Eleanor Plunkett

Carolan’s song addressed to Eleanor Plunkett, which begins “A Nelly an chúil chraobhaigh”, is fairly well known nowadays.

This is a very long blog post – perhaps the longest I have ever done. I did not know there was so much to discover about Eleanor Plunkett! We will start with an analysis and discussion of the song lyrics (go straight to song section). Then we will move on to Eleanor herself, her family and her places and her legal case (go straight to family section). And then we look at the different versions of the tune (go straight to tune section). Finally we will consider how we can make new and better reconstructions of the tune and song based on what we have learned (go straight to analysis section).

You can hear the singer, Iarla Ó Lionáird speak about his reconstructed song version. The instrumental melody seems to have been first recorded by Moya Brennan as track 2 of Clannad 2 in 1974.

These reconstructions are based on the work of Donal O’Sullivan, who published a version of the tune, and the beginning section of the lyrics, as no.150 in his Carolan, the life times and music of an Irish harper in 1958. Catríona Rowsome The complete Carolan (Waltons 2011) p.169 printed a complete text, and also gave an English translation. The lyrics used are those published in 1915 by Tomás Ó Máille, Amhráin Chearbhalláin no.67 p.182-3.

Neither Rowsome, nor Ó Lionáird, can make sense of the meter or structure of Ó Máille’s text, and they each mercilessly cut whole sections to try and make it fit onto the tune as published by Donal O’Sullivan. Ó Lionáird explains he had to do “a little bit of surgery on the words, because there were too many words for the music… I just left out entire sentences…”

Ó Lionáird has done a great job, to take what has been known about this song – Ó Máillie’s text, and O’Sullivan’s tune – and to combine them in a plausible and compelling performance reconstruction.

However, I think that these kinds of comments are a sure sign that something is fundamentally wrong with the received understanding of this song and tune. We shouldn’t have to drop whole sections of Carolan’s lyric to make it fit his tune. And so, this blog post tries to go beyond Ó Máillie and O’Sullivan, to collate other versions of the text and other versions of the tune.

The song lyrics

We have basically two sources for the lyrics, the one printed in 1915 by Ó Máille (p.182-3), and another one in a manuscript written together with a version of the tune by James Cody between 1805-10. Previously, people have used Ó Máille’s text, perhaps because it was published and therefore easily available. But I think Cody’s is more useful, since he was a musician, and he presented it with a tune.

Cody’s text is in Queen’s University Belfast Special Collections MS4.6.81-2, and has the tune written at the head of the page (see later in this post). Cody’s title is “Nelly an Chúil Craobhaigh – Cearbúlann a chann”. The complete text is as follows; I have tentatively expanded Cody’s scribal contractions in square brackets, and I have numbered Cody’s short lines:

[1-2] A Nelly an Chúil Chraobhaigh, is a shúil ar dhaith an fhéir ghlais
[3] ag éirgídhe dhon lá
[4] Ó nach bréug dham so a rádh
[5] sg[ur] do shlio[cht] na bhfe[ar] éifea[cht]
[6] a d.árda mac gréine
[7] fuair sár-chlú na Ghaolaibh
[8] le tréun neart a lámh

[9] Is gach a nabaraim ní bréug dham
[10] le sár fras na méur lag
[11] is éifea[cht]aighe nós
[page break]
[12] air bhéursaighe is air phróse
[13] an taobh so uille dho Éire
[14] is tú féin a suair a phog
[15] a annsaú bhinn bheúsach
[16] má tá spéir leat an mo ghlorr
[17] so mo lámh dhuit má dhfheudaim
[18] nach mbeidh tú gan ceól

[19] Traith chuala mé na sgeúla
[20] an rachfuinn dod fheúchaint
[21] dá mbeidh fá sa spáinn
[22] a phéurla an chúil bhainn
[23] na ngruadh gh[ar]tha tá caorchon
[24] dá ma dual maire & meínn mhaith
[25] Thug buaidh air do thréithra
[26] na cheúd uille do mhná

