Turning Point sculpture by Brian Connolly

Codladh an Óigfhir

In Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.29 page 49/45/054/f22r, Edward Bunting has written what looks like a live transcription notation from a traditional harper informant, of the tune of Codladh an Óigfhir.

This tune has had tons written about it, connecting it to Danny Boy, but in this blog post we are going to pretty much ignore that and concentrate on Bunting’s live transcription notation, because for this Old Irish harp Transcriptions Project what we are really interested in is not so much the tunes themselves, but what the initial live transcription notations can tell us about old Irish harp performance style and idiom.

The live transcription notation

Let’s look in detail at MS4.29 page 49. You can check my MS4.29 index PDF and Tune List Spreadsheet to see how this page sits in the manuscript, in the middle of a whole bunch of tunes that mostly look like they were transcribed from the playing of Denis O’Hampsey.

Bunting has written our tune on the top two staves of the page. He has headed the page “The young mans Dream” and at the end of the notation he has written a phonetic version of the Irish title, “Collad an Oigfir”. The lower three staves of the page of the page contains sections of the variations to A chailíní, an bhfaca sibh Seoirse.

Queen's University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.29 page 49/45/054/f22r
Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.29 page 49/45/054/f22r
Download PDF typeset version or mp3 machine audio

I think we need to see this notation as a composite with multiple layers. Maybe there are only two layers here. I assume the first layer is the live transcription dots, dotted along by Bunting in real time as the harper informant played. Then at some point, perhaps immediately, perhaps later, Bunting has filled in the barlines, note stems and beams.

We can see evidence of this where there are abandoned dots peeping out from underneath the neat over-writing: at the beginning of bar 3, Bunting seems to have written dots for the notes B A B. He has abandoned the A dot; he has deleted the second B dot by drawing a long vertical line through it. Then because there is a danger of reading this vertical line as a barline, he marks the correct barline with a + at the top of it. Then in his neat over-writing he keeps the initial B, and writes two new notes G B. My machine audio tries to play both the initial abandoned dots and the later over-writing simultaneously.

There is another deleted dot in bar 10, where a B dot is struck out and replaced by an A. Again my machine audio plays both.

Did Bunting make this kind of change to correct his own transcription error, to bring the neat over-writing closer to what the harper was playing, or did he make this change to de-traditionalise the tune already in preparation for his later piano arrangements?

Bunting’s classical piano developments

If we check my post on Bunting’s collecting trips we can see that his aim from the very beginning was to arrange and publish classical piano re-imaginings of the old harp music. Any insight we get into the old Irish harp performance style is incidental, though rummaging through his abandoned early sketchbooks.

But I think there can also be value for us in at least looking at his subsequent progress, to see what he did with the tune to take it away from the harp tradition and into his urban piano world.

In the spring of 1796, Bunting submitted proof sheets of some of his piano arrangements to the copyright office in London. Our tune was on one of the sheets under the title “Aislin an OigFhear” (see Peter Downey, Edward Bunting and the Ancient Irish Music 2017 p. 7). This same arrangement was finally published a year and a half later, as no.17 on p.10 of his 1797 printed book, A General Collection of the Ancient Irish Music, under the title “Aislean an oigfear – The Young Mans Dream”. He has marked it “very slow”.

Edward Bunting, A General Collection of the Ancient Irish Music (1797) p.10
Download PDF typeset version or mp3 machine audio

I think you can hear that Bunting has added some very pianistic chordal accompaniments to the tune, taking it a long way away from whatever O’Hampsey might originally have played on the old Irish harp. Bunting has also put a repeat mark at the end of each section. I have made the machine audio repeat each half.

After this piano arrangement was published in 1797, it would have been influential on anyone thinking about this tune after that date, because Bunting’s piano arrangements were widely disseminated through original and unauthorised editions. And to be honest, as classical piano re-imaginings of this music, I think they are pretty good. Bunting’s 1797 piano version of the tune got even more exposure after Thomas Moore used it for his song “As a beam o’er the face of the waters” in the 1st number of his Irish Melodies (1807), p.56

Alma Gluck, As a Beam O’er the Face of the Waters. Victor 64415, recorded 1914.

There is another piano arrangement written by Bunting in an unpublished fragment of a dismantled piano manuscript, now QUB SC MS4.12.2.25a. The title is “The young mans Dream (or Slumbering)” and there is a pencil addition, I think also in Bunting’s handwriting, “Colladh an Oigfir”.

Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.12.2.25
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This one has some edits and changes, some slightly odd textures, and some typos, but I have done my best to make a machine audio for you. Only the second half is marked to be repeated. I don’t know how we could date this page. It looks to me like it is close to the 1796-7 piano arrangement but with a slightly thicker accompaniment and so it might date from c.1805-9 like some other loose leaves in MS4.12 do (see Burns’s March for example).

