohibited after the first night's performance.

O'Keeffe gives the following description of the Uilleann bagpipes about the year 1760:—

“The Irish pipes have a small bellows under the left arm, and a bag covered with crimson silk under the right arm. From these passes a small leather tube of communication for the wind to reach, first, from the bellows to the bag, as both are pressed by the elbow; and from this tube another small one conveys the wind to the several pipes. That on which the fingers move is called the chanter or treble. There are three other pipes which hang over the wrist. The longest of them is called the drone or bass.”

During the first half of the eighteenth century the pipes were much availed of for the country festive dances, and especially for the "cake" dances. From 1664 onward there are references to the cake dance, for which the services of the piper were always secured, who was paid by the various dancers.

About the year 1680 Sir Henry Piers, treating of the social customs in County Westmeath, writes:—"Here, to be sure, the piper fails not of diligent attendance. The cake to be danced for is provided at the charge of the ale wife, and is advanced on a board on the top of a pike ten foot high."

Some time ago, in looking through a file of old Dublin newspapers, I came across the following advertisement from the Dublin Evening Post of October 1st, 1734:—"On Thursday next, Mary Kelly, at the Queen's Head, in Glasnevin, near this city, will have a fine plum cake, to be danced for by the young men and maidens of the country, who are generously invited by her, not doubting but they will be pleased with her ale as well as cake." The last inuendo is deliciously naive, quite suggestive of the subscriptions generously given by some country publicans of our own day for Gaelic gatherings.


[1] He also omits "Eveleen's Bower" for the same reason, though it certainly is an Irish air, and was printed as such in 1791 by Brysson.