Irish Music – The Harper O'Connellan

[From the Dublin Penny Journal, Vol. 1, No. 14, September 29, 1832]

There is perhaps nothing, of which an Irishman may feel more justly proud than the native melodies of his country. Whatever tone of feeling they assume—whether of cheerfulness or of tenderness, of wild merriment, or of deep sorrow, there is in them a grace and delicacy of feeling and a force and earnestness of passion, such as we in vain look for in the national music of any other country in the world, and which, as an unerring index of national character is most honorable to our little land of song. Our inestimable bard, Thomas Moore has erred deplorably in supposing that our fine melodies must be of modern date, because "it is difficult to conceive those polished specimens of the art to be anterior to the dawn of modern improvements." True melody—the music of the soul, has no mortal artist for its inventor, it has been implanted in man's nature, as a pure and heavenly gift, by the great Creator himself, and the greatest masters of the art in modern days in vain attempt to rival the soul possessing and unaffected melodies of the unlearned minstrels of ancient days. In what did the real secret of the wizard Paganini's powers of astonishing or binding as by a spell the feelings of his hearers consist? Not in his extraordinary powers as an artist, great and matchless as those powers were in mastering the difficulties of art—but in the deep passion—the entire soul which he threw into a simple melody? Let our readers remember his performance of "the prayer" by Rossini—the dead silence by which thousands were enchained, the palpitating hearts, the streaming eyes, and he will find how greatly superior in its effect a simple melody performed with passionate expression, is to the most elaborate and refined labours of modern art. But it will be said this magical melody is Italian! We reply it is not. It is but a slight variation of the well known song "How stands the glass around," composed by our countryman, General Wolfe, in the very soul and spirit of the music of his country! Our most beautiful melodies are indeed the most simple and the most ancient—their origin is involved in the dim obscurity of time. We had composers, however within the last two centuries, whose strains, while they betray an acquaintance with the refinements of modern art still retain a great deal of the simple and touching beauty that characterizes the earlier melodies of our country.

Of the melodies of these musicians, those of Carolan, the last great bard of Erin, are well known, but the compositions of his immediate predecessor Conellan, are less familiar to the public, and are far too little appreciated. Unfortunately but little is known of his history, and but few of his melodies have been preserved; but those few, are in their kind of unrivalled beauty, and far superior to the compositions of Carolan. From Mr. Hardiman's valuable "Irish Minstrelsy," we learn that Thomas O'Conellan was born at Cloony Mahon in the county of Sligo, early in the seventeenth century, and died in Lough Gur in the county of Limerick, sometime previous to the year 1700. Of the remaining airs generally attributed to him are, "the Jointure;" "If to a foreign clime I go;" "Love in secret" which truly "dallies with the innocence of love, like the old age;" "Planxty Davis," which is known to the Scotch as "the battle of Killicranky;" and the "breach of Aughrim," which is more popularly known under the name of the "Farewell to Lochaber." These later melodies were introduced into Scotland after his death by a brother of the deceased bard's named Laurence.

According to tradition, the skill of O'Conellan as a performer was equal to his inventive powers as a composer, and Mr. Hardiman has preserved a little Irish ode addressed to him in praise of his matchless powers, in a strain of poetic beauty worthy of the occasion which gave it birth:— we present it to our readers in a new English dress:


Wherever harp-note ringeth

Ierne's isle around, Thy hand its sweetness flingeth,

Surpassing mortal sound. Thy spirit-music speaketh

Above the minstrel throng, And thy rival vainly seeketh

The secret of thy song!

In the castle, in the shieling,

In foreign kingly hall, Thou art master of each feeling,

And honoured first of all! Thy wild and wizard finger

Sweepeth chords unknown to art, And melodies that linger

In the memory of the heart!

Though fairy music slumbers

By forest-glade, and hill, In thy unearthly numbers

Men say 'tis living still! All its compass of wild sweetness

Thy master hand obeys, As its airy fitful fleetness

O'er harp and heartstring plays!

By thee the thrill of anguish

Is softly lulled to rest; By thee the hopes that languish

Rekindled in the breast. Thy spirit chaseth sorrow

Like morning mists away, And gaily robes to-morrow

In the gladness of thy lay!