[27] Ua nach maireann dho da dhaoine
[28] a’s thú féin ansa tír sa
[29] ná bísleadh do ghlór
[30] do aon dá bhfuil beogha
[31] d[ar] mo láimh is tú mannsa[cht]
[32] a cheann suídhe na seóid
[33] ní comadh liom creud déurfuinn
[34] le do bheúl mar na rós
[35-36] a’s súidhe le do thaobh nó go mbeidhinn is tú aig ól

Here, for comparison, is Ó Máilles text (p.182-3). His title is “Neillí Pluincéad”. In this transcription, I have inserted line numbers which correspond to Cody’s version above, so we can see how the two versions collate against each other:

[1-2] ‘Nellí an chúil chraobhaigh, a bhfuil do dhá shúil ar dhath an fhéir ghlais,
[3-4] ‘s tú féachaint gach lá, a’s ní bréag a bhuil mé (a) rádh,
[5-6] gur tú, a ghaoil, na bhfear éachtach ó Ardamacha bréige
[7-8] fuair clú mhór ó Ghaodhalaibh le tréine do lámh

[27-28] Gidh nach maireann insa tír-sa ach thú do do ghaolta
[29-30] ní isleóchainn mo ghlór d’éan neach dhá bhfuil beo,
[31-32] dar mo láimh is duit a thug mé annsacht a cheansaigheach a’ tslóigh
[33-34] nir chuma liom god-é ‘deirinn le do bhéal tanaidh mar an rós
[35-36] Ach cead fháil suidhe sios le do thaobh nó go mbeinn is tú ag ól.

[9-10] Dar a n-abraim, ‘s ni bréag, le bán-chrios an uicht ghléighil
[11-12] Is tú is éafachtaigh note air bhéarsa & air phrós
[13-14] Air a bhfuil a’ taobh-si uile don réigiún ‘s tú féin a fuair a bhuadh (vogue?)
[15-16] ach a cheansaigheach chiúin chéillidh más léir leat-s ‘an spóirt,
[17-18] dar an lámh-as má fhéadaim ní bheidh tú gan ceol.
[19-20] Dá gcloisinn uait sgéala ghluaisfinn dod’ fhéachaint
[21-22] Dá mbeitheá insa Spáinn a phéirlin an chúil bhreágh
[23-24] A bhuil do ghris-ghruaidh ar dhath na gcaora dhár dhual maitheas & féile
[25-26] A’s thug tú buaidh in gach réigiún ar na céadaibh do mhnáibh.

Putting the numbers of Cody’s lines, onto Ó Máille’s text, helps us to understand the structure. We can see that the song has four sections, the first of 8 lines, the second of 10, the third of 8, and the fourth of 10; and (if we trust Cody’s order) we can see how Ó Máille has shifted the final section of 10 lines up out of place. I will say more about this section structure later, after we have analysed the tunes. But first, the content and context of the song.

Ann Heymann’s observation

We have often discussed how Eleanor Plunkett has become a standard in the contemporary tradition, but we have wondered about the way that the tune has been lifted (via Donal O’Sullivan) from Cody’s versions of the tune – there are no published versions of the tune from before 1958 as far as I can see. And there have always been questions about the key or mode of the tune. We will return to that below.

I was doing some background searching about something else, and I came across Ann Heymann’s old list of Denis O’Hampsey repertory (published in 2002 I believe; I remember reading and printing it out not long after I started playing the harp). I skimmed down the list to see what else was in. I saw Ann’s comment:

Madam Keel or Eleanor Plunkett (All known sources consider these to be different pieces, but they are the same tune and the titles refer to the same person)

If this is true, this is hugely important for understanding the tune and song of Eleanor Plunkett. How could I have missed this comment for so long?

There are two things from Ann’s statement to unpack. One is “they are the same tune”, and the other is “the titles refer to the same person”.

