IRISH FOLK MUSIC EXEMPLIFIED
AS CROFTON CROKER says, the Irishman, like the Frenchman, sings his conquests, his prosperity, his defeats, even his miseries and misfortunes. Conquering or conquered, in plenty or want, happy or distressed, sorrowful or gay, he always sings. To this disposition we may attribute our treasures of melody and our bewildering plenitude of song.
“The old, old songs. and the dear dead songs,
And the songs that we hear no more.
Like a phantom race, they haunt the place
And the scenes that were loved of yore;
Oh, the dear old songs, I can hear them yet,
When the weary world's asleep
'Neath its comfort gray, with the stars alway
Their ward o`er its dreams do keep.”
In Irish Folk Songs, no less than in Folk Music, there is an individuality of feeling and character which distinguish them from English Songs - a certain humor and quaintness of expression with an exquisite simplicity and other peculiarities easily recognizable.
A numerous and characteristic class of Irish airs which the ballad-singers kept in promiscuous circulation have some to be facetiously termed “Come, all ye,” on account of the comparatively large number of songs which commenced with these words, such as, “Come, all ye sporting gentlemen”; Come, all ye blooming country lads”; “Come, all ye tender Christians; I hope you will draw near,” etc. Another hackneyed introduction was, “As I roved out” on a summer’s morning, or evening, or any other time or date pertinent to the theme. Much less common was, “Ye Muses nine. with me combine,” since the days of the hedge schoolmaster, who reveled in mythology and soared in classical allusions far above the heads of his unlettered audience. The minstrel or balladist of the olden time seized upon every battle, murder, execution, wonderful or laughable event, as a theme for his muse, and, being the purveyor of the latest news and gossip available in his circuit as well, his coming was everywhere welcomed.
Any traditional air suitable to the metre of a new song was liable to be pressed into service; so that in course of time many songs were sung to the same air, thereby confusing its origin and history.
No better description of this class of airs can be presented than that given by a writer in the Dublin Examiner of August, 1816: “They are for the most part formed of four strains of equal length – the first soft, pathetic and subdued; the second ascends in the scale and becomes bold and energetic and impassioned: the third, a repetition of the second, is sometimes a little varied and more florid, and leads often by a graceful or melancholy cadence to the fourth, which is always a repetition of the first.”
Of this class are the airs known as “The Foggy Dew,”, “The Enniskillen Dragoons,” “The Maid of Sweet Gurteen,” “Billy Byrne of Ballymanus,” “Irish Molly O,” “Good Morning, Fair Maid”; Or, “The Roving Pedlar.” “The Tossing of the Hay,” “Father Tom O’Neill,” “Sweet Beaulieu Grove,” “The Colleen I’m Courting Just Now,” “I'll Build a Tower in My Love's Breast,” “Seamus Mo Mile Stor,” and many others.
A typically Irish air of this variety is that wedded to John Parry’s English lyric, “Vilikins and Dinah,” a love tragedy in seven verses, the first of which follows:
‘Tis of a rich merchant who in London did dwell;
He had but one daughter, an unkimmon nice young gall;
Her name it was Dinah, scarce sixteen years old,
With a very large fortune in silver and gold.
Singing to la lol la ral lall to ral la] la.
Chorus repeats three times to same melody.)
An American song of love betrayed, named “Joe Bowers,” was set to an air unmistakahly Irish, in the days of the California gold excitement in 1849. In accepting Joe’s proposal of marriage, the prudent Sally Black suggested that “before they hitch for life” he “ought to get a little home to keep a wife.,’ California was the place to “raise a stake” in those days. So, encouraged with “a kiss to bind the bargain,” and a dozen thrown in for good measure by the liberal Sally, Joe set out and “worked hoth late and early in rain, in sun, in snow”; he was working for his Sally, “ ‘twas all the same to Joe.”
The first letter from his brother Ike, in the old Missouri home, put an and to his dream of bliss and faith in woman’s constancy. Not only was Sally married to a butcher whose hair was red, but, to crown his agony, the letter conveyed the information that the baby's hair was of the same radiant hue!
