Two mystery tunes

One of the fun parts of my Old Irish Harp Transcriptions Project is discovering previously unrecognised or neglected live “dots” transcriptions of well-known tunes, most spectacularly with the Fairy Queen. And so the corollary is that one of the most irritating parts of the project is to find clear complete transcriptions of tunes that I cannot recognise from anywhere else.

Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.29 page 208/206/215/f102v has what looks like two live transcription notations, of two different tunes. I don’t recognise either of these tunes.

Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.29 page 208

You can also download my PDF typeset versions of the first and the second of these two tunes, which I used to generate the machine audio. Note that for the second tune, the PDF and the audio only represents the underlying transcription notes, not the bolder neater overwriting.

First tune

The first tune looks to me like it is formed of live transcription dots which have been expanded out by the addition of note stems, beams, and barlines. If we assume it is at pitch, it seems to be in G neutral mode (the notes of G neutral pentatonic mode are G, A, C, D, F). This tune seems to have the caracteristic “double tonic” structure where sections are either in a G sonority or switch to the “away” F sonority, finishing on G.

It seems to have a curiously uneven structure, of 15 bars. I would understand it to have 6 lines, the first three lines each of 3 bars and the last 3 lines each of 2 bars. It is very likely that Bunting has misunderstood the rhythm and structure of this tune and has mis-barred and mis-notated it. But it fits OK on the harp, and it has what looks like a two-note chord in it, so I will try and play it for you.

Second tune

The second tune is much harder to read and understand. There are two layers of notation here, partly over-written.

The first layer is the live transcription dots on systems 3 and 4 of the page, with long slender stems. Bunting has also added a couple of beams and a rest, and barlines for the first seven bars, and a double barline after bar 4. The rest of this layer of notation is just the close-packed spindly live transcription notes.

Then Bunting has gone back and over-written a much bolder neater copy of the tune onto systems 4 and 5 of the page. This style of handwriting, with big fat note-heads, well spaced out, I think is characteristic of Bunting’s editorial straightening up of a tune as the first stage of moving away from the traditional performance and towards eventual piano publication.

There is some confusion and ambiguity in the order of the sections of the tune, and the order that Bunting presents in his neat edited version is different from the order in the live transcription dots. If we read the live transcription version in groups of 4 bars, then we can identify on system 3 of the page, an first line, finishing with a double bar; a second line with an ambiguous ending (both a and b are written together as the last note of this second line), and a repeat of the first line. On system 4, we can see a third line, and a repeat of the first line. So the structure of the live transcription seems to be 1 || 2 1 3 1 for a five line tune.

If we look at Bunting’s edited over-writing we see a different order of lines He has also barred it differently, using half the number of barlines to make lines of 2 long bars. On system 4 we can see the first line, finishing on a minim. Then we see the second line finishing on a. Then we see the third line finishing on b, which continues onto the 5th system. Then we see a repeat of the first line, finishing with a double bar. And finally we see the second line finishing on b, with a pickup leading to a strange mark like an inverted fermata. So the structure of the edited neat overwritten copy is 1 2a 3 1 || 2b…

How do we accommodate both of these? Perhaps we can try and look at the physical page layout of the live transcription notes. Perhaps Bunting wrote line 1 and, realising it was a line end, added the double bar. Then he wrote line 2, finishing with a. Then maybe he dropped down to the next system and continued by writing line 3, and then the repeat of line 4. Then perhaps the informant played line 2 again, but perhaps Bunting didn’t write it again, until the last note b, when maybe he wrote the b on top of the a, and then perhaps he finished the whole thing by writing line 1 again at the end of system 3. So, perhaps the original performance was a six-line tune, going 1 2a 3 1 2b 1. I do not know, and because I have not found another version of this tune I don’t think we have any way of finding out.

This tune seems to be in G major (the notes of G major pentatonic mode are G A B D E). The tune drops to finish on D, which I understand makes it a plagal G major pentatonic mode tune.


There are two texts which look like titles written on this page. In the middle of the page, between the two tunes, is written “Callen a vacca Deelish”, i.e. A chailíní, (or A Chailín), an bhfaca dílis which I think means something like, Hey girl(s), did you see, dearest? I do not recognise this title; it could be the title of the first tune written at the end, or it could be the title of the second tune written at the beginning, or it could be an unrelated doodle.

At the top of the page in a different coloured ink, and partly smudged out, is a different title, “Callena vacca sheo shurse” which is the title of a different tune, A chailíní, an bhfaca sibh Seoirse? (Girls, did you see George?). Bunting collected two different versions of that other tune, one from harper Hugh Higgins and one from harper Denis O’Hampsey. We also have a song text which was collected from O’Hampsey by Patrick Lynch.

Why did Bunting write this title at the head of page 208? Did the other title “Callen a vacca Deelish” remind him of it? Did his informant on page 208 tell him about A chailíní, an bhfaca sibh Seoirse?? I don’t know. However this fits with a pattern I am seeing in these collecting notebooks, where Bunting writes a text or a title at the head of a musical notation, which seems to be totally unrelated to the tune he has notated.

Other versions

If you recognise either of these tunes, please let me know by email or in the comments below.

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.

2 thoughts on “Two mystery tunes”

  1. Simon,
    It is always frustrating trying to read Irish written in English orthography, especially when the writer may not have understood Irish. My instinct would be to restore to title of “Callen a vacca Deelish’, as addressed to a single girl; – A Chailín. In the end I think much of it has to be guess work, not knowing how accurate the original scribing was.
    Keep up the great work!
    John Williams

    1. Thanks John. The trouble is that for the other tune, we have Irish speaker John Lynch’s spelling of O’Hampsey’s title “A chailinigh bhfaca sibh seorse”, which non-Irish-speaker Edward Bunting renders as “Callena Vacca Sheo Shurse”. That’s why I think we can’t be sure whether this one is single or plural.

      I think if we collate enough of Bunting’s work we can get more definite opinions on what he was trying to say. You are right though it is not easy because he was very much an outsider and hadn’t a clue about a lot of this stuff.

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