Sliabh gCallann

I made a video demonstration of the old Irish harp tune Sliabh gCallann (Slieve Gallen), as transcribed live from the playing of the harper Hugh Higgins in the summer of 1792.

Slieve Gallen, or Slieve Gallion, is a mountain in the north of Ireland. The original Irish form of the name is Sliabh gCallann. The mountain is the easternmost of the Sperrins, and is just to the south east of Ballynascreen (Baile na Scríne).

This interactive map shows Slieve Gallion, Ballinascreen and Lough Fea. See full screen

The Ordanance Survey letters of John O’Donovan (letter 14D 21/35, 19th September 1834, PDF p.377) gives local traditionary information about the name of the mountain:

Slieve Gallan (rectires as Colgan has it, slieve Callann) has derived its name from Callann mor a giant, who lies interred on <in> Carnanbane, in the townland of Ballybriest, where mossy rocks yet mark his grave. The following quatra<i>ne is yet repeated which preserves all that is known of Callann mor.

Callann mhac rígh Tíre Tuain <recte t. Suthain> See Dinnseanchy
Ta adhlaicthe air a taobh tuaidh de’n t-sliabh
A cheann síos go loch na g-con
‘S a chosa suas chum a’ tsléibhe

Callann, the son of the king of <Tir Suthain> Tuan
Is interred at the north side of the mountain
His head (pointing) down to Lough-na-gun
And his feet up towards the mountain

Loch-na-gun i.e. the lake of the grey hounds <so called from Finn Mc. Cool’s dogs> is now called Lough Fea. This is the situation of the giants grave on Carnanbane, which is said to be where Callann Mor is interred. One end of it points to the Lough and the other to the mountain.

Edward Bunting collecting the tune

In the summer of 1792, Edward Bunting spent “a good part of the summer about Ballinascreen and other mountainous districts” of this area, collecting “airs from the country people” (1840 introduction, p.4, cited on my Collecting Trips blog post). I assume that it was on this tour in the summer of ’92 that he met the harper Hugh Higgins, who played him the tune of Sliabh gCallann. Bunting made a live transcription of the tune into one of his collecting pamphlets, and the two pages are now part of Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections MS4.29 page 80/76/085/f37v and 81/77/086/f38r.

We can look at my Old Irish Harp Transcription Project tune list spreadsheet to see that the tune is tagged in five different places as being played by Higgins, four of them specifying 1792. No-one else is credited with playing the tune.

For more info on Higgins see my post on Tá Mé Mo Chodladh.

Other versions

As far as I can see, every other version of the tune of Sliabh gCallann derives from this live transcription of Hugh Higgins’s harp playing. Bunting made a number of manuscript piano arrangements, and he eventually published a piano arrangement of the tune in his 1840 collection (no.24, p.21). Other later published versions of the tune derive from Bunting’s 1840 print. More recently, in 1983 Donal O’Sullivan printed an edited score of the first half of the MS4.33.3 version (MOSB 24), and in 1992 Ann Heymann printed an edition of the MS4.33.3 version (Legacy p.22-3)

Structure of the tune

The notation in the live transcription gives us a 4 line tune on p.80, and a two line “variation” on p.81. I did wonder for a second if the pages are out of order so the p.81 notation could relate to an entirely different tune, but it seems clear that the “variation” is based on the middle section of the p.80 tune. The variation does not come to a neat end but finishes with a pickup and then a long curving dash which seems to imply the tune continues somehow. We can look at Bunting’s piano arrangements to see how he organises the sections of the tune.

I haven’t seen all of the manuscript piano arrangements, but if we number the lines of the Higgins transcription we can see that Bunting gives a different ordering of the lines in each of the piano arrangements.

So let us say that
line 1 is bars 1-4 on p.80,
line 2 is bars 5-8,
line 3 is bars 9-12 (numbered by Bunting on the transcription as 1-4),
line 4 is bars 13-16 (numbered by Bunting on the transcription as 5-8),
line 5 is the first four bars of the “variation” on p.81,
line 6 is the last 4 bars of the “variation” on p.81.

The live transcription has each line shown just once, in the order 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.

Bunting’s first piano arrangement in 1798 (QUB SC MS4.33.3 p.32-33) is structured with the lines in the following order: 1, 2, 3, 4, 3, 4, 1, 5, 6, 4 and so is the longest and most developed. Lines 3 and 4 are only written once but have repeat marks at beginning and end like this: 1, 2, ||: 3, 4, :|| 1, 5, 6, 4

A later piano arrangement in QUBSC MS4.33.5 p.59 is structured with lines 1, 2, 3, 4 only. Ann Heymann (Legacy p. 24) suggests that the MS4.12 version is similarly structured with four lines only. I don’t know the dates of these other manuscript piano arrangements; I suspect they may be quite late, from the 1830s.

