Féachain Gléis

When I started my Old Irish Harp Transcription project, one of my aims was to move away from what had been happening before, where people focussed in on particularly interesting, curious or unusual tunes, and studied them intensively while kind of ignoring the broad context of other tunes in the manuscripts.

However, now that I have pretty much gone through all of the “ordinary” harp tune transcriptions I am just left with those unusual ones. I did consider ignoring them but I think there is value in dealing with them. But I think I have to do them a bit differently.

So, for this tune we will discuss four aspects of it. First, we will look at its position in the manuscript, which raises some important questions about Bunting’s collecting process. Then, because it is one of the most studied old Irish harp tunes, we will briefly consider what other people have written about it. Thirdly, we will talk a little about parallels in other traditions. And finally we will think about it in the context of a pentatonic modes analysis.

The pages in the manuscript

In the 1790s, Edward Bunting wrote what looks like his live transcription notation from the playing of harper and tradition-bearer Denis O’Hampsey, into a pamphlet which is now bound up as part of Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.29. According to Colette Moloney, who studied the watermarks of the endpapers used in the binding, this composite book was bound up into its current form from a stack of independent pamphlets in about 1802-5. Edward Bunting seems to have written the heavy pencil page numbers into the bound book, presumably at this time 1802-5.

In the current composite book, our tune is written as a continuous notation running across two facing pages, forming a single opening, and we can see it on the online facsimile on QUB SC MS4.29 pages 54/50/059/f24v and 55/51/060/f25r.

However you can clearly see on the online facsimile of page 55, that we have a big problem here – there is the stub of an un-numbered page that has been removed, between pages 54 and 55. What is going on here?

Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.29 pages 54/50/059/f24v and 55/51/060/f25r (detail) showing part of the un-paginated stub bound between these two pages.

If we check my MS4.29 index PDF, we can see that pages 49/45/054/f22r through to the stub after 58/54/063/f26v seem to form an 8-leaf pamphlet, defined by the cut bottom edges matching. However, the stave alignment tags on my PDF seem to suggest that it is not just four sheets folded inside each other. The modern binding is tight and I can’t see how the leaves are folded or connected. We can see that the neat copy of Eileen a Roon is written over the break between this pamphlet and the next, which also raises questions about when the pamphlets were gathered together into groupings – there may have been multiple sequences of transcribing, stitching sheets together, more transcribing or copying or editorial over-writing, more shuffling or grouping and stitching, any number of times before Bunting finally had the composite manuscript bound up and stopped writing in it.

Was the live transcription notation of Féachain Gléis written in after the book was bound in 1802-5? Or was page 54 written in the 1790s, and then the missing leaf removed and then page 55 written in after 1802-5, to continue the earlier notation on page 54? Or were the leaves shuffled or re-folded after being used as a loose collecting pamphlet, but before being bound up into the composite manuscript? Or is the stub an artefact of the modern re-binding in 1996?

Why was this page cut away incomplete? Why was it not removed completely, or at least cut to keep all the notation and text on the removed leaf?

The stub

While we are here, we should look at the stub. The online facsimile of p.55 shows the recto of the stub, and so part of page 55 is concealed beneath it. The recto of the stub contains fragments of a list:

[?][
C[
Va[
[??][
[??][
Coo[
?eag[
or C[
o[
nall[
the[
the[

I went to Queen’s and made a photograph of the verso of the stub:

Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.29, unpaginated stub between pages 54/50/059/f24v and 55/51/060/f25r.
Download PDF typeset version or mp3 machine audio

I don’t know what tune this is fragments of. It could be a live transcription notation, or it could be a neat copy. It is perhaps one of the neater live transcriptions. If we could recognise these notation fragments we might be able to match it to a facing-page notation, and so work out a possible previous position for this stub. But at the moment I am just unsure about what is going on here.

Information and writings about this tune.

Edward Bunting made a whole load of piano developments, culminating in the printed edition in 1840. Curiously, Bunting did not include this tune in the main music section of the 1840 book. Perhaps underlying his attitude to it as an ancient relic more suitable for study than performance, he printed it as the first tune in the music insert as part of the introduction, between pages 88 and 89.

