A chailíní, an bhfaca sibh Seoirse?

I made a demonstration video of A chailíní, an bhfaca sibh Seoirse, played (with some editorial adjustments) from Edward Bunting’s live transcription from old Irish harp performance in the 1790s.

This interesting tune was published twice by Edward Bunting; he had transcribed it twice, from two different harpers on two different occasions.

The published piano arrangements are no.6 in his 1797 book and no.11 in his 1840 book. Both of these piano arrangements are derived from the same live transcription, made probably in the summer of 1796 from the harper Denis O’Hampsey in Magilligan, County Derry. The transcription of the instrumental tune with variations is spread across pages 46, 48, 49 and 50 of Queen’s University, Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.29, in a section of the manuscript (p.44 to about p.61) which is mostly transcriptions from O’Hampsey in 1796.

However, that is not what I am playing. I am working from the other, independent transcription of the tune which Bunting made, on QUB SC MS4.29 p.32/32/41/f15v. This transcription which I am working from is in the second, “difficult” section of the manuscript, which mostly seems to have been written in the summer of 1792 (see my tune list spreadsheet). Previous tune transcriptions on p.26 and 28 are tagged as being from Hugh Higgins in 1792; I am wondering if the transcriptions on p.30 and this one on p.32 are also from Higgins in ’92.

Bunting has written other information around the notation of our tune on p.32. At the top of the page in a cartouche, he writes a note to himself: “get Molly bawn the first tune learned on the harp”. The only transcription we have of Maíli Bhán is from Patrick Quin, probably between 1802-1806, in QUB SC ms33.1 p.62/71/f31v. Bunting also writes two other tune titles, “Rosh veg Doo or Rosey Black” at the top of the page, and “Hugar M’ Fean” at the bottom. These might not be relevant or contemporary notes. Both these tunes were later transcribed in QUB SC MS4.29. On p.86, in the other main group of Higgins ’92 transcriptions, we find a transcription of Thugamar féin an samhradh linn; but the copies of Róisín Dubh in the manuscript appear to date from 1796 (p.62, maybe from Black) or from a manuscript copy of 1803-4. (p.34)

Then Bunting writes information about our tune. He writes: “Shalena <Callena> vacca sheo shorse or / Chooheeir a Chur heava / McCabe’s verse’s on Carolan to the same tune”. This information relates to different titles and/or song texts connected to the tune.

Song texts and airs

Bunting’s phonetical titles refer to song texts, even though both of the ms4.29 transcriptions are clearly harp instrumental settings.

A chailíní, a’ bhfaca sibh Seóirse

We have a song text collected by Patrick Lynch from Denis O’Hampsey in 1802/3, and preserved in Lynch’s manuscript QUB MS4.26 p12/2j. Under the page header “Fragments from Denis Hempson”, Lynch has written the title “A chailinigh bhfaca sibh seorse” (Girls, have you seen George?) and four lines of text beginning “A chailinigh chailinigh bhfaca sibh Seoirse”. This text must relate to our tune, both the harp version on QUBSC MS4.29 p.46-50 transcribed from Denis O’Hampsey, and the harp version I am playing transcribed perhaps from Higgins. Both of these harp instrumental versions are titled with phonetic spellings of the title “A chailíní, a’ bhfaca sibh Seóirse”.

Above the transcription of Denis O’Hampsey’s harp instrumental set of the tune, (QUB SC MS4.29 p46), Bunting has titled the tune “Callena Vacca Sheo Shurse / with English words”. It may be that O’Hampsey gave Bunting a metrical English version of the song, like he did for Burns’s March (QUB SC MS4.29 p.51). But if he did, it does not seem to be in the manuscripts any more. Patrick Lynch made an English translation; on QUB SC MS4.36.48 f144v, a page headed “Fragments from Dennis Hempson”, he has written four English lines, starting “Girls O girls have you seen George”. This would have been done in 1802/3, so it seems less likely that the note in MS4.29 p.46 refers to Lynch’s translation.

Conchubhar Mhac Coiréibhe

James Cody’s song air and words: facsimile of QUB SC MS4.5 p.20 with the text transcribed from ms4.6 p.63. Published by Charlotte Milligan Fox in the Journal of the Irish Folk Song Society, vol VI, 1908, p.26

We have a song-air version of the tune in James Cody’s manuscripts, written between 1805 and 1810 (QUB SC MS4.5 p.20, and QUB SC MS4.6 p.53/62). Cody’s title for the tune is “Connchúbhar Mhac Coirhéibe”. Cody also wrote down the words of the song in QUB SC ms4/6, p.63. As well as Charlotte Milligan Fox’s version, shown above, Donal O’Sullivan printed this text in his Bunting (1983 p16); I haven’t seen this manuscript page. O’Sullivan’s text begins: “A chnochúir, a chnochúir, a chnochúir ‘ac coiréibhe, buin a’ chluig ins a’ ghoirt agus déanamuíd réidhteach”.

