Cupán Uí Eaghra

I was hoping to make a video demonstration of the Carolan song air Cupán Uí Eaghra (O’Hara’s Cup), but in the end I don’t feel that I understand it enough, based on the transcription manuscript. It is an interesting and slightly unexpected aspect of this Old Irish Harp Transcriptions Project that there are tunes which are clearly notated live from the playing of a harper informant, but which it is very hard to convincingly reconstruct the harp performance behind the transcription.

The harp version of Cupán Uí Eaghra (DOSC 131) is written as a live transcription in QUB MS4.29 page 82/78/087/f38v, with a neat copy of the second half of the tune on the facing page 83/79/088/f39r. Bunting’s title here is “Campany ara”; he adds “or O Haras” on the neat copy.

Bunting made a piano arrangement in 1798, based on this live transcription. His piano arrangement is in QUB MS4.33.3 page 34-35, where it is tune no.25. The title is given as “Copan iu Ara or O’Hara’s Cup by Carolan”, and at the bottom of p.34 he has written “From Hugh Higgins County Mayo”. It looks like “Mayo” has been written over “Leitrim”.

This tag, in combination with the attributions of the tunes on neighbouring pages in MS4.29, means that we can be fairly certain that this live transcription was made in the summer of 1792, from the old Irish harper Hugh Higgins. For more about Higgins, see my post on Tá mé mo chodladh.

The harp bass

On page 37 of the piano manuscript, after the end of the next tune (Doctor Hart), Bunting has written “These 2 last tunes are very middling hard to set basses too”. Doctor Hart is also tagged “Hugh Higgins County Mayo” and was notated live on p.90-91 of MS4.29.

In the transcription of Cupán Uí Eaghra on p.82 Bunting has written “B” below notes in the transcription in 6 different places. These look like they might represent bass notes played by Higgins. Are these the only bass notes that Higgins played? Does this reflect Keane FitzGerald’s testimony that “Carolan’s tunes had no bass to them originally”? Does Bunting’s difficulty in harmonising these tunes with classical piano basses reflect the tunes being originally composed, and subsequently passed down in the tradition, as single melody lines?

Usually, the “B” in the transcription clearly indicates which note is to be dropped an octave and/or played with the right hand. One thing I notice in this particular transcription is that this is not always clear, as if Bunting himself was not sure. I am thinking that this transcription, made in his first year of collecting, is difficult precisely because he was unfamiliar with the old Irish harp style and idiom, and was not “up to speed” with notating the details of a live performance.

The song of Cupán Uí Eaghra

Bunting made a live transcription from a singer on his collecting trip to Westport in July 1802. Bunting had gone to Westport to meet up with the song collector Patrick Lynch, and Lynch seems to have taken Bunting to meet the singers whose song words he had already collected, for Bunting to notate the song airs. Lynch records in his Journal (QUB MS4.24 p.45) that he got the words of “Cupan i Ara” from Mr Bartley in Killargy, county Leitrim.

Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.33.1 p.25.

Bunting titles the tune “Capan ni Ara or Ohara’s Cup”. In the top left corner he writes “in A.M.” which is his shorthand in this notebook for the key signature – this tune is in A major and so should have three sharps. After the tune he writes “This set sings to the words / another set in Old Book No. 25”. At the bottom of the page he writes “Mrs. Conner Mrs Conner” but I don’t know if that is connected to this notation.

Did this tune also come from Mr Bartley? That seems unlikely, since Killargy is about two thirds of the way from Belfast to Westport, and yet the implication from Lynch’s journal p.19 is that Bunting was only collecting tunes from the singers in and around Westport (Lewisborough is mentioned). So perhaps it was one of the Westport singers that gave Bunting this version of the tune. Pages 22-31 of Bunting’s Westport 1802 notebook (QUB MS4.33.1) contains tunes numbered 1 through to 15, and our tune on p.25, is no.8. Page 22 is headed “Redmond Staunton the blind man” and p.24 is headed “Redmond Staunton” – is he the source of this song air? More work is needed to untangle all this.

The note about another version must refer to the 1798 piano arrangement of the Higgins harp set, which is no.25 in QUB MS4.33.3, and confirms that Bunting considered the two (DOSC 130 and DOSC 131) to be versions of the same tune.

