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The Origins of Traditional Irish Music



If no actual music of the Celtic Church has been spared by the hand of decaying time, at least the words of a few hymns have come down to us, although even these are, with one exception, of Irish provenance. Some of these hymns, attributed to saints of the 6th and 7th Centuries, are to be seen in the Antiphonary of Bangor (7th Cent.), the Second Vision of St. Adamnan (7th Cent.), the Book of Mulling (9th Cent.), and the Irish Liber Hymnorum (11th Cent.), as well as in some Continental codices. These hymns of the Celtic Church are extremely interesting, for some of them contain what seem to be old pagan ideas in a Christian dress. Indeed Eleanor Hull has very forcibly demonstrated that the heathenish character of some of these ancient Celtic hymns is perhaps a survival of pagan usage. In fact, under the new Christian dispensation, these hymns were actually used as charms and incantations as of old, the loricas especially. We observe in the lorica attributed to St. Columba that God is addressed as "King of the White Sun," whilst Christ is sought as "My Druid." Indeed, it is not too much to suggest that the characteristic tonsure of the Celtic clergy, over which the Roman Church created so much pother, may have been an old pagan tonsure. Clearly, the main drift of all this evidence of survivals is, that what is discernible in the outward visible sign of the mere words may surely show itself in the inward spiritual grace, i.e. in the music. In other words I suspect that some of the chants may have been a residue of pagan vocal incantations.

In the 5th Century the term decantare is used of the introduction of the liturgy of the Celtic Church into Ireland. In the next century, Gildas speakes of the "ecclesiastical melodies" in Celtic England, and of the youth of the land praising God in singing. In Scotland, St. Adamnan shows that both psalms and hymns were used in the offices of the church. St. Columba himself wrote a Liber Hymnorum and St. Gregory is said to have sent him a similar volume of hymns for the various services of the week. We still possess the hymn Altus Prosator, attributed to St. Columba.

Henry George Farmer
A History of Music in Scotland
London, 1947
pp. 28-29



Kells headThroughout the Middle Ages Cambrai along with all the other centres in the region of northern France and Flanders radiated the intense musical flame introduced by the Irish monks who settled there in the 9th century. Since the artistic culture of the Irish spread over the territory of Carolingian Europe, these schools of singing inherited a European trend whose intellectual centre and (through a series of intermediate stages) ultimate achievement was the Schola Cantorum in Rome.

Benjamin Rajeczky
Notes to Schola Hungarica: Guillaume Dufay: Hymns
Hungaroton HCD 12951


All musical persons have heard of the world-renowned monastery of St. Gall, in Switzerland, but the fact is too often ignored that its foundation, in the year 612, was the world of the Irish saint Cellach, whose name has been latinized Gallus or Gall. This great Irishman, a student of Bangor, Co. Down, the friend and disciple of St. Columbanus, died October 16th, 645, aged 96, and, at his demise, the fame of his music-school became known far and near.

About the year 653, St. Gertrude, of Brabant, (daughter of Pepin, Mayor of the Palace), abbess of Nivelle, in Brabant, sent for St. Foillan and St. Ultan, brothers of our celebrated St. Fursey (Patron of Perrone), to teach psalmody to her nuns. These two Irish monks complied with her request, and built an adjoining monastery at Fosse, in the diocese of Liege.

St. Mailduff, the Irish founder of Mailduffsburgh, or Malmesbury, in England, flourished in 670, and composed many beautiful hymns. He is best known as the tutor of St. Aldhelm, who tells us that the English students of his time flocked daily in great numbers to the schools of Ireland "of unspeakable excellence," and that Erin, "synonymous with learning, literally blazed like the stars of the firmament with the glory of her scholars."

Wm. H. Grattan Flood
A History of Irish Music
Dublin, 1906
p. 12

Our Irish St. Helias, a native of Monaghan, was elected Abbot of Cologne, in Germany, in 1015. He was the bosom friend of St. Heribert, and ruled the two monasteries of St. Martin's and St. Pantaleon's, from 1015 to 1040. Mabillon tells us that not only was St. Helias a most distinguished musician, but that he was "the first to introduce the Roman chant to Cologne," and he is, most probably, "the stranger and pilgrim" to whom Berno of Reichenau dedicated his well-known musical work, "The Laws of Symphony and Tone." No greater tribute to the esteem in which the Irish monks were held at Reichenau can be cited than the fact that this monastery (founded in 724 by our Irish St. Pirminius), was placed under the patronage of St. Fintan, a Leinster saint, who flourished circa 830.

