B’fhearr Liom Ná Éire

Probably in 1792, Edward Bunting made a very clear live transcription notation of B’fhearr Liom Ná Éire into one of his collecting pamphlets. He made this live transcription from a tradition-bearer onto Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.29 p.39/37/46/f18r, on the facing page opposite Diarmaid Ó Dúda.

If we look at page 39, we can see there are four things basically. There are the titles and comments, presumably transcribed live from the dictation of the tradition-bearer informant; there is a line of dots which I think represent Bunting’s first attempt at capturing the tune as the informant played and sung. Then there is a line and a bit of notes and bars, which may also be in the form of live transcription dots which Bunting has expanded out with note stems, beams and barlines. Finally there is two and a bit lines of neat notation which I think is Bunting carefully clarifying the tune in his own mind. This may have been straight after the collecting session or it may have been some time after.

I think the text can be read as two separate things side by side. On the left we have Bunting’s phonetic attempt at the Irish title “Bearlum na Iera” with the English translation written above, “I would rather than Ireland”. Then, to the right of these titles, Bunting has written two different tags: “very old”, and “all the Irish tunes / require to be Played with a Great / degree of Boldness.

Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.29 p.39/37/46/f18r
1st line, dots: download PDF typeset version or mp3 machine audio
2nd line: download PDF typeset version or mp3 machine audio

The first machine audio plays the dots; the second plays the “full transcription” notes. I’m ignoring the neat copy.

Two notes in the “full transcription” have natural signs. I have added an implied B flat key signature, but I don’t really know what is intended here. There are other notations like this that have natural (or sharp) signs in. They may well be Bunting’s over-writings, as he prepares tunes for making classical piano arrangements. I am not sure.

We can perhaps understand this tune to be set in D minor, with strong notes D, F, G, A, C.

Bunting’s piano developments

Bunting made a piano arrangement of the tune of B’fhearr Liom Ná Éire. It is on page 8 of the proof sheets he deposited in London in the spring of 1796, and its title there is “bFearr liom na Ere”. (see Peter Downey, Edward Bunting and the Ancient Irish Music 2017 p. 7). I haven’t seen this, but Downey says it is identical to the arrangement published the following year.

The piano arrangement was published as no.48 in Bunting’s 1797 Collection, under the title “Bfear liom no eíre I would rather than Ireland”. You can listen to Fiachra Ó Corragáin playing Bunting’s classical piano arrangement from the 1797 book. Bunting has set the tune in the same key as his transcription notation, and uses the two B naturals as well as a lot of other accidentals as part of his very characteristic classical piano harmonies.

Bunting made a second piano arrangement which he published on page 29 of his 1809 Collection. His title there is “Bhfear liom na eire – I would rather than Ireland”. Bunting sets the tune with English lyrics, which he says are “from a literal translation of the original Irish by Hector MacNeill”. I think what this means is that Hector MacNeill was provided with a literal translation, which he then used as his inspiration for a completely new original English song.

I think it is clear that both of these published piano arrangements are derived from Bunting’s MS4.29 page 39 live transcription. Neither of them tells us anything about traditional Irish music style; I think they are only any use to us for confirming the metadata about the dates and sources of the live transcription notations.

Song words

There is a second completely independent live transcription notation of the tune. It is in the little notebook that Bunting used on his trip to Westport in county Mayo to meet up with Patrick Lynch in the summer of 1802, which is now MS4.33.1. It is just a line of dots, and it is headed “Cuilion og same as Bearlum na Ierne”. It is clearly a version of the first half of our tune. As far as I can see Bunting didn’t develop this version fuller.

