The Revival of Irish Music

Professor R. Goodman
The Irish Fireside
January 2, 1886
Volume 6, Number 133

“Oh! why do not Irishmen cultivate, encourage, cherish, and hoard up in their innermost souls the priceless treasure of never-failing consolation and delight afforded by their matchless music, if but worthily understood and performed.”

Such was the passionate exclamation of Eugene O’Curry, the great Irish scholar and archaeologist, some quarter of a century ago. Were he still living he would have only too much reason for making a similar appeal.

Irish music, the most precious inheritance of the past, is yet all but completely unknown and ignored by but too many of the Irish people. We are most of us nowadays familiar with English, Italian, French, and German music.

But of the music of our land—with the exception perhaps of some half-dozen songs of Moore—we know little or nothing.

And what is worse we seem to care less.

Go into any home where music is cultivated; you will find piles of the most trashy, commonplace songs—nearly all of them by English writers.

Production, like “Ehren on the Rhine,” “Sweet Dreamland Faces,” “Nancy Lee,” and hundreds of others of the same type, are not merely bought, but studied and treasured by our people.

For compositions such as these—if compositions they can be called—the most beautiful melodies in the world are systematically ignored and left contemptously to fiddlers and pipers.

And how could it be otherwise when those who are responsible for the musical education of the country, have themselves set the example.

Our Royal Irish Academy of Music, for instance, seems to glory in the number of the foreign professors it brings over here. Not that the foreign musician is, as a rule, more capable than the native. In the Academy itself we have convincing proof that this is not so.

But whatever may be the reason, the fact remains, that nearly all the principal professorships there are filled by foreigners. These, whether Italian, French, or German, naturally teach the music with which they are most familiar, which, of course, is not Irish.

The result is that a student may go for years to our Irish Academy without being taught even one Irish song.

Until quite recently things were just as bad in our National schools.

The text book of music even still on the Board’s list is the work of an Englishman. For nearly 40 years it has been practically the only book on the subject used in these schools.

In this work there is not a single Irish song, while the few songs that are in it are of the most simpering, childish kind. Such miserable, goody-goody stuff could never interest either teacher or pupil.

Accordingly, music has languished all over the country in our schools, so that at this moment in many districts of Ireland, there is no more music to be found than there is in Zululand or in the backwoods of America.

Unfortunately in too many of our Intermediate Colleges and Christian Brothers’ schools the same lamentable state of things exists. The happy refining influence of song is altogether wanting.

While every other subject of instruction is well looked after, the one that most brightens and lightens school life is altogether neglected. And neglected for anything but a creditable reason. Because it does not pay! Because the Intermediate Board does not give results fees for singing, therefore the youth of the country must grow up musically deaf and dumb.

This is especially the case with boys’ schools. Girls’ schools are as regards music generally, somewhat better off. In these there is usually some little singing or piano playing to be met with.

But the music played and sung is very rarely Irish. And it must be confessed that our girls, even when fairly good musicians, are sadly ignorant of, and sadly indifferent to, the National music.

The “See-Saw”; waltzes, and sentimental compositions of that class are what they admire: but the healthful, dance inspiring pieces to be found in Levey’s or Hughes Dance Music of Ireland are utterly unknown to them.

Irish music being thus neglected in our schools could not possibly flourish amongst our people.

“The tunes whistled in the Irish streets,” writes Sir Robert Stewart, “are not the melodies to which Moore, in 1808, supplied words, but ‘The March of the Men of Harlech,’ ‘Mandolinata,’ and ‘Stride la Vampa,’ from Verdi’s ‘Trovatore.’

Our boys and young men whistle only what they hear, and it is humiliating to have to say that for most of their tunes they are dependent upon the street barrel-organs and mechanical pianos which are brought over here from England.

And to such a pitch has our indifference to the native music arrived, that at this moment we have the whole country adopting as the air of its National Anthem a wretched, commonplace American tune first introduced to us by Christy’s Minstrels!”

Ireland was once known as the Land of Song. While neighbouring nations still lay in the darkness of ignorance and barbarism, she shone in the light of a wonderful civilisation.

Music was everywhere cultivated with a zeal amounting to a passion. Its professors were among the most honoured men of the land, and in very early times they took precedence of even the highest nobility at the National Assemblies of Tara. Their persons were held sacred, their property inviolable.

The number of the bards had become so enormous in the sixth century, as to be the cause, of serious embarrassment.

At the Convention of Drumceat held by King Hugh the Second in 573, the question of their total abolition was seriously discussed.

We find the great St Columba coming over from Iona, to plead the cause of the minstrels of his beloved Erin. His efforts on their behalf were so far successful that the king contented himself with restricting their number and privileges.

In the ninth century Irish scholars and Irish musicians would seem to have spread themselves all over Europe. In far off Switzerland, for instance, in the monastery of St Gall, we find that the most famous musician of the middle ages—Notker Balbulus, had been taught his music, as Schubiger the historian of the monastery testified, by Marcellus (or Moengal) the Irishman.

At the time of the English invasion instrumental music in Ireland must have attained a high degree of perfection.

Giraldus Cambrensis, who had lived among the English, Welsh and French, and who was anything but favourable to the Irish, admits that in music they were incomparably superior to any other nation.