Ibid, pp. 40-41


Kells beastsAs in the folk music of other lands, love songs constitute the most numerous class of folk-song in Ireland. Unmistakably deriving from the popular poetry of the Middle Ages, the themes and types prevailing are a legacy of the Norman invaders. Their adoption into Irish is believed to have begun towards the end of the thirteenth century.

Breandán Breathnach
Folk Music and Dances of Ireland
Mercier Press, 1977
p. 21


The adaptation of secular songs to sacred words was freely practised in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. William of Malmesbury tells us of Thomas, Archbishop of York (1070), that "whenever he heard any new secular song or ballad sung by the minstrels, he immediately composed sacred adaptations of the words to be sung to the same tune." Very remarkable it is that the existence of the very earliest known English folk-songs is due to a record among the archives of the Kilkenny Corporation. In the Red Book of Ossory, there are fifteen pages written in double columns containing sixty Latin verses, written by Richard Ledred, Bishop of Ossory, who ruled from 1317 to 1360—best known for his connection with the heresy and witchcraft trials between the years 1324 and 1331. We may date the Bishop's verses as of about the year 1324.

These Latin verses, or Cantilenae, were written by Bishop Ledrede "for the Vicars Choral of Kilkenny Cathedral, his priests, and clerics, to be sung on great festivals and other occasions," as is stated in a memorandum in said book, "that their throats and mouths, sanctified to God, might not be polluted with theatrical, indecent, and secular songs." The sixty pieces are in honour of Our Lord, the Holy Ghost, and the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the first of them is entitled: Cantilena de Nativitate Domini, a sort of Christmas Carol, followed by three others "de eodem festo."

To the antiquarian musician the really interesting feature of the Bishop of Ossory's verses is that six of them are set or adapted to English tunes, the names being given as follows:—

Two of the Cantilenae are set to French tunes, and may be of somewhat earlier date than the English songs.

Wm. H. Grattan Flood
Op. cit., pp. 89-90


I have previously mentioned that the earliest English treatise on music was written by an Irish cleric, Lionel Power, about the year 1390. It may also be added that there is a fine Antiphonarium of this period among the manuscript in Trinity College, Dublin.

In the Red Book of the Exchequer there is a very fine transcript of the Gregorian Modes, and also the hymn for the feast of the Ascension and the Latin hymn to St. Nicholas. Folios 49-64 contain an early illuminated Missal comprising the chief festivals, following, to a great extent, the Use of Sarum, whilst folio 135 has the well-known hymn to St. John the Baptist, "Ut Queant laxis," from which Guido of Arezzo evolved the names Ut, Re, Mi, Fa, etc.

Wm. H. Grattan Flood
Op. cit., p. 135


With the invention of music printing, in 1473, the knowledge of the "divine art" made considerable headway all over the continent. It is not a little remarkable that the very first book containing plain chant in Roman notation, printed from movable types, was issued from the press of Octavianus Scotus, of Venice, in 1481, under the supervision of an Irishman, Maurice O'Fihily, a Franciscan Friar, who was subsequently Archbishop of Tuam. It was not until 1495 that Wynkyn de Worde printed the first book in England containing musical notes.

Wm. H. Grattan Flood
Op. cit., pp. 101-102


In Smyth's Information for Ireland, dated May 5th, 1561, there is mention of four classes of rhymers, namely, brehons, shanachies, aois-dana (men of songs), and fileas or poetic story-tellers; also, female singers called mná siubhail. Sir William FitzWilliam, Lord Justice of Ireland, thus writes to Cecil, on April 14th, 1562: "These rhymers set forth the most 'bestlyest' and odious parts of men's ancestor's doings and their own likewise, for whom the rhymes are made. Such be caressed and defended, even with their priests, and rewarded with garments till they leave themselves naked [metaphorically], besides the best piece of plate in the house, and chiefest horse away with them: not altogether departing empty-handed when they come among the Earls and others the nobility of the English race."