“the titles refer to the same person”

We can start with Donal O’Sullivan’s Carolan (1958), tune 150, titled “Eleanor Plunkett”. In his notes on vol.2 p.94-6 he quotes the story printed by Tomás Ó Máille, Amhráin Chearbhalláin p.310-311. This source titles the song lyrics “Neilí Pluincéad / Nelly Plunkett” and the gruesome story tells how “30 persons of that family shut themselves up in the castle … which was destroyed by boiling water”. We are also told that Eleanor “was the only survivor of her family”. O’Sullivan notes that Christopher Plunkett held the old castle of Castlecome, in Ardmagh townland, near Nobber in County Meath, and he comments “no doubt Eleanor was a descendent of this Christopher Plunkett”. This story has grown in the retelling; Catríona Rowsome says “Eleanor Plunkett… was the only family survivor of a tragedy” and sometimes I imagine her running screaming away from the castle as her parents and siblings are boiled alive.

But this is all fantasy. I did some more digging and found a fair bit about the old castle of Castlecome and the Plunkett family. Our main source is Nóra Ní Shúilliobháin, ‘The Robertstown, Co. Meath, Effigial Grave-Slab: An Historical Footnote’, in Etienne Rynne (ed), Figures from the Past: Studies on Figurative Art in Christian Ireland, Glendale Press/ Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Dublin, 1987, p.308-313. I got the reference from the very long web page “A short History of the Parish of Kilbeg“, which summarises Ní Shúilliobháin’s information. Here’s what I found (summarised or paraphrased from Ní Shúilliobháin unless otherwise referenced) :

Her ancestors and their places

In 1640, Christopher Plunkett held a large estate centred on the townland of Ardmagh or Ardmabreague in County Meath, and also including part of the townland of Moat. Line 6 of the song refers to the placename Ardmaghbreague or Ardmagh.

It seems that this placename Ardmagh / Ardmaghbreague should be understood as “Ard maigh”, the high plain, or the high plain of Bregia. However there is often confusion with two better-known placenames of the county and city of Armagh “Ard Mhacha” (the height of Macha) and nearby Armaghbreague (“false Ard Mhacha”).

The estate residence was the castle at Castlecam or Castlecome. You can see a little drawing of a castle which is presumably Castlecome castle on the 1650s Down survey map of Armagh parish, which was drawn up as part of the Cromwellian confiscations. You can also see the castle on the 1836 OS map, where it is shown as a ruin on a low hill. The aerial photograph map seems to show earthworks both due east of the road junction, and a little way further to the south-west, either or both of which might be connected to the castle ruins. I should go there and have a quick look.

In the 1650s, the lands were confiscated from the Plunketts as part of the huge ructions in Irish society caused by Cromwell. Is this when the Castle was destroyed? I understand there were many vile atrocities committed at that time, plus equally many lurid exaggerated accounts of even viler ones.

Whatever happened, the estates were held from 1660 onwards by Cromwell’s Treasurer of War for Ireland, Thomas Taylor, and his descendents, right down to the 1980s.

In 1680, Francis Plunkett (traditionally said to have been a descendent of Christopher) signed a 61 year lease with Taylor for “All of… Ardmagh alias Ardmaghbreagagh… part of the lands of Moate…” and a few other bits of land. So the Plunketts once again had the lands, though with an Anglo overlord, and the castle may have already been in ruins. They seem to have lived in the “Mansion-House in Moate”. I haven’t traced exactly where this was. The 1836 OS namebook (quoted on the Logainm entry for Moat) says “There is a large fort about the middle of the townland and a moat about 1/4 mile south of the fort.” The aerial photograph map shows what looks like the fort north of the road, and the moat south. Was the mansion house at the moat?

Francis died in 1682. His grave-slab is carved with an effigy of him with his wife Catherine; it is in Robertstown churchyard. In his will, he divided the estate between Catherine, and their sons. But their eldest son Thomas Plunkett (born c.1670) was still a minor, so Catherine took over the entire estate and paid the rent then due to her superior, Sir Thomas Taylor, 1st Baronet (who had inherited the lands from his father Thomas Taylor). Within a few years, some time in the 1680s, widow Catherine had married again, to Edward Dowdall, a Captain in King James’s army.

