View West from Slieve Gullion

Uair bheag roimh an lá

The final tune in this little group of three or four tunes we have looked at recently, is Uair bheag roimh an lá, a little hour before the day. We have Edward Bunting’s live transcription dots from the 1790s, and we have piano arrangements that he made based on this transcription. In this blog post I will line all these up and try to say something useful about the live transcription dots on Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.29 page 94/90/099/f44v.

We can see that the live transcription is in D minor, and it should probably have B flats all through. Now we know that B is not a note that is available on a traditionally tuned Irish harp, but nonetheless we can make a machine audio of the transcription notation:

Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.29 page 94/90/099/f44v
Download PDF typeset version or MP3 machine audio

The second note in bar 2 is F, but Bunting has written a sharp sign beside it. I have ignored this sharp sign for a number of reasons. Most importantly, if we recognise this tune as being in D minor pentatonic mode, the main notes are D-F-G-A-C-D. So the F note is a main note and so doesn’t have the possibility to be made sharp. It could be made sharp or ambiguous in D neutral mode, which has the main notes D-E-G-A-C-D, but I think that the line endings going G-F-D are a sign that this is not D neutral but D minor.

Why did Bunting write that sharp sign onto his live transcription notation? Was it done at the time, because his singer informant had bad intonation, and Bunting misheard a badly pitched F♮ as being a classical F♯? Or did Bunting go back to this page much later, when he was selecting tunes to convert into piano arrangements, and jot that sharp sign in then as a note to himself that this would be a lovely classical “improvement” to sharpen that F? Or something else?

At the top of the page, Bunting has given the title, “Little hour before Day”. I don’t know what the other writing on this page represents. There is the enigmatic symbol at the top of the page, like a = sign, which I discussed on my previous post. At the bottom is some text “Dawn of Day none of C: / or Morning star”. I think we can read this more coherently as the title “Dawn of Day / or Morning star”, and then an extra note “none of C:” whatever that means. There is also doodling in pen, “Anthony / Market” and at the bottom there is two lines of pencil that I can’t make out, except each begins with “M…” and ends with “…ss” and they seem to be two slightly different words.

Bunting’s classical piano development of the tune

Edward Bunting made a piano arrangement of this tune in his unpublished 1798 Ancient and Modern collection. You can see it is all transposed up one note to be in E minor with one sharp in the key signature. You can also see that there is no accidental on the second note of bar 2.

Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.33.3 page 39
Download PDF typeset version or MP3 machine audio

Bunting has written the title at the top, “Uair bheag a raimh láe – or little hour before day very Ancient”. He has set the words of the title to the final phrase of the tune: “uair bheag a raimhe láe”. And at the end he has written “From C. Byrne”. He has given the time as “Allegro” and so I have made the machine audio pretty fast (actually the same as the 1840 arrangement).

I think all of the bass is Bunting’s own piano arrangement; this is a new arrangement by him based on the transcription notation we saw above on MS4.29 p.94.

Bunting never published this collection, but he returned to our tune for his third and final published book which came out in 1840 towards the end of his life. We have draft piano arrangements in the piano albums from the late 1830s, where Bunting’s editors experimented with the arrangements and added attributions. Our tune is on MS4.13 p.89 I think, and MS4.27 p.38. I haven’t seen these, but references are in Moloney, Introduction and Catalogue (2000) p.257 & 324. The MS4.13 setting is in E minor, and I imagine the MS4.27 one is as well, since it has a tag written “better in F”. There is also a piano arrangement from around the same time, in Bunting’s handwriting, in QUB SC MS4.33.5 p.27. This one is in D minor.

The resulting piano arrangement was finally published as no.66 on p.48 under the title “A little hour before day / very ancient, Author and date unknown”. It is back down to D minor. He also gives an explicit tempo marking, crotchet=108, pendulum 10 inches, which I have followed in my machine audio:

Download PDF typeset version or MP3 machine audio

I think (as I always do) that these piano arrangements tell us nothing at all about traditional style. I think they shouldn’t be looked at as if they were traditional Irish tunes; they need to be understood in the context of Beethoven’s and Haydn’s settings of Scotttish and Irish airs. I only put Bunting’s piano arrangements here because they can inform our understanding of his live transcription notations in certain limited and specific ways.

The piano arrangements can help us with the metadata of titles, attribution, and other background information, though we also need to be aware that Bunting sometimes made up this information or got confused, and put the wrong title onto a tune and gave attributions that are demonstrably wrong.

The piano arrangements can sometimes help us with understanding the music of the tunes, but this is even more tricky because the whole point of Bunting’s work was to de-traditionalise the music, to take it away from the tradition-bearers and its original context, and to re-imagine it as classical keyboard music, and to use it to make this kind of published arrangement to market to an international classical readership.

Attribution to a traditional informant

The initial transcription notation in MS4.29 page 94 would most likely have been done in the 1790s, probably 1792 or 1796 when we know Bunting was out collecting from tradition-bearers.

In the 1798 Ancient and Modern piano arrangement, Bunting has written “From C. Byrne”. He may have written this in 1798, within a few years of making the transcription notation which we can see that the piano arrangement is based on. Or he may not have added this tag until 40 years later.

