IRISH FOLK MUSIC WANING
IN olden times music was the only avocation or profession available to the blind; hence we find that so many harpers, pipers, and fiddlers were bereft of sight. The renowned harpers, Rory Dall O’Cahan, Turlogh O’Carolan, Denis Hempson, and Arthur O’Neill were blind, and so were most of the celebrated Union pipers. Some, like O’Neill, lost their sight through accident, but the great majority were victims of the ravages of smallpox. Pitiable indeed was the plight of the young, to be thus deprived of the blessings of vision at an age when the blossoms of intelligence had but just awakened an interest in the delights of life. Sadder still was the misfortune of those stricken in infancy, at the very threshold of existence, who had no conception of light or colors, and to whom even the memory of departed pleasures was denied. Their eyes may have been transplanted into their ears, as some say; but who can read unmoved of their yearnings and despair as pictured in Hannah F. Gould’s pathetic poem -
A BLIND BOY’S SONG
Oh! tell me the form of the soft summer air, That tosses so gently the curls of my hair! It breathes on my lip, and it fans my warm cheek, Yet gives me no answer, tho' often I speak. I feel it play o'er me, refreshing and kind, Yet I cannot touch it - I'm blind! oh! I'm blind! And music, what is it? and where does it dwell? I sink and I mount with its cadence and swell; While touched to my heart with its deep, thrilling strain, Till pleasure, sweet pleasure, is turning to pain. What brightness of hue is with meekness combined? Wi1l anyone tell me? I'm blind! oh! I'm blind! The perfumes of flowers that are hovering nigh, What are they? on what kind of wings do thy fly? Are not they sweet angels who came to delight A poor little boy that knows not of sight? The sun, moon. and stare are to me undefined; Oh! tell me what light is: I'm blind! oh! I'm blind!
The harpers from time immemorial were the great composers. Honored, fostered, and glorified, they produced the best that was in them, undisturbed by the present and unmindful ot the future; and though their melodies were unwritten, many of the thousands which have survived are listened to with delight the world over in this late day of musical culture and advancement. Despite a concatenation of untoward circumstances, Irish Folk Music exists in greater volume than that of any other nation, there being, according to Dr. P. W. Joyce, over three thousand distinct melodies, exclusive of variants; and this is all the more remarkable in view of the assertion of Bayle Bernard, in his biography of Samuel Lover, that out of some five thousand operas written since the beginning of the past century, not more than a hundred have survived, and that in the main they owe their preservation to their melodies and their dramatic interest.
Those who minister to amusement are everywhere popular characters, and amongst the Irish - a jovial, fun-loving people - none were more welcome than the wandering pipers and fiddlers upon whom devolved to a large extent the burden of supplying entertainment and promoting good humor in the community. The harpers, it is true, were of more ancient lineage, but their art and talents had been devoted to the service of the rulers rather than the people. Always treated with respect and consideration, there was yet something about them not in perfect accord with the habits and feelings of the majority, on account of their association with persons of rank and wealth.
Not so with the pipers and hddlers; they were the minstrels of the multitude. They mingled in every feature of Irish life, from the cabin to the castle, especially where the ancient race predominated. Never at a loss for a bed or for board; every door was open to them and every purse untied. With seldom a worry except the rivalry of professional brethren, Irish minstrels and musicians were peculiarly free from care.
Living and circulating in an atmosphere of happiness, hearing little but mirth, and experiencing nothing but kindness at festivities and merry-makings, the pipers and fiddlers in the heyday of their popularity were the “source and centre of all good and friendly feelings.” Who will say that life was less worth living then than now?
James Lynam Molloy, of Cornolare, Kings County, hardly thought so when he penned the following lines:
I think of the Irish Piper
As o`er the hills at close of day
He came with a breath of music
That made you dance in spite of yourself
As soon as you heard him play,
The moment you heard him play.
And, "Save you kindly," he would cry,
With merry voice and twinkling eye;
"There's no divarsion can compare
With an Irish dance and an Irish air !"
