Coolin, or Lady of the Desert

The Coolin, or the Lady of the Desert, has been discussed a lot by Irish harp scholars over the years, most recently by Siobhán Armstrong in her PhD thesis (Middlesex 2020). However it is an incredibly muddled subject. I am not sure if we have one tune or two; I am not sure if the titles are connected or garbled; the live transcription notation from a harper looks like it has been heavily over-written and edited, so that we cannot see the initial live transcription dots; and in general this is the kind of problem notation that I have been silently skipping over in my Old Irish Harp Transcriptions Project.

However we should try to begin untangling some of these threads, and try to say something useful about all this.

The two titles and the two tune variants

Basically, we have two different titles, each with variant spellings. One title is The Coolin (The Coulin, An Chúileann, or An Chúilfhionn), and the second title is The Lady of (or in) the Desert (or the Desart).

In 2007 I was working one day a week in the Wighton Centre in Dundee, and one of the research projects I did then was to collate as many different versions of this tune-family as I could. I looked at about 20 different early printed versions of the tune. My research aim was to try and work out whether there was any significance to the two titles, “Lady of the Desert” and “Coolin”.

I went through the books in the Wighton Collection looking for printed versions of the two different tune forms, to collate the title each was published under. I found that there were two consistently different melodic forms, which correlated fairly well with the two titles.

Lady of the Desert

The oldest set of the first tune that I have found is from Bowie, published in 1789. Bowie gives us not just the tune but also a set of variations, arranged for keyboard. This is a very interesting notation. It is situated in Bowie’s book, in between the main section of Scottish dance music (p.1-29), and the final section of Scottish harp repertory which was passed down to Bowie from the playing of John Robertson on the Queen Mary harp and the Lamont harp in the early 18th century (p.32-35).

John Bowie, Collection of strathspey reels & country dances &c. with a bass for the violoncello or harpsichord [c1789] (CC-BY NLS)
Download PDF typeset version or mp3 machine audio

This classical keyboard setting as published by Bowie in 1789 was reprinted a number of times. Karen Loomis went to New York Public Library for me to look at a sheet-music reprint of the Bowie arrangement which was titled “The Lady of the Desart / a favourite Irish air with variations by O’Kane / Edinburgh printed and sold by Stewart & co. Music sellers and instrument makers Parliament Square and No.40 South Bridge Street”. (New York Public Library, Music-Res (Sheet) 78-858). Another sheet music version was published by Rochead & Son in Edinburgh, titled “The lady of the desart, a favorite Irish air, arranged with variations for the pianoforte”. (Dundee, Wighton Collection 10434.71). I don’t have dates for these editions.

I found one other apparently independent published version of this tune, titled The Lady of the Desert, in Jno Alexr May, A selection of the most favorite songs, duetts, glees, waltzes, marches, Scots, Irish, and Welch airs p.108 [perhaps c.1810] (W.92486). This is a single stave melody with just the two halves of our tune, and no variations.

We also have an independent manuscript version from 1816, titled The Lady in the Desert / By O’Conilan & improved by Lyons, in the MacLean-Clephane ms (Trinity College Dublin MS 10615), p.10, apparently copied in 1816. This is a classical arrangement, perhaps for pedal harp or piano. It is a full variation set, close in overall structure to the Bowie/Stewart/Rochead print, but with many differences in the melody which suggest it is an independent witness to this tune and its variations. There are little annotations written against some of the sections; “slow & plaintive”, “Brisk & lively on her finding a path”, “slow having again lost her way”, “Brisk, on recovering it”, “slow to the end, being uncertain”. The entire set of classical arrangements in this manuscript has a note at the end (p.39) “The foregoing airs are all taken from the playing of O’Kain by Mr. MacDonald”. There is also a note at the end of a later section of the volume, on p.69, with Anna-Jane Maclean-Clephane’s monogram and the text “Copied. December 1816”.

All the other versions of this tune that I know of derive from Edward Bunting’s manuscripts and printed books, and as you can see this is where the consistency of title disappears:

Lady of the Desart, Edward Bunting, Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.29 page 52/48/057/f23v probably 1796. This looks like a live transcription from the harp playing of Denis O’Hampsey, with extensive editorial over-writing. It consists of the two halves of the tune, plus a fragment of the first variation we see in the Bowie and Maclean-Clephane settings, and then the next variation.

