CHAPTER II

IRISH HARPERS IN HISTORY, ENDING WITH THE REIGN OF QUEEN ELIZABETH

Our readers know what immense influence the ancient Irish harpers or bards wielded. They were the counselors of their princes, and no expedition or feat of war was undertaken without consulting them. They sat in the chair of honor at the festive board, and as the mead or wine-cup went round their plaintive love ditties or martial chants were listened to with delight. They were ever welcome in the ladies’ bower according to an able writer in The Emerald of forty odd years ago. They headed the troops on their march to battle with harp in hand, and sword on thigh, singing the chant of war; and many a swinging blow they struck too. Their skill was a subject of universal wonder; and even the bitterly anti-Irish Giraldus Cambrensis praised the unequaled beauty of their music and playing in the most enthusiastic terms.

The English early discovered the influence of the bards so hostile to them, and made the most desperate efforts to suppress the bardic institutions. They even offered rewards for the slaying of the Irish harpers, but all in vain. The Norman invaders themselves adopted the system of having a bard in their household; and in this and other respects, acquired the reputation which was intended by England as a reproach; that they were more Irish than the Irish themselves. More remarkable still: it was complained in England, that no sooner had the Cromwellian invaders settled down on the confiscated estates than they began to adopt Irish customs, and keep harpers in their houses. Indeed the same was said of the followers of William of Orange.

In the olden times the bard had the privilege of paying Cuairt, or a visit to any prince or chief he pleased, and he was always sure to be treated with the greatest respect and hospitality; for one good reason if for no other; the bards were dangerous persons to offend for their powers of satire were terrific and much dreaded.

The history of Ireland is studded all over with the deeds of the bards and musicians. But in the course of time the harpers began to fade away and the harp of Erin may now be said to be silent forever.

Before introducing to our readers the harpers immortalized in the Irish Annals, it might be well to quote the opening paragraph of Prof. Eugene O’Curry’s Lecture on “Music and Musical Instruments in Ancient Erinn. “

“The early cultivation of music and melody, and a special respect for the professors of the art bespeak a peculiar civilization, which implies no small degree of refinement of habit and of taste in a people. If there ever was a people gifted with a musical soul and sensibility in a higher degree than another, I would venture to assert that the Gaedhil of Ancient Erinn were that people”.

“In no country in Europe, at least I believe so, is the antiquity and influence of the harp thrown so far back into the dark regions of history as in Erinn. Our traditions are more distinct than those of the Greeks, for they give time and place, name and occasion. Ours is not the shadowy myth of Orpheus going to the realms of Pluto, and his lyre softening the obdurate heart of the grim monarch of the infernal abodes. It possesses something much more of real life, and belongs more to definite history. From the very remotest period to which our oldest traditions with any degree of circumstantiality refer, we find music, musical instruments, musical performers, and the power and influence of music spoken of.”

It is not within the scope of our purpose to include the names of bards and Musicians in the very ancient poems translated by O`Curry. The figurative language in which posts and genealogists of olden times clothed their thoughts, has given rise to the belief in the minds of modern writers that some of their characters were mythical or fictitious.

Coming down to the borderland between legendary and authentic history, Prof. O’Curry mentions Craftine a celebrated harper, who flourished about four and a half centuries before the Incarnation. One of the several legends concerning him, is to the effect that his instrument having sustained some injury he went to a wood to find a tree suitable for his purpose and selected a willow.

In a manuscript quoted by the above named antiquarianl it is recorded that among the retinue of Conaire Mor, who was killed in the year 33 B. C., were three poets. Nine pipe-players, and nine harpers.

Roderic, King Of Wales in the sixth century, was so celebrated both in home and abroad for power, munificence, and princely virtues, that a King of Ireland sent a Joculator or Jongleur to the Welsh court to examine the truth of what fame reported. Being admitted, a writer in Anthologia Hibernica of 1793 continues, he sang and played on the harp and tambour and delighted the King and his nobles on the Christmas Holidays, after which the King ordered rich presents to be brought to the bard.

No one will question our being on reliable ground, when relating that a harper named Ilbrechtach accompanied Mac Liag, Chief poet of Ireland on his visit to Brian Boru at the beginning of the eleventh century.

From the Annals of Ireland we learn that in 1168 Amhlaeibh Mac Mnaighneorach, Chief Ollamh Of Ireland in harp-playing died.

In the year 1269 Hugh O’Finnachty, a learned minstrel died.

It is recorded in the Annals of Clonmacnoise that Mulronic Mac Kerval,

(Caruill), the blind chief Musician of the Kingdom, with his brother and many others, were slain in an uprising of the English in 1328. No man in any age ever heard. Or shall hereafter hear. An better timpanist. In other accounts Mac Kerval, or Mac Caruill, is proclaimed “as great a minstrel as the world ever heard.” By timpanist is to be understood a minstrel or harper.

In the Annals compiled by Friar John Clyn. Of Killkenny. Under date of

1329. vigil, of Pentecosr, he mentions Cam O’Kayrwill, a famous timpainst and performer on the cythat; a “fenix” in execution, and so pre-eminently distinguished with his school of about twenty musicians, that though he could not be called the inventor of stringed musical instruments. He was the master and director of all his own contemporaries. And superior to all his predecessors.