Edward Bunting, The Ancient Music of Ireland 1840, two original first editions to show the first page of the music insert with Féachain Gléis, opposite p.88 of the introduction.

I also have what may be the second printing or reprint, with thick strings drawn on the harp on the embossed front cover; in that edition, the music insert has been moved to the beginning of the music section. You can see these features in the copy reproduced at archive.org.

Bunting also wrote a commentary on the tune in his 1840 book. I am interested in the way it reflects on the collecting and transcribing process:

It was with great reluctance that that the old harper was prevailed on to play even the fragment of it here preserved, to gratify the Editor, to whom he acknowledged he was under obligation. He would rather, he asserted, have played any other air, as this awakened recollections of the days of his youth, of friends whom he had outlived, and of times long past, when when the harpers were accustomed to play the ancient caoinans or lamentations, with their corresponding preludes. When pressed to play, notwithstanding, his peevish answer uniformly was, “what’s the use of doing so? no one can understand it now, not even any of the harpers now living.” This relic is but one half of the prelude, as he solemnly averred that he had forgotten the remainder.

Edward Bunting, The Ancient Music of Ireland, 1840, introduction p.82-3

There is a lot to unpick here, but I want to focus on the interaction between Bunting and O’Hampsey. Why was O’Hampsey “under obligation” to Bunting? is this some kind of financial agreement, payment of so much money for so many tunes? And the youthful Bunting “pressed” the centenarian “to play notwithstanding”.

Mike Parker, paraphrasing Mary Whepple, says that O’Hampsey was “…a fraud, who improvised pieces, declining to play them again, as they brought bad memories, or he did not remember them so well, as long as someone was paying…” (Mike Parker, New strung and shall be heard, Lulu 2021 p.12). But no-one else seems to know anything at all about Mary Whepple or her papers, and so it is very difficult to know what to make of this. It looks very much like a kind of jaundiced commentary on the 1840 quote.

Either way, it is important that we don’t take Bunting’s text too literally. Bunting (or more likely his ghost-writer) was writing in high-register early 19th century prose, to create a dramatic atmosphere, of Bunting as the progressive saviour of the ancient declining (if not already dead) national art, by focussing on the most ancient and dilapidated repertory of the most ancient and declining harper. There is a whole world of embedded cultural assumptions going on here, to do with the expectations and world-views of collectors, writers and readers at a particular point in history, as well as the different cultural worlds of Anglo / Irish, colonial / colonised, literate / oral, rich / poor, upper and lower social class. Some of this has been unpicked a little by William Donaldson, The Highland Pipe and Scottish Society (2001) and Matthew Gelbart The Invention of ‘Folk Music’ and ‘Art Music’ (2007). It is clear to me that there is a paradigm of a lost golden age, with the tradition-bearers seen as innocently or unknowingly preserving decayed and corrupted fragments of what had in the distant past been an advanced and sophisticated civilisation; at the same time the Whig view of history gave a narrative that society had steadily advanced from primitive barbarism to contemporary perfection in the arts and sciences. I see Bunting operating in both these worlds, searching for the decayed remnants of ancient times, and making up-to-date classical piano arrangements from them as his way of trying to recreate that imagined lost perfection. It’s kind of the opposite of a contemporary ethnological or ethnomusicological approach, where the individual tradition-bearer and their living practice is respected and valued on their own terms, and the scientific outlook of modern western culture is used merely to observe and try to understand the living practice.

Gráinne Yeats, in her article ‘Some thoughts on Irish harp music’ Ceol, Vol IV no. 2, December 1973, mentions what she calls “Fágh an gléas” but does not elaborate. Seán Donnelly wrote a short article, ‘Feaghan Geleash’, Ceol Tíre 25, 1984, p.5-12. His article is a linguistic discussion of the title, justifying the modern Irish form “féachain gléis”, a trial of tuning, and giving examples where medieval scribes used this phrase as an alternative to “promhadh pinn” to test their pen. He also discusses the use of the equivalent Scottish Gaelic form déuchainn ghléusta, and describes the reference in a poem about the harper Ruaidhrí Dall Morison, referring to “deuchainn-ghléusda Mhic Ó Charmaig”. Donnelly also mentions the Scottish pipe preludes described by Joseph MacDonald (see below).