The 1840 printed piano arrangement (no.24, p.21) is structured with lines 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 4, with rather a lot of editorial development of the material.

In my demonstration I have chosen to play 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 5, 6, 4 on the understanding that lines 5 and 6 are variations based on lines 2 and 3, and thinking that in the 1798 piano manuscript Bunting often seems to be trying to articulate certain elements of harp style through his piano arrangements. But this may be misguided.

Reading the transcription

We can see that the transcription on MS4.29 p. 8081 is a composite notation, with some dots visible beneath overwritten heavy notes. In fact we could possibly describe three kinds of marks on this page: dots which have been abandoned or crossed out; dots with stems and beams; and heavily written notes with stems and beams.

At this stage it seems hard to say which of these layers is closest to what Higgins played. Ann Heymann writes (Legacy, 1992, p.24):

This MS29 version was obviously written “on sight”, for a series of measureless dots on the staff have had stems, beams and barlines added afterwards. Bunting also added sporadic “B”s, indicating bass hand notes.

Do the initial dots represent Higgins, with every added change being Bunting’s piano composition? Or did Bunting mis-notate the initial dots, and use the re-writing to bring the finished notation closer to Higgins’s performance? The lack of relevant meta-data about the tune and arrangement does not help to answer these questions; the piano arrangements are just presented “as is” and it is up to us to make that judgement. In the end, to play the tune, decisions have to be made, and for the purposes of this demonstration I have tried to follow the dots rather than the heavy notes. Other approaches are possible, and may or may not better represent Higgins’s original performance practice. That is, after all the point of my Old Irish Harp Transcriptions Project, to try and come up with working methods to answer this kind of question!

The variation

QUB SC MS4.29 p.81 is headed “Variation to Ditto” and contains two lines, which seem to correspond to the middle two lines of the tune (as described above). They are notable for having sequences written low on the staff, with simultaneous pairs of high and low notes at the start of the first and second bar. Siobhán Armstrong suggested these could be understood as a “bass division”, a melody played with the right (bass) hand in the bass, while the left (treble) hand plays the little trills above.

As with the tune on p.80, I have tried to ignore the subsequent layers of heavier notes and look for the dots. I also tried to imagine Higgins’s playing in the mainstream of the old Irish harp tradition, and so I have edited some of the bass passages to bring them up into the treble. It is still not clear whether Bunting invented the idea of the bass melody in the variation, or if it was Higgins’s playing; either way can potentially have validity in trying to re-construct the original performance practice.

Some of Bunting’s piano arrangements of other tunes do contain the tag “harp bass” written against fragments of bass melody. However this tag does not appear in these bass passages in any of the arrangements of Sliabh gCallann. I have not yet collated all the appearances of this tag, so I can’t yet know whether that the lack of such a tag in the piano arrangement of Sliabh gCallann is significant or not.

Below the variation, at the bottom of p.81, Bunting has written a scale showing the notes of a harp, marked “Right hand” in the bass and “Left hand” in the treble. The very lowest note G, is marked an octave higher than we expect, and is labelled “organ”. There is no note for bass C or F. The two na comhluighe strings are labelled “Sisters” and are marked at g below middle c. They are divided by a bar-line to separate the right hand bass from the left hand treble. Below the chart is written “harp always tuned by the sisters”.

Is this the scale of Higgins’s harp? Did it arise from a discussion between Higgins and Bunting about the disposition of notes between treble hand and bass hand in the variation?

Mode and tuning

The transcription is written at pitch, so that the tune is in A minor. The notes of an A minor pentatonic mode are A C D E G and so it is related to C major. This tune seems to move between A sonorities and C sonorities. The passing Fs are f natural.

It strikes me that different parts of the tune have a somewhat different sound. Lines 1 and 4 have a more pentatonic feel; the B sounds very “out of mode” and gives the tune its mournful, otherworldly feel. But in lines 2 and 3, and in the variation, the B becomes much less otherworldly and takes its classical harmonic role. I think this gives the tune a very different feel overall from many of the other traditional old Irish harp tunes I have been working on.