Song words

A neat copy of the words written by Lynch in one of his presentation manuscripts is in QUB MS4.7 p.023, no.7. The words are titled “Cupan i ára” and are as follows:

Da mbein Shiar a ndarainn
no a ccáirlinn na séad
mur ngluaision gach sár long
le clárit sle méid

bfeair liom gan amhras
mar shasadh dhom pfein
cupan i ara
bhei lamh le mo bheail

Nuair bhion-sa lán ann
don tsar lionn is treain
chuireadh beadhas an mo gháire
agus rasa ann mheair

Gud e fath dhomh chup a cceill
is a liacht agh maith na dheigh
ar gach ollamh fa na háite
dar mo laimhse ni breag

a tharlaigh & bhriain agh mhur
tar an tra so fa mo dhein
go nolum as an tsar chupa
slainte bhreagh chiain

It seems to me that two of these quatrains written by Lynch would fit onto the tune noted by Bunting in ms4.33.1 – so we have two and a half verses here. Lynches 1, 2, 4, 5 match Hardiman’s two verses and also ÓMáille’s two verses; I wonder if Lynch’s quatrain 3 matches half of one of Thady Connellan’s verses in Duanaire (Fonna seanma) (1829) – I haven’t yet seen this book (the RIA have the only copy I know of).

Other versions

Donal O’Sullivan (Carolan volume 2 p.80) gives a number of other versions of the tune from traditional musicians in the 19th century in the Forde manuscripts. Joyce (Old Irish folk music and songs, 1909 p.342) prints a version collected by Forde, which has been synthesised from version supplied by John Windele “the distinguished cork archaeologist (died 1865)” and P. Carey, “a piper of Co. Cork”. This is the version that Donal O’Sullivan printed as DOSC 130, with his invented title “Kean O’Hara First Air”.

It would be nice to see the other Forde versions especially the one collected from Hugh Beirne.

Two tunes, or two versions of one tune?

Donal O’Sullivan lists Higgins’s harp version, and the various song versions under separate numbers in his book, as DOSC 130 (the sung version) and DOSC 131 (the harp version). He assumed they were different tunes with the same title, and at first glance they do seem very different. However it is clear that Edward Bunting considered them as versions of the same tune, from his comment in QUB MS4.33.1 “This set (DOSC 130) sings to the words / another set (DOSC 131) in Old Book No. 25”. Bunting did not publish either of the two variants.

This tune could be an interesting case study for how harp instrumental style can shift a tune a long way away from its song air version. It would be an interesting study to line up all the different versions and make formal comparisons of where they track each other and where (and how) they diverge.

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.

Edward Dodwell

Edward Dodwell is another of the tunes in the “difficult” section of Edward Bunting’s field notebook between pages 14-40. You can see in my tune list spreadsheet that Ned Dodwell, on p.40, is at the very end of that section. In fact, since the next facing page from p.40 is p.43, I think we are missing a page here, and I think the missing page had a neat copy of Ned Dodwell.

Often when Bunting does a dots and bars transcription, he makes a neat copy on the next page. I think it is quite likely that the neat copy of Edward Dodwell was on page 41, which is missing from the manuscript.

Edward Bunting wrote down the tune of Ned Dodwell “live” at speed from the performance of a tradition-bearer. Later tags in 5 different piano arrangements credit this tune to Charles Byrne, and four of them give the date of collection as 1792.

The live transcription of Edward Dodwell on QUB SC MS4.29 p.40/38/47/f18r is written just as dots and bar-lines. There is one trill mark, and there is some crossing out towards the end, and there are some doodly little dots after the end of the tune. The entire page does not tell us that this tune is Edward Dodwell; we know it is by recognising the tune from elsewhere. The title written at the top of the page, “Plangsty Reynolds Lough Skur”, refers to a completely different tune that appears in the manuscript on p.201/199/208/f99r.

Although it seems pretty clear and straightforward, there are problems with this transcription towards the end. From bar 27 Bunting seems to lose his way; he re-writes the bar line between 26 and 27, he writes two different versions of bar 28, and he completely deletes bar 29, and writes it again afterwards, and he finishes one bar short, on 31. Then after the final double bar line he tries to re-notate the end of the tune. First he re-writes it a bit wrongly, with too many notes. Then on the next blank stave he writes it out more clearly, but he has transposed this last little section of the tune a 4th higher. It is not entirely clear what he heard, because there are so many reworkings of this part of the tune in the transcription. In the different piano arrangements he seems to let his composing creativity free reign and comes up with all kinds of interesting conclusions to the tune.