And we danced away to the Piper's tune.
Laughing under the rising moon;
And. ah! it seems but yesterday,
Thoy years of life have pass'd away.
And Who but the Irish Piper,
When times were dark and wild with care, .
Came up to the mountain shieling,
And made us laugh thro' all our tears,
When the hunger was hard to bear,
And the hunger was hard to hear.
He sang the glorious songs of old,
Of Irish Kings and chieftains bold.
And fairy tales of the little men
That lived below in the haunted glen.
And 'twas oh! the touch of a loving hand
That made the music wild and grand,
And charm us to forget our woe
In the wistful dreams of long ago.
Tho' the great Atlantic rolls its waves between
And were only dreaming of days that once have been,
Our hearts are over the water,
And throb with many a tear,
For the friends we've left in the old land,
And that land is oh! so dear.
And we dream again of the mountain home,
The dance and song and the Piper's tune;
And tho' the years are old and grey,
It's fresh in our hearts as yesterday,
It's fresh in our hearts as yesterday.
Ah, yes; many are they from every province, county, and parish in Ireland who think of the Irish piper now, when he is following the footsteps of the harper into Dodoland; but we never miss the water till the well runs dry.
The conditions under which minstrels and musicians prospered no longer exist. Gone are the days when their merry music, heard on every hand, memory gathered like nursery jingles and retained without effort. The mind was led captive by the iteration of musical phrases in dance tunes, like
“An echo from a measured strain
In some old corner of the brain,
With haunting sameness in the rhymes.
That came and went a thousand times.”
And much as we may cherish the memory of the “Days of Auld Lang Syne” when the Green Isle was a “Land of Music and Song,” we are being brought face to face with the inevitable, for
“It is written in the sunshine
As it gilds the shining dome;
It is written in the joyous smile
That lights the hearth of home;
It is written on all fairest things
Beneath the sun's bright ray,
That all were made for one brief hour,
That all must pass away.”
Too true! The old must give way to the new; but what blessings has the change brought to Ireland? Mainly monotony, and inelodeons made in Germany.
England is the only country where laws were enacted against music, and while the results of their barbarous enforcement are inealeulable, it must be conceded that influences originating in Ireland cannot be held blameless of contributing to the musical decadence of the late centuries.
Nothing clings to the expatriated sons of the Gael so tenaciously as the memory of the pleasures and pastimes in which music and song played a part. How aptly the ttmetul J. I. C. Clarke voices the reminiscent longing in his “Pictures of Ireland”:
“Do you ever think of night-time round the fire?
The rosy little children, their mother and their sire;
The crossroads and the fiddle,
With the dancers in the middle,
While the lovers woo by moonlight in the lane?
For Irish love has e'er your heart been fain?
A many a time, a many a time.
"Did your mother by your cradle ever croon,
For lullaby, some sweet old Irish tune?
Did an Irish love song's art
Ever steal into your heart,
Or Irish war chant make your pulses thrill?
Do haunting harps yet sound from Tara's hill?
A many a time, a many a time.”
The Irish peasantry cannot resist the witching tones of the violin or Union pipes or other-popular instruments. “If you would keep them in their seats,” says an English traveler, “you must fasten them down.” How expressive is the sad, sweet wail of Louis Davoren, whose verses betray a wistful desire to relieve his attack of nostalgia by a return to the seenes of his youth.
“Where innocent pastime our pleasures did crown
Upon a green meadow miles out from the town.?'
THE IRISH PIPES
I heard them once in the long ago,
But the memory lives today,
Though the sound is hushed and the player dead,
And I am far away.
I think of them now when twilight throws
Over earth its ehastening spell;
And the feelings that surge through my yearning heart,
None but myself can tell.
I think of the happy moments spent
'Neath the yellow harvest moon,
When, the day's work o'er, my feet kept time
To the piper's merry tune.
And many a tale they call to mind,
Of the dark, dark days of old,
When for Freedom's cause, in the battle fierce,
Fell many a hero bold.