O’Carrol1. Like O’Carolan. Was allowed to be the foremost bard of his age.

With his pupils and his patron, Lord Bellingham. He met a tragic fate. For they were all cruelly massacred by an armed multitude which rose to oppose the oppressive measures of the nobles.

Donslevy Mac Carroll. A noble master of music and melody. Died in 1357.

He was the best of his time.

Gilla-na-naev O’Conmhaigh, (now Conway), chief professor of music in

Thomond. Died in 1360.

Magrath O’Finnachty, chief musician and timpanist to the Sil-Murray, died in 1361.

John MacEgan and Gilbert O’Bardan, two accomplished young harpers of Conmaicne in the barony of Dunmorc. County Galway, died in 1369.

William, son of Gilla Ceach Mac Carroll, the most eminent of the Irish n music, died in 1379.

The keenness of a harper saved the life of Art Mac Murrogh, an uncompromising opponent of the English in the year 1395. The latter accepted an invitation to a banquet from the Lords of the Pale. Not suspecting treachery, he was only accompanied by one attendant and his harper. Seated near a window the minstrel delighted the company with his music after the feast. The sudden cange from festive melodies to the “Rosg Catha” or war song invited his master’s reprimand. And the resumption of it drew down upon his loyal head the nobleman’s anger. Upon arising from the table to remonstrate, Mac Murrogh saw that the house was surrounded with armed men. Quickly brandishing his sword he cut his may through the surrounding forces and mounting his horse escaped in safety.

Mathew O’Luinin Erenagh of Arda, County Fermanagh, died in 1396. He was at man of various professions and skilled in history, poetry and music.

Boethius Mac Egan, a man extensively skilled in Fenechus law and in music, died in 1399.

Gilla Duivin Mac Curtin Ollamh of Thomand in Music, died in 1404.

Finn O’Haughlinn, chief timpanist of Ireland, died in 1490.

James the Fourth of Scotland. Himself at famous performer, was quite partial to Irish harpers. In the Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer, many entries are found showing payments to them in the late years of the fifteenth century and the early years of the sixteenth. “It is interesting to find,” Bruce Armstrong says. “that Irish music was appreciated by King James. Who was, we know, accustomed to hear Italian minstrels, luterers, fiddlers, English Lowland, and Highland harpers, and other skilled musicians.”

It must not be forgotten that the development of their instruments kept pace with their proficiency, for Galilei, in his Ancient and Modern Music, published at Florence in 1584, states that the Irish harp of his time had 54 to 6o strings, the majority being of brass – a few being of steel for the higher notes as in the Clavichord.

Richard Stanyhurst. Whose work, De Rebus in Hibernia Gestis, was pub- lished at Antwerp in 1584, is the only Irish writer who is not appreciative of Irish harpers and their music. He was fortunate, however, in meeting with one whose performance pleased him. “Cruise, a contemporary of our own, is by far the best harper within the memory of man. No is entirely opposed to that barbarous din which others elicit from their discordant and badly strung harps. Such is the order of his measures, the elegant combination or his notes, and his observance of musical harmony that his airs strike like a spell on the ears of his audience, and force one to exclaim not that he is the most perfect merely, but in truth almost the only harpet.” From his views of exclusiveness Dr. Lynch. Author of Cambrensis Eversus and Rev. Dr. Geoffrey Keating. The historian, emphatically dissent.

Assuredly there was never a time prior to the nineteenth century when Ireland could boast of only one distinguished harper.

The above named historian in a poem translated by Prof. O’Curry, pays a glowing tribute to his harper Tadhg O’Cobthaigh. Or O’Coffey. The author asks: Who is the artist by whom the cruit is player? By whom the anguish of the envenomed spear’s recent would is healed, through the sweet-voiced sound of the sounding-board, like the sweet~streamed peal of the organ? Who is it that plays the enchanting music that dispels all the ills that man is heir to? To which he gives answer in the following translated lines:


Tadhg O’Cobthaigh of beauteous form,-

The chief-beguiler of women,

The intelligent concordance of all difficult tunes,

The thrills of music and of harmony.


Keating was born in 1560 and died in 1635.

Through the painstaking researches of Grattan Flood, the names of many harpers and pipers hitherto unknown or forgotten, have been brought to light. Of the great number imprisoned under proclamations designed for their extermina- tion, not a trace is left save what an examination of the State Papers may reveal.

The heroic harpers and pipers suffered for their loyalty to their leaders in times of national strife. Some were fortunate enough to obtain freedom through the mediation of persons of prominence while the names and fate of all others are lost in oblivion.

Ignored in history and literature, the sole record of their adult existence in most instances was that preserved in the official tiles of pardons among the State Papers.

The first pardon to an Irish minstrel of which we are aware is that recorded in a Patent Roll of 1540 in King Henry the Eighth’s reign in favor of:

Owen Keynan of Cappervarget, in the County of Kildare, harper; otherwise called Owen Keynan, servant of Gerald, late Earl of Kildare; otherwise Owen Keynan, the Rymour, otherwise Owen Keynan, the poet, otherwise Owen Keynan, Keyeghe Berde (blind bard), and for

Cornelius Keynan, of Cappervarget, son of Owen Keynan, Keyeghe, otherwise Cornelius (the) Berde.