Bunting made a piano arrangement of Edward Dodwell in about 1798, in his unpublished “Ancient and Modern” piano manuscript (QUB SC MS4.33.3 p.21, where it is titled “Emon Dabhal or Ned Dodwel by Carolan / from Charles Byrne”. Bunting also made piano arrangements much later, in QUB SC ms4/13, and ms4/27, though I don’t have copies of these pages and haven’t studied them. The tune was finally published in a piano arrangement as no.104 in Bunting’s 1840 book.

The transcription of Edward Dodwell is notated in C. We can see from the notes of the tune that it is a neutral mode tune; C neutral has as as its main notes C, D, F, G, B♭. Ned Dodwell includes the other two “out of mode” notes, E and A, except I think it is obvious that it needs E♭. We can check this with the piano arrangements; both the “Ancient and Modern” and the 1840 piano arrangements put the tune one note higher, in D neutral; both of them show one flat in the key signature, but both of them systematically cancel every single B♭ in the tune with natural accidental signs (Bunting’s piano world did not recognise neutral pentatonic modes, and minor is the nearest classical equivalent).

Bunting’s live transcriptions are usually notated at pitch, although there are groups notated one note higher than they would have been performed. This tune cannot work at pitch on old Irish harp, since tuning two flats on the harp is not part of the old tradition; putting the tune one note down to B neutral or B♭ neutral only makes matters worse. There are only two places we could position this tune on an old Irish harp using the traditional tunings, either one note up in D neutral (with the harp tuned all naturals), or a 6th higher in A neutral (with the harp tuned with F♯). We can’t drop the tune two notes down since that would make it run below na comhluighe on the harp.

In five different piano arrangements, the tune is tagged as being collected from Charles Byrne, and four of them give the date of collection as 1792. Byrne was a harper and also a singer, but we know that he was not a very good harper and had not been formally trained in the old Irish harp tradition, but had taught himself. I suppose it is possible that Byrne was so unlearned and incompetent that he tuned his harp in non-standard tunings, and played this tune in C neutral on the harp; but perhaps it is more likely that Bunting collected this tune from Byrne’s singing.

If we check my Carolan tune collation spreadsheet, we can see that Donal O’Sullivan gave this tune the number 40, and he suggested that the song lyrics beginning “Slán linn siar go bruach an chuain” go with this tune. He prints (vol 2 p.26-7) the text from Thady Connelann’s Duanaire Fonna Seanma (1829), where the words are headed “Eadbhaird Dodbhaill. Edward Dodwell, Esq., County Sligo: By Carolan”. There is a slightly different text in Tomás Ó Máille, Amhráin Chearbhalláin (1916) p.141 titled “Éamonn Doduel. Edward Dodwell – Carolan cct” and beginning “Go mbu slán duit fá bhruach an chuain”, though I don’t know the source for Ó Máille’s text of the song. We also have the song lyrics collected by Patrick Lynch in Mayo in 1802, in QUB SC ms4/10 p.10 titled “Planxty Dodwell” and beginning “go ma slan beo buan / an thaoibh a chuain”. All of the texts have the same length, 16 lines, which would fit the tune once through pretty well.

One of my aims in my Old Irish Harp Transcriptions project is to identify notations that are not transcribed live from old Irish harp performance. By ruling certain notations out, it narrows down the field of what notations are significant for the study of old Irish harp repertory, style and technique. For that reason alone, I am not going to make a Youtube demonstration of Ned Dodwell. This would be a good one for a singer to tackle, to try setting the different song lyrics onto Bunting’s dots-and-bars transcription.

Diarmaid Ó Dúda

I made a demonstration video of Diarmaid Ó Dúda (DOSB 37) based on the live field transcription written down by Edward Bunting in the 1790s.

The live field transcription is preserved in Bunting’s manuscripts at Queen’s University, Belfast, Special Collections. There is a dots transcription at QUB SC MS4.29 page 38/36/45/17v, and there is a neat copy of the tune on the same page.