In the late 1830s piano albums, there is no tag on the MS4.13 arrangement, but the tune in MS4.27 is tagged “From C. Byrne in 1802”, and this tag is used in the 1840 printed book. On the index p.vii it says “A little hour before day / very ancient, author and date unknown / Byrne, the harper, 1806”.

I don’t believe this date, because I think that it is fairly clear that the 1840 printed arrangement and the 1798 printed arrangement both derive from the MS4.29 live transcription notation. But it is nonetheless possible that the MS4.29 transcription was made live from the singing or harp-playing of Charles Byrne.

There is another possibility, and that is that the MS4.29 live transcription may have been taken down from the singing or harp playing of Daniel Black in 1796. There is a tune list on MS4.29 page 178 where our title “Little hour before Day” is marked “Daniel Black”.

I think that any number of the old harpers and singers would have had this tune or song, and many of them may have sung it to Bunting. But I the live transcription notation on MS4.29 page 94 presumably was written live at speed from only one of them on one particular occasion.

Other versions of this tune

Donal O’Sullivan lists a whole load of other variants of this song and tune in his Bunting (1983) p.103.


There are song lyrics that seem to go with this tune. Patrick Lynch got words for Bunting, when he was touring Mayo (Westport and Castlebar) in the summer of 1802. Donal O’Sullivan suggests that these words come from Charles Byrne but I see no evidence for that, I think he is just guessing wildly.

Lynch’s Irish text is on MS4.26.19aj and his English translation is on the facing page MS4.26.19ai. He doesn’t say what tune these words go with but they seem to match our tune well enough.

Uair bheag roimhe la

A dhoctoir dhilis tobhair dhom teagos do Breathnamh
Uair bheag a roimhe an lá
Guid é an chaoi a bheith breith linibh
Uir bheag a roimhe la

Druid Dún do ghluna agus druid do glaca
Is gabh naoi nuaire timchioll a teallaigh
Gabh nunn ‘s gabh a nall san teach, se an Breathnamh
Uair bheag a roimhe an la

Little hour before day

Doctor dear give me yr opinion
A little hour before it is day
what is the best method to in child bearing
a little hour before it is day

Close yr knees and shut yr fists
and go nine times about the f hearth
and go to and fro through the house
That is the advice
a little hour before it is day

Lynch also made a neat presentation copy on QUB SC MS4.10.102.

The song has 8 half-lines, or 4 long-lines and so we could think about the structure of the tune. The transcriptions shows 3 long lines; perhaps Byrne (or Black) sung a version with only 3 long lines, or perhaps they played it on the harp as a 3 line tune. the 1798 piano arrangement shows 5, and the 1840 arrangement shows 4. I think the way the 1840 arrangement handles it is probably right if we want to match Lynch’s words, and so for the transcription we might think of repeating the first four bars. Then we can see the distinctive motif which is sung to the words “Uair bheag roimh an lá”.

General conclusion about this group of tunes

This tune, Little hour before day, is the fourth in the group of tunes I have written about recently. I started with A bhean dubh rún dileas on page 92. The there is Little Munster Mantle on page 93, and below it also on page 93 is Clár bog déil. And this tune, Little hour before day, is on page 94.

At first I thought these might represent four tunes in a genuine group, written down as four consecutive live transcription notations in the same session from the same informant. But having worked through them, I now think that A bhean dubh rún dileas does not really match the other three, and so I am now thinking of a group of three tunes on pages 92 and 93. These two pages are back to back on the same leaf, which may be part of a small gathering, but I don’t want to speculate more on how the transcription pamphlets were put together.

The three tunes are all written in a similar style of handwriting. Each of the three has a mysterious symbol written at the beginning, which I discuss on the page about Clár bog déil.

I think all three transcriptions are written in D minor mode. All of them seem to want the B flat to some extent. Two of them (Clár bog déil and Uair bheag roimh an lá) have later written attribution to singer and harper, Charles Byrne, the first explicitly to Byrne singing. However, those two titles also appear on the tune list in MS4.29 crediting them to singer and harper Daniel Black.

So, are they all from Byrne singing? Did Byrne sing in non-harp-friendly keys? Did he sing both sharp and flat 6th in the same tune?

Or did Byrne tune his harp differently to the other harpers? He was supposedly not a good harper, and not properly trained, perhaps even self-taught. Did he tune his harp one note lower that everyone else, so that his tunes all sounded one note down? (like a pitch standard of A395 nowadays)? Should we think of these tunes bumped up a note, so that they would be in E minor with F sharp tuned on the harp?

Are these transcriptions showing us instrumental or vocal versions of the tunes?

Is it all too hopeless, are the transcriptions too corrupt and sketchy and ambigious, and the piano arrangements too changed and classical, and the modern tradition too changed or too influenced by mid-20th-century revivalists?

I am finding these transcriptions quite difficult to understand and write up!

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.

Many thanks to the Arts Council of Northern Ireland for helping to provide the equipment used for these posts, and also for supporting the writing of these blog posts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.