Among the airs of this class in which the third strain varies from the second are, “The Lowlands of Holland,” or “Holland Is a Fine Place,” “The Bays of Wexford,,’ “Willy Reilly” “The Lovely Sweet Banks of the Suir,” and “The Banks of Claudy.”
An air memorized from my fathens singing, the refrain of which was “My Darling, I am Fond of Yon,” possesses peculiarities somewhat exceptional. The second strain is repeated after the fourth, evidently to correspond with an extra line in the verse. Perhaps no Irish melody better illustrates “the placid succession of lengthened tones which swell on the sense and insinuate themselves into our most inmost feelings” described by Webb in his work on Poetry and Music.
Another air named, “Margaret Sheehan,” is peculiar in the sense that while regular in composition there is no repetition of strains.
If we are to form our opinion of the original genius of Irish music from the accounts handed down by Cambrensis” says Lady Morgan, in her Patriotic Sketches, over at century ago, “the pathos which it now betrays was certainly not its primeval character. `But music feedeth the disposition which it findeth.' The popular feelings of a nation may be frequently discovered to a certain degree in the character and idiom of its native melodies, and the very key in which these melodies are composed may give a refined intimation of the political circumstances under which they were first breathed. Thus the Irish, during the long series of their sufferings, effused not their tuneful sorrows in the cheery, open fullness of the major mood. Their voices, broken and suppressed faintly, rose by minor thirds, and the sentiment of anguish communicated to the song of the persecuted bards by `his soul's sadness' still breathes in Irish music, even though the efficient cause from whencc it stole its plaintive character may no longer exist.” Hence we find that “even the most rapid Irish air will be found to contain some lurking shade of pathos, even to possess something of that melancholy luxury of sound which characterizes the Arabian music.”
Passing a very small rustic cot near Cong, in 1817, John Bernard Trotter, in his Walks Through Ireland, heard an o1d Irish air sung with Irish words by an aged woman turning her spinning wheel. “It was mournfully and remarkably melodious,” he says, “sung very low, and with astonishing and true pathos. The sweet and affecting memories of the past days of Ireland, surviving all her sor- rows in an humble cottage in Connacht, appealed powerfully to the heart.”
“Old songs! Old strains? I should not sigh;
Joys of the earth on earth must die;
But spectral forms will sometimes start
Within the caverns of the heart,
Haunting the lone and darkened cell
Where warm in life they used to dwell.
Hope, youth, love, home, each haunting tie
That binds, we know not how or why --
All! all that to the soul belongs,
Is closely mingled with old songs."
One objection to Irish airs in this generation is the mournful or plaintive key in which so many of them are pitched. Exceptions are by no means rare, and of these some are enlivened with a rollicking chorus.
The three great bardic classes of music previously described in Chapter I might be judiciously increased to twice that number, such as Slumber or Lullaby; Dirge or Lamentation; Rural; Amorous; Festive and Martial.
No form of music can have greater claims to antiquity than lulling or sleep-inducing music, for even the birds croon to their nestlings. In some form it was common to all nations and in all ages, but among no people were lullabies as numerous and varied as in Ireland and the Scottish Highlands. The “Shuheen Sho” of the Gaels - anglicised into “lullaby”- has been modernized into “Cradle song.” One cannot fail to notice that almost all lullabies or cradle songs are made up, with little variety, on the same plan, regardless of the age or nation in which they may have originated.
Following is the first verse of a lullaby of great beauty, translated from the Irish. It purports to be the song of the fairy nurse in the rath of Lisroe for a child stolen by the “good people.”
Sweet babe! a golden cradle holds thee,
Shuheen sho, lulo lo!
And soft the snow-white fleece enfolds thee,
Shuheen sho, lulo lo!
In airy bower I'll watch thy sleeping,
Shuheen sho, lulo lo!
Where branchy trees to the breeze are sweeping,
Shuheen sho, lulo lo!
Irish music is rich in laments for the dead - a form of composition probably among the very oldest. Rev. Dr. Campbell, in his Philosophical Survey of the South of Ireland, in 1775, says: “Their finest airs are of the plaintive turn, and are supposed to have been set to elegies for renowned warriors, or to the sighs of complaining lovers.”
