Mailí Bheag Ó

There are three different versions of the tune of Mailí Bheag Ó in Edward Bunting’s books and manuscripts. In this post I’m going to look at each of the three in turn, and then see if we can say anything useful about them and where he got each of them from. I think it is obvious that two of the versions come from two different harper informants on two different occasions, and one of them was lifted from older printed books.

The “1840 no.90” harp version

In the 1790s, Bunting made what looks to me like a live transcription of an old Irish harper playing a version of this tune. The transcription is on Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections MS4.29 page 6, titled “Old way of Molly Astore”. Above the title he writes “no use”, underlined. The transcription occupies the first two staves on the page; it is immediately followed by a neat copy of the tune on the third and fourth staves and the beginning of the fifth stave. Bunting also writes “or this” to indicate an alternative possibility for the final bar of the middle section, with a + sign above the alternative bar corresponding to a + marked in the neat copy of the tune.

Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.29 page 6
You can download my PDF typeset version of the transcription notation, which I used to generate this machine audio

My typeset version and machine audio has been transposed down one note. We have information about the tunings used by the old harpers, and while most of the harp transcriptions work at pitch, there are small groups that Bunting seems to have notated one note too high.

Also, the machine audio only plays the first two systems, which I believe are Bunting’s live transcription notation. The last three systems can be used to give better readings of the mis-noted parts of the transcription. However we have to ask why Bunting misnoted the transcription, especially the rhythm. My suggestion is that he struggled to understand the idiomatic rhythmic style of the old harpers, and his neat copy “regularises” the rhythm into the normal classical piano style of rhythm that Bunting was used to. We must always remember that Bunting was not working as an ethnomusicologist, to accurately preserve the playing style and idiom; he was a piano arranger, trying to find tunes to use as a basis for his forthcoming book of published classical piano arrangements.

We can however wonder about some aspects of the neat copy. The repeat marks suggest that the middle section of the tune may have originally been repeated to give a four line tune. We can also look at where Bunting has inserted bass notes or chords into the neat copy. Sometimes these seem to reflect notations in his transcription; was he making clearer what he had heard, or was he sketching possible piano chords out of his own imagination?

Even in the neat copy, the rhythm is haywire, with some bits notated at double speed and then corrected by writing the beats of the bar above: “1, 2, 3”.

There are small vertical lines above some of the notes of the transcription on the first two lines. I don’t know what these represent. Art they an alternative attempt at barring, indicating stressed notes, or perhaps indicating changes in register? They don’t seem to be carried over into the neat copy at all.

Bunting did finally expand this version of the tune out into a piano arrangement, which he published over 40 years later, as no.90 on page 67 of the 1840 book. The index page iv gives its title as “Máire bheag O – Molly bheag O – Little Molly O”, and the index p.ix says that it was collected from C. Fannin, harper, in 1792.

I made a Youtube demonstration from the manuscript, back at the beginning of my project, though I never wrote it up, and I am shocked how stilted my playing was a bit over a year ago! I have learned a lot from working through the transcriptions in the past year!

The “variation set” version

Also in the 1790s, Edward Bunting made an interesting transcription of a very different harp performance of our tune, on a double page opening in Queen’s University, Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.29 page 147/144/153/f71v and 148/145/154/f72r. This is an unusual notation, since it shows a very classical-style variation set.

The left hand page, 145, is titled “Molly Veag O”, and then the tune is written on four lines to the bottom of the page. The tune continues at the top of page 148, with the header “variation to…” slightly overwritten by the two lines of our tune. Then there is the instruction “1st Variation played twice”. Then there is a title and one line of notation for a different tune, “Variation to Callun Oinney”. I will deal with this tune in my next post. Finally, at the bottom of the page there is what looks like a line of song lyrics.

Queen’s University, Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.29 page 147/144/153/f71v and 148/145/154/f72r.
You can download my PDF typeset version of the transcription notation, which I used to generate this machine audio.

The biggest problem with this transcription is that, just like the other transcription, Bunting struggles to notate the rhythm properly. I think he seems to switch back and forth between half speed and double speed. I assume that the harper whose performance he was transcribing, had enough rhythmic subtlety that Bunting struggled to understand the underlying rhythmic structure. In my machine audio, I stick to the note values that Bunting wrote; so the entire second section is very slow, and there are occasional bars that are half speed e.g. my bar 24 (three quarters of the way along the third staff on p.147), and the entire line starting on my bar 32 (second half of the fourth line on page 147).

There are repeat marks as well. As usual Bunting is a bit vague about where the repeat goes back to. The first repeat mark is at the end of the first system on page 147. We can see that we should go back to the double bar line, because Bunting has written the repeat mark overlying some transcription dots which represent the beginning of that second passage from the double bar line. This matches the other version of the tune.

There is another repeat mark at the middle of the fourth system on p.147 (end of my bar 31). Bunting has written in pencil a S symbol, as if to indicate the start and finish of this repeat section, and so that is what my machine audio does for you. This might be connected to where at the end of the entire piece on page 148, Bunting writes “1st variation played twice”.

At the top of page 148, we seem to have the same material to what we have already had, starting on my bar 32, but with the end phrase an octave higher, and with additional little chords written high on the stave. Do we understand this to be Bunting writing out material a second time to experiment with register and harmony, in preparation for making a piano arrangement? Or do we understand this to be just the next passage the harper informant played, having different octave registers as part of the process of playing variations? How do we understand the little chords written high on the stave? Is this the hands swapping, so the right (bass) hand comes up to take the high notes while the left (treble) hand continues to play the melody? Or has Bunting notated low bass chords, folded up onto the treble stave just to save space and to save him drawing ledger lines? It is hard to know.