Eleanor Plunkett’s birth

Catherine’s son, Thomas Plunkett, also married about that time. His wife was Bridget, and they had two daughters. The first daughter, Eleanor Plunkett, was born c.1686/7, and their second daughter, Mary Plunkett, was born c.1687/8.

(I’m trying to work out the dates and ages based on the information given by Ní Shúilliobháin.)

In 1690 the political tensions came to a head with the battle of the Boyne. The Plunketts were on the losing Jacobite side, and so Sir Thomas Taylor, baronet, went to the estate, seized “goods, moveables and corn”, put his soldiers into the manor house, and took Catherine prisoner and sent her into exile to Connacht; she later fled to France. Sir Thomas Taylor took direct possession of all the estates, and seems to have regarded the Plunkett lease as being void.

In 1691, the young Thomas Plunkett was murdered on the road, leaving a young widow Bridget, and two daughters, Eleanor aged four, and Mary aged three.

In 1692, widow Bridget signed a new lease with Taylor for a good portion of the old lands. In 1695 her mother-in-law Catherine returned from her exile in France and managed to get Taylor to let her have a house and garden to live in.

Bridget had re-married to Walker, a lawyer. She died in 1704, leaving Eleanor (aged about 17) and Mary (aged about 16) as orphans.

So the two sisters grew up, and married. Eleanor Plunkett married John Cahill, and became Mrs Ellinor Cahill. Mary Plunkett, her sister, married William Donnellan, and became Mrs. Mary Donnellan.

The legal battle

In March 1719, they found the old 1680 lease which had been signed by their grandfather, Francis Plunkett, giving him title to the estates in Armaghbreague and Moat for 61 years (i.e. the lease didn’t run out until 1741). Eleanor was about 32 years old by this time. The sisters Eleanor Plunkett and Mary Plunkett and their two husbands, started legal proceedings in May 1720, to try and undo the change of ownership out of Plunkett hands after Francis’s death. Basically they were trying to get all the lands back from Taylor. It was a long and difficult case; the religious prohibitions and discrimination against Catholics made it hard, but in 1722 the case was decided in their favour; they were to get all the land and property, for the duration of the remaining original lease. They were also awarded compensation for Sir Thomas’s occupation of the land, and they were also awarded their legal costs.

However, Sir Thomas Taylor, Baronet, fought back; he used every method he could to delay the implementation of the judgement. He had it sent to different courts. Eleanor and Mary and their husbands continued to press their case, and took it all the way up to the House of Lords, but on 2nd May 1728 their entire case was finally dismissed. They had failed.

And there Ní Shúilliobháin’s account comes to an end, with a suggestion that maybe we could find out more if we looked at the Irish song tradition… she never made the Carolan connection. We don’t currently have any more information about what happened to them. Were Eleanor and Mary and their husbands bankrupted by the court cases? Did they settle down somewhere else? Did they have children? Are there Cahill descendents still living?

Interestingly, Cody’s text mentions Mary [line 24], just before the comment about the only representatives of the family [lines 27-28]. Ó Máille’s text doesn’t mention Mary in his corresponding line, and the split and re-arrangement of the sections breaks the continuity between the two lines.

Confirming the identification

Back to Donal O’Sullivan. For tune no.69, he gives the title “Mrs Keel”, and in his notes on vol.2 p.44 he says “The subject has not been identified”. But I think we can now confidently make that identification: Madam Keil = Mrs Elinor Cahill = Miss Eleanor Plunkett, wife of John Cahill, daughter of Thomas Plunkett, grand-daughter of Francis Plunkett.

Did Carolan compose the song in honour of Eleanor Bean Uí Chathail between 1722 and 1728, as a congratulations to her on winning her case and (theoretically) regaining her ancestral Plunkett lands?