Wm. H. Grattan Flood
Op. cit., p. 110


Between the years of 1581 and 1584, Edmund Spenser, author of the Faerie Queene, had a very good opportunity to studying Irish music, which he praises very highly, shrewdly remarking the then prevalent mode of elaborately embellishing the simplest airs. This meretricious adornment of old melodies, as noticed by Spenser (whose residence for three years at Kilcullen, New Abbey, Co. Kildare, has, strangely enough, been overlooked by almost all his biographers), continued till the close of the eighteenth century, with the natural result that it is most difficult to get accurate versions of sixteenth and seventeenth-century tunes...

Spenser assures us that the bardic verses "are taken up with a general applause, and usually sung at all the feasts and meetings by the racraidhe, whose proper function that is, who also receive for the same great reward and reputation amongst them." He adds:—"I have caused divers of these [Irish] poems to be translated to me that I might understand them; and surely they savoured of sweet wit and good invention ... sprinkled with some pretty flowers of their natural device, which give good grace and comeliness unto them." For the benefit of the English reader it is as well to explain that the Racraidhe above mentioned included those who sang to the music of the cruit or harp, and who also recited the poems of their master. Spenser instances a case he had known where forty cows were paid by an Irish noble for an effusive ode or dan.

The author of the Faerie Queene alludes to "the wandering women called Mona Shull." These female ballad singers—mna siubhail—are also described by Derrick in his Image of Ireland (1581), and were under the rule of a leader called Lucas, having only one eye. Severe enactments were passed against these mendicant women-rhymers, as also against aesulla, or ishallyn, as the name in written in the State Papers of Elizabeth.

Wm. H. Grattan Flood
Op. cit., pp. 119-121


In February, 1649-50, we read in a contemporary chronicle that the Irish pipers attached to Lord Inchiquin's army drew off from Naas to the march of "Fortune my Foe".

Wm. H. Grattan Flood
Op. cit., p. 172


There are not wanting evidences of the cultivation of the virginal, or spinet, and the viol in Ireland between the years 1660 and 1665, and an examination of old wills and deeds of that time prove the point. Only to quote one instance at random. In an inventory of goods belonging to Edmund Ronayne, deceased, Blarney, County Cork, taken on August 12th, 1665, we come across the two following items: "A payre of Virginalls, vallued ten shillings, and an old violl."

Wm. H. Grattan Flood
Op. cit., p. 217


Harping bard In Ireland in the seventeenth century the pattern of society was changing drastically. The old patrons of poetry and music were exiled or reduced in power and wealth. But as Brian Ó Cuiv has pointed out, the poorer Gaelic-speaking people had less to lose from the disruption of the older Irish society. They allied themselves to and intermarried with the English and Scottish settlers and formed the beginnings of a middle class, prosperous enough but lacking the cohesive traditions, grandeur and and of pre-Cromwellian Ireland. We cannot be sure how much of the old truly Irish musical tradition survived the seventeenth century. Just as elaborate syllabic court poetry disappeared and simpler accentual verse was composed, so it seems likely that much of the intricate high art of the earlier Irish harpers was lost. We know more about the Irish harpers of the eighteenth century than about any earlier players and it is obvious that their instruments, technique and musical style were subject to many non-Irish influences. Their repertoire consisted mainly of tunes of Irish association, simply but movingly played on harps which retained enough of the tonal charm of the older Irish harp to have still a special character and quality. Judging from material published first in the eighteenth century, some of the tunes were probably very ancient, perhaps drawn from the old aristocratic repertory and from venerable though unrecorded popoular usage. A few were of Scottish, English or Italian derivation. But it is probable that the style of some of what we now consider traditional Irish music evolved in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries as a hybrid of largely unrecorded indigenous music and imported foreign styles. This phenomenon has been common enough in other art forms throughout Irish history.

Joan Rimmer
The Irish Harp/Cláirseach nahÉireann
Cló Mercier, Corcaigh, 1977
p. 55


The jumble "callen o custure me" in Shakespeare's Henry V (IV 4) has been deciphered to read Cailín ó Chois tSiúre mé (I am a girl from the Suir-side). In a poem beginning Mealltar bean le beagán téad (a woman is wooed with a few strings) found in a late seventeenth-century manuscript from Fermanagh, Cailín ó Chois tSiúre is mentioned with the names of other songs, the singing of which, the poet declares, would have been a more profitable occupation for him than writing poetry. Malone, the great Irish eighteenth-century editor of Shakespeare, in his effort to restore the correct reading, has drawn attention to the appearance in A Handfull of Pleasant Delites, published in 1584, of a song entitled 'A Sonet of a lover in the praise of his lady, to Calen o custure me, sung at every line's end'. The air is found among a collection of songs and other pieces bound together with William Ballet's lute book (belonging to the last quarter of the sixteenth century) now preserved in the Library of Trinity College, Dublin. It is the earliest known annotation of an Irish song and will be immediately recognised as a variant of that to which The Croppy Boy ('Good men and true in this house who dwell') is sung.

