View of Loch na Fooey on the border of County Mayo and County Galway, looking West

Spéic Seóigheach

Some time in the 1790s, Edward Bunting wrote the tune of Spéic Seóigheach onto a page of his collecting pamphlets, which now form the Damn your Body section of his bound collecting notebooks. Spéic Seóigheach is on Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.29 p.192/190/199/f94v and continues on to the top of p.193/191/200/f95r. In this post we will look at Bunting’s notation of the tune of Spéic Seóigheach on this page, and we will try and relate it to other information that will help us understand what this notation represents.

The notation

I think this notation must have begun life as live transcription dots; it looks to me like the kind of notation that Bunting would likely have made when he was out collecting tunes from tradition-bearer informants. I imagine first making just a dots outline of what his informant was singing or playing, and then he seems to have gone back over adding the note stems. He seems to have abandoned the notation at this point, and he did not add barlines, beams, or any other information to the notation.

Bunting has written our tune at the bottom of page 192, underneath his notation of D’éalaigh Máire Liom. However, he seems to have written Spéic Seóigheach in a slightly different writing style which makes me wonder if it was done at a different time, and just fitted in to a space. He runs out of space at the bottom of the page and just continues on the first stave of the next page 193. Then, starting on the second stave of p.193, Bunting writes a neat copy of the tune of Spéic Seóigheach. We can tell this is a neat copy, because it has minims and because of the way it is carefully laid out. We will discuss later whether this is Bunting’s own neat development of the transcription version, or whether he may have copied it from an earlier printed book or manuscript.

Bunting’s title is “Speac Seaosh (or shyoch)”, which is his phonetical approximation of Spéic Seóigheach – the gh would be silent and the ch would be very soft or almost silent.

At the top of page 193 he has written what I take as an unrelated title of a different tune, “Bhacca dubh starrae du[g]h Gearran mra / did you see the black rogue Looking for a Woman”.

Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.29 p.192/190/199/f94v and p.193/191/200/f95r
Download PDF typeset version or mp3 machine audio

This notation of bare notes seems very straightforward, except of course for the lack of rhythm marks and phrase separations. The only odd bits (to me) seem to be the double note almost at the end, and the subsequent three notes that almost look like they are written in a different way.

We might wonder if the grouping of these bare notes might give us a hint to rhythm and phrasing.

We can understand the tune to be in F major pentatonic mode; the only out-of-mode note I see is the B at the beginning of the fourth quarter. I have marked B flat in the key signature but I don’t really know.

What is the neat copy copied from?

If you listen to the machine audio and follow the notes in Bunting’s neat copy on page 193 you will see that the neat copy drops whole sections of the first quarter and the third quarter of Bunting’s bare notes. Specifically it doesn’t have the repeated six-note phrases F-G-F-D-C-D, which each repeat three times in the bare notes, at the lower octave in the first quarter and at the higher octave in the third quarter.

We know that the tune of Spéic Seóigheach had been printed before Bunting started collecting, and we know that he had access to the printed book because he copied other tunes out of it into his collecting pamphlets.

J. C. Walker, Historical memoirs of the Irish bards (1786)

Exactly the same tune (except with one added gracenote at the end) was printed with a bass by Thompson in his Hibernian Muse in c.1790.

Peter Downey addresses this question in his Edward Bunting and the Ancient Irish Music… (Lisburn 2017) p.39, as one of his “case studies” in the chapter on the “influence of earlier published collections of Irish music on Edward Bunting’s early collecting and publishing activity”. Downey says that the neat copy on MS4.29 p.193 is “surprisingly close to Walker’s melody” and that it “omits a significant number of the originally transcribed pitches”.

I think Downey is right that there are similarities between some aspects of Walker’s tune and Bunting’s neat copy, but I also think it is clear that Bunting is not simply copying the tune from Walker into his notebook, as he does in many other cases. Instead, I think we could perhaps understand Bunting perhaps making a synthetic combined neat copy by combining elements of the p.192-3 notes transcription with elements from Walker’s printed tune.

The elements likely taken from Walker include the single instance of the 6-note phrase, and the rhythm of the tune. Elements taken from the transcription notes are the pitches of the tune, and the three repetitions of the 6 note phrase.

However I also think we should bear in mind the possibility that Bunting’s neat copy may have been copied from another different lost original.

Bunting was clearly interested in Walker, and he copied a number of tunes straight from Walker into MS4.29 (see my Old Irish Harp Transcription Project Tune List Spreadsheet for details of these). I also note that the other tune that Bunting has written on p.192, D’éalaigh Máire Liom, also appears in Walker but also seems not to have been copied from there by Bunting. The other “case study” that Downey discusses is An bhfaca tú mo Valentine which seems to incorporate readings from Walker as heavy over-written notes, written in on top of the live transcription.

