Grá na mBan Óg

Edward Bunting made what looks like a live transcription of a tune which he gives two titles, Grá na mBan Óg or James Plunkett. The notation is in one of his 1790s transcription pamphlets, now bound up as Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.29 page 197/195/204/f97r.

As usual we can start by looking at the transcription notation, and then we can talk about how we can start to work out what this notation represents.

There is a lot of text on this page, which may or may not relate to our tune or to the informer’s chatter during the transcription session. Up the left margin he has written “black moll of the Glen / moll Duogh ne Glanna / Chuilte Glassan Trougha”. There is a curly bracket around the second and third of these titles. We will come back to these later.

In the top left corner Bunting has written “Sir Ulick Burke / Madam Sterling” and then very faint pen writing which I can’t make out; the first two letters are “ho”, the nexy could be “ur” and then there are four or five more letters that are too faint to see. Along the top is what seems to be the title of our tune, “Granamanoge or Jas Plunket”. In the middle of the tune he has written “Grace soft young” and at the end he has written “young Doctor”. beneath that is text and notation for a different tune which I have already written up, “Moggy”.

Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.29 page 197/195/204/f97r
Download PDF typeset version or mp3 machine audio

This notation seems fairly problem free and straightforward. It is set in F major and requires B flat in the key signature.

B flat is not available in the traditional Irish harp tunings, and so we might suppose either that this is not a harp transcription, or that it may have been noted transposed down one note from G major.

I am thinking that this and the other tunes on nearby pages may well be transcriptions of vocal performances and not harp performances.

Other versions of the tune

Edward Bunting made classical piano arrangements, based on this live transcription notation. The first was in his 1798 unpublished Ancient and Modern piano manuscript, where it is titled “Gradh na mban Óg – or James Plunkett”

Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.33.2 p.31

I’m not going to make a machine audio of this one because I have had enough of listening to Bunting’s classical piano imagination, and because the live transcription is plenty clear enough. This 1798 classical piano arrangement was the basis for Donal O’Sullivan’s version he printed in his Carolan (1958) no.151.

Much later, probably in the late 1830s, there are piano arrangements in the two big piano albums which were prepared presumably by Bunting’s editors, as part of the work towards the 1840 Ancient Music of Ireland. I haven’t inspected these, but the references are in Colette Moloney’s Introduction and Catalogue (ITMA 2000):
ms4.13 (f39v) Moloney p.257 Shemus Oge Plunkett / ancient air / From Duncan the Harper in 1792
ms4 27 (f15v) Moloney p.323 Gradh na mBan Oge. Shemus Oge Plunkett / From James Duncan the Harper in 1792

There is also an 1830s manuscript piano arrangement in QUB SC MS4.33.5, titled “Grana mieen oge or James Plunkett”

Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.33.5 p.21

Finally, Bunting published his piano arrangement of the tune as no.32 on page 26 of his 1840 collection. The index p.xi says “Young James Plunkett … very ancient, author and date unknown … [from] Duncan, Harper, 1792”

There is a different, possibly independent version of the tune in Bunting’s papers, but I have not seen this. It is in QUB SC MS4.12 (f90r), titled James Plunkett. The first few bars are printed in Moloney Introduction and catalogue p246.

Donal O’Sullivan (Bunting 1983 p.51) deals with our tune, and he says that the tune is a variant of the song Moll Dubh a’ Gleanna. Does this explain why Bunting has written on the transcription page, “black moll of the Glen / moll Duogh ne Glanna”?

Bunting made a live transcription of a song air titled “Mol Dubh an Glanna” in part 2 of MS4.29 (p.126), but this seems to me to be a different tune. In my post on Bunting’s collecting trips I suggest that parts 2 and 4 of the manuscript contain song airs made by Bunting on a collecting tour of the West of Ireland with Richard Kirwan in the summer of 1792. Bunting printed a piano arrangement apparently derived from this p.126 transcription as no.47 in his 1797 collection, and in the annotations he credits it as from Castlebar and tags it “Harp”. I don’t know if that means he met a harper in Castlebar or something else; that annotation was inserted about 50 years later so I don’t know how reliable it is. in any case the transcription is not in a harp key and looks very song-like to me as do most of the notations in part 2 of MS4.29.