Minor mode tunes seem quite rare in the old Irish harp tradition; major is perhaps the most common but there are a lot more neutral mode tunes than minor mode ones. I have been marking the pentatonic mode for each tune in my Old Irish Harp Transcription Project tune list spreadsheet so you can count each type.

Attribution to Lyons

On p.80 at the top of the transcription page is the text “Lions Imp:d” (i.e. “improved by Lyons”). However this is written in pencil, in a different hand from the live transcription from Higgins. I don’t know who might have written this text, or when, or where this information came from.

The manuscript piano arrangements have tags:
MS4.33.3 p.32 “very Ancient”,
MS4.33.5 p59 no tag;
MS4.12 no tag (Moloney Catalogue p.245);
MS4.13 p.14 “Very ancient. Author and date unknown”
MS4.27 p.16, no tag.

In the 1840 book, the piano arrangement (no.24, p.21) is headed “Very Ancient, Author and date unknown”. In the introduction, Bunting has written describing the tunes played at Belfast in 1792,

Hugh Higgins, (blind), from the county of Mayo, aged 55, played “Slieve Gallen”, ancient, and “Madam Cole”, (Carolan).

In a passage on p.77 discussing Cormick O Kelly of Ballinascreen, Bunting says that Ballinascreen is

a district long famous for… the preservation of ancient Irish melodies in their original purity [footnote:] The beautiful tunes “Sliebh Gallen” and “The Little Swallow” are two of them; they are now given to the world for the first time.

Bunting also wrote in the section describing individual tunes, on p.96:

“Slieve Gallen,” (no.24 in the Collection,) is also a Ballinascreen air, arranged by Lyons in 1700.

In the indexes to the 1840 book, Bunting gives the Irish and English names: “Sliabh Guilleann – Slieve Gallen – Slieve Gallen” ( and the provenance: “Slieve Gallen – Very ancient, author and date unknown” (p.x)

Sliabh gCallan is not in the list of Lyons tunes given by Arthur O’Neill (Memoirs, QUB SC MS4.46 p.20/042 & QUB SC MS4.14 p. 25), and it is not in the repertory noted by Anna-Jane Maclean-Clephane in 1816 apparently deriving from the testimony of Lyons’s student, Echlin Ó Catháin. I am starting to doubt this Lyons attribution. The only places the attribution appears are 1840 p.96, and the pencil note in MS4.29 p.80.

The Friar and the Nun is another tune that has an isolated and uncorroborated Lyons tag in the 1840 print. It also has unusual bass markings in the transcription and description, possibly reminiscent of the Sliabh gCallann variation. Is Bunting making up Lyons attributions here? If we could identify the handwriting of the pencil “Lions Imp:d” tag in MS4.29 p.80 that could help us make a better assessment of this question.

Songs about Sliabh gCallann

I have come across a few different English-language songs about Sliabh gCallann. I don’t think any of these songs is relevant or related to the harp tune.

The best-known one is an English-language ballad, usually called “The Braes of Slieve Galleon”. I first heard this song from the singing of my friend Denise who lives in the area south-east of the mountain, close to Lough Neagh, in the opposite direction from Ballinascreen.

Here is a lovely video of a local Lough Neagh fisherman, Nailly Coney, singing the song:

There is a more modern one, titled “Slieve Gallen Brae” and composed by James O’Kane, apparently in the later 19th century (Sam Henry’s Songs of the People, ed. Huntington & Herrmann, University of Georgia Press 1990, p.172-3). Sam Henry also has a song “Farewell to Slieve Gallen” (p.198) composed by John Canavan and dating from 1898.

Unrelated performance practice question

I wonder if Nailly Coney’s performance with the mandolin and voice, could be one possible model for singing with the harp?

View of Slieve Gallion from Armagh
My photo shows a view of Slieve Gallion from outside my front door in Armagh, 25 miles to the south.

Cormac Ó Ceallaigh

I don’t know of any historical information about Cormac Ó Ceallaigh the harpmaker. Perhaps that’s not surprising for a Catholic at the times of the penal laws, living and working in a wooded valley up in the mountains, and working in an old oral tradition.

But there is a fair amount of traditionary information referring to him. By its nature this information may be wrong, but I thought I could try lining up what I have found so far, to collate all the different information, look for patterns, and maybe get ideas for future research or clues for other places to look.

Seán Donnelly wrote a section of an article about Cormac’s life and works (Seán Donnelly, ‘An Eighteenth Century Harp Medley’, in Ceol na hÉireann vol 1 issue 1, 1993, p.14-16). Michael Billinge has been collating information about Cormac’s harpmaking activities, and I have referred to some of their references, but I am also looking for information about Cormac’s wider social and historical context as well.