I have not found any other expansion or development of this version anywhere in the manuscripts; the transcription on pages MS4.29 page 147-8 seems to be all we have. This means that we don’t have any attribution tags, and so we cannot say who might have been the harper that Bunting transcribed this version from. We can check my Tune List spreadsheet to see that this transcription of “Molly veag O” sits in a group that I am tentatively suggesting may be from Arthur O’Neill in 1796. However I would not use that as evidence that he was Bunting’s source for this transcription.

At the bottom of page 148, Bunting has written what looks like a phonetic attempt at a line of song words, and an English partial translation. I assume this was spoken to him by his harper informant.

Gramachree the vealeen wárre
veag Ó my heart love to your
Lips my little mary o

We could understand the first half of this to be phonetical Irish, perhaps Grádh mo chraoí, do bhéul an Mháire bheag Ó. This would translate to the love of my heart to the mouth of little Mary oh.

I’m not sure if “dhe / me” above the word “the” is alternative phonetics, or nothing to do with these words and something connected to the “Callun Oinney” notation above instead.

The “1840 no.62” version

Thirdly, there is a piano arrangement published as no.62 on page 46 of Bunting’s 1840 collection, “Molly my treasure”. The title in the index page iv is “Maire a stór – Molly astor – Mary my Treasure”, and the index p.ix says that it was collected from “C. Fannin, harper” in 1792.

However I do not believe this attribution to Charles Fanning, simply because Bunting would not have needed to “collect” this version from a harper – he would have known it well in his classical piano world. It is the tune of “Gramachree”, used by Thomas Moore for his song “The harp that once through Tara’s halls” in the first volume of his Irish Melodies published in 1807.

This tune was very well known in classical music scenes in Scotland, England and Ireland well before Moore and Bunting’s time. It appears in many many different published settings from the second half of the 18th century, often with different sets of English words referring to “Molly” or “Mary dear”. You can see it titled “Gramachree Molly” in the 1788 song book Calliope, with the phonetic Irish chorus “Ah, Gramachree, ma Colleenouge, ma Molly ashtore”.

Here is a lovely performance of a vocal arrangement by Haydn, published in London in 1792. Haydn’s text begins “Will you go to Flanders my Mally O”.

This is the kind of world that Bunting was mostly in; he was actively involved in promoting and performing in classical music concerts in Belfast, and that formed a much bigger part of his life and work than Irish music did. Bunting would often be found in this kind of performance, playing piano accompaniment for ensembles and classical singers (including visiting Italian virtuosi) performing the works of Haydn and other top international composers.

For more on Bunting’s classical music work, see Roy Johnston’s books, Bunting’s Messiah (BNHPS 2003), and The musical life of nineteenth-century Belfast (Ashgate 2015).


The common title for the classical version of the tune, Gramachree, is a phonetic English rendering of the irish “Grá mo chraoí”, love of my heart.

Bunting clearly got a bit muddled up with the different versions of the titles, and we can see him theorising and trying to make some kind of scholarly judgement on the relationship between these different versions of the tune and the different titles given to them. He made a wee note to himself underneath the transcription of the tune Slieve Gallen on MS4.29 page 80, where he writes “Molly veag O / Originall name / of Molly a store”.

He prints the third “Gramachree” version of the tune as a stripped down melody in the introduction page 17 of his 1840 book, and he writes there “…the popular air of Molly Astore, taken from the very ancient air of Molly bheag O”

There is a piano arrangement in QUB SC MS4.12, (I think the reference is ms4.12.2.23) of the tune of Mailí Bhán, which Bunting titles “Molly Vann or Molly veagh O – First tune learned on the harp”. I think this is probably Bunting just getting it completely wrong, but who knows.

Attributions to harpers

The apparently spurious Fanning attribution for the third, “classical” version of the tune (1840 no.62) sheds some questions on Bunting’s process for handling attribution tags. What was his process, in the 1830s, for assigning harpers’ names to piano arrangements? The harpers were long dead and could not contradict him; and his transcription notebooks are very messy and disorganised and almost completely lacking in names and dates.

What does Bunting mean when he says “from Fanning”? Does he mean this specific version is derived from a live transcription from that harper? Does he mean that he heard that harper playing some version or other of the general tune at some point in the past? Or is he just slapping names onto tunes at random to make them look antique and authoritative? I think we can find potential examples of all of these possibilities.

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

Many thanks to the Arts Council of Northern Ireland for helping to provide the equipment used for these posts, and also for supporting the writing of these blog posts.

3 thoughts on “Mailí Bheag Ó”

  1. In his article ‘…the development of the piano and the preservation of Irish traditional music’, Irish Musical Studies 9: Music in Nineteenth-century Ireland, Four Courts Press 2007, p. 79, David Cooper points out that Bunting has copied some Haydn arrangements into a notebook in the mid 1790s. I checked Colette Moloney’s Introduction and catalogue p.291-3, and I see that there are a few items listed e.g. “Minuet from Haydn’s first set of quadrilles”, “Minuet from Haydn’s overture London”. These are mixed in with piano arrangements of Irish tunes but I am not familiar enough with the different piano arranging styles to be able to identify if these are copied from Haydn’s, or are Bunting’s own arrangements.

    Cooper’s article is a very informative overview of how Bunting’s piano arrangements fit into the classical world of Stevenson, Haydn, Clementi, Pleyel, Beethoven, etc. rather than the traditional world of the harpers who are the supposed source.

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