Breandán Breathnach
Folk Music and Dances of Ireland
Mercier Press, 1977
pp. 18-19

William Byrd (1543-1623), the noted English composer, created a version of this tune for virginal, under the title "Callino Casturame". There is an excellent website, The Keyboard Music of William Byrd by John Sankey, which has MIDI versions of Byrd's music. Among these is "Callino Casturame". You must visit the site to hear it; the server refuses links.


In 1680, Luke Wadding, Bishop, of Ferns, published a small volume entitled A Pious Garland of Godly Songs for the Solace of his Friends and Neighbours in their Afflictions. It is of special interest as supplying the names of many now-forgotten tunes to which the verses were adapted, e.g., "Patrick Fleming," "Ochone," "Bonny Broom," "The Dumpe," "Since Coelia's my Foe," "Farewell, Fair Armelia," "The Knell," "The Skilful Doctor," "Fortune My Foe," "How Cold and Temperate am I Grown," "Alas! I cannot keep my Sheep," "That time the Groves were clad in Green," "Norah oge nee Yeorane" (Norah oge O'Ryan), "Neen Major Neal" (Inghean=the daughter of Major Neale), and "Shea veer me geh hegnough turshogh" (Se mhir mé go h-eagneach=It is lonely you have left me).

Bishop Wadding wrote hymns and Christmas Carols to the above tunes, and it is remarkable that these lyrics are still sung in the Parish Church of Kilmore, Barony of Forth, County Wexford.

Wm. H. Grattan Flood
Op. cit., pp. 220-221


About 200 of Carolan's airs survive, both instrumental pieces and songs, with, in many cases, their words, but unfortunately most are only in single line form, so that it is not definitely known how he harmonized or accompanied his melodies. The key to this problem may lie in a book of Carolan's music of which only one incomplete copy is known to exist, in the National Library of Ireland. In the absence of the title page, this book was until recently mistakenly thought to have been published in 1721 by the Neal brothers of Dublin; but examination of the watermark has now proved that the book dates from 1742 at the earliest. It seems almost certain that this is the book known to have been published in 1748 by Carolan's son, in collaboration with Dr. Delany of Dublin University, and of which no complete copy has ever been found. Carolan's son would have known how is father played, and the arrangement of the music in this book perhaps provides a clue to Carolan's own method of performance and to the Irish traditional harping style as as whole. The melodies are accompanied by a single line bass. Salient features are the absence of conventional harmony, and the moving bass which is often in octaves with the treble, and often anticipates or echoes the melody lines.

NOTE: this is the same accompaniment style found in the notes (but not the publications) of Edward Bunting, who collected from Denis Hempson, the last of the old-style harpers, at the end of the 18th century.



Bard While stories and songs were being collected from John Doherty at Árd McCool in Stranorlar during early 1997 he played a very unusual air. This involved bowing the melody on the bottom strings of the fiddle using only the first and second fingers. In the meantime, he formed a simple chord on the top two strings using open strings and his third finger. He plucked the chords simultaneously with his little finger, in accompaniment to the simultaneously bowed melody of the air. Doherty later explained that the chord plucking was to imitate a harp, as the piece was originally a harp tune which had come down through the long line of fiddlers in his family and which he learned from his father.


Caoimhín MacAoidh
Between the Jigs and the Reels
Drumlin Publications, 1994
p. 39


British traditional dance idioms

The Penny Wedding The traditional dance music of the British Isles, as one would expect, comprises a common body of rhythms, with certain individualities superimposed by the constituent regions. Thus we have Irish and English, and perhaps Scottish, jigs; triple-time hornpipes peculiar to England; reels peculiar to Scotland and other peculiar to Ireland and including what could be called common-time hornpipes. The varieties of individual utterance in music are not dissimilar to those of speech. It is certain that in earlier times, several regions of Scotland retained something of their own diction in music as well as speech. This was true of the Highlands and Lowlands in broad division, of course, but also within the Highlands in Strathspey, Breadalbane, Athol, Skye, the Hebrides (even between islands), and Sutherland; and also within the Lowlands in Moray, Kincardine, the Lothians, Galloway, Roxburgh, and the particularly Norse islands of Orkney and Shetland.