Decades later, Bunting used our tune as an example, to illustrate his rather half-baked speculations on the harmonic and compositional principles of Irish music in his 1840 Ancient Music of Ireland introduction.

Edward Bunting, The Ancient Music of Ireland (1840) intro p.17
Download PDF typeset version or mp3 machine audio

He has added an accidental D♯ in bar 7. His title here is “Aisling an oigfir / The Young Man’s Dream” and he has marked it “distinctly and lively”. He seems to have changed the turns of the tune a lot from the earlier piano arrangements, but I suspect this is to make it fit into his harmonic theories. There are no repeat marks at all.

Other versions

I’m not going to go into all the different versions but I thought it might be fun to have a look at some.

Two versions of our tune were printed in Scotland in 1788, that is four years before Bunting had ever started his collecting work. I don’t know if Bunting would have seen these versions. They are both in volume 2 of The Scots Musical Museum, and both have literary song-poems set to them.

The first is a kind of minor-mode version of our tune. It is titled “The Young Man’s Dream”. The song lyric was written by James Tytler (1747-1805).

Scots Musical Museum vol 2, James Johnson & Co., Edinburgh, 1787 p. 131-132
Download PDF typeset version or mp3 machine audio

You can see there are no repeat marks, but the first line of the tune has been written out in full twice, to fit two lines of the song. This perhaps shows us a “correct” four line form of the tune in general.

The second is similar. The title is the first line of Robert Burn’s poem, “I dream’d I lay, &c”.

Scots Musical Museum vol 2, James Johnson & Co., Edinburgh, 1787 p. 153
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This one can also be filed under “misreading the old fashioned long s and thinking it is the letter f instead”, especially in line 2.

Some time in the 1790s, Edward Bunting made what looks like a live transcription notation of a version of our tune. Bunting has written the title “Halys Dream” above the initial live transcripton dots, and again above his second attempt to make a live transcription with notes and barlines. Then he writes a neat copy, and at the end he writes “young mans Dream” though that seems deliberately smudged out.

Queen's University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.29 page 228/226/235/f112v - 229/227/236/f113r
Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.29 page 228/226/235/f112v229/227/236/f113r
Initial dots version. Download PDF typeset version or mp3 machine audio
Second scribbly full transcription version. Download PDF typeset version or mp3 machine audio

My first machine audio tries to play through the dots on the first two lines on the left page of the opening. I think you can see that they are like fragments of the tune in C major. I suppose Bunting realised at that point that he was making a mess of it, and so he started fresh on the fourth line with a new title and dotted it out again in G, continuing onto the top of the right hand page. Then afterwards (perhaps immediately, perhaps some time later) he has gone back over it and added barlines, stems and beams. This is what my second machine audio tries to play. You can see that in bar 9 he has got muddled up and they are layers of heavy over-writing. The third notation on this page is just a neatened copy of the second live transcription version. I haven’t bothered making a machine audio of this one. I think this “Haly’s Dream” transcription version is closer to the Scottish ones, though there is no hint of a repeat of the first line in Bunting’s notation. I think it is quite possibly a live transcription from a harper informant; it is in a sensible harp key (G major). The triple nature of the notation, dots then full transcription then neat copy, is characteristic of some of Bunting’s other live transcription notations from harpers.

Checking the Forde Collection (ITMA 2021), I see two versions of our tune. No.545 (p.202) was sourced by Forde from a manuscript and seems close to the various early printed editions. But No.803 (p.294) is a very interesting traditional pipe version collected by Forde from the playing of piper Hugh O’Beirne in the autumn of 1846.

There’s another related tune in Joyce (1909) p.167, no.362, titled “The Young Man’s Lamentation”. But we are getting too far away…

I think there are quite a lot of other early printed versions from the late 18th or early 19th century but I have not chased systematically though all the different printed books. It’s likely that many of them copy each other. Donal O’Sullivan (Bunting part 1, 1925-6 p.59) refers to a version published in Cooke’s selection in the 1790s.

Cooke’s selection of twenty one favorite original Irish airs (c.1794-1798) p.9
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I don’t know if Bunting would have been familiar with this book, or with unauthorised reprints such as that by Hime. You can see that this setting repeats both the sections.

O’Sullivan also starts spreading the net wider and wider. He mentions a tune in Simon Fraser’s book “Bothan an Easan” (a bothy beside a waterfall) which seems to be related to Elizabeth Ross’s tune no.69 Bruachag an eas (The bank of the waterfall) which itself seems to be a variant of the well known tune Mac Griogair A Ruaro.

