The Glories of Ireland


By W.H. GRATTAN FLOOD, Mus. D., M.R.I.A., K.S.G.

Perhaps nothing so strikingly brings home the association of Ireland with music as the fact that the harp is emblazoned on the national arms. Ireland, “the mother of sweet singers”, as Pope writes; Ireland, “where”, according to St. Columcille, “the clerics sing like the birds”; Ireland can proudly point to a musical history of over 2,000 years. The Milesians, the De Dananns, and other pre-Christian colonists were musical. Hecataeus (B.C. 540-475) describes the Celts of Ireland as singing songs to the harp in praise of Apollo, and Aethicus of Istria, a Christian philosopher of the early fourth century, describes the culture of the Irish. Certain it is that, even before the coming of St. Patrick, the Irish were a highly cultured nation, and the national Apostle utilized music and song in his work of conversion. In the early Lives of the Irish Saints musical references abound, and the Irish school of music attracted foreign scholars from the sixth to the ninth century.

Hymnologists are familiar with the hymns written by early Irish saints and laics, e.g., St. Sechnall, St. Columcille, St. Molaise, St. Cuchuimne, St. Columbanus, St. Ultan, St. Colman, St. Cummain, St. Aengus, Dungal, Sedulius, Moengal, and others. Who has not heard of the great music school of San Gallen, founded by St. Gall, “the wonder and delight of Europe,” whither flocked German students? One of the Irish monks, Tuathal (Tutilo), composed numerous sacred pieces, including the famous farced Kyrie, “Fons bonitatis”, included in the Vatican edition of the Kyriale (1906). Not alone did Irish monks propagate sacred and secular music throughout France, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, and the far North, but they made their influence felt In Lindisfarne, Malmesbury, Glastonbury, and other cities in England, as also in Scotland. St. Aldhelm, one of the pupils of St. Maeldubh, tells us that at the close of the seventh century, “Ireland, synonymous with learning, literally blazed like the stars of the firmament with the glory of her scholars.”

During the ninth century we meet with twelve different forms of instruments in use by the Irish, namely:–the Cruit and Clairseach (small and large harp); Timpan (Rotta or bowed cruit); Buinne (oboe or bassoon); Bennbuabhal and Corn (horn); Cuisleanna and Piob (bagpipes); Feadan (flute or fife); Guthbuinne (bass horn); Stoc and Sturgan (trumpet); Pipai (single and double pipes); Craoibh cuil and Crann cuil (cymbalum); Cnamha (castanet); and Fidil (fiddle). The so-called “Brian Boru’s Harp” really dates from the thirteenth century, and is now in Trinity College, Dublin, but there are numerous sculptured harps of the ninth and tenth centuries on the crosses at Graig, Ullard, Clonmacnois, Durrow, and Monasterboice.

Donnchadh, an Irish bishop of the ninth century, who died as abbot of St. Remigius, wrote a commentary on Martianus Capella, a well-known musical text book. Towering above all his fellows, John Scotus Erigena, in 867, wrote a tract De Divisione Naturae, in which he expounds organum or discant, nearly a hundred years before the appearance of the Scholia Enchiriadis and the Musica Enchiriadis. He also wrote a commentary on Martianus Capella, now in a Paris MS. of the ninth century.

The eulogy of Giraldus Cambrensis, or Gerald Barry, who came to Ireland in 1183, on Irish harpers and minstrels is too well known to be repeated, but Brompton and John of Salisbury are equally enthusiastic. Ground bass, or pedal point, and singing in parts, as well as bands of harpers and pipers, were in vogue in Ireland before the coming of the English. Dante, quoted by Galilei, testifies to the fact that Italy received the harp from Ireland; and, it may be added, the Irish harp suggested the pianoforte. In the Anglo-Norman ballad, “The Entrenchment of New Ross”–in 1265–allusion is made to pipes and flutes, and carols and dancing. Another poem, dating from about 1320, refers to Irish dances in a flattering manner.

