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.

Brighid Óg

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

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

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

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

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

Song words

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

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

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

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

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

Róis bheag dubh

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

The transcription is at Queen’s University, Belfast, Special Collections MS4.29 p.62/58/067/f28v. This page from one of Bunting’s little pocket collecting pamphlets, is headed “Rosey Black or Rosh veg Dooy” and “very old”. The transcription seems nice and clear with notes and dots but no barlines. Underneath the transcription Bunting has written […m] McCracken Belfast” – I don’t know the significance of this. Then on the lower half of the same page, Bunting has made a neat edited version of the tune.

The transcription shows the tune written at pitch, either in E minor or A neutral. There is no F in the tune; there is an intrusive C at a few points (the notes of both E minor and A neutral pentatonic mode are E G A B D). Bunting has written a few + or tr marks, and a couple of wee grace-notes in the transcription. The strong notes and pulse of the transcription is ambiguous in places due to the lack of barlines, but we can perhaps use the neat copy to help us understand this, as long as we remember that the neat copy is Edward Bunting’s edition and has been changed in a number of ways from the transcription.

Three different versions

There are many different notations and piano arrangements of Róis or Róisín dubh in Edward Bunting’s notebooks and publications, but we can group them together and see that the various copies derive from just three different performances, and so we can understand that Bunting has in all his many copies, three versions of the tune.

Two of the versions were printed as piano arrangements in 1840: No. 18, “Black Rose Bud” and no.19 “Second Set of Black Rose Bud”.

The hairdresser’s version

The first version is tune no. 18, on p.16 of the 1840 book, titled “Black rose bud”. In the index p.vii Bunting says it was collected from D. Black, Harper, in 1796. But I am questioning this attribution, because the melody of this piano arrangement is clearly derived from a transcription in Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.33.1 p.42. This transcription was made by Edward Bunting from a traditional singer in or around Westport, between Tue 6th and Thur 22nd July, 1802. Bunting had gone out to Co. Mayo to meet with Patrick Lynch, who had been collecting song texts. It seems that Lynch took Bunting to meet his informants so that Bunting could notate the tunes from them.

In Patrick Lynch’s journal QUB SC MS4.27 p.47 he lists the words of “Roisin Dubh” as being collected from P. Lynch Hairdresser in Castlebar, May 26th 1802. Was this P. Lynch Hairdresser also the source for Bunting’s transcription of the melody on MS4.33.1 p.42?

This index entry in Patrick Lynch’s Journal refers to the text of four quatrains written out neatly in Lynch’s song book, QUB SC MS4.7.091, no.58, titled “Roisin Dubh” and beginning “A Roisin na biodh bron ort far eighrigh dhuit”. Colette Moloney (Introduction and Catalogue p.209) says that these words are tagged “Castle Barr” at the top of the page, but I don’t see that on the online facsimile (the image may be cropped).

On the next two pages are 10 more quatrains, tagged at the top of the page “Drogheda”, numbered “59” and titled “Rois Bheag Dubh” and beginning “Beidh eiclips ar na speirigh is doirtear fuil”. This must be a second independent version of the song, inserted by Lynch for comparison. This manuscript is not a transcription notebook, I think it is a neat copy made by Lynch for presentation purposes. There is a second copy of the Castlebar words in QUB SC MS 4.11.

At the moment, I have not done any serious collation of the song airs transcribed by Bunting in QUB SC MS4.33.1 in early summer 1802, and the song words collected by Patrick Lynch on the same trip, presumably from the same informants – that’s a project for someone else. So, I would not say that for sure the lyric beginning “A Roisin na biodh bron ort far eighrigh dhuit” goes with Bunting’s first version of “Black rose bud”, and that the tune and words both come from the singing of P. Lynch, hairdresser at Castlebar, but it looks pretty likely.

