Bonny Portmore

Edward Bunting made a live transcription notation of the tune of “Bonny Portmore” into one of his collecting pamphlets in the 1790s.

The page is headed “Bonny Portmore”. Scribbled out at the top left are other words which I can’t make out. In the middle of the tune, Bunting has written “Anthologia Hibernia / Maisterton Anthony”, and after the tune he has written “Maisterton a real old Irish / Tune”. (I assume that this refers to the tune of Lady Maisterton). Then he has written the tune and a line of words from “An Bíle Buadhach” which I will look at in my next post.

Queen’s University, Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.29 page 218/216/225/f107v

You can download my PDF typesetting of the manuscript transcription which I used to generate the machine audio.

Even though there are no bar-lines, this seems a very clear and un-contentious transcription. The only question mark comes at the 7th and 8th notes of the second system, where Bunting appears to have overwritten a possible original D-B quavers with a heavier A-F. This is a light, unstressed pick-up kind of passage and so perhaps it is possible that his informant played it either way round on different repetitions. But it is also always worth bearing in mind the possibility that Bunting was already engaging his classical piano arrangement skills to “improve” the tune right there in the transcription pamphlet.

The double repeat mark at the end of the first section seems to be a stylistic oddity, as it is found like this with no closing repeat mark at the end, in many other tunes in the manuscript. My machine audio repeats the first half, but in my video demonstration I follow the structure of the song words, and play straight through:

Bunting’s piano developments, and confusion with Peigí Ní Shléibhín

The tune of Bonny Portmore appears in two piano arrangements much later, in a manuscript in the 1830s, and in the printed collection of 1840. In both arrangements it is tagged as being from Donald Black at Glenoak in 1796.

There is some confusion and ambiguity because Bunting seems to get mixed up between the two very similar but distinct tunes, “Peggy na Leaven” and “Bonny Portmore”. I discuss this a bit on my Peigí Ní Shléibhín blog post. We see this most clearly in the 1830s piano manuscript, where both titles are used to head the “Portmore” tune.

I say the Portmore tune, but actually it is a kind of conflated combination. The first three lines of the tune follow Bunting’s page 218 transcription of “Bonny Portmore” well enough, but Bunting has dumped the fourth line of Bonny Portmore, and substituted it with the fourth line of his page 106 transcription of “Peggy na Leaven” – and even then he adjusts that line, changing the Peggy transcription passage G-A-D into a much more pianistic broken chord, G-B-D.

Here is the manuscript from the 1830s. It is titled “Peggi ni Leavan or Portmore Bonny Portmore, ^ (Lord c Marquis Hertford’s seat near Antrim) / very Ancient / date, & author / unknown” and at the end it is tagged “From Donald Black at Glenoak in 1796”. None of this seems to be in Edward Bunting’s handwriting.

Queen’s University, Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.13 p.26
Queen’s University, Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.13 p.27

Bunting printed a similar arrangement in his 1840 book (no.109 on page 80). He gives a commentary on page 97 of the introduction where he also gives it both titles, “Peggi ni Leavan, or Bonny Portmore”. In the index page v, under “name in Irish characters” he writes “Peggi ni labhainn”, under “name in English characters” he has “Peggi ni leaven”, and under “translation” he has “Bonny Portmore”; and then on the index page vii, he writes “Bonny Portmore … very ancient, author and date unknown, D. Black, harper, at Glenoak, 1796”.

Edward Bunting, The Ancient Music of Ireland, 1840, p.80
Edward Bunting, The Ancient Music of Ireland, 1840, p.81

Donal O’Sullivan is no help; in his posthumous 1983 volume (p.156-7) he takes the confusion even further, printing Bunting’s 1798 manuscript piano arrangement of Peigí Ní Shléibhín under the title “Bonny Portmore”.

To be clear: I consider Peggy na Leaven and Bonny Portmore to be different tunes and different songs. Bunting collected them from different harpers at different times and places. It was Bunting himself, later on, at the piano, who merged them together into a combined hybrid melody.