The page is headed with “dermot O Doudy very old dirty” and then there are two pencil texts, one seems to be a phonetical title “Slack Dermot yeoudy” and the other at the bottom is harder to read but may say “James Mr Murphy” (I suppose it could equally be “James Mc Murphy”)

If we look at my Old Irish Harp Transcriptions Project tune list spreadsheet, we can try to understand how Diarmaid Ó Dúda (page 38) sits in the different sections of the manuscript. Page 40 is the final page which has inside margins; there is a missing leaf (p.41-2) and then p.43 starts a whole new section with outside margins. The run of live transcriptions taken from Denis O’Hampsey in 1796 starts on p.44. These different sections on different papers were likely not assembled into their current order until 1802-5.

Pages 3 to 40 of the manuscript are nonetheless not necessarily all one coherent section. My ms29 index and transcript PDF shows Siobhán Armstrong’s notes on the gatherings, and we can see that there seem to be three gatherings in this part of the manuscript, all using similar paper with inside margins.

Pages 3-12 form a single gathering, containing a nice run of slightly rough transcriptions all noted one up, and which I have mostly done Youtube demonstrations of: Casadh an tsúgáin, old way of Molly Astore, the Beggar and Planxty Irwin, Planxty Drury and Planxty Kelly. Maybe these were all done on Bunting’s 1792 trip to counties Tyrone and Derry.

Then pages 14-40 seem to include maybe two gatherings, or maybe they are just one composite pamphlet. These pages contain a real mixture of neat copies, perhaps from books or other manuscripts, mixed in with difficult or problematic transcriptions, at different pitch levels or transpositions (sometimes different transpositions within a single tune). Anna MacDermot Roe is a typical example. Our tune, Diarmaid Ó Dúda, sits towards the end of this difficult section on page 38. Do these pages represent another pamphlet made by Bunting in the summer of 1792?

The dots transcription of Diarmaid Ó Dúda appears to be noted quickly and confidently from the performance of the tradition-bearer. It seems to be at pitch, showing a tune in G neutral mode. This is quite unusual, as G tunes tend to be in major pentatonic mode. G neutral would be related to F major, and neutral mode tunes typically tend to show elements of the “double-tonic” style. The G neutral scale includes G, A, C, D, F, and skips B and E. Diarmaid Ó Dúda has no Bs in it, but there is an E passing note. In the copy it is marked as a grace-note at the end of bar 7, but in the transcription we see it as a slightly smaller dot just before the trilled F. In my realisation I play it as the “grace” called barrlúth béal in airde from the list on p.25 of Bunting’s 1840 book. The grace-note on the final note of the tune is also similarly marked by a little dot very close to the final note in the dots transcriptions. There are quite a few crossed out or misplaced dots in the transcription – did Bunting struggle to notate it cleanly? It seems a simple tune. Was it being played really badly?

I am paying much more attention to the dots, as representing Bunting’s instinctive live response to what he is hearing; I would consider the neat copy to be the start of his classical piano editorial process, with him normalising and correcting the tune according to his classical piano expectations or needs. Nonetheless we have to use these edited neat copies to help us understand a transcription especially as here, when we have only the dots with no barlines or other guides to rhythm and measure.

Bunting published his completed piano arrangement as no.37 in his 1797 printed book. I wondered if this tune being absent from the Spring 1796 proof sheets described by Peter Downey, implied that Bunting may have collected this tune in the summer of 1796; but I don’t see any reason why he couldn’t have had it in ’92 already and just not used it until he was preparing the final edition presumably over late 1796 through to early 1797.

In the annotated 1797 book preserved in London (BL Add ms 41508), Diarmaid Ó Dúda is tagged “Byrne”. Presumably this means that in the early 1840s, almost 50 years after making the transcription, Bunting thought that he had collected the tune from the harper and singer, Charles Byrne. Whether we can rely on Bunting’s memory I do not know. But if we give Bunting the benefit of the doubt, we have a slight problem. Charles Byrne is said to have been a poor harp player; he was not properly taught, but was the guide and harp-carrier for his uncle also called Charles Byrne. He is said to have taught himself to play not very well. However he is also said to have been a fine singer, and Bunting tells us he got lots of songs from him. I wonder how many of the transcriptions in ms29 are from Byrne’s singing, especially the more problematic ones.