Cormac Ó Ceallaigh is known as a harpmaker, and his name is inscribed on two extant old Irish harps plus one lost instrument. The extant harps are the Downhill harp in the Guinness Storehouse Museum in Dublin, and the Castle Otway harp in Trinity College Dublin. The lost example is the Magenis harp, known from a 19th century description and painting.

The name is spelt differently on the inscriptions. The Downhill harp has the famous poem inscribed on the soundbox, and the makers name is written “CR KELY” with the date “17 HVNDRED AND 02”. The Otway harp has its inscription running down the inside of the forepillar, and the name is written “CORMICKOKELLY” and the date “1707”. The Magenis harp soundbox inscription reportedly has the name “CORMICK O / KELLY” broken over two lines, and the date “1711”.

We cannot assume that these inscriptions were all genuinely put there by Cormac when he made each harp; they may have been added later to give a false provenance to an older or younger instrument. All three give an English form of the name; the poem on the Downhill harp which contains the name and date is all in English. The Magenis inscription is in English and Latin. Diarmaid Ó Catháin has pointed out that this is perhaps surprising, and that we might expect Cormac Ó Kelly to have used Irish. Does this tell us something about the customers who ordered or commissioned these harps? Was English even in this context seen as more high-status and more suitable for a display inscription by 1700? Or is it an indication that the inscriptions are all later spurious additions?

The earliest securely dated reference to Cormac I have found so far is in the description of Denis O’Hampsey written by Rev. Sampson and published in 1806 in The Wild Irish Girl. Sampson includes a description of the Downhill harp, and as Mike Billinge points out, mis-quotes the harpmaker’s name “Cormac Kelly”, suggesting that the name came from tradition rather than from reading the inscription.


In a footnote on p.24 of the introduction to Edward Bunting’s 1809 Collection, is the following information, which is assumed to refer to the Castle Otway harp:

A Harp made by Cormac O’Kelly, of Ballynascreen, in the county of Londonderry, about the year 1700…

I think this is the earliest information connecting Cormac to Ballinascreen. In his 1840 book, Edward Bunting mentions Ballinascreen as “a district long famous for the construction of such instruments, and for the preservation of ancient Irish melodies in their original purity” (p.77). However, Bunting may be over-egging things here, since he also says that the harp, illustrated by Walker (1786) and said by Walker (p.163) to be inscribed “Made by John Kelly 1726”, was “made by Kelly, of Ballynascreen in 1726” (p.77). Was Bunting reporting genuine traditionary information or was he conflating disparate sources to fabricate a good story?

The Irish name of this parish, Baile na Scríne, comes from the old church of Scrine. The place is called Scrine (library) because it is supposed to have been founded as a library by St Patrick. There are many traditions connected to the church, including its bell which is said to be X.KB 2 in the National Museum of Scotland.

This interactive map shows the parish of Ballinascreen, and the half-townland of Creeve. Open in new window

The Ordanance Survey letters of John O’Donovan contain information about the O’Kelly family, although I don’t find any reference to Cormac. The O’Kellys were said to have been hereditary seanchaithe historians of Gleann Con Cadhain, and had collections of manuscripts. (letter 14D 21/29, 11 September 1834. PDF facsimile, PDF p.314). Gleann Con Cadhain comprises Ballinascreen plus the two parishes to the East.

O’Donovan also gives other useful local information, including that the valley was formerly heavily wooded down to the 18th century (PDF p313)., but that the woods were cut down for charcoal-burning for local iron mills and blacksmiths and also for export (PDF p329)

We get more specific information about where Cormac lived from Énri Ó Muirgheasa (Henry Morris), Dhá Chéad de Cheoltaibh Uladh (1934). Seán Donnelly’s 1993 article reproduces and translates the relevant passage, which describes the half-towland of An Chraobh (Crieve or Creeve), being the northern half of the townland of Doon. Ó Muirgheasa implies (though he does not state explicitly) that Cormac Ó Ceallaigh lived in An Chraobh.

Ó Muirgheasa refers to him as “Cormac na gCláirseach” (Cormac of the harp) and says his son was called “Maghnus na gCláirseach” (Magnus of the harp). Seán Donnelly assumes that Magnus was also a harp maker, but we are not told this. Cathal O’Shannon was more explicit in The Evening Press, (Friday May 1, 1964, p.12): “The famous harpmaker was a native of the townland of An Chraoibh, or Creeve, which I knew very well…” O’Shannon gives a lot of useful information about other members of the O’Kelly family of the area, from his own personal knowledge.