The doctor’s version

The second version of our tune was printed on the very next page of the 1840 book (no.19, p.17), with the title “Second set of black rose bud”. In the 1840 index p.vii, Bunting tells us that this second version came from a peasant in Cushendall in 1804; in the introduction p.97 he says it was from the Lower Glens, co Antrim; in QUB SC MS4.27 he says it was from the Low Glens in 1803; and in QUB SC MS4.12 he labels it “Dr. McDonald’s set”. The tune appears in QUB SC MS4.29 p.34/34/043/f16v where it is titled “Doctors set bad good not very”. This notation in MS4.29 is clearly not a transcription but is copied from another written version; the other two tunes on this page are copied from a printed book. My guess is that Dr. James MacDonnell, originally from Cushendall in the Lower Glens, had notated it from a traditional singer in 1803/4, and had sent Bunting a manuscript copy of the tune, which Bunting subsequently copied into a blank space in his pocket notebook.

Bunting gives us more information about this version of the tune, in the 1840 introduction, p.97:

(No.19 in the collection) Roisin Bheag Dubh “Little Black Rose-bud” – Differs only slightly from the preceeding. It is here set according to the version preserved in the lower Glens of the county of Antrim. The cadence at the termination seems to lean so much more to E than A, that the Editor has adopted the former key-note as its tonic. This curious anomaly is frequently observed in these simple airs.

Black’s version?

Donald or Daniel Black is an interesting harper and we have some snippets of information about him. In the context of this tune, Bunting describes him singing with harp accompaniment – a rare eyewitness account of a harper singing to their own accompaniment.

(No. 18 in the Collection) Roisin Dubh. “Black Rose-bud” … It was sung for the Editor in 1792, by Daniel Black, the harper, who played chords in the Arpeggio style with excellent effect. The key-note at the end of the strain, accompanied by the fifth and eighth, without the third, has a wailing, melancholy expression, which imparts a very peculiar effect to the melody.

1840 introduction p.97

Bunting has put descending arpeggios in his 1840 piano arrangement of the Castlebar hairdresser’s vocal version of the tune, but I don’t think this piano bass is anything more than Bunting’s newly composed harmony, inspired by his memory of Black’s playing over 40 years previously.

So we have three conflicting pieces of information. we find the transcription source of Bunting’s first version of the tune in the Westport 1802 notebook; Bunting says that the tune was collected from Black in 1796; and he says that Black sung the song to him with harp accompaniment in 1792.

Perhaps all three are true. Perhaps Bunting prepared his 1840 first version from the Westport 1802 notebook. Perhaps he did collect a version from Black in 1796. And perhaps he did hear Black singing the song with harp accompaniment in 1792.

In which case, is the QUB SC MS4.29 p.62 transcription from Black in 1796? Bunting tells us (1840 intro p.76) that Black’s “chief resort, when in Antrim, was Mr. Heyland’s seat at Glendaragh, near Antrim, where the Editor saw him shortly before his death, in 1796. He sung to the harp very sweetly”. (see my Bunting Collecting Trips post)

It is also possible that some of this information printed in 1840 is wrong, and that we are being led wildly astray by Bunting’s disorganised waywardness… Bunting was telling us about the events of 44 years ago; we can see looking at his manuscripts that his notes are scattered, partial, and full of context-less notes.

Bunting did jot down a tune-list, in QUB SC MS4.29 p.178:

{Peggen a Leaven Daniel Black
+{Brough ne Shannon ditto——–
{Garran Buoy yellow horse Ditto —-
{Collin Fin ——— Ditto ——–
{Black bird & thrush Ditto ——–
{Little hour before Day Ditto ——
{Castle Moon Ditto ——-
{Huar ma fian Ditto ———-

We can see from my Old Irish Harp Transcription Project Tune List spreadsheet, that a lot of these tunes appear in QUB SC MS4.29 between pages 93 and 106. We also have a tune, tagged Black, on p.64 (possibly related to the p.62 Róis bheag dubh). It is not clear to me at the moment how the different gatherings of ms4.29 have been shuffled and re-assembled before their first binding (see my pdf), and whether they may originally have been related.

If the p.62 transcription was written from Black’s performance at Glendaragh House in the summer of ’96, was he singing it? There is no indication in the transcription of “chords in the Arpeggio style” which made such an impression on Bunting. And the structure of the melody as transcribed seems very harp-like. Perhaps Bunting asked him to play the tune on the harp so that he could more easily make a transcription. We really know so little about the details of this process.

Tá Mé Mo Chodladh, from Hugh Higgins in 1792

I made a demonstration video of Tá Mé Mo Chodladh, from Edward Bunting’s live field transcription of the playing of old Irish harper Hugh Higgins in 1792.