The transcription of Diarmaid Ó Dúda is not problematic from a harp point of view; it fits very well on the harp in the old modal system. So, perhaps it was taken from Byrne’s harp playing. But then we remember how Arthur O’Neill (in an unguarded moment perhaps) described Byrne’s playing as “worse than tol lol” and we wonder how useful to us, the live transcription of a really bad harpist, is.

Does Bunting’s text “very old dirty” on the transcription, relate to a song lyric associated with this tune? Donal O’Sullivan printed an edition of Bunting’s neat copy from ms29 in his edition of Bunting’s tunes (JIFSS XXIV 1930 / The Bunting Collection Part II, p.7). He underlays the text of a song which mentions Diarmaid Ó Dúda. The song text was collected by Patrick Lynch in 1802, from Mrs. Gavan, at Drummin, near Westport in County Mayo. Lynch’s neat copy is QUB SC MS7 no. 115 including the risqué third verse which O’Sullivan censored in his edition. O’Sullivan also prints two more O’Dowd songs collected by Lynch, one from co. Sligo in 1802 (QUB SC MS4/7 no.16) and another from Denis O’Hampsey in 1802-3 (transcription QUB SC MS4/26.6 p.6, neat copy QUB SC MS4/26.2 page 5). O’Sullivan remarks that “it is curious that … three different songs about the O’Dowds, collected in three different counties, should be written in the same meter, employing the same rhymes for the most part, and being presumably intended to be sung to the same air”. However I don’t see any grounds for supposing that the specific tune we are looking at is what these words would originally have been sung to. Unless we can find a relevant tune in Edward Bunting’s 1802 Westport notebook (QUB SC MS4/33.1) then we have to conclude that the airs to these songs are lost. It is quite possible that the airs to these songs was a version or variant of our tune, but even if they were, it seems to me that they would be handled very differently, as we see in the living tradition with the difference between a vocal version and a fiddle or pipe instrumental version of the “same” tune. It seems very forced to set one version of a text, to an instrumental tune collected in a different part of the country.

Diarmaid Ó Dúda also appears in O’Neill’s Music of Ireland, 1903, under the section “O’Carolan’s Compositions” (no. 653 on p.117). But O’Neill seems to have included all kinds of odds and ends in this section and so people generally don’t believe this attribution.

Planxty Drury

I made a demonstration recording of Planxty Drury (DOSB 10) (DOSC 42) based on the live field transcription written down by Edward Bunting in the 1790s, from the performance of an old Irish harper.

The live field transcription is preserved in Bunting’s manuscripts at Queen’s University, Belfast, Special Collections. There is a dots and bars transcription at QUB SC MS4/29 page 8/8/17/3v, with a neat full copy of the tune on the facing page, QUB SC MS4/29 page 9/9/18/4r.

The neat copy is titled at the top “Plangsty Drury” but there is other text “[..]arm London / Bonny Shannon Water / Warter [Co????] R[ear]y / Werter or sorrows of we[…] / Sally in our Ally / [?????]”

The dots transcription is in three sections; the first and third are barred. The copy seems to follow the first and third section of the dots. This transcription is a very useful illustration of Bunting’s working method. While it is tempting to ignore the dots and work from the neat copy, I think this is a mistake. I think Bunting was editing as he went, trying to understand and interpret what he heard though his classical piano filters, and so I think the dots are the most important level of content for us, assuming that the dots represent his un-filtered automatic response to the playing of the old Irish harp tradition-bearer. I think that we cannot help but use the copy to inform our reading of the dots, but I also think it is very important to constantly refer to the dots as the primary source for the old Irish harp performance practice.

The transcription shows no key or time signature. The implied metre is 6-time. We can see this more clearly if we look at Bunting’s printed piano arrangement of the tune, in his published book, A General Collection of the Ancient Irish Music (London: Preston & Son, 1797). Our tune is published there as no.10, “Plangstigh Druraidh – Planxty Drury. Carolan”.

The transcription appears to be not at pitch, but transposed one note up. You can see in my Old Irish Harp Transcriptions Project tune list spreadsheet, that the first 30 pages or so of QUB SC MS4/29 contain transcriptions written one note up. I don’t yet understand why some transcriptions are 1 up and others at pitch. It may be related to Bunting’s working methods, or it may be connected to different pitch standards in use by different harpers. The transcription, and the facing page copy, are both notated in D major, but this would require c♯ to be tuned on the harp. I think it is much more plausible to consider this as a C major tune with the harp tuned all naturals.

