IRISH FOLK MUSIC - A PRECIOUS HERITAGE
A voice beside the dim, enchanted river,
Out of the twilight where the brookimg trees
Hear the Shannon's druid water chant forever
Tales of dead kmgs and bards and shanachies;
A girl's young voice out of the twilight singing
Old songs beside the legendary stream;
A girl's clear voice, over the wan waters ringing,
Beats with its wild wings at the Gates of Dream.
The flagger leaves, whereon shy dewdrops glisten,
Are swaying, swaying gently to the sound;
The meadow-sweet and spearmint, as they listen,
Breathe wistfully their wizard balm around;
And there, alone with her lone heart and heaven,
Thrushlike she sings, and lets her voice go free;
Her soul, of all its hidden longing shriven,
Soars on wild wings with her wild melody.
Sweet in its plaintive Irish modulations,
Her fresh young voice tuned to old sorrows seems,
The passionate cry of countless generations
Keenes in her breast as there she sings and dreams.
No more, sad voice; for now the dawn is breaking
Through the long night, through Ireland's night of tears.
New songs wake in the morning of her awaking
From the enchantment of eight hundred years.
WHAT charm there is in the name? What memories does it not awaken? What feelings does it not arouse in the breasts of the sons and daughters of Erin, whose hearts beat true to the cherished institutions of their race, since human emotions found expression in musical tones? Folk Music is the music of the song that lives in the hearts and voices of the people - to use the words of the great Dominican, Father Tom Burke - national songs you will hear from the husbandman in the field following the plow; from the old woman smgmg to the infant on her knee; from the milkmaid coming from the milking; from the shoemaker at his work, or the blacksmith at the forge while he is shoeing the horse; or as Dr. Joyce expresses it: the people’s pastimes, occupations, and daily life were mixed up with tunes and songs. The women sang at the spinning wheel; plowman whistled tunes to soothe their horses; girls sang their gentler milking songs which the cows enjoyed. Parents and nurses put their children to sleep with their charming melodies, laborers beguiled their work with songs of various kinds to which their fellow workmen listened with quiet enjoyment, and at the last scene of all, the friends of the dead gave vent to their sorrow in a heartrending caoine or lament.
The Folk Music and songs of a nation are treasured, because they were conceived as a melodious poetic expression of the sentiments and feelings of the people. Genuine expression of a nation's soul in tuneful melody cannot be produced to order, for the straing which live are the offspring of inspiration or the spontaneous flow of thought in timely accord with the general social conditions of the people.
Folk Music then is the true national melody handed down traditionally for centuries with surprising fidelity, until in the more civilized and cultured time it has been interpreted into musical notation. Irish music has been admired wherever its melting strains have been heard, and it has been said that the Irishman’s whole life is set to song. He is crooned to sleep in his cradle by immemorial lullabies, and the weird wail of the caoine follows him to the grave, for as Ida Haggerty Snell says: “Music seems to ne a part ot man's nature by which he expresses thoughts that otherwise could not be revealed.”
Music was held in much repute in the ancient world as a curative agent, Lady Wilde says in her quaint work. Ancient Cures, Charms, and Usages of Ireland besides being the inspiration that gave force to life, stimulating or soothing as the moment required, for music above all the arts has a subtle power over the nervous system, and is able to interpret and direct, all the sudden, swift and varied phases of human emotion. It can stir the soul to its inmost depths till the tears fall in silent sorrow or fill the brain with a passionate enthusiasm which is a prophecy of victory.
The Irish from the earliest times have shown their belief in the mystic influence of music upon life, and their legends record how the musician could sooth the wounded and calm the dying.
Practically all Irish music may he classed as Folk Music, for original composition distinctively Irish in character, we are told ceased on the death of “Piper” Jackson, and “Parson” Sterling late in the eighteenth century.
In the world of modern music Irish composers - many of them - have won distinction since that time, but the songs and ballads of the people continued to be sung to the old traditional strains, and few indeed were the musicians who would care to play any tunes but the haunting melodies of the olden days.
