Modern Collections of Ancient Irish Music

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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CHAPTER XIII....concluded

4. Modern Collections of ancient Irish Music.

In early times they had no means of writing down music; and musical compositions were preserved in the memory and handed down by tradition from generation to generation; but in the absence of written record many were lost. It was only in the seventeenth or eighteenth century that people began to collect Irish airs from singers and players, and to write them down. There are now several collections of ancient Irish music, of which the chief are those by Bunting, Petrie, Joyce, and Horncastle; a large collection in a Dublin periodical called "The Citizen"; and a volume of Carolan's airs published by his son.

The man who did most in modern times to draw attention to Irish music was Thomas Moore. He composed his exquisite songs to old Irish airs; and songs and airs were published in successive numbers or volumes, beginning in 1807. They at once became popular, not only in the British Islands, but on the Continent and in America; and Irish music was thenceforward studied and admired where it would have never been heard of but for Moore. The whole collection of songs and airs—well known as "Moore's Melodies"—is now published in one small, cheap volume.

We know the authors of many of the airs composed within the last 200 years: but these form the smallest portion of the whole body of Irish music. All the rest have come down from old times, scattered fragments of exquisite beauty, that remind us of the refined musical culture of our forefathers. To this last class belong such well-known airs as Savourneen Dheelish, There came to the Beach, Shule Aroon, Molly Asthore, The Boyne Water, Garryowen, Patrick's Day, Eileen Aroon, Langolee (Dear Harp of my Country), The Groves of Blarney (The Last Rose of Summer), &c., &c. To illustrate what is here said, I may mention that of about 120 Irish airs in all "Moore's Melodies," we know the authors of less than a dozen: as to the rest, nothing is known either of the persons who composed them or of the times of their composition.

As the Scotch of the west of Scotland were descendants of Irish colonists, preserving the same language and traditions, and as the people of the two countries kept up intimate intercourse with each other for many centuries, the national music of Scotland is, as might be expected, of much the same general character as that of Ireland. This close connexion and constant intercourse continued till the end of the eighteenth century; and it was a common practice among Irish harpers, even from the earliest times, to travel through Scotland. Accordingly, as already mentioned, much of our Irish music was brought to Scotland, and became naturalised there; and a very large number of airs now claimed by Scotland are really Irish, of which the well-known air Eileen Aroon or Robin Adair is an example.


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