Richard O’Malone of Donore. County Westmeath, enjoyed the distinction of being the first musician pardoned by Queen Elizabeth, the date being 1565.

From that time until 1586. the following named harpers were pardoned:

Donogh Mac Crydon, of St. John, Nenagh, Tipperary.

Thady Credan, of Drangan, Tipperary.

Mac Loughlin roe O’Brennan, County Galway.

Walter Brenagh, (Walsh in English).

Maelconry Mac Shane, of Castletown-roche, County Cork, indicted.

Russell Mac Russell, of Ballinacarrig, County Cork.

William MacCruddan, or Creedan.

Melaghlin roe O’Brennan, County Galway, (probably the MacLoughlin roe O’Brennan, before mentioned, first pardoned in 1581, now pardoned in 1585).

Gillaglass O’Shallow.

Dermot McGrath, of Hospital, County Limerick.

No pardons to harpers appear on record during the years intervening between 1580 and 160l. During the latter year Her Majesty and her Lord Deputies in Ireland must have been in a particularly gracious mood for besides clemency extended to a correspondingly large number of pipers, no less than eleven harpers were pardoned, namely:

John O’Lynch.

Art Mac Gillegrone MacDonnell.

Geoffrey McGlade.

Tadhg O’Dermody, harpmaker, County Kilkenny.

Nicholas dall (blind), Rattoo, County Kerry. (The famous Nicholas dall

hereinafter mentioned.)

Dermot O’Sgingin, of Donore, County Westmeath.

Donal Mac Conmee, County Westmeath.

Richard Forstall, of Cloghnageragh, County Wexford.

James O’Nolan, of Donore, County Westmeath.

Melaghlin O’Duane, of Cloghkelly.

Tadhg Mac Donal Mac Rory, of Townagh, County Clare, composer of

“Teague’s Rambles,” which appeared in Playford’s Dancing Master, 1651, as “The Irish Lady or Anniseed-Water Robin.”

The year 1602 was almost as fruitful of pardons as the preceding one.

Following are the names of the beneficiaries:

Gillaglass O’Shalvey, of Annaghmore.

Owen O’Shalvey, of Annaghmore.

John O’Maloney, Pallas. County Longford.

Rory Albanagh (Scott) Castleroe, County Westmeath.

Owen Mac Kiernan, of Kildare.

Tadhg O’Laffan, of Scablerstown.

Edmimd O’Gibney, of Mulrankin, County Wexford.

Shame ballagh McGeough, County Monaghan.

Cormack Mac Gillecosgellie, Clogher.

A proclamation issued January 28, 1603, by the Lord President of Muntser, in which the marshal of the province was charged to exterminate by martial law all manner of bards, harpers, etc., was followed by Queen Elizabeth’s orders to Lord Barrymore, “to hang the harpers, wherever found, and destroy their instruments.”



“When England would a land enthrall,

She doomed the Muses’ Sons to fall,

Lest Virtue’s hand should string the lyre,

And feed with song the patriot’s fire.”


This was bad news for imprisoned harpers as well as those at liberty, yet a short time before her death which occurred less than two months after the date of Lord Barrymore’s orders, the queen yielding to some powerful entreaty - it could not have been mercy or remorse – pardoned one piper, and the two following named harpers:

Owen Mac Dermot reagh Mellow, County Cork.

Dermot O’Dugan, Garryduff.

This renowned harper was also bard for the Earl of Thomond, and it was doubtless the intercession of that powerful nobleman, which secured O’Dugan’s release.

Around the beginning of the seventeenth century there flourished at Clonmaurice, County Kerry, a renowned harper named:

Nicholas Pierce, commonly referred to as Nicholas dall, he being blind.

Celebrated for his capacity for composing laments, and other ancient strains, he enjoyed the distinction, O’Curry tells us of having three odes written in his praise. It appears that he fell into disfavor with the government for it is recorded in the State Papers that Nicholas Dall, Rattoo, County Kerry, was par- doned with nine others in 1601 by Queen Elizabeth and her Lord Deputies in Ireland.

In concluding this chapter it may be pertinent to remark, that while her deputies were carrying out her orders in regard to the hanging of Irish Minstrels in Ireland, Queen Elizabeth’s fondness for Irish music, dancing and festivities, was notorious in England, and it was in her reign that we find the greatest number and variety of dances; and taking part in a jig or other lively dance was a common practice with Elizabeth and her pleasure-loving knights and dames. For her personal entertainment she kept an Irish harper, Cormac Mac Dermot. Who no doubt did much to popularize Irish songs and melodies at the English Court from the time of his engagement in 1590 to the date of her death in 1603. He continued in favor with King James I, and his name appears in the list of Court musicians, “receiving annuities and fees from the Crown,” in March. 1607.

Another Irish Minstrel., Donal duibh O’Cahill, at the same date was harper to Queen Anne, the consort of King James.