These regions expressed something of their own individuality in style of performance and taste. Tunes were widely shared and crossed natural and national frontiers with ease. The familiar jig 'Cock o' the North', became the Irish 'Auntie Mary' or the English 'Joan's Placket'; and the reel called 'Bob o' Fettercairn' or 'Had I the Wight' in Scotland, is embroidered with arpeggi when it moves into the repertoire of the Northumbrian pipes, and takes the name 'Newburn Lasses'. Likewise "John Paterson's Mare' becomes the 'Black and the Grey', and 'Struan Robertson' becomes 'Cuckold come out of the Amrey'. It all represents a great heritage of music, which has spilled over its original boundaries and is now to be found in the common currency of folk musicians in all the settlements with which the British have been associated the world over. In tracing the origins of the traditional streams to which these countless airs belong, one can still discern the distinction drawn by Giraldus in the twelfth century between the Irish and Scots on the one hand and the English and Welsh on the other.

George Emmerson
Rantin' Pipe and Tremblin' String: A History of Scottish Dance Music
J. M. Dent & Sons, 1971
p. 39


Irish dancing Melodically, of course, the great bulk of our Irish jigs are native in origin. Some few are undoubtedly borrowed from the English, scarcely any from the Scots. The older ones may have been derived from ancient clan marches and songs, and some, perhaps, were adapted from older dance tunes. The vast majority, however, appear to have been composed by the pipers and fiddlers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. ...

The reel, now the favourite dance tune among traditional players, is, in its present form at least, not very much older than the hornpipe, and appears to have evolved around the middle of the eighteenth century. ...

A very strong case can be made for ascribing a Scots ancestry to our reels. ...

What seems to clinch the matter, however, is the fact that many of our great reels are undoubtly Scottish, and they can, in fact, be attributed to known composers, Bonnie Kate, a particular favourite among fiddle players because of the highly decorative setting in which the Sligo fiddler, Michael Coleman, played it, was composed by Daniel Dow, a fiddler from Perthshire. It was first published around 1760 under the title of The Bonnie Lass of Fisherrow. ...

Other favourite reels which have been borrowed from Scotland are Rakish Paddy (there known as Cabar Féigh or The Deer's Horn), John Frank (Colonel McBain), Greig's Pipes, Lucy Campbell, The Ranting Widow (Hopetoun House), and the The Flogging Reel [The Flagon]. During their sojourn here, now bordering on 200 years, these and many other reels of Scottish origin have become naturalised. They have, indeed, flourished, as will be evident on a comparison of the versions current among Irish musicians with the original settings found in the eighteenth-century Scots collections.

The hornpipe has a structure similar to that of the reel, but it is played in a more deliberate fashion, with a well defined accent on the the first and third beats of each bar. Three accented crotchets is a feature of the closing bar of each part. The hornpipe is of English origin, and it assumed its present form around 1760, when it changed over from triple time (3/2) to common time. It was introduced on the stage at the time, and was danced between the acts and scenes of plays.

Breandán Breathnach
Folk Music and Dances of Ireland
Mercier Press, 1977
pp. 58-61


A version of an anonymous folk poem, Nach Aoibhinn do na hÉiníní however clearly heralds the arrival of the new instrument with the use of the word viedhlin in the lines:

Is báine í na an lile, is deise í na an scéimh,
is binne í na an veidhlín, 's is soilsí ná an ghréin;

By the early 1700s the modern violin became firmly established with musicians in Ireland. Nicholas Carolan's research on John and William Neal in his reprinted facsimile version of their 1724 edition of 'A Collection of the Most Celebrated Irish Tunes proper for the German Flute or Hautboy' shows, via contemporary poetry and newspaper advertisements, that "choice fiddles of all sorts" from England (including some from Barrett of Picadilly) were for sale in the Neals' Christ Church Yard shop and were being played at local gatherings.

Caoimhín MacAoidh
Between the Jigs and the Reels
Drumlin Publications, 1994
pp. 24-25


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