Variations Coolin, Edward Bunting, Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.29 pages 98/94/103/f46v and 99/95/104/f47r Probably either 1792 or 1796. This double page opening does not have the tune, but it has what looks like live transcription notations of three of the variations that match the last three in the Bowie/Stewart/Rochead and Maclean-Clephane settings. There are fragments of the first two variations we see in those other settings, and there are also latter annotations in Bunting’s hand, presumably from after the separate pamphlets were bound up into the composite manuscript MS4.29 and paginated in 1802-5, saying “turn back to No. 52″. There is a matching annotation on p.52 “See No. 98 for ye remainder”.

Coolin – or Lady of the Desert. Edward Bunting, unpublished piano collection, c.1798, Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.33.2 p.1-3. The first page has our tune, with the first half written out twice in full. There is a note at the bottom “Got the words from Mrs Conner” (perhaps the first word reads “Get”). Then the second and third pages have the variations, though there is no trace of the fragmentary first variation, and the second (the 6-in-a-bar variation) is labelled “var 1st”. On this page we also have some metadata: “The following variations were composed by Lyons who was contemporary with Car. / From Dennis a Hempson Magilligan / I have given the Harp Bass exactly as he played it to this Air”

The Lady of the Desert or The Coolin. for Edward Bunting, unpublished piano collection, late 1830s, Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections MS4.13 p.22-24. The notation is tagged “very ancient air, the var. by Lyons about 1700 / From Hempson at Magilligan”

The Lady of the Desert or the Coolin. for Edward Bunting, unpublished piano collection, late 1830s, Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections MS4.27 (approx. p.80). “From Hempson at Maggilligan Co. Derry in 1796 / with var. by Lyons the famous Harper”

Coolin, or Lady of the Desert, Edward Bunting, The Ancient Music of Ireland, 1840 no. 119, p.88-90. This piano arrangement is based on the MS4.13 and MS4.27 ones.

I am not finding more recent independent versions of this tune. Presumably this tune did not continue in the post-Famine living tradition.

From the point of view of the Old Irish Harp Transcriptions Project, the MS4.29 live transcription notation is by far the most important. However I think it looks like it is so heavily over-written with the big heavy notes that I don’t think we can really see what the initial dots transcription was. In a few places we can see the dots either deleted, or peeping out from behind the heavy editorial over-writing, which suggests to me that the heavy notes are Bunting’s arrangements and do not accurately reflect what the harper tradition-bearer was playing. I seriously wonder how much Bunting has used Bowie’s earlier printed edition as an inspiration to over-write his own piano arrangement ideas right there on the p52 transcription page. And I also wonder how much of the p98-99 “variations coolin” might be similarly based not on the live playing of a tradition-bearer informant, but on earlier printed or manuscript keyboard settings.

The Coolin

I found a lot more examples of the second tune, usually titled the Coolin. The earliest might be in the tunes section at the back of Walker’s Irish Bards, published in 1786.

Joseph Cooper Walker, Historical Memoirs of the Irish Bards (1786)
Download PDF typeset version or mp3 machine audio

There are loads of other later versions of this tune. I have not studied them closely to see which ones might be straight copies or derivatives of earlier published settings, and which might be independent versions. Here is a summary listings of versions that I looked at in the Wighton Collection, plus a few more I found elsewhere. The W numbers refer to the shelf marks in the Wighton Collection, Dundee Central Library.

Coolun / Irish air. Stewart, The Vocal Magazine, containing a selection of the most esteemed English, Scots and Irish songs, antient and modern, adapted for the harpsichord or violin volume 2, song XL [1798]. This is a two stave keyboard arrangement with English words underlaid, “O the hours I have pass’d in the arms of my dear…” (W31968)

Coolun. Irish Air. Peter Urbani, A favorite selection of Scots tunes by Urbani & Liston properly arranged as duettos for two German flutes or two violins by P. Urbani, p.10-11, [perhaps 1798], W92497-8. This is a pair of separate part-books.