On the preceeding p.62 is the title “[Conchubár] mhc Coirhéibe le seumus mhac párlaín air eilínóra iní ruarc”. The song text on that page begins: “Tá gach glaoighe dá mongaibh, is a loinne mar ghlan pheúrla”; Collette Moloney in her Introduction and catalogue (ITMA 2000, p.201) lists this as the song of Conchubhar Mhac Coiréibhe, but I think it must belong to Cody’s previous tune on p.53, Siobhán Bhán Ní Dhónaill. The Irish Song Project at Queen’s just adds to the confusion by transcribing the Siobhán Bhán Ní Dhónaill text from p.62, but offering as a “translation” Donal O’Sullivan’s translation of the Conchubhar Mhac Coiréibhe text from p.63, and stating incorrectly that Bunting “significantly ammended” Cody’s vocal melody “for publication in 1840”.

In general I think that Cody’s manuscript QUB MS4/6 with song lyrics and their matching tunes written on adjacent pages has been very much neglected; Bunting does not seem to have used it very much in his piano arrangements, and I am not aware of any attempts to re-combine these lyrics and melodies. This is a potential PhD or Masters project for someone!

We also have a version of the words of Conchubhar Mhac Coiréibhe written down by Patrick Lynch in 1802 (QUB SC MS4.17 f52v-53r, as listed in Moloney 2000 p.280). I haven’t see these pages. Thomas Hughes made a copy of the translation in QUB SC MS4.14.222.

McCabe’s verses on Carolan

Bunting writes above the p.32 transcription (perhaps from Higgins), “McCabe’s verse’s on Carolan to the same tune”. It is not entirely clear to me what this tag refers to. Charles McCabe was a very good friend of Carolan, a poet and a harper; Donal O’Sullivan, in his Carolan (1958 vol 1 p.67 on) gives us information about McCabe.

There is a story about McCabe playing a practical joke on Carolan, pretending to bring news of his own death; Carolan took the news very seriously and composed a lament for his friend McCabe, which begins “Ní Cathaoir mar chathaoir an Cathaoir fó ‘gcaoiniom” (QUB MS4.7 no127/191). but Donal O’Sullivan suggests (Bunting 1982 p.17) that Carolan’s lament for MacCabe should be sung to the tune Sgarúint na gCompánach / have you seen my Valentine (DOSB 25/57). He says that is a variant of our tune (which I don’t think is true) and suggests that Bunting’s tag is the wrong way round and should say “Carolan’s verses on McCabe”. This is a whole tangle in itself and deserves its own blog post.

There is another story of a practical joke (Donal O’Sullivan, Carolan vol 1 p.72-81) where, after a drinking match, Carolan tied McCabe up in a sack, and so the two poets exchanged satirical verses against each other. But there is no information about whether these improvised flyting verses were sung.

McCabe also composed a fine elegy after Carolan died, which begins “Nach í so an chuairt easbhach a laguidh mé réis mo shiubhail” (Donal O’Sullivan, Carolan vol 1 p.106). Is this what the tag “McCabe’s verse’s on Carolan to the same tune” refers to?

Carolan’s Elegy on the death of his wife Mary Maguire

Carolan’s wife, Mary Maguire, died in 1733, and he composed a lament for her, which begins “Intleacht na h-Éireann na Gréige ‘s na Róimhe” (Tomás Ó Máille, Amhráin Chearbhalláin p. 161). We are told by Joseph C. Walker (Irish Bards 1786, Appendix p.93) that the lament is sung “to the Irish Air of Concovar Mac Curely”

Interpreting the transcription and reconstructing the performance

The transcription of the tune of A chailíní, a’ bhfaca sibh Seóirse, perhaps from Hugh Higgins, on p.32 appears at first sight to be very clear, but there are problem bits which need addressed. The notation is at pitch, and the tune is in E minor, with a prominent and intrusive C (the notes in an E minor pentatonic mode are E, G, A, B, D). The tune is in 6-time, but Bunting has written the first three bars with only four beats. We can imagine that the E-G quavers at the start of these first three bars should be crotchets. Also, the bar count is off; Bunting has 9 bars in the first part of the tune. I think that Bunting’s bars 4 & 5 should be just one bar; his barline seems to be inserted.

