Styles of Ancient Irish Music

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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CHAPTER XIII....continued

3. Characteristics; Classes; Styles.

There was not in Ireland, any more than elsewhere, anything like modern developments of music. There were no such sustained and elaborate compositions as operas, oratorios, or sonatas. The music of ancient Ireland consisted wholly of short airs, each with two strains or parts—seldom more. But these, though simple in comparison with modem music, were constructed with such exquisite art that of a large proportion of them it may be truly said no modern composer can produce airs of a similar kind to equal them.

The ancient Irish used harmony, though of a very simple kind compared with that used at present: and they had several names for it. This appears from many passages in old Irish writings; as well as from Giraldus's mention—in the passage quoted at p. 253—of the little strings tinkling under the deeper tones of the bass strings.

The Irish musicians had three styles, the effects of which the old Irish romance-writers describe with much exaggeration, as the Greeks describe the effects produced by the harp of Orpheus. Of all three we have numerous well-marked examples, descending to the present day. The Gen-traige [gan-tree], which incited to merriment and laughter, is represented by the lively dance-tunes and other such spirited pieces. The Gol-traige [gol-tree] expressed sorrow: represented by the keens or death-tunes, many of which are still preserved. The Súan-traige [suan-tree] produced sleep. This style is seen in our lullabies or nurse-tunes, of which we have numerous beautiful specimens.

The Irish had also what may be called occupation-tunes. The young girls accompanied their spinning with songs—both air and words made to suit the occupation. Special airs and songs were used during working-time by smiths, by weavers, and by boatmen: and we have still a "Smith's Song," the notes of which imitate the sound of the hammers on the anvil, like Handel's "Harmonious Blacksmith." At milking-time the girls were in the habit of chanting a particular sort of air, in a low, gentle voice. These milking-songs were slow and plaintive, something like the nurse-tunes, and had the effect of soothing the cows and of making them submit more gently to be milked. This practice was common down to fifty or sixty years ago: and I remember seeing cows grow restless when the song was interrupted, and become again quiet and placid when it was resumed. The old practice also prevailed in Scotland, and probably has not yet died out there. Referring to our own time, a distinguished Scotch writer, Mr. Alexander Carmichael, says:—"The cows become accustomed to these lilts, and will not give their milk without them, nor, occasionally, without their favourite airs being sung to them": and so generally is this recognised that—as he tells us—girls with good voices get higher wages than those that cannot sing.

While ploughmen were at their work, they whistled a peculiar wild, slow, and sad strain, which had as powerful an effect in soothing the horses at their hard work as the milking-songs had on the cows. Plough-whistles also were quite usual down to 1847, and often when a mere boy, did I listen enraptured to the exquisite whistling of Phil Gleeson on a calm spring-day behind his plough. There were, besides, hymn-tunes: and young people used simple airs for all sorts of games and sports. In most cases, words suitable to the several occasions were sung with lullabies, laments, and occupation-tunes. Like the kindred Scotch, each tribe had a war-march which inspirited them when advancing to battle. Specimens of all these may be found in the collections of Bunting, Petrie, Joyce, and others. We have evidence that occupation-tunes were in use at a very early time.

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