The forrn of the lament varied in different parts of Ireland, but the cadences are often inconceivably plaintive and affecting. Did ever a wail make a man’s marrow quiver, and fill his nostrils with the breath of the grave, queries Thomas Davis, like the Ullulu of the north or the Ullagone or Wirrasthrue of Munster? Besides the caoine, or dirge for the dead, there were also lamentations for the living, expressive of every form of regret, such as for eviction, emigration, loss of valued property, or other calamities. Unlike lullabies, lamentations display much diversity of composition. The most ancient, such as “The Lamentation of Deirdre for the Sons of Usnach,” “Ossian's Lament,” and even lamentations composed around the year 1600, make no appeal to modern ears.
“Ormonde’s Lament,” which can be assigned to the early years of the eighteenth century, is now quite generally known as “Billy Byrne of Ballymanus.” Songs entitled “A Lament for Thomas Flavell” and “The County of Mayo” have been also set to the same air.
So quaint and plaintive is “Crotty’s Lament,” which dates from about the year 1742, that a setting of it is herewith presented:
An air named “Sarstield’s Lament,” entirely distinct from the melody of that name in modern publications, may not be devoid of interest. It is among the contents of The Hibernian Muse, published in London in 1787.
“Owen Roe O'Neill's Lamentation,” if not the product of O’CaroIan’s genius, as claimed by several authorities, is by no means unworthy of the renowned bard.
“Caoine Cill Cais” or “The Lament for Kileash,” an ancient Seat of the Ormondes, a few miles northeast of Clonmel, originated early in the eighteenth century. Some dozen songs of varied character were sung to this popular melody, one of the most recent being “The Fair at Dungarven.”
Every ballad having capital punishment or other harrowing death as a theme was sung to a peculiarly mournful air, in southwest Munster at least, in the last half of the nineteenth century. This lament, which escaped the vigilance of Dr. Petrie and was alluded to as the “hanging song,” was published in O’Neill’s Music of Ireland, in 1902, as “The Martyr’s Lament.” It has been pronounced by a distinguished vocalist and lecturer to be unsurpassed among traditional Irish dirges.
Not less expressive of woe, if more modern in musical phraseology, is a lamentation composed in 1904 on the death of a young collegian of brilliant promise in Chicago.
Among the lamentations not of a tragic nature we may mention “Ullulu mo Mhailmi”- the Old woman's lament for the loss of her little bag and its contents. “Rocking the Cradle;” Or “Rocking a Baby That’s None Of My Own,” and “The Old Woman Lamenting Her Purse.” In the song to the first of these airs, the old woman, in response to questions, recounts in details the contents of the bag. A good description of “Rocking the Cradle” may be found in the biography of John Coughlan, the Australian piper.
Under this head may be classed Plough tunes, Spinning-wheel tunes, Milk-maid songs, and Loobeen or Luinig airs. Comparatively few of any of these varieties have been preserved, and all of them may be regarded as obsolete by this time.
“Amongst the numerous classes of melodies which a people so music-loving as the Irish, invented to lighten the labor and beguile the hours devoted to their various occupations,” says Dr. Petrie, “there is perhaps no one of higher interest, and certainly no one that I have listened to with deeper emotion, than that class of simple, wild and solemn strains which the ploughman whistles in the held to soothe or excite the spirits of the toiling animals he guides, as well as to fill his own ears with sounds expressive of peaceful and solemn thoughts.”
From the number of melodies of this class yet remaining in Dr. Petrie’s time, it would appear, he says, that there was no sort of occupation or labor, indoors or out, that the use of song was not resorted to with a view to sustain the spirits and lighten the toil.
Differing from the plaintive and solemn plough tunes, spinning-wheel airs were of a lighter and more mirthful kind, and from Bunting’s description they were generally songs in which several singers took part. Following are his words: “The Loobeen is a peculiar species of chaunt, having a well-marked time and a frequently recurring chorus or catechord. It is sung at merry-makings and assemblages of the young women when they meet at spinnings and quiltings, and is accompanied by extemporaneous verses, of which each singer successively furnishes a line. The intervention of the chorus after certain phrases gives time for the preparation of an appropriate line or reply by the next singer. The airs themselves bear all the appearance ot antiquity.”