Edward Bunting wrote his live field transcription into a little collecting pamphlet, which is now bound up with a lot of other collecting pamphlets into Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.29 page 28/28/37/f13v.

We can check my transcript of the text in ms29 to see that, above the notation, Bunting has written the title of the tune:

Ta me ma halla / Im[..] asleep and
na russkin me / dont waken me

Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin suggested to me that this can be understood as a phonetic attempt at “Tá mé mo chodladh, nár dhúisce mé” (I am asleep, may I not awaken).

Below the notation, Bunting has written

from Hugh Higgins
in 1792

It’s very unusual for Bunting to give us provenance or date information in his transcriptions. Normally we have to collate provenance information from later piano arrangements or indexes, which can be contradictory or unreliable. Of course, we can’t be sure that this title and attribution were written onto the transcription page at the time – nothing is certain in Bunting’s manuscripts!

Bunting’s notation on p.28 is unusually detailed and clear for a 1792 transcription. He has not barred the tune, but he has written in note stems and beams to indicate the rhythm. Unfortunately he seems to switch his note durations, sometimes writing crotchets and quavers, and sometimes writing quavers and semiquavers. He clarifies his thinking on the facing page 29/29/38/f14r. This edited copy is perhaps a little closer than usual to the transcription, but he has still made edits, omitting some of the notes, and expanding some of his “tr” or “+” marks into little notated note clusters, which may reflect Higgins’s harp practice, or may alternatively reflect Bunting’s piano imagination.

In my demonstration, I have used two different fingerings for these trills or ornaments. The trills or ornaments on E (bars 7, 15, & 31) can easily be fingered 2-1-2, which is cúl aithris in the table of “graces” (1840 intro p.25). However, I found this less convenient for the trills or ornaments on B (bars 4 & 12), and there I have used 3-2-4 which is not in the table of graces. I rationalised it to myself as a variety of barrlúdh, although the bárrludh gestures seem to rise up to finish on the upper note. Interestingly, the very next page on ms4.29 shows a live transcription of Burns’s March, which also includes a similarly shaped ornament (system 2, notated f-a-f) which is in a position where 2-1-2 fingering (cúl aithris) does not work very well. We have usually assumed this notation of Burns’s March is transcribed from Denis O’Hampsey, but I am now thinking that it is not in an O’Hampsey group, and it is noted one note up, whereas all of O’Hampsey’s transcriptions are noted at pitch. I have wondered before if this transcription of Burns’s March might be from Higgins; and so it is notable that this unusual ornament matches.

Bunting made a little note to himself on p.29, writing “major” above bar 17 where the flat 7th first appears. I am starting to seem more of Bunting’s naivety about this music in 1792 transcriptions, and a greater confidence in the 1796 transcriptions. (see Bunting’s collecting trips for more about these different tours).

Bunting did not take this transcription any further; as far as I can see he did not develop this version of the tune into a piano arrangement in any of his manuscripts or books.

Hugh Higgins

According to Bunting (1840 intro p.64), Hugh Higgins was 55 years old in the summer of 1792, so he must have been born c.1737. He is said to have died in 1796.

Higgins was later described by Arthur O’Neill, in his Memoirs: the first draft is QUB SC MS4.46 p.16, and the neat revision is QUB SC MS4.14 p.20. The two texts are slightly different, and O’Neill seems to be talking a bit sideways, but he tells us that Higgins was from a respectable family in Tirawley, Co. Mayo. His mother’s name was Burke; he was blinded early on and his parents sent him to learn to play the harp. He did extremely well at his studies and became an excellent harper: “one of the best I ever heard” says O’Neill in ms4.14. Higgins had “genteel manners”, and travelled in the style of a gentleman, with a servant boy; he “spared no expense” on his clothes, but because he was blind he had to trust his boy to choose the colours.