Attribution to a harper

If we check my Old Irish Harp Transcriptions Project Tune List Spreadsheet, and my MS4.29 index and transcript PDF, we can see that the transcription of Bonny Portmore on page 218 sits in a rather confused and mixed area of the manuscript, surrounded by unidentified transcriptions, and tunes copied from books, and taken from singers or instrumentalists. So we don’t get any clues from here about Bunting’s source for the tune of Bonny Portmore.

But if we collate the piano arrangements and tune list tags, it seems to me to be most likely that Bunting got this page 218 transcription version of Bonny Portmore from the harper Daniel Black at Glenoaks (or Glendaragh), near Crumlin, in the summer of 1796.

There is a tune list giving the titles of tunes collected from Black, on Page 178. The tune list says “Peggen a Leaven Daniel Black”, but if we consider that Bunting doesn’t understand the difference between the two tunes, then perhaps this might also refer to this tune of Bonny Portmore?

About Portmore

Portmore Castle was supposedly built in the 1660s by Edward Conway, 1st Earl of Conway (c. 1623 – 11 August 1683). Conway had no heirs and the title eventually passed to the Marquess of Hertford, hence Bunting’s confused note in MS4.13

The castle is completely vanished now, but next to it is the old churchyard and ruined church. It is usually called Ballinderry old church, but it seems to have had an old name of Laa Loo, some kind of corruption of a dedication to St. Lau, but I am not finding good information about any of this. The churchyard is in a very spectacular location on the shore of Lough Beag, apparently on what used to be a seasonal island before the drainage channel was cut to try and drain Lough Beag into Lough Neagh.

My map shows the old churchyard, the approximate site of the castle, as well as Mr. Heyland’s house at Glenoaks where Bunting said he collected this tune from the playing of Donald Black in 1796:

This is also the area connected to the old song “it’s pretty to be in Ballinderry”. You can see Lower Ballinderry village just to the south-east of Portmore, and Ram’s Island is the long thin island in Lough Neagh. But that’s for a different blog post one day…

My map also shows places connected to the the other tune on MS4.29 p.218, Is aoibhinn aoibhinn cloigtheach Aontroim. I will discuss the connections between these two tunes on my next blog post, about that tune.

Song words

In his 1840 book, page 97, Bunting prints one verse of a traditional song:

Bonny Portmore, you shine where you stand,
And the more I think on you, the more my heart warms;
But if I had you now, as I had once before,
All the gold in all England would not buy you, Portmore

But he doesn’t tell us where he gets these song words or the traditionary information about Portmore that he gives on that page.

Other related songs

First of all we can recognise that the tune of Peigí Ní Shléibhín is a close variant of this tune of Bonny Portmore, and you can read more at the linked blog post.

Second, the song of Bonny Portmore is part of a giddy stramash of different threads which are far too big for me to untangle here, with different placenames being praised including Portrush and Kilkenny, and different tunes or themes incorporating this Portmore stanza. I was especially interested in the Scottish variants which take it off in a completely different direction:

And that’s not even mentioning the connection to “My heart’s in the Highlands…” If you want to follow up on any of this I would suggest that you start with this discussion on Mudcat Café which will give you lots of leads. I’ll not say more about that; I have to stay focussed on harp transcriptions, otherwise I could spend half my live chasing that kind of digression…

Other versions of our song tune

Seán O Boyle published song words and music of “Bonny Portmore” in his 1976 book The Irish Song Tradition (pages 50-51):

Oh, Bonny Portmore, you shine where you stand
And the more I think of you, the more I think long
If I had you now as I had once before
All the Lords in old England would not purchase Portmore

Oh Bonny Portmore, I am sorry to see
Such a woeful destruction of your ornament tree
For it stood on your shore for many’s the long day
Till the long boats from Antrim came to float it away

All the birds in the forest, they bitterly weep
Saying “where will we shelter or where will we sleep?”
For the oak and the ash, they are all cutten down
And the walls of Bonny Portmore are all down to the ground.