O'Carolan alone of all the bards was the exception who, influenced largely by the music of Geminiani departed from the purely Irish style in composition. In conceding that he has produced some airs of surpassing tenderness and of purely Irish structure, we may ask; who sings or plays them, and why are they neglected while a thousand folk airs and tunes, of unknown paternity are in prorniscuous circulation?
The Italian peasant while working in the vineyard, Father Burke tells us, has no music except two or three high notes of a most melancholy character. The peasants of Tuscany and of Campagna, when after their day's work they meet in the summer evenings to have a sance, have no music but the beating of a tambourine. But go to Ireland; listen to the old woman as she rocks in her chair, and pulls down the hank of flax for the spinning; listen to the girl coming from the held with the pail of milk on her head, and what do you hear? The most magnificent melody of music. Go to the country merry-makings, and you will be sure to find the old fiddler or old white haired piper, an infinite source of the brightest and most sparkling music.
Never was there a nation which had such a wealth of Folk Music - an infinite variety - tender love songs, witty ballads, deeply emotional poems set to haunting melodies as Ireland and the Irish.
“Few musicians have been found to question the assertion that Irish Folk Music is on the whole the finest that exists; it ranges with wonderful ease over the whole gamut of human emotions from the cradle to the battlefield, and is unsurpassed in poetical and artistic charm,” writes Dr. Ernest Walker in his History of Music in England. “If musical composition meant nothing more than tunes sixteen bars long, Ireland could claim some of the very greatest composers that have ever lived, for in their miniature form the best Irish folk tunes are gerns of absolutely flawless lustre, and though of course some of them are relatively undistinctive, it is very rare to meet with one entirely lacking in character.”
To those who retain the pure simplicity of man's nature such music born of emotion, and untrammeled by rules, possesses charms of a more lasting and touching kind than the finest works produced from the fancy and brain of the most skillful musician of a cold and artificial age. The simple folk tunes are endeared to us by association. And like the nectar of the flowers, they can be stored in the hive of our faculties to sustain us through all the bleak days of sorrow, or cheer us in the bright days of prosperity.
Irish music has all the sweetness, tenderness, humor, pathos, fervor, grandeur, and tragedy of real life, because it sprang from the heart of a race which underwent every phase of human experience and existence. Haydn, on hearing a National Irish melody for the first time, without knowing its origin, exclaimed that such music could only belong to an oppressed and unfortunate race.
The Folk Music of Ireland, intimately associated with the joys and sorrows and pastimes of the people, has been preserved from generation to generation among the peasantry and perpetuated largely through the agency of the minstrels whose wandering mode of life was well calculated to effect that purpose. In the language of the illustrious Dr. Petrie, “Irish Music is characteristic of their ardent and nnpassioned temperament and expressive of the tone of feeling that has been for ages predominant. The upper class are a different race - a race who possesses no national music, or if any, one essentially different from that of Ireland. They were insensible to its beauty for it breathed not their feelings, and they resigned it to those from whom they took everything else. Because it was a jewel of whose worth they were ignorant. He therefore who would add to the stock of Irish melody must seek it not in the halls of the great, but in the cabins of the poor; at the peasant’s humble hearth or follow him as he toils at his daily labors.” In the same vein John Boyle O’Reilly says: The Irish in the late centuries “carried the ancient wordless music in their hearts; the wandering piper and harper played the dear melodies and planxties to them; the plowboy whistled and the milkmaid sung the archaic airs; and so they were preserved, like the disconnected jewels of a queen's necklace.”
Apropos of Dr. Petrie’s remarks: When J. Bernard Trotter was traveling through Ireland in 1817 he frequently heard the loud songs of the laborers returning from work. They sang airs in the Irish language with surprising beauty and effect. Their airs were not always plaintive for some were finely martial. “You cannot imagine how we enjoyed them,” he writes. “Often an the evening had in her sober livery all things clad, have we listened with redoubled pleasure to this really fine music. Loud and sprightly, it wantoned through the distant air, seemed the call to war, and heroic deeds of a great and valorous people; or assuming softer tones, invited to gay reveling the merry dance and the sportive joys of love! Who could fail to think he heard the venerable harp accompanying these evening hymns? Who could forbear to rush into the mists of antiquity to find the people who formed, who cultivated. Who listened to such music? How pleased too, one is to leave modern history for these fascinating versions of peace and joy, which will rise up in deeply considering of the remote times of Erin's early sons! The kind delusion soothes the soul. How I long to see the merry dance and the rural groups of the redressed and happy -- the light feet beating gaily responsive to their lively planxties.”