The young William Carr said in 1807 that Higgins “played very well and had an elegant harp”. (ed. Angela Byrne, A Scientific, antiquarian and picturesque tour – John (Fiott) Lee in Ireland, England and Wales, 1806-7 Routlege 2018)

I have not yet properly investigated Hugh Higgins. From looking at my ms29 text transcript and my tune list spreadsheet I notice that there are groups of tunes transcribed live from Higgins by Edward Bunting in 1792. (Higgins died in 1796, so presumably missed Bunting’s ’96 collecting tour). There is this possible group around Tá mé mo chodhladh on p.28, including Toby Peyton on p.26, and perhaps also Burns’s March on p.30 and A chailíní, an bhfaca sibh Seoirse on p.32. There is another group from p.78-90: Mild Mable Kelly, Sliabh Gaillean (Slieve Gallen), Cupán Uí Eaghra (O’Hara’s cup), Caitlín Ní Uallacháin (Kitty Nowlan), Thugamar féin an samhradh linn (with variation), Rois Dilloun / Young Lady Dillon, and Dr. Hart.

This group also includes a tune list on QUB SC MS4.29 p79, titled “From Hugh Higgins”:
John Jones Carolan ill
Grah ga miste very old
Cathleen ne Oullahan
Anthony [Mo] [Sonav-]
Slumber Maggenis Carolan

Perhaps most intriguing is the notation of Sliabh Gaillean on page 80-81. Page 81 has the unusual variation with a melody played in the bass register. Underneath this, Bunting has written the scale of a harp, and marked out the “sisters”, and the “right hand” in the bass and the “left hand” in the treble. Does this give us the gamut of Higgins’s harp, and did Bunting note down this scale as part of noting down Higgins’s bass variation to Sliabh Gaillean?

Other versions

Tá Mé Mo Chodladh is a lovely traditional song air. There are variants known in Scotland, and there are other related tunes and songs. For our purposes it might be worth noting two other variants of this tune.

As well as his live transcription from Hugh Higgins in 1792, Bunting also made a live transcription, apparently from the playing of Denis O’Hampsey, possibly in 1796. This transcription is on Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.29 page 171/169/178/f84r. It is titled “Tame ma Collad na Duss”, which Pádraigín suggests represents “Tá mé mo chodhladh ná dúis…” (I am asleep, let me not…)

You can see that it is done in a very different writing style, which suggests to me Bunting’s 1796 collecting trip(s). It is also in section 3 of MS4.29, but I don’t know that the sections of the manuscript are organised chronologically at all. This transcription has a lot of notes marked “B” which represents bass notes. In 1798, Bunting developed this p.171 transcription into a piano arrangement (QUB SC MS4.33.3 p56-7) and he writes there, “This setting is exactly set <copied> from Hempson – both Bass & Treble”. Of course it isn’t, as it is a piano arrangement in the key of f major, but it does have spare bass octaves in exactly the places where he has “B” marked in the transcription. There is a more developed piano arrangement frim the 1830s in MS4.27, where it is tagged Dennis a Hempson, Magilligan, 1796; and the published piano arrangement in 1840 is labelled in the index Hempson, Magilligan, 1792. (for all the fame of Bunting’s published books of piano arrangements, there are very few recordings of his arrangements being played on the piano, and I can’t find one at all of Tá Mé Mo Chodladh, no.100 in 1840)

I also was interested to consider a traditional recording of Tá Mé Mo Chodladh as an instrumental slow air. This is Willy Clancy in 1969:

Charlotte Milligan Fox published notation of a similar version, collected by her from “Piper Kelly, an old musician who wanders round the North of Ireland… he said this lament was given to him by “ould Jimmy Joyce, a Galway piper” who had been to the Belfast Convention of Harpers in 1792″.

Journal of the Irish Folk Song Society, volume 1, [1904], p.16

I would say that Higgins and O’Hampsey are much closer to each other, but rather different from Clancy & Kelly, who are much closer to traditional song versions. But I think that O’Hampsey is also “squarer” than Higgins, that Higgins has potentially more of the flavour of Clancy & Kelly. The main difference I am hearing between the harp versions, and the pipe versions, is that the pipers have a sharp 7th whereas the harpers have a flat 7th. I don’t know if this is because of the pipe scale, or if the pipes are following singers, or what the reason is.

Again, I wonder what the connection is between the performance style of our harpers a bit over 200 years ago, and this piper, a bit over 50 years ago. If Bunting tried to make a transcription of Willie Clancy’s playing, and then worked up his transcription into a piano arrangement, what would he end up with? Should we try to understand and interpret the 1792 transcription from the playing of Higgins, through an understanding of Clancy’s recording?