I think all this has clear implications for how we understand Bunting’s work, and the nature of “collecting tunes”. But we still need to work more on specific examples and detailed collations and comparisons to say much more.

Bunting’s piano development of the tune

Bunting printed a piano arrangement of Spéic Seóigheach as no.3 in his 1797 collection. His title there is “Speic Seóighach – Joice’s Tune”. You can hear a performance of Bunting’s classical piano arrangement played by Fiachra Ó Corragáin.

The piano tune is set in F, and seems to follow the bare notes transcription version on ms4.29 pages 192-3 pretty closely, and then finishes with a kind of repetition of the beginning. Donal O’Sullivan suggests that this repetition starts with the strange few notes at the end of both the notes transcription and the neat copy in MS4.29. You can also see that Bunting’s neat copy on p.193 has “repeat” written at the end against these odd notes.

The piano arrangement has the distinctive triple repetitions of the motif that we seen in the bare notes transcription version but which is absent from Bunting’s neat copy and from Walker’s printed version. However it is quite possible that Walker’s rhythm and title influenced the way Bunting sets his piano arrangement.

Attribution to a tradition-bearer informant

In the early 1840s, Bunting wrote an annotation into his copy of the printed book, beside this tune: “Ballinrobe”. He also writes “wants 4th and 7th” and I see that he does not copy that little B note (which would be the 4th) over from the bare notes transcription in MS4.29.

I don’t necessarily believe the Ballinrobe attribution – we can check Bunting’s collecting trips and see that Ballinrobe is on Bunting’s apparent itinerary for his summer 1792 tour of Mayo with Richard Kirwan to collect song airs. But most of those song airs seem to be in parts 2 and 4 of MS4.29, whereas this tune is written into part 3. However given that I don’t really know what is going on in this section of the manuscript I shouldn’t be too hasty. Looking at the tune collation spreadsheet we can see that two other tunes in the Damn your Body 16 pages have Mayo tags: Na gabhna geala is tagged “Deel Castle” and Bruach na Carraige Báine is tagged from Westport and from Carrakeel. But these tags were all inserted in the late 1830s and early 1840s, which was 45 to 50 years later, and I am very dubious that Bunting’s memory or filing system would have been reliable.

In any case I see no reason to think that Bunting’s transcription on p.192-3 could be from a harp performance. I think it is extremely likely that he notated it from a singer.

Other versions of the tune

So far we have what looks like two properly independent different versions of the tune from the late 18th century:
1. The version published by Walker (1786) and Thompson (c.1790)
2. Bunting’s live transcription bare notes (c.1792-1796)

Then we have Bunting’s neat copy (c.1792-1796) which may incorporate readings from both 1 and 2, or may be a genuine independent witness from another lost source; and we have Bunting’s published piano arrangement (1797) which follows (2) but may be influenced by the neat copy or directly by Walker or both.

I’m sure there are lot of other later versions out there. I notice there is a quite different version of the tune in William Forde’s manuscripts from the second quarter of the 19th century (it is no.547 in the ITMA 2021 edition).

Paddy Moloney and the Chieftains played Spéic Seóigheach, on The Chieftains 8 in 1978. They took their version of the tune direct from Bunting’s piano arrangement as far as I can tell, but they played it very slowly as a slow air. I think it has gone back into the tradition as an instrumental piece from there. I’m not seeing any trace of it surviving in the living tradition between the mid 19th century and 1978.

Song words

In the early 1840s, Bunting wrote a fragment of lyrics into his copy of the 1797 printed book. I think it says “Aba ina a rua” (I am working from the early 20th century copy, QUB SC MS4.41, since my photocopy of Bunting’s original, BL Add Ms 41508, is away at the bookbinders).

We can recognise this as a fragment of the usual refrain to the song of Spéic Seóigheach.

Patrick Lynch got a copy of the words when he was out West collecting song airs in the summer of 1802. You can see Lynch’s quick rough copy of the words in QUB SC MS4.26.30m. I don’t know if this is Lynch’s actual live field transcription, or whether it is an intermediate stage on the way to making his neat presentation copy of the lyrics.

Speic Seoigheach

[ A chuige connachta is fada liom siar thu
[ agus bfearr liom mo mfallainn nach bfaiein a riamh thu
[ is abur: ru- ru- oru

Siomdha tom seisce agus leoba glas cíb air lár
Caol bhun i dtalamh on charraic go mullach sleibh báin
abuir ru ru &c

[ Sud ort is misc ort is céad mile failte
[ da mbeadh lionn agam a rún doluin do shlainte se
[ abair ru- ru- uru – &c

Is abuer ru ru, a chailin bhuil a phairc agad
dtiobharfha failte do mo ghearransa
no ait ar a domhain ann a Shathuinn an bacansa
is abuir rú rú &c.