O Boyle prints the words of three verses which he had collected and recorded from the traditional singer, Robert Cinnamond, who lived locally, between Ballinderry and Glenavy. However, though the words are Cinnamond’s traditional version, the tune that O Boyle sets them to is not. O Boyle says “Robert’s air for the song was obviously an impoverished version of the tune given by Bunting”, and so instead of printing the melody that Cinnamond sung, O Boyle sets Cinnamond’s words to Bunting’s classical-ised melody with its final line interpolated from Peggy Ni Leaven.

I understand from various sources such as the Mudcat thread linked above, that O Boyle’s printed version of the text and tune was used as the source for many traditional singers especially in Canada, this version becoming a very well known and popular song. I think this is why people usually sing the song it nowadays to Bunting’s modified classical piano melody.

Robert Cinnamond’s recording, made by Seán O Boyle for the BBC in 1955, was included on the Folktrax cassette FTX-157 Not a word of no surrender in 1980. But it doesn’t seem to have been re-released anywhere else and is very hard to get hold of. I am very grateful to the staff at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library who enabled me to listen to Cinnamond’s recording. The words that Cinnamond sings on the recording are slightly different from the text printed by O Boyle, though they are close:

Bonny Portmore, you shine where you stand
And the more I look on you, the more I think long
If I had you now I had once before
All the Lords in old England could not purchase Portmore

Bonny Portmore, I am sorry to see
Such a woeful downfall of your ornament tree
For it stood on your shore for many’s the long day
Till the long boats from Antrim came to float it away

The birds of the forest, does bitterly weep
Saying “where will we shelter or where will we sleep?”
For the oak and the ash trees, they are all cutted down
And the walls of Portmore are down to the ground.

Cinnamond’s melody is very interesting as an independent witness to the melody of Bonny Portmore, from a very respected tradition-bearer. His melody is fairly close to the page 218 transcription, though he turns the melody higher in the middle of each line. I have been influenced by Cinnamond’s structure, rhythm and pacing in my video demonstration above.

There is another traditional recording sung by Eddie Butcher in 1970. But I haven’t managed to hear this yet. I understand it is in the Hugh Shields collection at the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum collection, No.7009. It will be very interesting to see what text and what melody Eddie Butcher uses, and how he handles them.

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

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

9 thoughts on “Bonny Portmore”

  1. Robert Cinnamond gets a mention in Peter Kennedy’s ‘Folksongs of Britain and Ireland’, though it’s hard to work out if any of the items originate with him – and Bonny Portmore doesn’t appear in the index. There was an LP of his singing came out though – during the first age of vinyl I remember a long playing record of Cinnamond – which having googled, I find came out on Topic Records. I dare say it’s long out of print but might be worth pursuing. And Ballinderry old church having an old name of ‘Laa Loo’ – surely there’s a connection with the God Lugh given the second component.

    1. Cinnamond’s 1975 LP on Topic records was titled You Rambling Boys of Pleasure and is currently available on all the main online music streaming services.

      The LP was also re-released on CD (I think in 2018) as part of a wonderful book, Tis pretty to be in Ballinderry: Robert Cinnamond 1884 – 1968 by Roisin White, published in association with the Belfast Traditional Music and Dance Society and An Góilín Traditional Singers Club. The book is 60 pages with 2 CDs, one being the re-release of You Rambling Boys of Pleasure and the other being newly recorded versions by current traditional singers, of other songs from Cinnamond’s repertory. The book includes biographical information about Robert Cinnamond and photographs of him and his family, as well as the full sleeve notes of the LP and the song lyrics of the 2nd CD songs.

  2. I went to Cultra, north-east of Belfast, to where the NMNI Sound Archive is, and got a chance to listen there to a digitised version of Hugh Shields’s tape of Eddie Butcher singing Bonny Portmore. The full reference is National Museums NI Sound Archive, Hugh Shields Collection, Tape HOYFM_R70-65_s1.