There is a portrait that is said to be of Cormac Ó Ceallaigh. It was printed with a brief commentary by Breandán Breathnach, in Ceol vol 1 issue 3, Winter 1963, p.1112. The item was headed “Cormac O Ceallaigh” and consists of a brief note about Cormac, lifted from Bunting’s 1840 book, mentioning Ballinascreen, and mentioning the Downhill harp. The article also comments on the Downhill harp having “acquired recently” by Guinness, and says the harp “is at present on exhibition in the USA advertising that firm’s Harp Lager”.

Breathnach concludes, “the portrait above, a reproduction from another print, was kindly made available by Colm O Lochlainn, Three Candles Press, Dublin. Unfortunately, it was not possible before going to press to ascertain from Colm who the artist was”.

There is an undated letter from Breandán Breathnach in the NMI Archive (file AI 64 006) which says “C Ó Lochlainn, the Three Candles, gave me a block of the harper for use in Ceól. I have a few notes collected on Ó Ceallaigh but should like to say who painted the original and where it is now.” A b/w photo of the painting is with the letter, with the name “Cormac Ó Ceallaigh” hand-written on the photograph. There is also a draft reply from William O Sullivan who says (tentative reading!) “I am retaining the print of the harper with the hope that [illegible]. The name of the painter is not legible and the print is a half tone made from another print not from the original painting. The national library research also failed to yield anything”

The painting is now in the National Gallery in Dublin, ref. NGI.1200. The catalogue says it was purchased privately in 1951. The catalogue also says it is of Arthur O’Neill, and says it was painted by Conn O’Donnell. A black-and-white reproduction was printed in Early Music May 1987 (frontis) where it was captioned as Arthur O’Neill (presumably following the NGI attribution); this reproduction allows the artist’s signature to be read as “ODONEL PINXIT”

I don’t know where either of these claims come from. I don’t think it looks much like the other portraits of Arthur O’Neill; but I have no idea why Colm O’Lochlann might have thought it was Cormac Ó Ceallaigh. Did Ó Lochlainn have traditionary information about the painting? More curiously, I have never come across “another print” which this reproduction is supposedly copied from. The letter refers to a “block” – did Ó Lochlainn give Breathnach a printed paper copy of the picture, to be photographically reproduced, or did he actually give Breathnach a wood-and-metal halftone printer’s block for Breathnach to use directly in printing the copies of Ceol? How does the copy on photographic paper preserved in the NMI archive relate to these? Ó Lochlainn was a publisher, setting up his own publishing house, “at the sign of the three candles”. Did he intend to publish the portrait in one of his own books? Most curiously, the painting was already in the National Gallery at the time of this correspondence and article, though Breathnach didn’t know this. In the letter, Breathnach explains “CÓL is sick so I can’t ask him”.

The harp is shown with the strings on the wrong side of the neck.

Further research

I need to go to An Chraobh to see his places. And we need to keep an eye out for other traditionary or historical references to Cormac.

Mable Kelly by Carolan

I made a demonstration video of Mable Kelly by Carolan, played on my copy of Carolan’s harp. My performance is based on Edward Bunting’s edited field transcription, apparently taken from the playing of the old Irish harper Hugh Higgins, perhaps in 1792.

Bunting’s notation of the tune was written into one of his little pocket collecting pamphlets, now bound up in Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.29 (see my index and text transcript). Mable Kelly is on QUB SC MS4.29 page 78/74/083/f36v.

Attribution to Hugh Higgins

The next page of QUB SC MS4.29 page 79 contains a tune list headed “From Hugh Higgins”, and then the next 11 pages contain 5 tunes also tagged as being collected from Hugh Higgins.

In Edward Bunting’s 1798 manuscript piano arrangement (QUB SC MS4.33.3 p29-30), he tags the tune “Hugh Higgins County Mayo”.

In Bunting’s annotated copy of the 1809 printed book (British Library, London, Add.41508 p.48), he has written “Harp Linden”, implying that he collected the tune from Patrick Linden. However, these tags in the annotated prints were written in the early 1840s, almost 50 years after the old harpers played for him, and I don’t know how reliable these tags are. While Linden may well have played this tune, and Bunting may have transcribed it from Linden’s playing, I think the transcription in MS4.29 p.78 looks from its context to be more likely from Higgins.

For more on Higgins’s life and music, see my write-up of Tá mé mo chodhladh.