Alasdair Codona wrote a quite long analysis of Féachain Gléis as part of the “Gaelic Harmony” section of his long-defunct website calumcille.com. You can see his pages preserved at archive.org.

Féachain Gléis is one of the three tunes discussed by Ann Heymann in her article ‘Three iconic Gaelic harp pieces’, in Joyce & Lawlor (eds) Harp Studies (Four Courts Press 2016). She discusses “Feaghan Gléas – a prelude for testing the mode, in medieval style” on pages 193-198. This discussion reproduces the live transcription pages, and includes thoughts on the direction of the ascending bass motifs, the harmonic or modal structures, and suggested Continental parallels, with some analysis of Bunting’s piano developments of the tune.

Siobhán Armstrong similarly concentrates on Féachain gléis as one of the 8 tunes that she makes editions of in her PhD thesis (Middlesex 2021), with Féachain gléis being the first. She also does a close study of the live transcription dots on MS4.29 pages 54 and 55, in a similar way to what I have been doing in my Old Irish harp Transcriptions Project, trying to spot initial transcription dots, over-writings and editorial emendations on the live transcriptions page.

I think this scholarly attention is part of the whole worldview that sees Denis O’Hampsey as the most ancient and therefore the most “authentic” of all the old harpers, and further sees Féachain Gléis as the most ancient and therefore most authentic piece in his repertory.

Parallels in other traditions

Part of trying to find parallels is to define what Féachain Gléis is. Alasdair Codona suggested that Féachain Gléis may have originated as a standalone melody; his web articles included a 6-page comparative table, comparing Féachain Gléis to two of the “port” tunes in the Scottish lute manuscripts. Of course this only muddies the waters further, since we don’t really know what these Scottish lute “ports” are – we all used to assume they were Gaelic harp tunes, but that now seems a bit naïve.

More productively we can think of Féachain Gléis as a prelude that O’Hampsey might have played, possibly as a formal prelude to introduce the next tune transcribed live in MS4.29 (on page 58), Scott’s Lamentation.

We can look for other formal preludes. In her Harp Studies article, Ann Heymann compared Féachain Gléis with a 15th century German organ prelude, though this may indicate nothing more than that Féachain Gléis fits into the wider world of preludes in general. Perhaps more relevant within the world of Irish and Scottish traditional music, Séan Donnelly pointed out how Joseph MacDonald in his 1760 manuscript, has one page (p.28) dedicated to preludes. MacDonald begins by writing in notation a “Generall Prelude for the Pipe” which he titles “Deachin Ghleust”. He says that this is a “standing prelude always taught and playd before any voluntary one”, i.e. that it was a formal start which was the same each time. He then gives four examples of “voluntary praeludes” which he says are “as a just specimen of the method & style which is left to the further improvement & invention of the player”.

Edinburgh University Library, ms La.III.804 (via pibroch.net cc-by-nc)

For a modern edition with commentary, see Roderick Cannon (ed), Joseph MacDonald’s Compleat Theory of the Scots Highland Bagpipe (The Piobaireachd Society, 1994) p.59-60.

Pipers today still do this kind of thing, perhaps less formalised than what Joseph MacDonald was describing. Duncan Watson wrote an interesting article in Piping Press in 2019 discussing this. Here is a very brief example on Tobar an Dualchais, of an apparently improvised prelude before the tune begins.

There is a perhaps parallel thing where a traditional musician on fiddle or other instrument will play prelude-type phrases before starting the tune. A great example on record is this example by Danny Meehan on fiddle.