Coolun, Irish. James Aird, Selection of Scotch, English, Irish and foreign airs adapted to the fife, violin, or German flute volume 5 p.29 [1801] This is a single stave melody (W92420)

Coolun. Irish. Gow’s Complete repository of original Scots tunes strathspeys jigs and dances (the dances arranges as medleys in their respective keys) for the harp or pianoforte violin and violoncello &c... part 2, p.10 [1802]. This is a two-stave arrangement for pedal harp or keyboard. (W10480-1)

Coolin. Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.6 page 49. This is the notebook used by James Cody to write words and music of Irish songs from c.1805-9, but our tune on p.49 is part of the earlier military tunes section that are not in Cody’s hand and which presumably date from before he started using the book. See Colette Moloney, Introduction and Catalogue (2000) p.200.

Coolun with variations. Holden, A collection of old established Irish slow and quick tunes arranged for the harp, piano forte, violin, flute, flageolet or bagpipes [1806-7] p.28. This is a 2-stave arrangement for pedal harp or keyboard. As well as the melody it has two classical style variations, one 9-to-the-bar and one 12-to-the-bar. (W7065)

Coolin. Crosby, Irish Musical Repository: a choice selection of esteemed Irish songs, adapted for the voice, violin, and German flute, 1808 p.201 (W. 92516). This is the song “Oh hush the soft sigh” set to our tune.

Coolun. John Murphy, A Collection of Irish Airs and jiggs with variations, adapted for the piano forte, violin and voloncello p.8 [1809-10] W10448. This is a two-stave arrangement for keyboard.

Coulin Thomas Moore, Irish Melodies part 1, 1810, p.36 (W.10436). This is the song “Tho’ the last glimpse of Erin”.

Irish Air – Coolun. J. Dick, The music of the songs in the Caledonian Musical Museum, adapted for the voice, violin and piano-forte no.29, p.21, 1810, W10518. This is the Robert Burns song “The lazy mist hangs from the brow of the hill” set to a keyboard arrangement of our tune.

Coolun, Irish Air. Edward Jones, The Musical Hive, or, a selection of some of the choicest and most characteristic national melodies consisting of Irish Spanish and English songs & airs, to which are added variations for the harp or piano-forte, p.15, [1812] W10429. This is a two-stave keyboard arrangement of just the two halves of the tune.

Coolun. Hannam, Selection of celebrated Irish melodies, properly arranged either as solos or duetts for the German flute, patent flageolet or violin, p.9, [1821], W92503. This is a two-stave arrangement with two treble-clef lines, as a duet for two melody instruments.

Coolun Irish. George Thompson, The Select Melodies of Scotland interspersed with those of Ireland and Wales, united to the songs of Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott Bart and other distinguished poets, with symphonies & accompaniments for the piano forte by Pleyel, Kozeluch, Haydn, & Beethoven, v2 p42, 1822 (W31997-8). This is the Robert Burns song “Now in her green mantle blythe nature arrays…” set to a piano arrangement of our tune by Kozeluch.

Coolun, Irish Air. Joseph Coggin, National Airs vol.7, p.32 [c.1823] (W10427). This is a piano arrangement of the tune.

Coolun, Irish. Wood, The Caledonian Museum for the flute, comprising a selection of Scotch, English, and Irish dance tunes, no.71, p.29 [post 1830], W92428. A single melody line.

The Coolin does seem to have continued in the living tradition down to the present day. Forde collected a nice traditional version from the piper Hugh O’Beirne, which was printed in Joyce 1909 p.298-9. You can also hear some interesting performances on old recordings. One of my favourites is this film of Joe Ryan, recorded in Miltown Malbay in 2000.

Conflation of the two tunes and/or titles

If we ignore Edward Bunting, the situation seems very clear; we seem to have two very similar but clearly different tunes, the first titled “The Lady of the Desert” and the second titled “The Coolin”. However, Edward Bunting consistently titles the former tune “Coolin” and I don’t understand why. His earliest use of the “Coolin” title for the Lady tune seems to be the variation in MS4.29, presumably in 1796. I have more than once wondered if these variations actually belong to a different performance of the other tune, not least because they were transcribed by Bunting in a completely different pamphlet with no apparent connection to his transcription of the tune of Lady of the Desert. But we can recognise some of the material on MS4.29 pages 92-3 as belonging to the variations from p.52, and Bunting consistently combines the material from these two different live-transcription notations in his piano developments under either title. And even more significantly we can recognise Bunting’s p.92-3 transcription of the variations as a close match to the variations both in the series of printed variation sets of the Lady of the Desert by Bowie, Stewart and Rochead, and in the independent Maclean-Clephane manuscript setting.