Mode and tuning

Bunting writes an interesting commentary in the annotated 1809 print:

This tune presents the anomaly of being in D♮ minor while the harp was tuned in high bass key (or key of C♮) The 4th tone from C. (F) being left out all through. This method of Tuning and arrangement of key viz: D minor happening very often

Bunting sets the 1809 piano arrangement in D minor with one flat in the key signature; he puts a natural accidental on every single B in the tune. Also he puts in quite a few F passing notes.

We can understand the tune as being not in D minor, but in D neutral pentatonic mode. D neutral is related to C major, and uses the notes D, E, G, A, C. This tune does include passing Bs and also there is a passing high F in the MS4.29 transcription, at bar 23, as well as the problematic low F in bar 25.

Understanding the layers of notation

I think MS4.29 page 78 highlights some of the serious problems of understand Edward Bunting’s notations of the old Irish harp music. It seems clear from studying the manuscript page, that this notation originated as the dots transcribed live from the playing of an old harper.

We can compare it to, for example, Brighid Óg on QUB SC MS4.29 p.64/60/069/f29v which presents the process nicely on two facing pages, starting with the live dots transcription, and then proceeding to the addition of note stems and beaming to indicate rhythmical groupings lower on the page, and finally on the facing page 65 a complete edited and “improved” version of the tune. As I discussed on my blog post about Brighid Óg, I think that the facing-page copy has been edited by Bunting as the first step of him progressing away from the live transcription of the traditional performance, towards his polished classical piano arrangement(s).

For Mable Kelly, I think that all three of these stages are superimposed one on top of each other.

it is very difficult to analyse the page to see which marks represent Bunting’s live response to the playing of the tradition-bearer; which markings represent his considered clarification of what he had heard, and which markings represent his classical piano ideas for improvement.

Problem areas

The biggest problem area for me, is bar 25 (first bar of the 4th system on page 78, numbered bar 1 of section 4 by Bunting). The rhythm of the tune doubles in time, and there is a very intrusive F. In my demonstration video I have silently omitted this F – the only change I have made to what is written. I am not entirely convinced by the double-time passage; does it represent Bunting’s flawed attempt to capture some kind of florid melismatic harp flourish? Bunting himself seems not to understand or believe what he has written – when he publishes the tune in 1809, he ignores his own bars 25-6 and just copies the passage given by Neal.

We also have the four-note rising fragment on page 79, with a .$. mark indicating it should be inserted in between bars 23 and 24 (labelled by Bunting bars 7 and 8 of section 3). The paler ink looks similar to the F-A-B-C rising motif in bar 25 – are they both later inventions? Yet bar 25 is not crushed in – why did Bunting leave so much space if this is not what was played? Or did he write the initial live transcription dots scattered all over the page like in Brighid Óg, leaving him plenty of space to insert newly composed bridging material?

Because the layers – live transcription dots, rhythmic explanation, and creative compositional development – all overlay each other, we have to be very careful here.

I don’t really believe that Bunting “gets” the traditional style; I think he is always working towards developed piano arrangements, and so I am very suspicious and basically I don’t believe any of his arrangement choices.

But I am playing this demonstration video for you anyway, even though I think it is corrupt, because I also think that this notation does give us some very interesting and beautiful old Irish harp style and idiom.

Important and interesting features

The reason I think this is a harp performance transcription rather than a song version is not just the D neutral pentatonic mode which fits the harp modes, but also that there are bass notes marked in. “B” has been written below bars 6, 26 and 29, indicating most likely that those notes are played an octave lower, with the right (bass) hand. In each case the bass note is C (in bar 29 the sequence E-D-C), which is interesting since the tune seems to be in D neutral. The notes of a D neutral scale are D-E-G-A-C-D and so there is a clear relationship with a C major pentatonic scale, which can give rise to a “double tonic” effect as the tune switches between a home sonority of D and an away sonority of C.

Bunting does not write any time signatures on p.78, but the tune is clearly in 3 time. However there are a significant number of bars which have four beats in them – bars 6, 16, 26, 28, 29. (bar 16 has 3 beats but is followed by a pickup onto bar 17). I notice at once that all of the bars with the B bass-note markings have four beats. We could also wonder if bar 16 might have had one of the repeated Ds as a bass note (though I don’t play a bass note here in my demonstration). We might also have to count bar 23 as having 4 beats if we insert the little .$. fragment there.

I am thinking that these extra beats in some bars might represent the way that traditional musicians will hold certain notes, stretching the time or rhythm of the tune. Mary Harvessy does exactly this in her singing of Seabhac na hÉirne.

