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.
Last night we went to Dundee, as I was performing my concert on board the Unicorn. We travelled in early just so we could have an hour or so wandering around the centre of town to see if anything was happening.
In city square there were perhaps a thousand people with flags and music, very peaceful and friendly, lots of family groups. They organised a procession around the block, so we followed on at the end.
We left the gathering and headed down to the docks. The Unicorn is a really beautiful ship, genuinely old and not over-manicured like many historical things. On board, the captains cabin had been cleared and was set with chairs; the wine was laid out on a table ouside the cabin entrance, on the main deck. The ceilings on board are very low!
As it got dimmer, people started arriving. There was not a huge turnout, but the low ceilings and the homely atmosphere of the ship seemed to draw people out; everyone was talking to each other in unexpected intimacy.
For the first half of the concert, I played a selection of 18th century music, from the pibroch Maol Donn to the breezy baroque Blossom of the Raspberry. My fiddle tune went OK and was well received – especially with the story about it.
In the interval everyone went into the main deck for wine and conversation. This went on for quite a long time!
Then for the second half I played the Lament for the Union set. People were interested and sympathetic to the sentiments – it felt like a historic moment, thinking about the beginning of the Union in 1707, on the eve of the historic referendum to undo it. Especially with the evening glow from the docks through the windows…
Walking back up through the town late at night to the bus station to catch our ride home, we saw a battle of the billboards. Looks like Yes is winning this one!
On Saturday evening I will be at the botanic gardens here in St Andrews for an outside evening concert. I’ll have my 18th century Irish harp with me and will be playing a programme of “Carolan, Connellan & Lyons”.
The Downhill harp is loud and strident enough to work in an outdoors setting, and I am hoping that the elegant and sweet tunes from these three composers will complement the summer evening picnic ambience on the lawn of the gardens.
I am interested in these three composers as the finest exponents of the “Irish baroque”, a kind of fusion of the old native styles with the fashionable Italianate music that swept into Scotland and Ireland in the years around 1700.
In Ireland it was the harpers who embraced this new fashion, and Carolan and Lyons were right in there composing Italianate tunes or variation sets in full-on continental style, though always viewed through the prism of the old Gaelic performance traditions on the early Gaelic harp. Connellan, being that bit earlier, worked in a more traditional way though he can perhaps be seen as one of the earliest to compose the big 18th century irish “sean-nos” songs.
In Scotland, the few harpers that remained by 1700 did not engage with this Italian music fashion, and it was the fiddlers who were the most enthusiastic in developing the Scottish baroque style. James Oswald is perhaps the best known and most prolific, and I am using his delightful setting on one of Lyons’s tunes. Lyons called it “Miss Hamilton” after one of his patrons, but Oswald calls it “The blossom of the rasberry” which wonderfully fits our Botanic Garden theme. There is a lovely variation in Oswald’s set which may have come from Lyons but really sounds more like Oswald’s work.