John Garland (1190-1264) wrote a treatise on Organum, and outlined a scheme of dividing the interval, which developed into ornamentation, passing notes, and grace notes. The Dublin Troper of the thirteenth century has a number of farced Kyries and Glorias, also a collection of Sequences. A Dublin Processionale of the fourteenth century contains the most elaborate form of the Officium Sepulchri, with musical notation on a four-line stave–the foundation of the Miracle Play of the Resurrection. Another Dublin Troper dates from 1360 and was used in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. It contains the hymn, “Angelus ad Virginem”, alluded to by Chaucer. The Christ Church Psaltery, about 1370, has musical notation and is exquisitely illuminated. Lionel Power, an Anglo-Irishman, wrote the first English treatise on music in 1395. Exactly a century later, in 1495, a music school was founded in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

The Irish Annals of the thirteenth to the fifteenth century have numerous references to distinguished harpers and singers, and there are still sung many beautiful airs of this period, including “The Coulin” and “Eibhlin a ruin.” John Lawless was a famous Irish organ-builder of the second half of the fifteenth century, and his successor, James Dempsey, built many fine organs between the years 1530 and 1565.

Notwithstanding the many penal enactments against Irish minstrels, all the great Anglo-Irish nobles of the Pale retained an Irish harper and piper in their service. Under date of 1480, we find Chief Justice Bermingham having an Irish harper to teach his family, as also “to harp and to dance.” A century later “Blind Cruise, the harper”–Richard Cruise–composed a lamentation song on the fall of the Baron of Slane, the air of which is still popular. It is to the credit of the Irishman, William Bathe (who subsequently became a Jesuit), that he wrote the first printed English treatise on music, published in 1584–thus ante-dating by thirteen years Morley’s work. Bathe wrote a second musical treatise in 1587, and he was the first to call measures by the name of bars. He also formulated methods of transposition and sight reading that may still be studied with profit.

Thomas Campion, the poet and composer, was born in Dublin in 1567, but spent nearly all his life in England. Other Irish composers, to mention only the most distinguished, were William Costello (madrigalist), Richard Gillie, Edward Shergold, and Walter Kennedy. Strange as it may seem, Queen Elizabeth retained in her service an Irish harper, Cormac MacDermot, from 1591 to 1603, and on the death of the queen he was given an annual pension of £46 10s. 10d.–nearly £500 a year of our present money.

Shakespeare refers to eleven Irish tunes, of which the famous “Callino Casturame” (Cailin og a stuir me) is still fresh. Irish dances were extremely popular at the English court from 1600 to 1603 and were introduced into the Masks. Shakespeare’s “intrinsic friend,” John Dowland of Dublin, was one of the greatest lutenists in Europe from 1590 to 1626. In the dedication of a song “to my loving countryman, Mr. John Foster the Younger, merchant of Dublin in Ireland,” Dowland sufficiently indicates his nationality, and his compositions betray all the charm and grace of Irish melody. It is of interest to add that the earliest printed “Irish Dance” is in Parthenia Inviolata, of which work, published in 1613-4, there is only one copy known–now in the New York Public Library. From 1600-1602, Charles O’Reilly was harpist to the court of Denmark at 200 thalers a year. His successor was Donal Dubh (“the black”) O’Cahill (1602-1610), who followed Anne of Denmark to the English court. Walter Quin of Dublin was music master to King James’s eldest son, Prince Henry, from 1608 to 1611. Other noted harpers of the first half of the seventeenth century are: Rory dall (“the blind”) O’Cahan; Nicholas dall Pierce; Tadhg MacRory; John, Rory, and Henry Scott; Owen MacKeenan; Owen MacDermot; Tadhg O’Coffey; and Father Robert Nugent, S.J. Darby Scott was harper to the Danish Court from 1621 till his death, at Copenhagen, on December 19, 1634. Pierce Ferriter, a “gentleman harper”, was executed at Killarney in 1652. Myles O’Reilly and the two Connellans were famous harpers between the years 1660-1680. Evelyn, the English diarist, in 1668, praises the excellent performance on the harp of Sir Edward Sutton, who, in the following year, was granted by King Charles II. the lands of Confey, Co. Kildare. Two beautiful harps of this period are still preserved–the Fitzgerald Harp and the Fogarty Harp.