So was it Bunting’s idea to put the “Coolin” title onto this tune and its variations? Or did the harper informant give him this alternative title? I don’t know.

As a curious aside, In O’Neill’s Music of Ireland (1903) no.89 on p.16, we have a real composite version under the title “An cuilfhion le atrughadh / The Coolin with variations”. The printed setting starts with the Coolin tune, and then immediately without a break we have the Lady tune with Bunting’s variations, as if the tune of the Lady was just a variation to the Coolin tune. In O’Neill’s index (p352) there are variant titles listed: “Coolin with variations / Though the last glimpse of Erin / In this calm sheltered villa / Oh hush the soft sigh / The lady of the desert”.

Other different tunes with these titles

We should briefly mention how our two titles are also applied to other tunes. I have already written up the tune of Ríoghán an uaigneas which Bunting titles “Lady of the Desert”, though a more literal title might be the forlorn queen, or the queen of loneliness. We also have other tunes titled Coolin or similar, including the “old Coolin” (see for example Stanford-Petrie no.599), and Coolin fin, and other titles that include the word “cúilfhionn”.

I will also mention here the tune of Mhuirnin Dilis which seems to me to be a close variant of the first half of the Lady of the Desert, and is also connected to the tune of Caitlín Ní Uallacháin.

References without notation

Something I am getting more and more interested in is tune-lists, which I would define in the broadest way as titles of tunes without notations. In this case as we see above, the situation is very unclear since one title may potentially or actually refer to a number of different independent tunes. But nonetheless it is worth considering some important references to our title, even if there is no way of knowing which tune these references might be referring to.

In Walter Young’s preface to Patrick McDonald’s Collection of Highland Vocal Airs (1784), there is a reference to one of our titles, in a description of the Irish harpers of the late 18th century:

The native harpers are not much encouraged. A number of their airs have come into the hands of foreign musicians, who have attempted to fashion them according to the model of modern music: and these new sets are considered in the country as capital improvements. The Lady in the Desert, as played by an old harper, and as played according to the sets now in fashion, can hardly be known to be the same tune. It is now abundantly regular in its structure; but its native character and expression, its wildness and melancholy, are gone. The variations are such, as might have been composed, at this day, in Italy or Germany.

Walter Young, preface p.3, in Patrick McDonald, Collection of Highland Vocal Airs (1784)

Of course it is hard to know how much Young actually knew – had he heard an Irish harper play? Echlin O’Kane was touring the West of Scotland in the second half of the 18th century; is Young thinking of his performance as an example of “an old harper”? The printed keyboard setting is presumably what Young is slamming as “can hardly be known to be the same tune”, so what does that tell us about the relationship between the printed or manuscript versions of the Lady of the Desert and the variations, and the traditional Irish harp performance practice? And how does this square with both the Stewart print, and the Maclean-Clephane manuscript version, which both claim to derive from “O’Kain”?

The harper and tradition-bearer Arthur O’Neill, in his Memoirs composed c.1808, describes the attendees at the first Granard ball in 1784. He says “Charley Fanning got the first for the Coolun 10 Guineas”. Describing the 2nd Granard ball in 1785, O’Neill tells us “Charles Fanning got the first for the Coolun again.” (rough version, QUB SC MS4.46 p.31 & 32)

The Northern Star, 18th July 1792 contained an extended report on the July 1792 meeting of the harpers in Belfast. It includes a fascinating tune list, which begins “The following are the names of the tunes that were played: Coulin …” and so we see that in the popular press, The Coolin is the first tune to be listed.

In his 1840 book (introduction p.64), Bunting seems to be paraphrasing these contemporary newspaper reports, but a footnote adds “Fanning was not the best performer, but he succeeded in getting the first prize, by playing The Coolin, with modern variations; a piece of music at that time much in request by young practitioners on the piano forte”. Of course we don’t know what Fanning was playing; it could have been the “Lady of the Desert” variation set like we see in the Bowie/Stewart/Rochead print, or it could be a classical-style variation set of the Coolin, like we see in the Holden print. We could look at Bunting’s unattributed live harp transcription of Welsh/Classical-style variations to Mailí Bheag Ó on MS4.29 p.147-8, and wonder if they were from Fanning, and whether he was into this kind of stuff.