As might be expected, tunes of this class were also very common in the Scottish lsles and Highlands. The name Luinigs, or Luinnochs, by which they are known, signifies cheerful chorus music.
An air and song of this class picked up in our boyhood days near Bantry will convey some idea ot the possibilities of a song of that nature for unlimited extension.
Dr. Petrie, in his Ancient Music of Ireland, published in 1855, gives as examples of this rare class of occupational tunes, the music and responses of a ploughman and his two assistants, working and worrying, at the lateness of their dinner, and “The Smith’s Song,” or “Ding, dong, didilium.” The latter name represents the ring of the hammer on the anvil as the smith and his helper strike and respond.
Familiar as we are with the name, it does not appear that milkmaid songs enjoyed any special characterization. However, it is well understood that milch cows are not indifferent to familiar tones and persons, for the Bossy that would stand contentedly for one would not tolerate another. This brings to mind Tim O’Neill’s story of a neighbor’s cow which “would kick the daylights out of any person attempting to milk her” unless the affecting strains of “Nell Flaherty's Drake,’ greeted her ears, so accustomed was she to the tones of that soothing refrain on such occasions.
Withont assuming that all cattle are influenced by music, we are certain that some are keenly alive to its attractions, and will even follow it, with evident delight, until restrained by the limits of their enclosure.
In the exuberance of youth, milkmaids are prone to give their emotions vocal expression, and the nature of their singing or lilting when milking is more than likely to be an indication of their frame of mind for the heeting moment.
Many of the finest traditional Irish melodies are of this character, among them being “Eibhlin a Run,” the oldest of all Irish folk airs, according to Prof. Carl Hardebeck, of Belfast, and other distinguished authorities. The weight of evidence seems to establish its origin in the latter part of the fourteenth century, though others place the date a century and a half earlier. In a general way such melodies may be described as of a narrative, or excited discoursing character - animated and energetic in their movement, yet marked with earnest tenderness and impassioned sentiment - more or less tinged with sadness, though rarely sinking into tones of extreme or despairing melancholy.
In the same classification might be enumerated such popular airs as “Ceann Dubh Dilis” or “The Black-headed Deary,” “Molly Asthore,” “The Coolin,” “The Paistin Fionn,” “Caithilin Thriall,” “Nora of the Amber Locks,” “Have You Been at Carrick ?” “The Dark Maiden of the Valley,” “The Foggy Dew,” “The Lowlands of Holland,” and “Ma Mhuirnin na Gruaige Baine” or “My Fair-haired Darling.” The last named, being the least known, is presented as a specimen of this class of melodies.
The Irish language is rich in terms of endearment, and as one would naturallly be led to expect, love and affection are the themes of a large number of folk songs. The Irish, as everyone knows, are not lacking in chivalry, still there is a limit to the ardor of the most enthusiastic occasionally in their devotion to the fair sex when it comes to the supreme sacrifice. Few, however, will be inclined to condemn a man who was willing to do as much as James Doherty for the young lady of his choice, whom he evidently idolizes:
I'd swear for her,
I'd tear for her,
The Lord knows what I'd bear for her;
I'd lie for her,
I'd sigh for her,
I'd drink Lough Erne dry for her;
I'd "cuss” for her,
Do "muss” for her,
I'd kick up a thundering fuss for her;
I'd weep for her,
I'd leap for her,
I'd go without any sleep for her;
I'd fight for her,
I'd bite for her,
I'd walk the streets all night for her;
I'd plead for her,
I'd bleed for her,
I'd go without my "feed” for her;
I'd shoot for her,
I'd boot for her
A rival who'd come to "suit” for her;
I'd kneel for her,
I'd steal for her,
Such is the love I feel for her;
I'd slide for her,
I'd ride for her,
I'd swim against wind and tide for her;
I'd try for her,
I'd cry for her,
But - hang me if I'd die for her
Or any other woman!
\Vhat other strains bwt those of Geanntraighe or merry music could have inspired the author of the following lines on “The Power of Music”?
“Can I be thus in vision blest,
Or can such bliss arise from sound?
By some sweet madness I'm possessed,
Or is the air enchanted round?
