Irish Music

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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Ornament on leather case of Book of Armagh

Ornament on leather case of the Book of Armagh



SECTION 1. History.

Letter I
RISH Musicians were celebrated for their skill from the very earliest ages. Our native literature—whether referring to pagan or Christian times—abounds in references to music and to skilful musicians, who are always spoken of in terms of the utmost respect. Everywhere through the Records we find evidences that the ancient Irish people, both high and low, were passionately fond of music: it entered into their daily life, and formed part of their amusements, meetings, and celebrations of every kind. In the early ages of the church many of the Irish ecclesiastics took great delight in playing on the harp; and for this purpose commonly brought a small harp with them when on the mission, which beguiled many a weary hour in the intervals of hard work. It appears from several authorities that the practice of playing on the harp as an accompaniment to the voice was common in Ireland as early as the fifth or sixth century.

During the long period when learning flourished in Ireland, Irish professors and teachers of music would seem to have been as much in request in foreign countries as those of literature and philosophy. In the middle of the seventh century, Gertrude, daughter of Pepin, mayor of the palace, abbess of Nivelle in Belgium, engaged SS. Foillan and Ultan, brothers of the Irish saint Fursa of Peronne, to instruct her nuns in psalmody. In the latter half of the ninth century the cloister schools of St. Gall were conducted by an Irishman, Maengal or Marcellus, a man deeply versed in sacred and human literature, including music. Under his teaching the music school there attained its highest fame.

In early times the Irish harpers were constantly employed to instruct the Welsh bards—a practice that continued down to the eleventh century: and in 1078, a Welsh king, Gryffith ap Conan, brought to Wales a number of skilled Irish musicians, who, in conference with the native bards, reformed the instrumental music of the Welsh. Ireland was also long the school for Scottish harpers, as it was for those of Wales: "Till within the memory of persons still living"—says Mr. Jameson, a Scotch writer—"the school for Highland poetry and music was Ireland, and thither professional men were sent to be accomplished in these arts." Such facts as these sufficiently explain why so many Irish airs have become naturalised in Scotland.

Giraldus Cambrensis, who seldom had a good word for anything Irish, heard the Irish harpers in 1185, and gives his experience as follows:—"They are incomparably more skilful than any other nation I have ever seen. They enter into a movement and conclude it in so delicate a manner and tinkle the little strings so sportively under the deeper tones of the bass strings—that the perfection of their art appears in the concealment of art."

For centuries after the time of Giraldus music continued to be cultivated uninterruptedly, and there was an unbroken succession of great professional harpers. Drayton (1613) has the following stanza in his "Polyolbion":—

“The Irish I admire
And still cleave to that lyre,
As our Muse's mother;
And think till I expire,
Apollo's such another.”

But the great harpers of those very old times are all lost to history. The oldest harper of great eminence whom we are able to identify is Rory Dall (blind) O'Cahan, who, although a musician from taste and choice, was really one of the chiefs of the Antrim family of O'Cahan. He was the composer of many fine airs, some of which we still possess. He visited Scotland with a retinue of gentlemen about the year 1600, where he died after a short residence; and many of his airs are still favourites among the Scotch people, who claim them—and sometimes even the author himself—as their own. Thomas O'Connallon was born in the county Sligo early in the seventeenth century. He seems to have been incomparably the greatest harper of his day, and composed many exquisite airs. A much better-known personage was Turlough O'Carolan or Carolan: born at Nobber, county Meath, about 1670: died in 1738. He became blind in his youth from an attack of smallpox, after which he began to learn the harp; and ultimately he became the greatest Irish musical composer of modern times; but his musical compositions are, generally, less typically Irish than those of his predecessors. Like the bards of old, he was a poet as well as a musician. He always travelled about with a pair of horses, one for himself and the other for his servant who carried his harp; and he was received and welcomed everywhere by the gentry, Protestant as well as Catholic.

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