My interactive map shows the places mentioned above. Open full screen

“they are the same tune”

I actually think we have three different versions of this tune. As far as I can see, although the words were published in 1915, the tune was never published until 1958 when Donal O’Sullivan printed two of the versions in his Carolan (no.69 & no.150), not realising that they were variants of the same tune.

Before 1958, all these versions of the tune seems to have languished un-noticed and un-heard in the manuscripts in Queen’s University, Belfast.

Cody’s song version

James Cody was working on commission from Edward Bunting to collect tunes and song airs between 1805 and 1810. His books have not been properly studied and I do not know the relationship or dating between them.

QUB SC MS4.6 is an upright format book. According to Colette Moloney’s introduction and catalogue (ITMA 2000) it contains a large number of military tunes written in an unknown hand, and then Cody has filled in empty pages and sections with Irish tunes and also some song texts written in Irish with their associated tune written separately at the head of the page. It is not very neatly written; perhaps this was Cody’s personal rough working book. Our tune is on pages 081-082, titled “Nelly an Chúil Craobhaigh – Cearbúlann a chann”.

Eleanor Plunkett: the song melody and text a Nelly an chuil chraobhaigh, in James Cody's manuscript, c1805-1810, Queen's University Belfast, Special Collections MS4.6.081
Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.6 p.081
Eleanor Plunkett: continuation of the song text, a Nelly an chuil chraobhaigh, in James Cody's manuscript, c1805-1810, Queen's University Belfast, Special Collections MS4.6.082
Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.6 p.082
Click here for typeset PDF score of this manuscript, used to generate this machine audio

The tune is written first, and then the song text. There are also two blank staves. The tune is set in one sharp and finishes on A. There are 6 bars in the first half, which repeats to give 12 bars; there are 7 in the second half, but the barring looks like it has gone very wrong. Note how Cody has scraped away the paper in two places, and squeezed in replacement notation around his error, in bar 5 of the first section and bar 3 of the second.

Cody writes a double bar at the halfway point of the tune, with repeat marks facing both directions. This is not really very coherent since there is no corresponding repeat mark at the end of the tune. My machine audio plays the first part twice, naively following the manuscript notation, but really I am wondering if Cody just put the dots in not to signify repeats but as a flourish to mark the section division? Our analysis of the tune (see below) will help us to decide what to do here.

Cody has copied the tune into QUB SC MS4.5, with a few changes, smoothing the rhythm and adding enough notes to the second half to make it into 8 bars. This manuscript is a small oblong tune book written out by Cody, with a title page (I think in Cody’s handwriting) which says “Edward Bunting’s Irish Airs Collected in 1805 to 1810”. I would understand this to be a formal presentation tune book which Cody gave to Bunting as part of the commission. Our tune is on page 18. The title is “Nelly an Chuil Chraobhaigh” and it is tagged “Cearbhulann cct” (Carolan composed it).

Eleanor Plunkett: the song melody, a Nelly an chuil chraobhaigh, in James Cody's manuscript, c1805-1810, Queen's University Belfast, Special Collections MS4.5 p.18
Queen’s University, Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.5 p.18
Click here for typeset PDF score of this manuscript, used to generate this machine audio

You can see that we have a six-bar first section, and then we have an 8 bar second half. Cody has written the same repeat mark in the middle.

Cody’s second version (DOSC 150)

Also in MS4.6, Cody’s working book, is a different version of our tune on page 39/048. This version is titled “Nelly an Chúil Chraobhaighe”, with no attribution. This is the version that Donal O’Sullivan printed as no.150 in his Carolan (1958), though he removed the repeat mark which is incomplete like Cody’s others.

Eleanor Plunkett: a rough copy of the tune, a Nelly an chuil chraobhaigh, in James Cody's manuscript, c1805-1810, Queen's University Belfast, Special Collections MS4.6.048
Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.6.048
Click here for typeset PDF score of this manuscript, used to generate this machine audio

I would characterise this version as being a more regular version of the tune. Cody was a piper and so it is possible this represents his own pipe playing. But to be honest I don’t know.