Perhaps related to this is the way that three-note pickups are sometimes written with two semiquavers and a quaver (e.g. at the end of bar 1), and sometimes written as a triplet (e.g. the pickup before bar 1). Other places have three quavers without a triplet mark. I wonder if these also represent different ways of bending and flexing the rhythm of the tune in an old traditional harp style.

Other versions

Bunting made different piano arrangements of Mable Kelly, though only one was published.

Bunting made a piano arrangement in his unpublished 1798 piano manuscript, QUB SC MS4.33.3 p29-30, titled “Maible og ni Ceallaigh or Mable Kelly by Carolan”. He marks a repeat sign for both the first half of the tune and the second half of the tune. Bunting also makes a more florid piano arrangement for his 1809 published book (page 48), titled “Mabla sheimh ini Cheallaidh – Mild Mable O’Kelly”

There is an earlier published setting of this tune, in John and William Neal’s “Colection” printed in 1724, p.14. It is titled “Mable Kelly” and is not attributed. The Neal version curls a bit differently from the Higgins version noted by Bunting. I think that Neal’s versions of tunes are arranged for baroque violin. Bunting had a copy of the Neal book – the only known surviving copy of Neal 1724 is in Bunting’s papers at Queen’s (QUB SC MS4.31). Bunting also had access to another, damaged copy, from which he copied tunes into his collecting pamphlets, on the pages immediately preceeding where he wrote Mable Kelly. (QUB SC MS4.29 pages 67-77)

There is another early copy of the tune in Pádraig Ó Néill’s manuscripts, written in the 1790s. “C Mable Kelly” is set in G neutral. Ó Néill was a piper and so I suppose it’s possible that this is a piper’s version of the tune. it goes too high for fiddle. I think the “C” is Ó Néill’s shorthand for attributing the tune to Carolan.

Mable Kelly is no.73 in Donal O’Sullivan’s Carolan. He says (vol 2 p. 44) “…we have no less than seven airs for persons named Kelly. It has been a matter of some difficulty to sort them out…” I am not convinced that all his claimed associations are correct; we also have to accept the possibility of confusion in the 18th century tradition. O’Sullivan lists a number of versions of Mable Kelly (DOSC 73), starting with Neal (which is the basis for his own edited version of the tune), Mulholland (copied from Neal’s version), and Bunting. He also references versions in the Pigot & Forde mss. I have not seen these.

O’Sullivan also mentions (Carolan vol 2 p.47) two different traditions of the song’s composition. Hardiman (vol 1 p. liii) says that the tune was composed for Mable Kelly at Castle Kelly, Co. Galway, though this is a bit of a throwaway line in a convoluted story. Tomás Ó Máille (Amhráin Chearbhalláin p.271) reports a tradition that it was composed for “one of three handsome daughters of Kelly of Cargins”. Bunting writes in the annotated 1797 print (p.11) that one of the other Kelly tunes, Planxty Kelly (DOSC 71) was “composed for the Kelly’s of Cargins in the county Roscommon”, and his transcription on QUB SC MS4.29 p10 calls it “Miss Kelly”. Perhaps Bunting, or one of his informants, was confused, or perhaps Carolan composed a different song and air for each of the three handsome daughters.

Beneath the notation of Mable Kelly (DOSC 73) on page 48 of the annotated 1809 print, Bunting writes:

This tune was much esteemed by the harpers, it is very wild and from its construction so different from others of Carolans, that we must attribute it to some of the harpers prior to his time, OCaghan, Scott or one of the Connallons

However, I think we can accept this as a Carolan tune because of the tag in the manuscript transcription (presumably from the harper Higgins) and because of Ó Néill’s “C”. And also, because there is a song to Mable Kelly composed by Carolan. There is a version of the song text in Hardiman 1831 vol. 1 p. 60 which begins “Cia b’é bh-fuil sé a n-dán do, a lámh-dheas bheith faoí na ceann”. The song addresses itself to “Máible shéimh n-í Cheallaigh” which matches Bunting’s 1809 printed title “Mabla sheimh ini Cheallaidh – Mild Mable O’Kelly”. Tomás Ó Máille (Amhráin Chearbhalláin p.109) prints it as the very first song in his book, and says in the notes on p.271 that it “is considered the best of Carolan’s poems”.

However, it seems to me that our manuscript transcription from Higgins is a harp instrumental version, and not a song air version of the tune. It is possible that one of the Pigot ms version may be a sung version of this tune. We should check these out.