The transcription gives us only the tune, with no bass notes marked at all. The copy similarly does not indicate bass at all. Bunting’s published piano arrangement in E♭ major has a newly composed piano bass.

The transcription includes ornament marks. Bunting notes “tr” twice in the first section of the tune, and repeats these two marks in the same place in the neat copy. There is a third “tr” mark in the second section of the dots. I assume that these marks indicate where the harper played some kind of ornament or grace-note.

In the annotated copy of the 1797 print in the British Library, Add ms 41508, which appears to have been Edward Bunting’s personal copy, he has written “Harp Byrne” against this tune. The implication is that he collected the tune from the harper and singer, Charles Byrne. However these annotations were likely written in the early 1840s, nearly fifty years after the transcription was made, and so I do not know how reliable this information is. The spreadsheet shows that ms4/29 pages 7-11 are all tunes tagged “Byrne” in later piano arrangements, though the tunes on page 7 have other, conflicting attributions in other piano arrangements.

My use of the two reference numbers, DOSB 10 and DOSC 42, tells us where to look for information in Donal O’Sullivan’s editions and indexes. The tune is no.10 in Donal O’Sullivan, ‘The Bunting Collection of Irish Folk Music and Songs’, Journal of the Irish Folk Song Society, 1927-39, appearing in part 1 p.36. Donal O’Sullivan prints a typeset edition of the tune from the ms4/29 neat copy, without mentioning the dots transcription. He underlays the words of a Carolan song, “Fáilte romhat go Kingsland, a bhinn-bhean na méar lag” (“Welcome to Kingsland, sweet small-fingered lady …”). However he explains later (p.38) that the words do not come from Byrne in the 1790s, but were collected by Patrick Lynch on his tour of Mayo in 1802. He also explains that there is a different tune called “Planxty Kingsland” or “Fáilte go Kingsland” or “John Drudy”, which the words could be sung to. He says, “in view of the title, perhaps this is the correct air for the words”. Given that the words fit the “Planxty Kingsland” tune, and the titles match, I do not see any rationale for thinking that they should be set to our “Planxty Drury” tune.

Donal O’Sullivan repeats this mis-identification of the tune and its subject in his Carolan, the life times and music of an Irish harper (Routlege & Kegan Paul, 1958) where the tune is numbered 42. In vol.2 p.27 he cites his own Bunting edition, and again matches this tune to the Kingsland words. He also silently changes the title, from “Planxty Drury”, to “John Drury, First Air”. This invented modern title is what the tune has passed back into circulation under. John Drury is the subject of the song lyrics, and again he remarks that the song lyrics could be sung to the “Planxty Kingsland” tune, which he prints as no. 43 with the invented modern title “John Drury, Second Air”.

This seems to be unfortunately typical of Donal O’Sullivan, to mis-match words and air. He wrote so confidently, and his books have had such an influence, that his emended or mistaken titles and word-matches have become accepted as gospel even when they are obviously mistaken, as here. My Carolan Tune Collation spreadsheet helps to untangle the different titles and variants.

When playing this tune on the reconstruction copy of the NMI Carolan harp, I was thinking of two things. First, the way that Bunting transcribed the dots from the playing of the harper informant, with no trace of bass notes, chords or harmony. Many people have suggested that Bunting just ignored or failed to notate the harpers’ basses; but I was also thinking of the tradition reported from Keane Fitzgerald, that “Carolan’s tunes had no bass to them originally”. So I am trying to play just the tune of Planxty Drury, letting the voice of the harp speak the tune clearly and resonantly, with as little bass interference as possible.

Old Irish harp transcriptions project

I first got hold of a facsimile of Bunting ms29 (Queens University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4/29) when it was first published online at QUB Library web site, back in 2006, and I have been working from the facsimile ever since.

This manuscript, dating from the late 18th century to the beginning of the 19th century, is the most important single source for old Irish harp repertory. In it, the young collector Edward Bunting wrote his live field transcriptions of the performances of the last of the old Irish harpers. These scratchy incomplete jottings are our most direct connection to the now lost tradition of playing the old Irish harp with brass wire strings. There are many other sources of old Irish and Scottish Gaelic harp repertory, but most are second-hand, re-set for piano, fiddle, or other instruments. The great value of ms29 is the transcriptions live from performance.