Wild raptures in my bosom swell,
And my soul floats in fond delight;
For every note conceals a spell
That pictures seenes long lost to sight."
Though the tragedies of her history have indelibly stamped the music of Ireland with characteristic plaintiveness, a race so noted for humor and joviality could not fail to have the spirit of cheerfulness and vivacity also reflected abundantly in their music and song. Take, for instance, such animated airs as “The Parson Boasts of Mild Ale,” “Teig Moira's Daughter,” “The Lough Carra Fisherman,” “The Peeler and the Goat,” and the drinking song, “Beidmaoid ag Ol’sa Poga na m-Bean.”
What music could be more gay and spirited than the hop or slip jig in nine-eight time, a metre peculiar to the Gaelic race, not to mention other varieties of jigs and reels to which songs without number had been sung before their conversion into dance tunes by the pipers and fiddlers? And then we must remember there were planxties by the score, all breathing a spirit of untrammeled gladness and conviviality, such as “Planxty O’Rourke,” or “O’Rourke's Noble Feast,” and “Bumpers Squire Jones” - compositions of the great bard O’Carolan. Even so, not a strain conceived in the prolific brain of O'Carolan, or his contemporaries, which has come down to us is at all comparable with the simple melody, “Tow row row” in giving musical expression to the mirthfulness and buoyancy of the Irish mind.
No enemy speaks slightingly of Irish music, and no friend need fear to boast of it, says Thomas Davis. Its antique war-tunes such as those of O’Byrne, O'Donnell, Alastrum, and Brian Boru stream and crash upon the ear like the warriors of a hundred glens meeting; and you are borne with them to battle, and they and you charge and struggle amid cries and battle axes and stinging arrows.
The War Song of the lrish Kerns was called Pharrah. Walker tells us in his Historical Memoirs of the Irish Bards, that while an army was preparing for the onset, the song was sung at the head by a Filea to the harsh but spirit-stirring accompaniment of the different martial instruments. He further adds that each chieftain had a war cry peculiar to his tribe. The Scottish clans had their Piobaireachd and Cruinneacht compositions which may be regarded as a species of martial music.
A setting of “The Pharrah or War March,” obtained from Dr. Petrie in 1835 is to be found in Bunting’s Ancient Music of Ireland, published in 1840. It consists of nine parts or strains, and it is worthy of note that this ancient march has been converted by the pipers into a spirited jig called “The Gold Ring.” Little need be said of a martial tune so well known as “Brian Boru’s March,” unless we might point out that its structure and rhythm would seem to indicate an origin much later than the eleventh century. An appreciation from the pen of Kohl, the German traveler who heard it played on the harp at Drogheda in 1843, cannot fail to be of interest. “The music of this march is wildly powerful and at the same time melancholy. It is at once the music of victory and of mourning. The rapid modulations and wild beauty of the air was such that I think this march deserves full to obtain a celebrity equal to that of the `Marseillaise’ and the `Ragotsky.’”
The wild and inspiring martial air entitled, “The Return from Fingal,” which Dr. Petrie learned from the Munster pipers is evidently of much earlier origin. It was supposed to have been the march played or sung by Brian Boru’s Munster troops on their return home from the glorious but dearly bought triumph at Clontarf in 1014, and was expressive of the mixed feelings of sorrow and triumphs which had been excited by the result of that memorable conflict.
Such splendid martial airs as “Rory of the Hills,” “Paddies Evermore,” “The Boyne Water,” “O'Donnell Alan,” and the “Green Flag Flying Before Us,” need no special comment. So we will discuss a tune with a history, the antique “Alastrum's March.” or “MacDonnell's March” as Bunting calls it.
Few indeed are the warpipe tunes that have come down to us from the seventeenth century. Passed on from one generation to another traditionally we must expect such as have been preserved to vary in some degree from the original composition, which to find proper expression on the Piob Mor must not exceed a compass of nine or at most ten notes.
Of this class “Alastrum's March,” is historically the best known. Dr. Smith in his History of Cork published in 1750, refers to it as “a very odd kind of Irish music well known in Munster by the name of `Mac Allisdrum's March’ being a wild rhapsotly made in honor of this commander, to this day much esteemed by the Irish.”