In the pages of The Stranger in Ireland, published in 1806, John Carr, Esq., the author, describes the peasantry as being “uncommonly attached to their ancient melodies some of which are exquisitely beautiful. In some parts of Ireland the harp it yet in use. But the Irish bagpipe is the favorite instrument. The stock of national music has not been much increased in late years. The Irish of all classes are fond of music. Amongst the higher orders of Irish capable of appreciating the unrivaled extent of his genius in music I heard the name of Viotti mentioned with the admiration which is due to his talents.” Quite so: Instead of encouraging or cultivating the national music the “higher orders” of the alien race followed the fashionable lad of the times and patronized the musicians of the continent.
Irish music was never the offspring of fashion or caprice. It was literally the voice of the people. Whether excited by joy or sorrow, or love or injustice, their feelings found vent in music, Mrs. Hall says. Their grief for the dead was relieved by a dirge: they roused their troops by song and offered their prayers in chorus and chant; their music was poetry and their poetry was music. In the words of Lady Wilde all the various strings of the Irish harp have been touched and made to give up the strange fitful and wayward music, that can move at will to tears or laughter, and which never fails to vibrate in the Irish heart, for music and song are part of the life of the people. Through music and song the Irish race have always uttered the strongest emotions of the vivid Celtic nature.
“It has often been remarked and still oftener felt,” says Tom Moore, “that in our music is found the truest of all comments upon our history. The tone of defiance succeeded by the languor of despondency - a burst of turbulence dying away into softness - the sorrows of one moment lost in the levity of the next, and all that romantic mixture of mirth and sadness, which is naturally produced by the efforts of a lively temperament to shake off or forget the wrongs which lie upon it.”
The musical compositions of the older minstrels were admirably in keeping with the national sentiment. The wild melodies and inspiring lilts that we hnd among the old melodies, are the productions of the bards to a considerable extent, but the author of each particular piece is unknown.
Witness the effect of those airs on the son or daughter of Erin who has any inclination for music – and who has not? Few indeed are they who can escape response to some form of music, any more than they can fail to respond to any and all forms of the beautiful. People whose emotions remain unaffected by a symphony, will smile in response to some homespun melody. They may even denounce an opera, yet enjoy a simple hymn or sway in sympathy with an old man’s jig.
To the exile of Irish birth, the melodies of the old land will bring back memories of the fireside, the lakes, the moors, and clear flowing rivers, the towns and villages and above all the flower-spangled green fields of their native land, for nothing is so certain to survive of a people as their songs and music.
Many a homesick exile weary of the meaningless music which his American daughter had acquired at the academy, has been assailed by conflicting emotions such as the author deserihes in the following verses:
THOSE OLD IRISH AIRS
Come Katie avourneen touch up your piano,
And play off the tunes that your father likes best;
You've been taxing your brains with those German composers--
Let's hear from Tom Moore, just by way of a rest.
Your teacher has told you no doubt that they are trashy,
And nothing but simple and common affairs;
To some they may be, but to me they're entrancing,
So just play a few of Those Old lrish Airs.
Ah, Moore was the man to put grah in his verses;
To reach the right spot sure, 'twas he knew his art;
A magician in troth with a wonderful latchkey,
That opened the door of each Irishman's heart;
He never would stop and apply for admittance,
But softly creep in and make off with your cares,
And well may his countrymen cherish his memlry
For putting such words to Those Old lrish Airs.
Was there ever such music - so soft and so soothing,
So mournful and wild, so exciting and gay?
Such melody clear as the stream from the mountain,
Which splashes along in its own artless way;
The blast of defiance, the sigh of oppression;
From the lilt to the lullaby nothing competes-
All the moods mixed in an Irishman's nature
Are clearly expressed in Those Old Irish Airs.