“This people, however,” he says, “deserve to be praised for their successful cultivation of instrumental music, in which their skill is beyond comparison, superior to that of every nation we have seen. For their modulation is not drawling and morose, like our instrumental music in Britain, but the strains, while they are lively and rapid, are also sweet and delightful. It is astonishing how the proportionate time of the music is preserved, notwithstanding such impetuous rapidity of the fingers; and how, without violating a single rule of the art in running through shakes and slurs, and variously intertwined organising or counterpoint, with so sweet a rapidity, so unequal an equality of time, so apparently discordant a concord of sounds that melody is harmonised and rendered perfect.” (Dr Renehan’s translation.)

In the sixteenth century Bacon thought “no harpe hath a sound so melting and prolonged as the Irish harpe.”

And Polydore Virgil, an Italian of the same period, seems to have been delighted and surprised “at the eminent skill, the elegance, accuracy, and rapidity of execution of the vocal and instrumental performers of Ireland.”

In the terrible times that followed, the native musicians shared the fate of their patrons, the old nobles of the land.

The Irish harpers had ever been objects of aversion to the Government of the Pale.

Under Elizabeth we find edicts issued not only to destroy their instruments but also to hang the harpers.

When, however, the old chieftains disappeared, the Irish minstrel’s occupation was gone. Amidst the wars and persecutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the people could find no heart for music. And so it came to pass that the great race of Irish harpers gradually died out.

We get a last glimpse of them in 1791. A number of gentlemen in Belfast had formed a Society for reviving and perpetuating the ancient music of Ireland. The better to carry out their object they organised a meeting of harpers, “those descendants of our ancient bards, who are at present almost exclusively possessed of all that remains of the music, poetry, and oral tradition of Ireland.”

Ten only attended, six of whom were blind.

“All the best of the old class of harpers,” writes Bunting, “a race of men then nearly extinct, and now gone for ever—Denis Hempson, Arthur O’Neil, Charles Fanning, and seven others the least able of whom has not left his like behind, were present.”

It was from these harpers that Bunting gathered materials for his first collection of Irish airs which appeared in 1796.

To this succeeded in 1809 and in 1840, two other volumes, the three containing nearly three hundred old airs not previously published.

In 1807 Moore, then in his twenty-eighth year, was commissioned by Power the music seller, to write words for a series of Irish airs to be published in parts. Moore, who had already imbibed a great love for the native music, from Bunting’s book of 1796, threw himself heart and soul into the work.

Ten numbers of the Irish Melodies and a supplement were published, containing in all one hundred and twenty four songs. Their success was immense. They form to this day the finest collection of national songs in existence.

In 1855 Petrie gave to the world his volume of “Ancient Irish Music.” This is a truly splendid collection of national airs, and is the result of many years of loving labour and research. It is painful to see that he was by no means sanguine as to its success. In the introduction to the book we find him writing such sentences as these:—

“And lastly, as I cannot but confess, I could not suppress a misgiving that, let a work of this nature possess what ever amount of interest or value it may, there no longer existed amongst my countrymen such sufficient amount of a racy feeling of nationality and cultivation of mind as would secure for it the steady support necessary for its success. In short, I could not but fear that I might be vainly labouring to cultivate mental fruit which, however indigenous to the soil, was yet in too refined and delicate a flavour to be relished or appreciated by a people who had been, from adversities, long accustomed only to the use of food of a coarser and more exciting nature. May this feeling prove an erroneous one.”

Other collections of Irish music are those of Dr P. W. Joyce and Hoffman, that of the latter being compiled exclusively from materials left by Petrie. Both contain many very beautiful airs.

To these collectors and preservers of the national music Ireland owes a deep debt of gratitude. But for their zeal the music of the past would be now a mere tradition.

Not that the music of Ireland has ever been thoroughly collected and preserved. The country would seem to have been teeming with melody, most of which must have perished. Yet a good deal remains, thanks to the labours of such men as Bunting, Petrie, and Joyce.

And of what remains any nation might well be proud. For it is not too much to say that in depth and intensity of feeling, as well as in grace of expression, no national music in the world can come near the Irish. There are many of the old Irish melodies as deeply moving as anything which even Beethoven himself had written.

It is impossible to deny genius of the highest order to the authors—whoever they were—of such airs as “The Blackbird,” “The Little Red Lark,” “The Pearl of the White Breast,” “The Song of Sorrow,” “The Coulin,” and scores of others. Compare these with the best airs of English, French, Italian, or even German music, and the immense superiority of the Irish national music will be at once manifest.

Such, then, was the music of ancient Ireland, and such is the music which it ought to be the glory of Irishmen to love and to cherish.

These grand old tunes of the past should be heard once more played and sung in every household in the land. In our schools they should form one of the essential subjects of instruction.

In this let us imitate the Germans. In their schools singing is everywhere taught, and special care is taken that every lad on his quitting school shall have learnt by heart some forty or fifty of the standard songs of his own country. And it is not without its significance that Germany, the most musical country in the world, should of all others pay most attention to its national music. This, indeed, is the grand bond of union among the Germans—their music, their songs.

So should it be with us. We must learn to set a proper value on the rich musical treasures we have inherited.

Irishmen must seek to become more and more acquainted with the songs of their fathers. They should play them and sing them until they become part of their very nature. Having learnt to know them they would certainly love and cherish them.

Then no longer would our youth satisfy their music-hunger with the vulgar strains of the Singing Hall or Christy’s Minstrel Troupe.

No longer would our country be inundated with the wretched “royalty” ballads of English writers.

Our own grand music would be more than sufficient for all times and for all seasons. In joy no strains would be found more gay, in sorrow none more touching and sympathetic than the wondrously beautiful strains of Ancient Ireland.

More on Irish Music

See also A History of Irish Music by William H. Grattan Flood