Bunting’s harp transcription (DOSC 69)

Edward Bunting went out on collecting trips in 1792 and 1796, visiting different places in Ulster and Connaught including going to see Denis O’Hampsey in Magilligan. On one of those trips, Bunting seems to have sat down beside O’Hampsey, and made a live transcription of O’Hampsey’s harp playing into QUB SC MS4.29 page 172. The title is given as “Madam Keil”. I think it is clear that Bunting has reworked this notation somewhat, either at the time, or later on, adding barlines, numbers, note stems, beams, etc.

Eleanor Plunkett: Edward Bunting's Harp transcription of the tune from Denis O'Hampsey, 1792 or 1796, titled Madam Keil, Queen's University Belfast, Special Collections MS4.29 p.172
QUB SC MS4.29 page 172.
Click here for typeset PDF score of this manuscript, used to generate this machine audio

The transcription barring shows the tune with two big sections. The first half has 16 bars; the second half has 20, though Bunting has numbered them wrong; he has not numbered the bar between 11 and 12 in the second half.

This is a fascinating notation since it seems to show the same basic tune as we are familiar with, but it has a lot of florid melismatic harp style in it, and yet it also has a rather angular shape as well.

Bunting developed his live transcription notation into a classical piano arrangement. This is in Edward Bunting’s unpublished 1798 Ancient and Modern piano manuscript, MS4.33.2 p.63

Eleanor Plunkett: Edward Bunting's classical piano arrangement of the tune, titled Madam Keil, 1798, Queen's University Belfast, Special Collections MS4.33.2 p.62
Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.33.2 p.63
Click here for typeset PDF score of this manuscript, used to generate this machine audio

The piano arrangement is titled “Mrs Keil” (Donal O’Sullivan has mis-read the title as “Keel”, and the page number as “62”). The tag at the bottom reads “From Dennis a Hempson, Magilligan.” The tune here is very close to the MS4.29 transcription, and has 16 bars in the first half, and 20 in the second half. But Bunting has larded it up with classical piano harmonies in his newly-composed piano bass. I wouldn’t put any weight on this classical piano arrangement except in as far as it identifies and tags the transcription notation.

Anyway, remember that we have Keane FitzGerald’s eyewitness testimony, that Carolan’s tunes had no bass originally. I think the MS4.29 transcription of O’Hampsey’s playing has plenty enough bass for a Carolan tune! We shouldn’t be listening to, or influenced by, Bunting’s classical piano harmonies!

Key and mode

Looking at the transcription version in MS4.29 we can see that the instrumental harp version of the tune is set in D neutral mode. This can help us a lot to understand the key and mode questions about Cody’s versions. When Bunting came to set it on the piano, he kept the tune in D, but his classical piano mind couldn’t understand D neutral, and so he sets it as if it were classical D minor, with B♭ in the key signature. Then he has to write a natural ♮ accidental sign beside every note b. (I think he accidentally misses it out in bar 25).

D neutral pentatonic mode is related to C major. The notes of D neutral are D E G A C, and the notes of C major are C D E G A. I think that Carolan quite liked neutral mode tunes; there is a thing that can happen when the tune is in the neutral mode, that it can fall briefly into the major mode, one note lower, and then return “home” to the neutral. We see that happening here, where the D neutral sections alternate with C major sonorities. This is (I think) the same phenomenon called in Scotland, “double tonic”.

Cody’s versions are set a 5th higher, so we could understand them as being in A neutral, with the G major sonority coming in. What has happened, I think, is that in Cody’s versions the G sonority has become so strong as to almost take over, especially at the beginnings of sections, so that we no longer recognise the tune as being in A. It is only at the end that the tune finishes in A. Ó Lionáird comments “there’s a very strange lack of closure at the end, like people are always trying to invent an ending because it doesn’t exist in the song”. If you consider the tune as a G major tune, then of course it’s odd to finish on A. But that is one of the vital things that the O’Hampsey harp transcription shows us: the tune is not in G major (or C major on the harp), it is a neutral mode tune one note higher, in A neutral (D neutral on the harp).