Arthur O’Neill tells us in his Memoirs that Cornelius Lyons composed variations to the tune of The Coolin:

Cornelius Lyons was the other Great performer, and a very fanciful Composer in the Tunes of Ellen a R especially in his variations to the Tunes of Ellen a Roon, Calleena Vock. a. thoo Shoarsha (Girls did you see George) Green sleeves, Coolun, and several others, He was a County of Kerry man,

Arthur O’Neill, Memoirs, (rough version), QUB SC MS4.46 p.20

I don’t know what is going on here to be honest. What is the Greensleeves that O’Neill is thinking of?

Edward Bunting mentions our titles at various points in his collecting pamphlets. In QUB SC MS4.29 p.7 he writes “D.o Coolin and The Beggar” (presumably an abbreviation for “ditto”). This may possibly be a continuation of the text at the top of p.7, “no use / Old way of Molly Astore”. There is a tune list on page 45 which seems to be tunes later attributed to Denis O’Hampsey; the list includes “Coolin with V”. There is another tune list on page 106, which includes “Coolin” but I don’t know what this list represents. A tune list on page 151 may be connected to piano arrangements; it includes “Coolin or Lady of the / Desart with Variations”; another tune list which is alphabetised on p.200 includes “Collin or Lady of the Desert”.

I am also finding the Coolin as one of the most commonly mentioned tune titles in the inherited Irish harp tradition through the 19th century; it is one of two tune titles mentioned by the Irish harp tradition-bearer George Jackson in c.1908.

To return to the late 18th century harp tradition, his 1840 intro p.75, Edward Bunting quotes from Samson’s letter to Lady Morgan, describing Denis O’Hampsey, which was originally published in the Wild Irish Girl:

The tunes which he played were his favourites; and he, with an elegance of manner, said at the same time, I remember you have a fondness for music, and the tunes you used to ask for I have not forgotten, which were Cualin, The Dawning of the Day, Elleen-aroon, Ceandubhdilis, &c. These, except the third, were the first tunes, which, according to regulation, he played at the famous meeting of harpers at Belfast, under the patronage of some amateurs of Irish music.

Lady Morgan, The Wild Irish Girl: A National Tale p.248-9

Did O’Hampsey’s repertory include the Coolin tune as well as the Lady of the Desert tune? Or did he only play the Lady of the Desert as apparently transcribed from him by Bunting on MS4.29 p.52, and did he refer to that tune by both titles? Are the page 95-6 “variations Coolin” also transcribed live from O’Hampsey? Did he sing lyrics to one of those tunes and play the other as an instrumental set? I really can’t tell at this point.

Song lyrics

We have some song lyrics that seem to belong to our tune but I have not followed these up very comprehensively. I note that Hardiman Vol 1 p250 has a text beginning “Dá bh-feicfeá-sa an chúilfhion agus i ag siúbhal air na bóithribh…”. Patrick Lynch collected a version of the text in 1802 which you can see in his rough copy with English translation at QUB SC MS4.26.25n; his neat presentation copy is at QUB SC MS4.10.047. I am sure there is a lot more work to do on this. Its not clear to me how these lyrics might relate to the different tune variants. There’s an interesting early 20th century text in the Schools Collection; you can listen to Joe Heaney singing a few verses to a version of our second tune.


I still don’t know if we have two similar tunes which Bunting has muddled up, or if we have variants of one tune with variant titles, with the correlation between tune-form and title being a co-incidental artefact of the print editions copying each other.

I don’t know what version of the tune Fanning or O’Neill might have been thinking of or playing.

I don’t even know what O’Hampsey might have played – presumably he played something that is represented by the underlying dots on MS4.29 p52, under the title “Lady of the Desert”, but I don’t know if the p.98-99 variations are from O’Hampsey, or from someone else like Fanning, or are Bunting’s own copy or arrangement based on some earlier written source such as Bowie.

I note that we only have the English title “Lady of the Desert” – was this considered a translation of the Irish “An Cuilfhionn”? Is the “lady of the desert” tune merely the first variation in a variation set to the Coolin, as O’Neill gives it in 1903? Are both tunes classical confections that have come into the tradition from outside?

I think it was Keith Sanger who suggested that the “Desert” or “Desart” could refer to a hermitage, mentioning the Scottish place name Dysart. My photo shows the track leading to St Colman’s well and hermitage in the Burren, County Clare.

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.

2 thoughts on “Coolin, or Lady of the Desert”

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