Toby Peyton

I made a demonstration video of Planxty Toby Peyton, from Edward Bunting’s live field transcription of the playing of an old Irish harper in the 1790s.

Donal O’Sullivan lists a load of different versions of the tune of Toby Peyton, in his 1958 Carolan – the life times and music of an Irish harper. The tune is no. 148 in his book.

I was wanting to work from the live transcription written down by Edward Bunting in (most likely) 1792. It is in Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.29 page 26/26/35/f12v. The dots and bars here look competent and clean, but as usual for this “difficult” section of the manuscript, we have pitch or transposition problems. It seems to me that the first half is notated a 4th too low, but the second half is notated at pitch. I don’t understand why Bunting was doing this!

Bunting wrote a neat edited copy of the transcription on the facing page, p.27/27/36/f13r. There are interesting changes made by Bunting in his facing-page neat copy, which round off a few of the odd features of the tune.

The tune is in A neutral mode. This is related to G major mode, but Toby Peyton is obviously not in G major; apart from the way it finishes on A, there are other A passages in it, which point to the kind of “double tonic” effect that we expect from neutral-mode tunes. An A neutral pentatonic mode tune skips C and F, and Toby Peyton has them as occasional notes. They are placed oddly, which perhaps explains the “crooked” nature of the tune. Other things that make this tune “crooked” are the uneven line lengths and bar counts.

We can look at my Old Irish Harp Transcription Project tune list spreadsheet to see how Toby Peyton on p.26 sits in a group of transcriptions which may have come from Hugh Higgins in 1792. The only one I would be sure about is Tá Mé Mo Chodladh on p.28 which is tagged Higgins 92 in the manuscript. An Róise Bheag Mhodhamhar on p.23 is tagged Higgins in Bunting’s annotated copy of his 1797 piano book, though this is a synthetic arrangement combining features of two independent transcriptions, the other one on p.103 may be from Black in 1796.

In his printed piano book The Ancient Music of Ireland (1840), Bunting prints a piano arrangement of Toby Peyton, and in the index he says that he collected the tune from Higgins in ’92.

I don’t understand why Bunting has written “Jolly Begarman / Lame” at the top of the transcription page. Is this a reference to the theme or words of this tune? Or is it a reference to a completely different, unrelated tune?

Bunting titled the neat copy “Plangsty Peyton (or Toby)” and at the foot of the page he has written “Carolan rode Crooked”. This must refer to an anecdote which he published in the 1840 book (introduction p.99) about how Toby met Carolan on the road. Carolan was riding his horse and Toby said to him that he was riding “crooked”. Carolan responded by composing a “crooked” tune for Toby.

Harper and tradition-bearer, Arthur O’Neil, says he knew Toby Peyton. “I went to Toby Peyton’s <in Co. Leitrim> for whom Carolan composed “Plansty Peyton”… He lived to the age of 104 years, and at the time he was 100… This Gentleman’s age accounts for my observation of Carolan’s time being before mine, and my visiting him.” (Arthur O Neill, Memoirs, Queen’s University Belfast MS4.14.1 p.65). Donal O’Sullivan says (Carolan v2 p.93) that Toby Peyton died in August 1768, so we can tentatively give his dates as c.1664-1768, and place Arthur O’Neil’s visit to c.1764.

Song lyrics

There are two different song texts connected to Toby Peyton, but neither of them seems to go with our tune.

There is a song for Toby Peyton in Tomás Ó Máille, Amhráin Chearbhalláin (1916) p.134, edited from two different manuscript originals:

Plé-ráca Phadhton

Láimh leis an gCéis ta’n siollaire sásta,
Tobóid óg Padhton isé tá mé rádh
Is uasal ‘s is saoitheamhuil is grúagach ‘s is gnaoidheamhuil,
Ní léighfeadh sé a mhasladh choidhche air cáirde.

Go mnu búanach é & saoghlach ina shláinte,
Ó fuair se buaidh air a námhuid
Dá sgiúradh dá ngredadh dá mbúalad a’s dá lasgadh
Más cloidheamh bata nó lamha.

Bromaígh dhá gcioradh do ló & do oidhche
& bhainfeadh as buic dhíomasach’ léimneach
Na céadta fíona dá n-óladh na saoithe
Sé Tobóid óg Padhton do dhíolfadh.