Nor Irish heart resist,
They bring the past to memory back
From out of the ages' mist.
I long to be back in Ireland again
I long to be back in Ireland again -
To wander at will and free,
And to hear again the skirl of the pipes
As once they played for me.
When Congreve conceived the idea that “Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast,” though an Irishman, it is hardly probable that he had in mind the strident skirl of the Irish warpipes or the Highland instrument. Yet who knows, in view of the following, for tastes will differ:
A few years ago, dressed in full regalia, with the October zephyrs fanning his unclad knees, a Highland piper sailed into the Morrisania police court in New York City, awakening the echoes with the exultant strains of “Garryowen” It took the combined efforts of three bailiffs to stop him, so enthusiastic was he in his performance.
“He came out of the subway at two o’clock this morning with a stranglehold on his instrument.,’ testified the policeman who had him in charge, “and I placed him under arrest. We danced all the way to the station, and he hadn’t stopped playing until this minute.”
“Can you play “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye?” asked the magistrate with some display of interest. McGregor could and did, but divining the nationality of the questioner, he diplomatieally switched to a rollicking reel. The effect was soon apparent, and the court ofhcers had to use more than persuasion to keep Judge Finn in his seat.
“Here, take this,” exclaimed His Honor, handing the piper a five-dollar bill, “You’ve done me more good than a dozen doctors. Call the next case.” A lilt will put life in the limbs of the weary and quicken the pulsations of the most sluggish heart. The aged, reminiscent ever, live their lives over again under the Stimulus of a haunting strain. And the young are stirred to ecstasy, while nothing “shortens the road” for the plodding traveler like the turn of a tune or a verse of a song.
Who can tell by what secret means all our faculties, mental and physical, are enthralled by the charms of simple melodies? How does its subtle influence steal along our thrilling nerves, through every recess of our frame, even changing the expression of our features at will?
“When whispering strains tlo softly steal
With creeping passion through the heart;
And when at every touch we feel
Our pulses beat and bear a part;
When thrills can make a heartstring break,
Philosophy can scarce deny
The soul can melt in harmony."
A striking instance of the rejuvenating effect of Folk Music on the aged is that of Peg Fryer, a retired Irish actress, mentioned in Walker’s Historical Memoirs of the Irish Bards, 1786. Having admirably played the part as grandmother in the Half-pay Officers, in 1720, after fifty years retirement, “she was brought again upon the stage to dance a jig at the age of eighty-five. She came tottering in, seemingly much fatigued, but all on a sudden, the music striking the `Irish Trot,’ she danced and footed it almost as nimbly as any wench of five and twenty.”
From the anonymous account of a travelers excursion through Ireland in 1751, published in the twenty-first volume of the Gentleman's Magazine, we get a glimpse of the social customs of that period. “Every village has a bagpiper who every fine evening after working hours collects all the young men and maids in the village about him, where they dance most cheerfully, and it is really a very pleasing entertainment to see the expressive though awkward attempts of nature to recommend themselves to the opposite sex.”
“Twilight’s soft dews steal o'er the village green
With magic tints to harmonize the scene;
Hushed is the hum that thro' the hamlet broke,
When round the rim of some venerable oak
The peasants flocked to hear the minstrel play,
And games and dances closed the busy day.”
The appearance of a piper, fiddler or fluter, or even a man with a jews-harp, was sufficient to draw a crowd of the youth of both sexes to enjoy a dance or listen to the music; and night after night the same youthful hearts would gather around some blazing turf fire, and if there happened to be no musician to stir the dancing spirit, some sweet peasant voice would make up for the loss by singing of love or war, or perhaps some incident which had caught the popular fancy and been versified for the ballad-singers - those degenerate descendants of the bards - whose powerful and melodious voices enlivened the scene at every fair and market in the land in days gone by. With them has vanished much that was interesting in Irish life, as well as the airs which their songs kept alive and in circulation among the people.