You can see on the manuscript page how Lynch has written the title and the second and fourth verses, and then has inserted the first and third in smaller less neat writing (indicated by my square brackets). Perhaps they come from a different informant.

Lynch also made an English translation which is on QUB SC MS4.26.30f. Maybe it was originally the facing page.

Thou province of Connaght I think you far west from me
and I wd Rather than my Mantle that I never had seen you
abur ru ru – o ru

Many a tuft of sedge and bed of green moss on the plain
with their slender <roots> in the ground – from Carrick to the
top of sliav bán obur ru – ru o ru –

Here is to you – and be drunk to you, and a hundred thousand <welcomes>
If there were bear in my hand my dear I wd drink yr own health
aburu ru &c

We also have a copy of Lynch’s translation done I think by Bunting’s secretary Thomas Hughes, which you can see in QUB SC MS4.14.1 p.290.

Donal O’Sullivan printed Lynch’s text in his Bunting part 1, 1925-6, p.8-9. He coyly replaced the end of the fourth verse “a shathuinn an bacansa” with a line of asterisks, because he said it is “unsuitable for printing”, and he also didn’t translate these words. I also see that Lynch only gives an English translation of the first three verses!

A different set of words is given by Hardiman, Irish Minstrelsy (1831) vol 1 p.331-2. It is different from Lynch’s text but we would expect a song like this to have multiple different variants of text and tune. I think it is important not to jump to conclusions and slap Lynch’s words onto Bunting’s tunes just because they all come from QUB SC MS4. Lynch and Bunting were working independently at different times in different parts of the country and collecting material from different people.

I think in the end we have no idea what words the informant who gave Bunting the tune as noted on MS4.29 page 192-3 might have sung. Even the note on the annotated published book may have been got by Bunting from an independent published or manuscript source many years after he made the live transcription notation of the tune.


O’Sullivan deals with the title; Spéic seems to be a kind of greeting or call, and Seóigheach means of Joyce. The name Joyce Country is given to the area between Connemara and Mayo. My header photograph shows a view West along Loch na Fooey which is in the heart of Joyce Country.

Arthur O’Neil’s anecdote

I don’t believe Arthur O’Neil has any connection to this particular transcription notation, but we do have two anecdotes from him about this tune.

The first mention is a tale he tells about other people. In his Memoirs he explains that he visited “Peter Connells of Granary in the County of Longford” in 1782 (just after the 2nd Granard Ball). Connells had a “servant named Jack Hart, who sung both English and Irish songs”, and presumably Arthur O’Neill was told this story by Collins on this visit:

One day taking his master’s Horses to be shod, he [Hart] had to pass by Captain Boyers’s Door, who was accosted by the Captain. Hart was in the mean time singing the song of “Speak O Yeough,” with the Chorus of “Obber O Roo” “Blast you come in” Says Boyers, “until I give you a dram” on which Hart alighted and walked into Boyers’s House who had at that time 10 Gallons of shrub in the House, and between singing and Drinking they never stoppd for the space of 2 days and 2 nights, and never parted untill the Shrub was entirely finish’d. Mr Connell in the mean time imagined His man Hart and horses were lost, but when the Shrub was out Hart brought the Horses to the Farriers to be shod, and returned home the third day. Mr MrConnell of course brought him to an account for his Conduct. Hart without reserve told him the whole Story, & about the 10 Gallons of Shrub “Damn your Body” says Connell did you finish it” “Damn me if we did not” (with a little help”) says Hart. “Why then Damn me but I forgive you, and if you did I never would if you had left a single drop” says Mr Connell.
Mr Connell informed me afterwards that Boyers was very parsimonious only when seeing Company when he would spare no expense to entertain the Guests.

Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections MS4.14 p.46-47

Shrub is a kind of liqueur made from sugar and citrus fruit in rum.

Arthur O’Neill mentions in his Memoirs an episode perhaps in 1800:

I met Mr. Ed. Bunting as I was going towards Newry, where he brought me; with whom I spent as agreeable a fortnight as I ever spent in my life. He took some tunes from me, and one evening at his lodgings he played the tune of ‘Speak Oyeough’ and I sung with him.

Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections MS4.14 p.71

I think we can imagine Bunting taking out the 1797 printed book and putting it up on the piano, and playing, as the elderly harper sang in Irish.

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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