Manuscript 29 is not easy to use, because it is written so fast and sketchily. I also started wondering about the lack of metadata in the manuscript – most of the tunes are not tagged with the names of informants, places, or dates, and this information has to be inferred from other sources. Many tunes are written without their title, or with the titles of different tunes written around them. And there are a lot of tunes – I counted 212 different tunes in the manuscript in total, of which about 190 appear to be represented by field transcriptions.

Back in September I started making a transcript of the textual content of Bunting ms29 (Queens University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4/29). This was prompted by a discussion with Siobhán Armstrong, who had started to inspect the binding of the manuscript and had noted where the different gatherings joined together. I started wondering how this structure of gatherings fitted with the content, whether groups of tunes fitted into discrete gatherings, and so I started to compile an index of what was on which page. The project grew and I ended up trying to copy all of the text on every page, and to identify the tune represented in every bit of music notation.

Identifying the tunes has been the hardest part, and is still not complete. My transcript still has many “unidentified tune” tags in it. Hopefully over time we will find identifications for more of these tunes.

You can download my ms29 text transcript and tune identification (PDF or ODT) via my Bunting pages. As I add more information or correct errors, I will update the document.

Making this document is in some ways an end in itself, as it forms a very useful guide to reading and working with the manuscript; it also forms a much more complete index than has been available so far. I have relied heavily on the published work of Donal O’Sullivan and Colette Moloney (both cited fully on the PDF). It is the nature of scholarship to build on and improve the work of previous generations, and I am very grateful for the important work that O’Sullivan and Moloney have done; I would not have got this far without their work.

I think that the value of ms29 was always the transcriptions: the first, quick, instinctive response of the listener to the performance. I have said before that I consider these transcriptions the 18th century equivalent of 20th century field audio-recordings. They are our window into a lost performance tradition.

My ms29 document aims to identify these transcriptions, and to distinguish transcriptions from secondary copies. The manuscript contains a number of tunes copied from printed books, and probably also from older manuscripts. These copied notations naturally don’t give us the direct connection to oral performance traditions that the transcriptions do.

I have become fascinated by the idea of working from transcriptions. To get a replica of an old Irish harp, to string it with brass wire, and tune it following the 18th century tuning schedules, to hold it in the posture and orientation shown in the 18th and early 19th century portraits of old Irish harpers – these methods take us close to the world of the old Irish harpers. And then to play the notes written in the transcription – no more, no less, gives us a sniff of their performance on that day in the 1790s.

My project now, I think, is to identify as many transcriptions as I can, and then to start describing, categorising, and analysing them. There are transcriptions of old Irish harp performances in other manuscripts in the Bunting Collection, especially in QUB MS4/33(1). I wonder if there are any transcriptions like this anywhere else? Was Edward Bunting the only person to do this?

I am thinking that as well as identifying the “normalised” tune titles for them, I can try and find other information about these tunes. Elsewhere in Bunting’s piano manuscripts he tells us who and when he collected tunes from. Can we match versions of tunes in piano arrangements, with the same version in a transcription? Can we group the transcriptions according to this kind of metadata, to understand who the transcriptions were collected from, where and when?

By combining this aggregated metadata with an analysis of the manuscript structure I think we may be able to build up a fine-grained picture of the collecting process and the performing style of different informants.

And we can also use this new insight into the nature and importance of the transcriptions to create new performances on old Irish harp, hoping to get ever closer to a plausible way of returning the old Irish harp to the tradition.

The video below shows me playing Casadh an tSúgáin (DOSB 19), from the transcription and copy on ms29 pages 4/4/13/1v – 5/5/14/2r, on the copy of the NMI Carolan harp.

The Banks of Claudy

Edward Bunting‘s first field notebook, which he used to take down live transcriptions from the old harpers in 1792 and later, is kept at Queens University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4/29.

Usually known as ms29, it is a small oblong notebook stuffed full of sketchy drafts and scribbled transcriptions from the playing of the last tradition bearers.

On page 1 of the book is a two-staff arrangement of “The Banks of Claudy”.

Continue reading The Banks of Claudy