A similar version of these words are in Hardiman, Irish Minstrelsy vol. 1 p. 42, with a facing page verse translation. Hardiman and one of the manuscripts attributes the verses to Carolan, but the other manuscript says “not by Carolan, but by Terence Kelleher, who being naked was clothed by T. Peiton” (Ó Máille p.291)

Donal O’Sullivan (Bunting 1983 p.186) (MOSB 127) says “these laudatory verses are presumably intended for the tune, but they are extremely poor and are not worth printing or translating”. However he also says (Carolan 1958 p.92) that no “extant version of the tune gives a satisfactory correspondence with the words”. I don’t see that a poem by Carolan to Toby Peyton should necessarily go with a tune by Carolan to Toby Peyton; it seems quite possible that the poem was sung to a different tune, and that our tune (DOSC 148) was intended from the start as an instrumental piece. Perhaps we should look for another tune for the song text.

In his notes to this poem, Hardiman (v1 p. 118) says “For the air of our lively planxty, see Irish Melodies no.V, p.18, – The young May moon”. Thomas Moore’s song, The Young May Moon, in vol. 5 of his Melodies states “air: The Dandy O”. The tune was published in Thompson, Hibernian Muse, 1787, No. 38, p. 23 with the title “Irish Air in Robin Hood”. This needs more chasing! Una Hunt, Sources and Style in Moore’s Irish Melodies (Routledge 2017) p.160 would be a good start. Have we just discovered another previously unrecognised Carolan tune?

The second set of words is in Hardiman v1 p.117, as part of the notes to his poem on p.42. These words seem to be addressed to Bridget. Hardiman says that Bridget was the daughter of Toby Peyton, and his words begin “Tá inghín aérách ag Tubóid Péaton”, but the words printed by Ó Máille (p.132) start “Tá cailín aerach aig Tobóid Padhton” (i.e. “Toby Peyton has a gay girl” against Hardiman’s “Toby Peyton has a gay daughter”). Donal O’Sullivan (Carolan v2 p94) says she was a servant-maid in Toby Peyton’s household. I don’t know what air might go with these words.

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.

Trying to describe the process

On Saturday I presented a talk in Belfast, at the Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich as part of the HHSI Discovery Day events within the Remembering Bunting Festival.

The Discovery Day is a composite event I have been doing for the past year or two, in collaboration with Siobhán Armstrong, Sylvia Crawford, and a sean-nos singer (either Róisín Elsafty or Eibhlís Ní Ríordáin). The format is to have a concert of harp and voice, given by Siobhán and the singer; a talk, given by me, and an introductory class for complete beginners given by Sylvia Crawford. Each lasts for a bit less than an hour and they usually run pretty much back-to-back, to give a kind of complete overview of the old Irish harp traditions.

Every time I do a Discovery Day talk I end up taking a different angle or approach, partly based on where in the country we are doing the event, and partly based on my current research interests and directions. For this event, I wanted to pick up on the work of Edward Bunting in particular, since it was his festival, and other presenters during the festival weekend were talking about the manuscripts in Queen’s University, or Bunting’s corpus of published music.

My talk also picked up on my recent focus of understanding the transcription process as the primary evidence for old Irish harp performance practice; and I wanted to correlate this in to the method of working with replica harps and portraits of harpers.

I was not as confident and articulate as I would like to have been for this talk, but since I had made the effort to film it I thought it might be useful as a record of where I am at the moment.

Róisín Elsafty and Siobhán Armstrong during the concert
Sylvia Crawford during the beginners class

A little history

I have been asked to do a historical overview talk at almost every Scoil na gCláirseach for years and years. Every time I do it, I try to make it new and fresh, to basically come up with a new overview. I think that way, I challenge myself to think about what story I want to tell, what are the important strands that we want to focus on.

Here’s my August 2019 talk, videoed by the Irish Traditional Music Archive.

I only had half an hour allocated, which made me focus even more. In this talk I didn’t speak about the modern revivals; sometimes I would make these an important part of the story. But somehow the medieval museum ambience made this aspect seem less important. And for the week-long participants at the summer school, the revival was what we talked about each day.

I’m always interested in the questions and comments….