In the second and the third section of the tune, Bunting has crossed out bars. I think he has deleted one bar in each section; I assume this is to do with the repetitive nature of the division-style music in these sections.

An interesting thing about this transcription is that it seems to represent a different class of transcriptions from many those I have discussed previously. A tune like Planxty Drury or Diarmaid Ó Dúda has the dots written first and then a neat copy on the facing page or lower down on the same page. But this transcription has the neat copy written over the top of the dots, almost entirely obliterating them. I think this can be more difficult for us, because we cannot see all of the changes that Bunting makes from his initial quick dots reaction to the performance, when he begins to think and make a neat edited version.

In the first two bars, the 4-note semiquavers a-g-e-d have a two-note quaver motif e-d written directly beneath. I wondered at first if this is a bass motif transposed up an octave, but it doesn’t seem to make sense like that. I feel that it is more likely to be an alternative way of playing that bar, if the a-g quick notes are a kind of optional extra. It is also possible that the e-d quavers represent how the tune might be sung – but that presumes that the rest of the notation is vocal, which I doubt. The transcription from O’Hampsey has this same feature.

The second section of the tune has double bars with repeat dots at the beginning and end, as if the tune were to be played as a four-part tune, 1 – 2 – 2 – 3.

The last section of the tune has a word written above the first bar. I cannot properly make this word out. I wondered at first if it might read “Sym” but there is a second tail, as if other letters have been inserted over the top. This final section is like a division variation, and can be compared to Denis O’Hampsey’s version which has a full set of division and other variations.

The same process of reconstruction can be done with O’Hampsey’s version, from Bunting’s transcription on QUB SC ms4.29 p.46-50. I did some work on that version 10 years ago but I wouldn’t now agree with a lot of my conclusions from back then! The O’Hampsey transcription has a lot of bass notes in the transcription, and is an important witness to old Irish harp right-hand (bass) practice. But the Higgins (perhaps!) transcription I am working from has no bass notes at all, and so I am playing it with no bass for this demonstration.

Other instrumental versions

As far as I can tell, this melody is not current in the living tradition of Irish music, but it does appear in one other old source. There is a baroque fiddle version in John and William Neal’s “Colection of the most Celebrated Irish Tunes proper for the violin, German Flute or Hautboy”, printed in 1724, p.18-19, where it is titled “Challeeny vacca shu sheorshe”.

facsimile edition by Nicholas Carolan, Irish Traditional Music Archive 2010, p.72-73

It seems to me that there is some kind of parallel between the sequence of variations in the Neal print and the sequence of variations transcribed by Bunting from Denis O’Hampsey, and indeed the single division variation transcribed by Bunting from Hugh Higgins (I think), which I am playing in this demonstration video.

Cornelius Lyons

On p.98 of the introduction to his 1840 volume, Bunting writes:

(No. 11 in the Collection) Chonchobhar Mac Areibhe. “Connor Mac Areavy”, known also by the name of Calleena bhacha su Seorse, “Girls, have you seen George?” – The melody is extremely ancient, and the variations by Lyons (Lord Antrim’s harper) are excellent. The modern musician will be surprised to find such an admirable arrangement by a person ignorant (as it is presumed all the Irish harpers at the beginning of the eighteenth century were) of modern musical science.

Cornelius Lyons (usually given as c1670-1740) was a contemporary of Carolan. He was harper to the Earl of Antrim. I think our main information about him comes from Arthur O’Neill’s Memoirs. O’Neill says “Cornelius Lyons was the other Great performer and a very fanciful composer especially in his Variations to the Tunes of Ellen a Roon, Calleena a Voch a thoo Shoarsha (Girls did you see George) Green Sleeves, the Cooleen, and several others. He was a County Kerry man” (QUB SC MS4.14 p.25). O’Neill also recounts some anecdotes of Lyons writing down a tune from Carolan’s live performance (the very first Old Irish Harp Transcription?) and travelling to London in the entourage of his patron the Earl of Antrim.

O’Neill tells us the names of two students that Lyons taught the harp, Hugh Quinn and Echlin O’Kane. Echlin went to Scotland and some of his repertory made its way into classical keyboard or pedal harp arrangements, including versions of some of Lyons’s compositions or variation sets.

It is not clear to me how we should understand Lyons. He was sighted, literate, and moved in cosmopolitan Anglo circles, including going to London. The works attributed to him in Bunting’s notes are mostly in the form of variation-sets, supposedly on traditional airs, but there seems some confusion about this even in our sources. Lyons’s variation set The Lady of the Desert is said by Bunting to be based on the traditional song air The Coolin, but there are clear differences and it is not immediately certain in my opinion whether this is true. Perhaps there is a parallel, in that A chailíní, a’ bhfaca sibh Seóirse might be Lyons’s instrumental variation set, which he composed based loosely on the traditional song air Conchubhar mhac Coiréibhe.

