Na Gabhna Geala

In one of his little 1790s collecting pamphlets, Edward Bunting made what looks like a live transcription from a traditional performance of the tune of Na Gabhha Geala. The page is now bound up as part of Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.29 page 198/196/205/f97v.

At first I thought this page was an integral part of a 16 page pamphlet titled “Damn your Body” but I am now a lot less sure, since I inspected the gatherings and binding of MS4.29. These 16 pages seem to form two groups but they don’t seem to be a folded pamphlet and so they may be loose odds and sods.

I already looked at the other tune on this page, when I was discussing the tune of Bruach na Carraige Báine.

Lets look at the transcription notation first.

Bunting’s title for this notation is “Gowna Gala or White Calfs”. There is also the pencil scribble “Moggy and I” above in the margin but that may just be a cross reference to a different tune on the previous page (the reverse of this sheet).

Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.29 page 198/196/205/f97v
Download PDF typeset version, or mp3 machine audio

The notation is not very easy to understand. My machine audio tries to play everything I can see, and I have put F♯ in the key signature since it looks to me like we could understand this tune as being in E pentatonic minor, with the main notes E, G, A, B, D.

We have at least two layers of writing on this notation. The underlying layer consists of lighter dots with stems. Bunting has partly obliterated this layer with his heavily inked notes with large round note-heads and beams. We might wonder how much these heavily written notes represent Bunting’s attempt to correct a deficient live dots transcription, to being it closer to what his traditional informant sung or played, and how much the heavy notes represents Bunting’s editorial changes to begin de-traditionalising the tune on the way to making a classical piano arrangement suitable for commercial publication.

Bunting’s piano arrangements

Bunting made a piano arrangement for his 1798 unpublished Ancient and Modern piano collection. Bunting has obviously had input from an Irish speaker since he has corrected the spelling of the title, “Na Gamhna Gealla or the White Calf”.

Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.33.3 p.49
Download PDF typeset version, or mp3 machine audio

Bunting returned to this tune towards the end of his life, preparing material for his final 1840 publication. Our tune appears in the pair of big piano albums which were prepared in the late 1830s, apparently as part of the process to edit and improve the piano arrangements, and add tags and metadata some of which made its way through into the printed book. Here’s this 1830s piano arrangement, not in Bunting’s hand but apparently written by one of his editors. The title here is “Na Gamhna Gealla The white Calf”:

Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.27 p.69
Download PDF typeset version, or mp3 machine audio

What looks to me like the same piano arrangement also appears in the other book of the pair, QUB SC MS4.13, but has no attribution tag there.

The tune was finally published as no.54 on page 41 of the 1840 Ancient Music of Ireland. You can see that it is very similar to the ms4.27 piano arrangement.

As usual, I think these piano arrangements are totally irrelevant to an understanding of the sound and style of Irish traditional music. However, I am showing them here for two reasons. The first is to remind us all (in case we forget) that Bunting was a complete outsider to the tradition; he lived in classical music world, he wanted to sound like Beethoven or Haydn. I think that even as he was out collecting in the countryside, jotting down live transcriptions from tradition bearers into his little collecting pamphlets, he was imagining that music transformed by his skill into these slick European-style piano arrangements.

The second useful thing we can get from these is a sniff of the form and mode of the tune, though we have to be ready to accept that Bunting may have corrupted them beyond use for even that.

Attribution to a traditional informant

You can see the 1798 piano arrangement is labelled “From Charles Byrne’s singing”, and the 1830s piano arrangement is labelled “From Hugh Higgins in 1792”. Curiously, neither of these two tags is carried through into the printed book, and the 1840 index page xi says “The white calves … at Deel Castle, Ballina, 1792”.

We can check Bunting’s collecting trips and see that he was at Deel Castle in Ballina, County Mayo, in the summer of 1792, but this trip seems to have been mainly collecting songs with Kirwan and I believe that parts 2 and 4 of ms4.29 relate to that trip. I have seen very little evidence of notes or accurate record-keeping about what tunes were collected from what people when in Bunting’s manuscripts, so unless there was a super-organised index and collation notebook which has been lost, my suspicion is that by 1840 he may have been inventing or garbling the attributions. Remember this was 48 years after the supposed collecting event.

I don’t know if the Higgins 1792 attribution is similarly spurious. The Byrne singing attribution may be earlier – it may have been written in 1798, only a few years after the transcription session took place, but it could have been added into the 1798 book at any stage after that. At the moment I don’t know when these tags were written in.

We have a lot of Byrne singing tags for tunes in this part of ms4.29, so it is possible that these pages do actually derive from collecting sessions with the harper and singer Charles Byrne.

To be honest the transcription notation is ms4.29 is so sketchy, and the piano arrangements so classical, that I am not sure we can get very far in reconstructing the original performance version. We don’t even know if it was transcribed from singing or from harp performance.

Other versions

A close variant of our tune is given in the Forde manuscripts of the 1840s (ITMA edition 2021, no.12 on p.7) and also in Joyce, Old Irish Folk Music and Songs, 1909 (no.721, p. 359, from the Pigot collection).

There are a number of songs in the tradition today called na Gabhna Geala, though I am not seeing much similarity between any of these tune known today, and the transcription dots that Bunting made. You can hear a particularly lovely performance sung by Áine Uí Cheallaigh in 1994, at the Irish Traditional Music Archive. Here’s another ITMA video, of Brian Mullen here in Armagh in 2004:

This one sung by Sorcha Ní Ghuairim seems quite different again:

There’s also the whole issue of the different sets of words. Bunting tells us absolutely nothing about what words (if any) might have been sung to the tune he transcribed into MS4.29 p.198. There is a great discussion at Mudcat all about different lyrics. One version was collected by Patrick Lynch on his song-collecting tour to Mayo in 1802. One copy of this text written out by Lynch in MS4.25 is tagged “from J McDermud” who was one of his informants in Castlebar. You can see Lynch’s neat presentation manuscript of this song at QUB SC MS4.7.133, and you can see his English translation in QUB SC MS4.32.071.


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.

One thought on “Na Gabhna Geala”

  1. Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin discusses some Oriel versions of Na Gamhna Geala in her book A Hidden Ulster (2003, reprinted 2021), p.298-300. She gives a text and translation, and also talks a little about political interpretations of the lyrics. She sources her tune, some of the lyrics, and some commentary, from Amhráin Chuige Uladh. I think that this tune is closer to ours than any of the others I have heard. You can hear Páidrigín singing this version on her double CD Ceoltaí Oirialla (CE6717, 2017) as track 1 on CD2.

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