If it's mournful you feel or in vein sentimental.
just choose any book that you find will include
“The Last Rose of Summer;" "The Exile of Bring”
"Believe Me;” "The Coolin;” - they'll answer your mood.
If stirred be your soul by the wrongs of your sireland,
You know courage will win while the coward despairs.
And the spirit that breathes in "Let Erin Remember,”
Is enshrined for all time in Those Old Irish Airs.
If it's mirthful you feel, and in need of diversion,
Look over the feast, there's enough and to spare
See "The Maid on the Green" with her chum `~Nora Chreena"
At "The Top of Cork Road" with "The Rakes of Kildare.,'
Don't tell me theress naught to admire in such music;
ylwas made for all time, you can see how it wears,
lVhy the blood rushes up to my cheeks at the sound,
And my heart beats the time to Those Old Irish Airs.
In the war for the Union with my Irish companions
l've heard those airs played when the battle was nigh,
And I've marked the wild look in their eyes as they listened,
As if it were glory to fight then, and die,
And when I lay wounded and death hovered o'er me,
The music would haunt me and mix in my prayers;
And I wondered at times if the angels in heaven,
Have songs that would equal Those Old Irish Airs.
Don't tell me the music is trashy or common
That fills men with motives so unselfish and high.
There is not a bar in your famous composers
That would stir us to fight for a cause till we die.
If lost be that cause for a time-well, no matter;
The spirit to conquer will survive in our heirs,
And the hope smold'ring deep in an Irishman's bosom
Will be fanned into flame by Those Old Irish Airs.
Then. Katie, avourneen, play off the dear music,
And please your old father - if but for tonight;
Though it may not show art, nor display execution,
It's all in the taste, and we both may be right.
Play off the dear music that breathes of the shamrock,
The moor and the mountains, the fields and the fairs.
Though tyrants may strangle a cause and a people,
They never could smother Those Old lrish Airs.
Music which in the words of Agnes Gordon Hogan, “is a language without an alphabet, a speech without a tongue, a power without a limit,” still retains its subtle influence over the Irish heart, although over one hundred years ago Lady Morgan - then Miss Owenson - in her Patriotic Sketches, bewailed the “regrettable and undeniable fact, that the warm, ardent sprit of national enthusiasm which hung delighted on the song of national melody to which many an associated idea, many an endeared feeling lent their charm, has now faded into apathy, and neither the native strain nor sentiment which gave it soul touches on the spring of national sensibility or awakens the dormant energy of national taste.”
Music was to the Irish a living delight, a mysterious key to a host of undiscovered emotions, hoarded in the secrecies of the soul. Irish music haunts the memory unlike certain modern compositions of which a critic in the Chicago Musical Leader says: “It comes and it goes but when it is gone there’s not even an echo of it left in the mind of the listener.” Wherever the Irish go - and where have they not gone ? - their music or the memory of it clings to them through life. A selection conveying a sorrowful cadence in its burden will awaken thoughts of home, kindred and early associations, filling the mind of the auditor with emotion and sorrow, writes Cornelius O’Donovan, an exile in Canada, but a change in the metre substituting animation for sentiment, will produce a corresponding change in the feelings, and the heart that but a short time ago was “bowed down” has again resumed its gayety. How aptly the poet voices the spirit of vain regrets which torture our very souls, when we contemplate the havoc which the tragic trinity of persecution, pestilence and proseription has wrought in the historic Green Isle - the once renowned “Land of Music and Song.”
"Where is that spirit of our prime,
The good old day!
Have the life and mirth of that honored time
All passed away!
When old friendship breathed,
And old kindness wreathed
The cot and castle in kindred claim,
And the tie was holy,
Of high and lowly,
And neighbor was a brother's name.
Then kindly welcome held the portal free,
To none denied.
His song the wandering minstrel brought
From far and wide;
The strains rose lightly,
And young eyes shone brightly;
And in sunshine ever life's stream rolled on,
And no thought came hither
How fate could wither;
Yet time stole by, and they are gone?