We can check Patrick Lynch’s Journal of his tour to Mayo in 1802, collecting song texts on commission from Bunting. In his Journal he gives a list of songs and where he collected them from; on QUB SC MS4.24.045 he puts “bfearr liom na eire” with a group of four titles under the heading “At Bishop Bellews Ballina co Mayo from Mrs Burke”. We see a similar list in a letter now bound into his neat presentation book, on QUB SC MS 4.7.001c. Later in the book is his neat presentation version of the lyrics, on QUB SC MS 4.7.038. The song begins “Bfearr liom na Eire / no cead ponta <faoi na céadta> don or chrearach / nach bfeicin ariamh thu / snach aiobhruin duit gradh”

Lynch also made an English translation of these words, which you can see on QUB SC MS4.32.031. The translation begins “I would rather than <all> Erin / with her bright golden treasure / that I never had seen you / nor given you my love”. Lynch also writes an interesting note in the margin, “Note that bfearr liom no Eire, cuilion og, and cuilion Brocach seem to be blended one with the other and also one of Miss Brukes Irish fragments beginning with these words [??] following Si blath geall na smear i blath deas na subh craebh i”.

It seems clear to me that Lynch’s words here may well match Bunting’s notation dots in MS4.33.1 p.17. This would be an important task for someone, to match Bunting’s MS4.33.1 transcriptions to Lynch’s words, since they may well have been taken from the same informant, in this case Mrs. Burke. But that is not my job here, I am trying to focus on the harp transcriptions so this is all a giant digression really.

Donal O’Sullivan in his Bunting part 3 (1930) combines selected verses from all the different songs Lynch mentions, to create a new synthetic assembled song, which he sets to Bunting’s 1792 transcription melody from MS4.29 p.39.

All this interesting Mayo 1802 information tells us nothing at all about what Bunting’s 1792 informant might or might not have sung.

Date and source of the p.39 live transcription notation

I think we can date the live transcription on MS4.29 p.39 to before Spring 1796, because that is when Bunting’s proof sheets were deposited, including a piano arrangement derived from our live transcription notation. We can look at Bunting’s collecting trips to see that this strongly implies that Bunting may have made this transcription in the summer of 1792. We know that he was at the Belfast harp festival from 11-13 July 1792, but I doubt this page is from then, since I haven’t found any evidence of what transcriptions Bunting may have made over those three days. We also know he went on a song-collecting trip with Richard Kirwan up the West coast of Ireland in the summer of 1792, but I don’t think it is from then, because I think parts 2 and 4 of MS4.29 are the pamphlets from that trip. We also know that Bunting was at Magilligan to see Denis O’Hampsey in the summer of 1792, but I don’t think this page comes from O’Hampsey. And we know that Bunting was hanging around the Sperrins in the summer of 1792. Is that where he made this transcription notation?

In the early 1840s, 50 years after the transcribing session, Bunting made a little annotation into his personal copy of the 1797 published book. Against our tune he wrote “Harp Byrne”. I don’t know how seriously we should take this. He seems to think he got the tune from harper Charles Byrne. What grounds did he base this on? Did he have lists that we don’t have access to? Or did he use the position of the transcription in his notebook to inform his guess?

If we check my MS4.29 index PDF, we can see that our notation on p.39 sits on what looks like a folded pair of two leaves or four pages (pages 37-40). My Old Irish harp Transcriptions Project Tune List Spreadsheet shows that Diarmaid Ó Dúda is on the facing page 38. When I originally wrote this up I said that it was in G neutral mode, with no B and a passing E. I have since wondered again and again if it may have been noted one note down, with the idea of it possibly being an A neutral mode tune with no C and passing F sharp. We also see that Edward Dodwell overleaf on page 40 seems to be notated with 2 flats, which could be a singer’s flat key or could be noted one note lower than a sensible harp key for the harp tuned all naturals.

We can also see from the spreadsheet, that both Edward Dodwell and Diarmaid Ó Dúda are given attributions to Charles Byrne in later piano arrangements.

When we combine all this information with the numerous tunes attributed to Charles Byrne, and noted in positions that could either be flat vocal keys, or harp keys noted one note down, we see this notation fitting this pattern.

We know Charles Byrne was a good singer, but a poor harper. Do we consider this to be another of Byrne’s song performances?


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 “B’fhearr Liom Ná Éire”

  1. Than you, Simon. The two different playbacks give the song a great
    context. I like where your speculations lead, informed as they are.

    God bless you and yours

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