Modal analysis

I suppose the modes idea comes from thinking about what “féachain gléis” means. Yes, it is a trial of tuning, but what does tuning mean? I think there are subtle and overlapping concepts of intonation, scale, and mode, which could all potentially be referred to by the word “gléis”. Benjamin Bagby referenced the concept of “chuning” in African mbira playing to try and articulate some of these concepts, in his article ‘Imagining the Early Medieval Harp’, in Duffin (ed) A Performer’s Guide to Medieval Music (Indiana 2000).

If we think of tuning as in intonation, adjusting the strings of the harp very slightly to correct any dissonance or drifting of the instrument, to bring an out-of-tune harp into tune, then I suppose that Féachain Gléis could be used as part of that. Certainly the pipers seem to adjust the drones of their pipes whilst they are playing their prelude-like sequences at the beginning of a tune. On the other hand, Bunting transcribed a tuning sequence from a harper tradition-bearer, and if done well this sequence is sufficient to set the harp accurately in tune.

But we know that there are different “tunings” that the harp can be set to, primarily either with f♯ or with f♮. Perhaps a prelude like this can help to check whether the F strings are set to the correct “tuning”? We see that Féachain Gléis is almost entirely pentatonic G major, with G, A, B, D and E. There is one single passing F at the beginning of the third treble motif. This f is sounded just enough to confirm whether the harp has all naturals, or f sharps, and therefore allows the proposed formal lamentation to be aborted for re-tuning the F strings, in a much more natural and discreet way than if the formal composition had begun and the “tuning” of the harp was found to be wrong part way through.

Another suggestion is that Féchain Gléis can act to define a modal sonority for the piece about to be played. Ann Heymann may have been the first to suggest (and demonstrate on her 1994 CD Queen of Harps) that the notated prelude may be played played before Scott’s Lamentation. Since Scott’s Lamentation is in G major, it would make sense for the prelude to outline and define the pentatonic structure of the G major scale. And we can see that the treble phrases on the first line basically rotate the hand position around the pentatonic hand-shapes, placing the index finger in turn on B (g-a-b-d), A (e-g-a-b), G, (d-e-g-a) and then E (b-d-e-g), and there is a hint of the next position down on the next line, with the index on D (a-b-d-e). The fingering techniques naturally transition the hand down one position each time, leading to Sylvia Crawford’s suggestion that this is simply an exploration of the pentatonic hand shapes and fingering techniques.

Final thought

In his tuning information, dictated to John Bell in 1849, the harper and tradition-bearer Patrick Byrne describes tuning the harp using a cycle of 5ths similar to what Bunting had collected from a harper over 50 years previously. But Byrne adds an extra piece of information:

Then you sound the G on the violin & B & D, and the octave above it which is G which makes a common chord.

John Bell’s notebook, Glasgow University Library GB 247 MS Farmer 332, cited in H.G. Farmer, ‘Some notes on the Irish harp’ Music & Letters vol XXIV, April 1943

“G on the violin” is how Byrne is describing the tenor G string, which he had previously called “Ne Cawlee” (i.e. na comhluighe). He had previously tuned all of these strings using the cycle of 5ths, so there is no indication that this sequence of g-b-d-g is used to adjust any of these strings to bring them into tune. Is this g-b-d-g sequence a garbled or misunderstood or mis-represented echo of these formal preludes?


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 “Féachain Gléis”

  1. Hi Simon,
    Love your work on the bindings…though as typical, it creates more questions.

    I do not believe that there was ever a second part to Feaghan Ghléas…and Bunting, being surprised by the short length, asked about a second part…and that O’Hampsey claimed a faulty memory so that Bunting would not think less of the piece. Indeed, typically preludes don’t have a second part. It’s also interesting to compare it with tuning preludes from other traditions (lute, pipes, etc) and the Proviadau in the Robert ap Huw ms. Personally, I tend to think that while they typically set the mood/mode, it also tests or proves the “setting of the strings”… before embarking on the “big piece”. Moreover, it seems to me that preludes are more germaine on an instrument that utilizes multiple tunings. such as harp or lute, rather than an organ. Hmmm, for pipes, it is a matter of getting the chanter and drone in tune…

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