    Eddie Butcher’s version of Bonny Portmore has a very different tune from what Bunting collected from his harper informant (presumably Daniel Black), and from what Robert Cinnamond sang.

    On the tape, Butcher sings 17 verses, lasting almost 7 minutes. His verse 1 is very similar to Robert Cinnamond’s: “Bonny Portmore, you shine where you stand … All the Lords in Europe could not purchase Portmore”. His verse 2 describes Portmore and Ram’s Island. Verse 3 is the same as Cinnamond’s verse 2, “Bonny Portmore, I am sorry to see such a woeful downfall of your ornament tree”. Eddie’s verse 4 describes “the nobles and lords” sailing around the deer park.

    Then Butcher’s verses 5 through to 13 talk in great detail about “Squire Dobbs” and his attempts to drain Lough Beag (Portmore Lough), with occasional verses about the family and the effect on the local landscape. This would refer back to actual historical events:

    “About 1740, Arthur Dobbs … agent to Lord Conway, … drained or rather emptied the lake by means of a windmill and buckets; but the water returning either through springs or by a subterraneous communication with Lough Neagh, he was compelled to abandon his attempt to convert its bed into arable land.”
    (Parliamentary Gazetteer of Ireland 1844-45, via T.W. Ferres on his “Lord Belmont” blog)

    Eddie Butcher sings (v5) “Squire Dobbs was ingenious, he framed a wind mill, to drain the Lough dry but the lough is there still. His wind mill and engine they all were in vain, for the lough of Portmore he never could drain”; (v10) “…what it drew off at [day time] crept under at night”; (v11) “Those two lakes together in friendship are bound; it’s the opinion of many they meet underground”.

    Verse 14 tells of other works that Dobbs subsequently did after his attempt to drain the Lough failed, including a “stone and lime wall” through “Brankin’s fort”, and “an open highway” through Derryola

    Verse 15 laments the loss of Portmore; verse 16 is similar to Cinnamond’s verse 3, “The birds of the forest did all cry and weep … Portmore’s fine buildings are gone to decay and George’s fair island is all cut away”. Verse 16 finishes the song: “Now Bonny Portmore, fare you well, fare you well; of your far famed beauty I always will tell. When my last day shall come, I will lie by your shore, and sweet will my dreams be of Bonny Portmore”.

    Finally there is a brief conversation between Hugh Shields and Eddie Butcher, but it is very faint and they speak indistinctly so I couldn’t make much of it out.

    It is interesting that Eddie Butcher’s song contains so much local knowledge and place names, since he seems not to have travelled much outside of Magilligan where he lived, about 50 miles north west of Portmore.

    Many thanks to NMNI staff for facilitating my visit to the Sound Archive and for letting me listen to this digitised recording.

    1. I see on the other Mudcat thread (25493) that John Moulden posted basically the same words as what Eddie Butcher sings, in a comment dated 17th Sept 2000. Moulden says the lyrics were published by Francis Joseph Bigger in “a little book published for a fund raising bazaar held (I think) in the nearby Glenavy Parish”. Bigger died in 1926 so the booklet must date from before then. Moulden says the booklet is preserved in the Bigger Collection in Belfast Central Library.

      Moulden’s post is also very useful to me in clarifying some of what Eddie Butcher sung.

      Did Butcher get his text from Bigger’s booklet? His sung lyrics seems extremely close to what Bigger printed. Eddie was born in 1900 so I think it is unlikely that Bigger got the text from him, but maybe from whoever Butcher learned the song from? I notice that the swans leave Portmore and move to live in Magilligan, which is also where Butcher lived.

  3. I’m thinking that the tune Eddie Butcher sings is also related to the tune “old head of Denis” which Tom Moore used for “The Meeting of the Waters”; it is also related to the tune of Buachaill ón Éirne.

    I found another variant of that tune used for a song, The Boys of Kilkenny apparently published between 1802 and 1811. That song includes some of the Bonny Portmore lyrics.

    I also found an English variant of the Kilkenny words, but with what seems to be a different tune, discussed on mainly Norfolk:

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