Brighid Óg

I made a demonstration video of Brighid Óg, based on Edward Bunting’s live transcription from a tradition-bearer in the 1790s:

The transcription is at QUB SC MS4.29 p.64/60/069/f29v. This page from one of Bunting’s little pocket collecting pamphlets, is headed “Breed doag”. On the facing page p.65/61/070/f30r Bunting has made a neat edited copy of the tune, headed “Young Bridget or Breed Doag / Struan a roon”. The neat copy has a number of differences from the transcription, and raises the important question of whether the neat copy is derived from the transcription, or whether the neat copy comes from an earlier book and the transcription is done for comparison purposes. At two points in the neat copy Bunting writes “mine” above the staff and “his” below, with two different notes indicated simultaneously – I presume “his” refers to what the harper plays, and “mine” indicates what Bunting has, either in an earlier exemplar, or in his own new piano arrangement.

The transcription shows the tune written at pitch. It seems to be in A neutral, though I am starting to wonder if it might be artificial to distinguish between the three related modes of G major, E minor and A neutral. There is no F in the tune; there is an intrusive C at a few points (the notes of these pentatonic modes are G A B D E). Bunting has written a few + or tr marks.

The first half of the tune is shown only as dots; in the second half of the tune Bunting introduces stems and a few beams, until the final line is shown with full note values (though still without barlines). At a superficial level we could just use the neat copy to give us the rythym and structure of the tune, but there are two problems with this. The neat copy turns in a different way from the transcription; and the time signature and therefore the barring and phrasing of the neat copy does not seem to match the words. I think this means that the neat copy may be irretrievably corrupt and unusable. Unfortunately, this is the only witness to this tune; we have no other version; and so I think we are stuck.

For this demonstration video, I am working from the dots transcription, and I am using both the words of the song, and the neat copy, as guides to my phrasing and strong notes. I don’t make any claim that this is correct; really, I think that this is a job for a singer, to try and find a way to fit the transcription notation on p.64 to the words.

Song words

Bunting writes “struan a roon” above the neat copy, and when he comes to make a piano arrangement in his 1797 “Ancient and Modern” manuscript (QUB SC MS4.33.2 p.9) he gives us more information, writing “Britheit Og – or Young Bridget – by Carolan / I have the words” above the piano score, and “From Donald Black / struan a roon gan ma agus too / cugea moon a nenagh” at the bottom of the page. Donal O’Sullivan (DOSC v5 p7) points out that this is a phonetic approximation of the first line of a verse from Carolan’s song addressed to Bridget Cruise, which begins A Bhrighid bheusach, is duit an béarsa agus creid an méid úd a dhearbhaim (Tomás Ó Máille, Amhráin Chearbhalláin, 1916, p.181-3). The only difference is that Black’s verse begins “Is truagh…” where Ó Máille’s (v3, top of p.181) begins “‘Se mo chreach” (it’s a pity, it’s a shame)

‘Se mo chreach, a ruain, gan mé agus tú, i gCóige Mumhan i n-éinfheach,
No thios sa Triúcha ar choillte dlúth, agus gan fios ar rúin a bheith aig aoinfhear.
A mhian na sugh ar maidin drúct’, cna agus ubhlaí na dhéidh sin,
As gan de leabaidh fúinn acht féar a’s drúcht agus duilliúr cúmhra mar éadaigh.

I have not found another version of this tune. Donal O’Sullivan (Carolan v2 p. 20-22) prints four different tunes which he gives the invented titles “Bridget Cruise First Air / Second Air / Third Air / Fourth Air” (nos. 26-29). Ours (no.26) is “Bridget Cruise First Air”. I find these invented titles pretty unhelpful; Donal O’Sullivan’s “Fourth Air” is really called “Brighit óg na gciabh” (young Bridget of the curls) and is most likely a song by Séamas Dall Mac Cuarta. O’Sullivan seems to have taken any and every song or tune addressed to anyone called “Bridget” and has mashed them all together and claimed they may be by Carolan. He also changes his mind between his Bunting of 1936 (v5 p.4) and his Carolan of 1958 (v2 p.20) but because he doesn’t explain his rationale for either attributions, nor for matching words to tunes, it is hard to take his pronouncements seriously.

You can check my Carolan Tune Collation spreadsheet to see the different sources and variants of these different tunes.

I think it is possible that we might find a previously un-noticed variant of this tune which matches Black’s transcription dots, and has a title perhaps related to “struan a roon”, but I haven’t looked very hard yet.