Because Bunting printed a piano derivative of the p.126 “Castlebar” transcription, Donal O’Sullivan looked at it in his Bunting Collection part 2 (1930) p.31-35. He explains that the song of Moll Dubh an Ghleanna is traditionally sung to many different tunes, and gives references to some different examples. He also says that there is a song “Bean dubh an Ghleanna” which seems to be different, though I wonder how much confusion there is between “Moll” and “Bean”; Douglas Hyde compares a Munster “Bean” with a Connacht “Moll” which is attributed to Carolan, and a county Clare “Poll” (Douglas Hyde, The Songs of Connacht / Amhráin Chúige Chonnacht, Irish Academic Press 1985 p.70-77). Donal O’Sullivan goes on to discuss how the song text of “Bean Dubh an Ghleanna” has close relations with three other songs, “Éamonn an Chnuic”, “Coillte Glasa an Triúcha” and “Mór ná Beag”, that these songs are in the same or similar poetical metres, that they sometimes share lines or even whole stanzas, and that they get sung to variants of each others tunes. Bunting himself picks up on this in some way, and has a note in his 1840 intro p.16 saying they are all the same tune with regional associations. I think this information derives from a marginal note in MS4.29 page 175, presumably taken from the dictation of a tradition-bearer, which reads “Chulte Glassan in / Ulster – / Colonel Gar[va] in / Conaught – / More na Beck in / Munster – yimon a he[?ec]k / in Lunster –”.

In any case, this spaghetti tangle of songs, tunes and titles perhaps explains why Bunting has bracketed together the two titles “moll Duogh ne Glanna” and “Chuilte Glassan Trougha” in the margin of MS4.29 p.197 beside his live transcription of our tune, Grá na mBan Óg or James Plunkett. Presumably all this writing on p.197 comes from his tradition-bearer informant who was drawing connections or parallels between these different tunes or song lyrics.

Attribution to a traditional informant

As usual, I want to know how the notation on MS4.29 p.197 was produced. I am assuming Bunting sat down beside a tradition-bearer, and scribbled the dots down onto that page as the informant sung or played. But who was the informant and when was the transcription done?

Bunting gives us hints in his later piano arrangements. It’s important to realise that the tags on the piano arrangement don’t refer to that actual arranged setting – that has been spun out of Bunting’s head. I am understanding the tags to refer silently back to the original transcription session, which produced MS4.29 p.197. But of course it is possible that Bunting did other transcription sessions whose pieces of paper are now lost.

Bunting tags piano arrangement versions of this tune “from Charles Byrne” and also “from James Duncan the harper in 1792”. The Duncan tags all come from arrangements written in the late 1830s, over 40 years after Bunting’s transcription sessions were done. Do we trust his memory? I certainly don’t trust his filing system.

The Byrne tag may date from as early as 1798, when that piano arrangement was made. This is only a few years after the transcription was likely done, and so we might tend to believe this tag more.

We can also note many other Byrne tags in this section of MS4.29 and I am thinking that this whole “Damn your Body” 16 page grouping may represent a composite pamphlet used by Bunting on a collecting session with Charles Byrne. We are told that Byrne was “not distinguished as a performer” and that of all the harpers he “played worst”. However we are also told that he could “sing a good variety of real Irish Songs in a pleasing style with a pleasing voice”. I am thinking that Bunting may have transcribed vocal performances from Byrne in preference to his “worse than tol lol” harp performance. So perhaps we can imagine this transcription of “James Plunkett” as being a transcription from Byrne singing?

If it were a song transcription this would also possibly explain its neat coherent notated structure, since it seems to me that Bunting had a lot less trouble transcribing song performances than he did with harp performances; and it might also explain the non-harp-friendly key and mode.


If the transcription on MS4.29 p.197 was transcribed from a vocal performance, what words did the informant (perhaps Byrne) sing? We will probably never know. But perhaps he sang the words of the song addressed to James Plunkett by Carolan, which Donal O’Sullivan suggests (fairly plausibly) go with this tune. Carolan’s lyric begins “Séamas Óg Pluinceád, bronntóir an fhíona” (giver of wine), and the first section finishes “Grádh na mban óg é…” (he is loved by young women…). You can get the Irish lyric (as well as a horrendous English paraphrase) in Hardiman (1831) p.82.

Does that mean this is a Carolan tune? I find it interesting that Bunting does not mention Carolan, and goes so far as to tag the tune “very ancient, author and date unknown”. So presumably none of his tradition-bearer informants told him there was a Carolan connection. Perhaps there were other lyrics relating to the love of young women? Perhaps the lyrics sung were connected to Moll? And anyway as soon as Bunting had transcribed the melody of the song, he was away into piano world treating it as a pure instrumental tune.

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.

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