This revered hero was Sir Alexander (in lrish Alastair) MacDonnell, an Irish general of great bravery who was basely assassinated by an English soldier, after the Irish had been defeated at the battle ot Knockinoss, fought November 13, 1647, between the English or Parliamentary forces under the command of Lord Inchiquin and the Irish under Lord Taaffe. Four thousand or one half the entire strength of the latter were left dead on the field.
A party of Scotch Highlanders in the Irish army headed by MacDonnell, nicknamed Colkitto [left-handed], contested their ground in a most determined and gallant manner, and were inhumanly butchered by the victors.
All possible honors were shown the remains of the brave Colkitto, and his funeral procession was headed by a hand of pipers playing what Grattan Flood terms “a specially composed funeral march, ever since known as `Mac Alistrum's March.’“
Differing from Dr. Flood as to its origin. Crofton Croker says in Researches in the South of Ireland, which came from the press in 1824, “That wild and monstrous piece of music known by the name of `Ollistrum's March’ so popular in the south of Ireland, and said to have been played at Knockinoss should not, it appears to me he considered an Irish air.” After quoting Walker in support of his contention, Croker continues: “The estimation in which it is held in Ireland is wonderful. I have heard this march, as it is called, sung by hundreds of the Irish peasantry who imitate the drone ot the bagpipe in their manner of singing it. On that instrument I have also heard it played and occasionally with much pleasure from the peculiar and powerful expression given by the performer.”
“Not one of our native musicians understand a note of music, as the pipers in general are blind,” says the lady who noted it down, “and yet the air has been handed or rather (if I may use the expression) eared down, I imagine with very little alteration having heard numbers perform it in the same irregular way.”
This ancient war march presents a typical instance of how Irish tunes have been both preserved and varied, in their transmission traditionally from one generation to another throughout the nation. Bunting’s setting of “Mac Donnell’s March,” printed in his third volume was obtained in 1802, from a piper at Westport, county of Mayo. It consists of but three parts.
A variant of this march with but two strains and named “Sarsfield’s quick-step” is included in Haverty’s Three Hundred Irish Airs, published in 1858-1859.
Before terminating this chapter - already extended far beyond anticipation, it may not be unwise to take advantage of this opportunity for presenting a few specimens of unclassified tunes.
From Mr. Quinn, a famous Irish piper of Chicago, his friend Sergt. James Early many years ago learned an odd jig called “The Goat’s Song,’ in which the bleating of that sportive animal is an ever-recurring tone. Its antiquity is undeniable for an almost identical version of the tune under its Irish name “Cronan Gabhair” is to be found in Logan's Scottish Gael.
By a strange coincidence a roll of manuscript music, after passing through many hands in two hemispheres came into the possession of the present writer. It proved to have been originally owned by an O'Mahony - a maternal relative - of Dunmanway county of Cork. Among its contents was a tune so peculiar and staccata in its movements that it naturally suggests the jockeying of a child on the nurse’s knees. The rapid alteration of long and short notes, as in a strathspey renders it rather difficult of execution except on the violin.
DANCING THE BABY
In an age when the knowledge of the customs and social life of our immediate ancestors is little more than legendary, few could be expected to have any conception of the Mummers of the olden time or their annual festivities.
More ancient than the Wren Boys of St. Stephen's Day who also had their characteristic song and tune the Mummers were according to Wa1ker strolling companies of young men and maidens who like the English Wassailers went about carousing from house to house during the Christmas holidays attended by rude musicians. Each mummer personates an eminent saint, and before the dance begins, these different characters form themselves into a circle, and each in his turn steps forward declaring at the same time his assumed name, country, qualification and other circumstances, in a kind of rhyme.
After scanning the contents of the Bunting, Petrie and Joyce collections of Irish music in vain, kind fortune finally favored us. Unexpectedly a setting of “The Mummers’ March,” with other valued contributions reached us from the hand of the helpful and versatile Patrick Whelan of Scarawalsh Ballycarney near Ferns county of Wexford. Were Ireland blessed with more men of his type Gaelic Revivals would be unnecessary.