O’Sullivan also cites Petrie (1855 intro p.xv) as saying that our tune is a variant of “The Groves of Blarney”, which is the tune that was used (and modified) by Thomas Moore for his song “The Last Rose of Summer”. For more on this side of the story see Jürgen Kloss’s commentary.

Sometimes it feels like I am dealing with an explosion in a tune factory here. Actually I think there is a serious point – when a family of related songs are widely sung in a living oral tradition, without reference to audio recordings or written notation, the tunes can drift and can hybridise with each other and with other similar tunes to give this plethora of interconnections, so that in the end it is impossible to say which tune version is “original” and what other tunes are or are not related. The transition from a widespread oral to written culture can kind of fix or fossilise a fluid and entangled situation. Couple this with literate musical innovation and arranging, and a naïve understanding of the entire process, both the oral culture and the literate culture and the interfaces between them in both directions, and you can see why everyone gets tangled up trying to make sense of this all, leading to interminable discussions about what is and is not related to what and what the “original” of a given fixed written version is.

Perhaps most fascinatingly, Donal O’Sullivan writing in 1925-6 does not mention the Londonderry air or Danny Boy. This has become the biggest factoid that people know about our tune. Entire books have been written on the subject of the origins of the Londonderry air, and even the most restrained and conservative of them assert that the tune relates specifically to Denis O’Hampsey’s playing of the tune of Aisling an Óigfhir, “the acknowledged fore-runner” according to Brendan Drummond in his book, The Londonderry Air (2014). Many people, starting I think with Sam Henry, go way beyond that and make confident statements that the Londonderry Air was composed by the harper Ruaidhrí Dall Ó Catháin. Hugh Shields talks pungently about this, describing the Londonderry air as being “almost unsingable in traditional style while endearing it to virtuosos eager for effects of vocal expression”; he says how it “fell gratefully on the ears of Romantics, it fulfilled an idea of traditional music which suited their own preconceptions…” (‘New Dates for Old Songs’, Long Room 1979). I think the most reliable commentary might be Brian Audley’s article, ‘The Provenance of the Londonderry Air’, in Journal of the Royal Musical Association Vol. 125, No. 2 (2000), though even he fixates on the O’Hampsey notation and pretty much ignores the mass of other early variants. Audley also mis-understands the deleted fragment of notation on the third stave of MS4.29 p.49; he thinks it is a lost refrain to the Young Mans Dream and he says it is the source of the high section of Danny Boy. We can recognise this as complete rubbish since it is actually a part of the first variation to A chailíní, an bhfaca sibh Seoirse carried over from the previous page 48. What a hideous mess. I don’t want to deal with this here, but I said at the start of this whole “other versions” section that it might be fun, so let’s finish with Séamus Ennis.


Ignoring all the mad spaghetti tangle of related tune families, we have basically two titles for our version which Bunting transcribed live, supposedly from the harp playing of Denis O’Hampsey. The MS4.29 p.49 transcription page is titled “Collad an Oigfir” which we might understand as Bunting’s phonetic attempt at the Irish “Codladh an Óigfhear”. Codladh means sleep; and Ógfhear is a young man. On the other hand the foghraíocht (pronunciation) tab on the online dictionary will show you that óigfhear has a silent “f”. I’m not sure what is going on here. Sometimes I wonder if O’Hampsey is deliberately spelling things out to Bunting, playing the tunes more slowly and clearly, and breaking down the titles, to help him get them written down.

Bunting’s English version on the same page is slightly different, and says “The young mans Dream”. This is not a translation of “Codladh an Óigfhear”, but is a translation for Bunting’s printed title Aisling an Óigfhear. Did Bunting get this English version of the title from O’Hampsey? or did he recognise the tune from earlier printed books, and provide his own English title?

An aisling is a dream-vision song or poem often associated with political or nationalistic prophecy in 17th and 18th century Ireland, where the poet dreams that he meets with a beautiful woman who is a personification of Ireland. We see Tytler’s poem picking up on these themes a little.

Did O’Hampsey have an aisling dream-vision poem that he knew to this song? Or did he just know it as an instrumental tune? I’m not sure it is possible to answer that. But, given the widespread occurrences of the tune under the rather generic title of Aisling an Óigfhear / The young man’s dream, and also the curious fact that O’Hampsey’s title seems to be different, Codladh an Óigfhear, that seems less likely. I haven’t seen any other variants with the Codladh title.

And what about Haly’s Dream? Who was Haly? Was it Bunting who recognised it as a variant of the Young Man’s Dream and wrote that alternative title in at the end? Did he smudge it out again on purpose or accidentally?