Structure of the tune

The three different versions are interesting for showing us how different versions can be idiomatically adapted for harp instrumental, or singing.

If we compare Cody’s second, possibly instrumental version (ms4.6 p.39/048) with the harp transcription from the playing of Denis O’Hampsey (MS4.29 page 172) we can see at once that the first half of O’Hampsey’s harp version is a pretty close match for the entirety of Cody’s instrumental set (16 bars in total) if we ignore Cody’s incomplete repeat marks.

The song version is less easy to collate, but I think that’s just because Cody has mis-notated it.

We can summarise the structure of each section as follows, thinking of an “A phrase” of 4 bars, a “B phrase” of 8 bars and an “ending” of 2 bars. I haven’t broken down O’Hampsey’s second half properly, yet there are clearly sections in it.

The song version (excluding repeats), total 13 or 14 bars
A (4) – end (2) // B (5 or 6) – end (2) // [2 blank staves]

Cody’s instrumental version (excluding repeats), total 16 bars
A (4) – end (2) // B (8) – end (2)

O’Hampsey’s harp version, total 16 + 20 bars
A (4) – end (2) – B (8) – end (2) // B (8) – middle (8) – extended end (4)

It seems clear to me that Cody’s song version is corrupt, specifically in its B phrase, with its obvious mis-barring in ms4.6.081 and his attempt to straighten it up for presentation to Bunting in ms4.5. But it is also clear that both Cody’s song version and his second, possibly instrumental version are both lacking the second half.

Structure of the song

O’Hampsey’s instrumental tune structure matches well the song text as given by Cody. At 2 bars per short line (or 4 bars per long line), we can see how O’Hampsey’s through tune of 36 bars covers exactly half of the song; so we could see the song as dividing into two verses, each verse with 2 sections, of 8 and 10 (short) lines per section, to give an 18 (short) line verse.

We have all been misled by trying to understand it as a 4-verse song, using only half of the meody!

We can also see how the structure of the song breaks into sections defined by the “end” passages. We can see Cody starting to think like this, writing lines [1] and [2] as a long line, then a half-line for line [3], but then he continues all the way through in half lines, only writing another long line at the very end. Ó Máille by contrast soldiers on with long lines, not realising that the “end phrases” of the melody define the half-lines, so many of Ó Máille’s long lines are broken exactly half way out of sync, being formed from the second half of one long line and the first half of the next.

For a singer, O’Hampsey’s instrumental second half could be used as a basis to reconstruct the lost second half of the vocal melody. This would allow the entire song text to be sung without omissions or cuts. Cody’s text allows the four sections to be re-arranged into the two long verses, and our analysis of the short “end phrases” allows the song to be presented as an interesting alternation of long-lines and half-lines:
verse 1: long, half; long, long, half; long, long, long, long, long.
verse 2: long, half; long, long, half; long, long, long, long, long.

Or perhaps even, if we consider the long line and its following short end line, to be a hugely long extra-long line of three half-lines, we could present it as an uneven 8 line song.

However I am not an Irish song and poetry scholar and we really need a singer who is familiar with 18th century Irish language and poetry forms, and who is also familiar with neutral-mode melodies, to really get to grips with reconstructing the song. If that describes you, please get in touch or leave a comment below.

Question

Why didn’t Bunting publish the tune of Madam Eleanor Keil née Plunkett? I would speculate: He got the harp instrumental version from O’Hampsey in 1792 or 1796; he made a classical piano arrangement in 1798, but I think fundamentally he didn’t “get” neutral mode tunes and so he abandoned that version.

Cody gave him the presentation book, perhaps too late to use tunes from it in 1809. But anyway it only had the song version in it, which is a bit odd and shrunken. I don’t know when Bunting may have acquired Cody’s working notebook but it may not have been until much later.