It is not clear to me how much this music is consciously based by Lyons on older traditional airs, and how much it is new composition with a traditional form and style. There is a lot of “classical” harmonic structure and content in these variation sets as well, especially the baroque “division” variations. It is not impossible that Lyons could have got some formal classical European music training in London as well as learning the old Irish harp traditions back home.

O’Hampsey played a number of Lyons variation sets, including Lady of the Desert, A chailíní, a’ bhfaca sibh Seóirse, and Eibhlín a Rún. Other harpers also had Lyons’s music; Hugh Higgins is listed as the source for Bunting’s transcription of Sliabh Gaillean, and also as one of the multiple sources for Lyons’s tune Miss Hamilton.

Untangling strands

As you can see there are a lot of tangled strands to this tune. One of the things I am trying to do here is to untangle things, to try and be more specific and to follow each thread and look to each specific fragment of the old tradition at a time on its own terms, to make genuine connections and to look sideways to make comparisons.

For this tune, Donal O’Sullivan has been clear and helpful, printing both of Bunting’s ms4.29 harp transcriptions alongside Denis O’Hampsey’s words of A chailiní, a’ bhfaca sibh seoirse (DOSB 6 and 6a); and printing Cody’s words and tune together of Conchubhar mhac Coiréibhe (MOSB 11).

Bunting himself has been unhelpful; he printed two different piano arrangements, both derived from the Denis O’Hampsey harp instrumental transcription, but under different titles in 1797 and 1840. Ann and Charlie Heymann were perhaps influenced by Bunting’s 1840 title when they sang Cody’s words of Conchubhar mhac Coiréibhe, to a synthetic combination of the two different harp instrumental versions of A chailiní, a’ bhfaca sibh seoirse, on their CD Cruit go nÓr (2006).

In this blog post I have tried to lay out all the different strands, the three different notations of Lyons’s version of the tune with variations; the song air from Cody, and the various sets of lyrics that are said to be related to different variants of the tune. I think that we can always learn new insights into the old tradition if we carefully separate out different threads, different versions passed down through different lineages and shown to us by different witnesses. And we can learn a lot also, if we can identify and then contrast versions that come through harp tradition, song tradition and fiddle tradition, because I think that each different instrumental or vocal tradition will take the material in its own idiomatic direction. I even think that different harpers had different regional styles, or different styles inherited from their teachers, so that if we have multiple variants transcribed from different harpers we might gain insights into how different individuals’ performance styles differed or were similar.

But in my playing in the demonstration video I am following my principle in this Old Irish Harp Transcription Project, in trying to make a realisation of one particular transcription of one particular version as notated live from one particular tradition-bearer at one particular point in the summer of 1792. I think we still have a long way to go to understand this tradition and this music before we can dive in and start creating new variants based on a deep insider knowledge of the old Irish harp tradition. But, I also feel that we are getting closer…

Downhill harp poem

Two years ago to the week, I had my HHSI Student Downhill harp here in preparation for using it for a concert – my Carolan, Connellan and Lyons programme which I played outside in the Botanic Garden. While the harp was here I carved the lettering on the forepillar, and gilded the carved letters.

This week the harp is again at my house, as I am going to use it for my Lament for the Union concert next week. And so how could I resist continuing my very protracted programme of decorating the instrument?

As well as some subtle painted highlights, today I carved the lettering for the poem on the soundbox. I traced my photograph of Cormick O’Kelly’s original 18th century poem, but I changed the lettering to be relevant to me and to this particular instrument. I like the idea of changing the poem – like how a modern harpsichord maker puts a replica Ruckers or Blanchard rose in the soundboard of their replica harpsichord, but replaces the old master’s initials with their own.

I was originally planning to gild this lettering but now that it is finished, because the letters are significantly smaller than the gilded forepillar ones, and because there are so many more of them, I decided I liked them natural wood. The poem is quite hard to read with all the ligatures and the crowded capital letters with few word spaces. I think it gives a subtle lift to the whole instrument.

I love it when ancient things have inscriptions on them, it is a kind of literature, and it is also a kind of direct communiaction between the thing and ourselves, more direct than we usually get with archaeological objects where the comminication has to be inferred or reconstructed. I am very pleased to have captured a little of that atmosphere and ambience on my harp now, even though it is not actually an ancient harp or even an ancient text – nonetheless it is like the harp is speaking directly to us.

I was also struck by the final 2 words of the poem: “call me”, like the monster in The Forest.