Tune lists

If we check my MS4.29 index PDF we can see that the title “young mans dream” appears in a few tune-lists in MS4.29. It is on p.45, on the same page as Letty Burke, in a list that looks like it is mostly tunes collected from O’Hampsey. It is also on a huge tune list on p.145 at the beginning of part 3 of the manuscript, but I haven’t studied that list. It is on a tune list on p.184 that is headed “made out with basses” and so which presumably relates to Bunting’s progress in making piano arrangements; some of the tunes on this list were sourced from printed or manuscript editions and not collected from traditional informants.

Attribution to Denis O’Hampsey

The only concrete statement that we have which states that the MS4.29 page 49 live transcription notation was made from the playing of Denis O’Hampsey, is the handwritten attribution tag that Bunting wrote into his own personal copy of the 1797 printed book.

However as we discussed in the post on Letty Burke, I am getting more and more suspicious about the accuracy of these late annotations. Bunting seems to have written them into the printed book between 1840 and 1843, pretty much 50 years after he made the transcription. I think a lot of the annotations are mis-remembered or even made up. But this implies that the only way to know if a given attribution in these annotated versions is correct or invented, would be to check it against another source, which would kind of make these annotations useless.

Donal O’Sullivan had access to a derivative copy of Bunting’s attribution annotations, which had been written into an original 1797 first edition by Charlotte Milligan Fox in the early 20th century. It looks like when Louis MacRory, Bunting’s grandson, gave the Bunting manuscripts to Charlotte Milligan Fox in 1907, he kept hold of the original annotated 1797 and 1809 printed books done by Bunting in the early 1840s, which were bound together and which eventually went to the British Library (London, BL Add MS 41508). They seem to have been ignored by everyone since then, until they were found by Karen Loomis. Charlotte Milligan Fox obviously saw the value of the annotations and made her hand copy, but she only did the 1797 annotations (unless she also did a hand copy of the 1809 ones which are now lost). Her hand copy went to Queen’s with the Bunting manuscripts in 1916, after she died, where it is now QUB SC MS4.41. It was used by Donal O’Sullivan in the 1920s and 30s, but apart from that it too has been neglected, since the Queen’s catalogue does not mention the annotations.

O’Sullivan printed the O’Hampsey attribution from QUB SC MS4.41 without questioning it, in his Bunting part 1 (1925-6) and it is this attribution that has fed through into all the Danny Boy speculation.

The other way we can get attribution information is by checking my Tune List Spreadsheet to see how the notation sits in the wider manuscript. We can easily see that MS4.29 page 49 is part of a pamphlet that mostly contains tunes that we think were transcribed from Denis O’Hampsey. However they don’t appear to have been done all at the same time; there seem to be tunes in this group of pages that were done in the summer of 1796. But since our transcription notation formed the basis of a Spring 1796 piano arrangement, it can’t have been done on the summer 1796 trip. Checking Bunting’s collecting trips the most likely time looks like the summer of 1792, when he travelled to Ballinascreen and Magilligan after the meeting of the harpers in Belfast.

In these pages there are also at least one, perhaps two, tunes which seem to be not from O’Hampsey at all. At the moment I don’t understand Bunting’s working methods enough to be able to say what is going on here. But I do think he re-used old collecting pamphlets; he left gaps or empty pages which he would fill in with new transcriptions at different dates. And he would pull the little pamphlets apart or mix them up, and they are now bound up into MS4.29 all higgledy-piggledy.

So I think we can be cautiously accepting that Bunting may have made the MS4.29 page 49 live transcription notation of Codladh an Óigfhear from Denis O’Hampsey in the summer of 1792, in or near Magilligan, perhaps actually in O’Hampsey’s house, or perhaps at the house of one of the local gentry or aristocracy. But I also want to flag up the possibility that it may not be an O’Hampsey transcription, that it may have been from someone else instead.

What about the MS4.29 page 228229 live transcription under the title Haly’s Dream? This is certainly a completely independent witness to our tune, and has nothing to do with O’Hampsey. Donal O’Sullivan never discussed it, because he was only working on the manuscript sources for Bunting’s published piano arrangements, and so Haly’s Dream has been almost entirely ignored in all the discussion about this tune-family. Bunting has transcribed it in a different style, using a different pen and ink, and working in a slightly different way, with the sequential dots, full transcription and neat copy. You can see on the Tune List Spreadsheet that a few nearby tunes have later attributions to Arthur O’Neil, and for some reason I have guessed Hugh Higgins for a few, but really I don’t know. And I don’t know when in the 1790s it may have been done. I think this “Haly’s Dream” live transcription is a lovely version and it would be well worth trying to make a reconstructed setting for old Irish harp.

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 “Codladh an Óigfhir”

  1. Many Thanks Simon.
    Fascinating reading. As an uilleann piper I always endear to “Codladh an Óg fhir”. I acquired a harp during lockdown. Another adventure into our musical treasures.❤️
    Míle bhuíochas

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