It was Donal O’Sullivan who went through the manuscripts and found Cody’s very sweet but truncated second version and printed it, making it available and popular.

Another question

Is it possible that there is a recording somewhere of a traditional singer who has a version of this song passed down through the inherited tradition? A bit like Máire Ní Arbhasaigh’s version of Seabhac na hÉirne? There are plenty enough traditional songs which address a woman by name in the first line and titling her “… an chúil chraobhaigh”. But none that I have listened so far to bears a resemblance to our song. We should keep looking…

Final conclusion

Denis O’Hampsey’s instrumental harp version under the title “Madam Keil” is the most complete and the most interesting of all the different versions of Eleanor Plunkett. I think it would be well worth studying it as a detailed notated example of how a song air is adapted and ornamented for the harp.


Many thanks to Queen’s University Belfast Special Collections for sending me the images of pages from MS4 (the Bunting Collection), and for letting me use them here.


Some of the equipment used to create this blog post was funded by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.

6 thoughts on “Eleanor Plunkett”

  1. Alasdair Codona on his long-defunct website calumcille.com (Archive version from 2007) referenced DOSC 94, Kitty Magennis, as another version of our tune: “The tune of the D mode song Neilí an Chúil Chraobhaigh exists in three forms…” [DOSC 69, 94 & 150]

    Donal O’Sullivan sources no.94, Kitty Magennis, from p.31 of Mulholland (1810), and I would agree with Alasdair that it too is a version of Eleanor Plunkett, with the second half. It is in that sense the same “version” of the tune as O’Hampsey’s harp performance transcription.

    Caitidh ni Ganis (Kitty Magennis) from Mulholland 1810

    PDF transcription

    Note that Mulholland’s version here includes the strange repeat sign that is not properly closed at the end – is he, like Cody, using a double bar line with dots simply as a section division rather than meaning it to repeat? The machine audio plays the repeat for the first half. Note also how the second half of the tune opens, closer to the start of the first half, unlike O’Hampsey’s which has new material here.

    This version is in G neutral, one note lower than O’Hampsey. There should probably be a B♭ in bar 26. (G neutral is related to F major, F-G-A-C-D)

    Anyway, my statement above that the tune of Eleanor Plunkett was not published until 1958, is wrong. The tune of Eleanor Plunkett was published in 1810, but because it was given a different (perhaps wrong) title, no-one noticed it. It is hard to know where Mulholland got his tunes and titles from; in his preface he says that much of the collection was compiled by his father between 1720 and 1770.

    Donal O’Sullivan tries to match the tune to a Carolan lyric addressed to Kitty Magennis, but it seems to me that those lyrics wouldn’t fit since they don’t have the distinctive structure of Eleanor Plunkett. Donal O’Sullivan also mentions a tune titled “Kitty Magennis” in Cody’s working book, QUB SC MS4.6.047 but I haven’t seen this. Colette Moloney (p.199) gives the incipit and it doesn’t look the same tune. Perhaps Cody’s tune might be related to the lyric instead?

  2. Thanks Simon.
    Such an informative post. It’s appreciated.
    Have you heard Steve Cooney’s recent version for guitar?

    1. Hi Shane, on thesession.org they list 58 recordings of Eleanor Plunkett, including Steve Cooney’s – there may be more… I would guess they are all derived from Donal O’Sullivan’s edition of Cody’s tune (DOSC 150), missing the second half.

      And that’s not counting recordings of the other versions of the tunes (e.g. Derek Bell on Carolan’s Favourite)

  3. Thanks for all this work Simon.
    I’ve always played Eleanor Plunkett as an introduction to Mrs. Keel for some reason. I play the standard melodies with my own basses. I’ll have to give Hempson’s version a try now.

    1. OK interesting! On some level you must have recognised an affinity… I also think it should be possible to use the O’Hampsey and Mulholland versions to create a plausible second half for the Cody tune that everyone is familiar with.

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