There are many exquisite airs of the seventeenth century, some of which have been incorporated in Moore’s Irish Melodies. The titles of several airs of this epoch are of historical interest, e.g., “Sarsfield’s Lament,” “Lament for Owen Roe O’Neill,” “MacAlistrum’s March,” “Ned of the Hill,” “The Breach of Aughrim,” “Limerick’s Lamentation,” “Lilliburlero,” “Ballinamona,” “The Boyne Water,” and “The Wild Geese.” Irish tunes abound in the various editions of Playford’s Country Dances from 1651 to 1720.

Turlogh O’Carolan (1670-1738), who has been styled “the last of the Irish bards”, wrote and composed innumerable songs, also Planxties, Plearacas, and Lamentations. It is here merely necessary to note that twenty-six of O’Carolan’s airs are included in Moore’s Irish Melodies, although his claim to them has only recently been proved by the present writer. Goldsmith’s eulogy of O’Carolan is well known.

The Jacobite period from 1710 to 1750 considerably influenced Irish minstrelsy, and some of the most delightful airs were adapted to Jacobite lyrics. “Seaghan buidhe,” “An Sean duine,” “Lament for Kilcash,” “Ormonde’s Lament,” “Morin ni Chullenain,” “All the Way to Galway” (the air of “Yankee Doodle”), “Caitlin ni Houlihan,” “Balance a straw” (“The Wearing of the Green”), “St. Patrick’s Day,” “Plancam Peirbhig,” are amongst the tunes in vogue at this period.

As early as 1685 the Hibernian Catch Club was established and still flourishes. Cecilian celebrations were held from 1727 to 1732, and a Dublin Academy of Music was founded in 1728. The Charitable and Musical Society (founded in 1723) built the Fishamble Street Music Hall in 1741, and assisted at the first performance of The Messiah, conducted by Handel himself, on 13th April, 1742. Kitty Clive, Peg Woffington, and Daniel Sullivan were noted Irish singers of this epoch, while John Clegg, Dr. Murphy, and Burke Thumoth were famous instrumentalists. In 1741 Richard Pockrich invented the Musical Glasses, for which Gluck wrote some pieces: it was afterwards improved by Benjamin Franklin. On the continent, Henry Madden was music director of the Chapel Royal at Versailles in 1744 (in succession to Campra), and was also canon of St. Quentin.

In 1764 the Earl of Mornington, Mus. D., was appointed first professor of music in Dublin University. A few years later Charles Clagget invented the valve-horn. Michael Kelly of Dublin was specially selected by Mozart to create the parts of Basilio and Don Curzio at the first performance of the opera of Figaro, on May 1st, 1786. Kane O’Hara, Samuel Lee, Owenson, Neale, Baron Dillon, Dr. Doyle, T.A. Geary, Mahon, and the Earl of Westmeath were distinguished musicians–while the fame of Carter, Mountain, Moorehead, and Dr. Cogan was not confined to Ireland.

Among native minstrels, Jerome Duigenan, Dominic Mongan, Denis Hempson, Charles Byrne, James Duncan, Arthur Victory, and Arthur O’Neill were celebrated as harpers. The Belfast meeting of 1792 revived the vogue of the national instrument. Nor was the bagpipe neglected. Even in America, in 1778, Lord Rawdon had a band of pipers, with Barney Thomson as Pipe Major. At home, Sterling, Jackson, MacDonnell, Moorehead, Kennedy, and Macklin sustained the reputation of this ancient instrument.

Ere the close of the eighteenth century John Field of Dublin was a distinguished pianist. He subsequently (1814) invented the nocturne, developed by Chopin. Sir John Stevenson (the arranger of the Irish Melodies), Tom Cooke, William Southwell (inventor of the damper action for pianofortes), Henry Mountain, Andrew Ashe (flautist), Barton, Rooke, and Bunting were world-famed.

Among the Irish musicians of the last century the following names are typical: Thomas Moore, J. A. Wade, Balle (Bohemian Girl), Wallace (Maritana), Osborne, Sir Frederick Ouseley, Scotson Clarke, Howard Glover, Horncastle, J. W. Glover, Sir Robert Stewart, Augusta Holmes, R. M. Levey, Joseph Robinson, Forde, Lover, Kearns, Allen, Barker, Torrance, Molloy, Guernsey, Gilmore, Thunder, Harvey, Goodman, Sir Arthur Sullivan (Pinafore, Mikado), Miss Davis, Halliday (inventor of the Kent bugle), Latham, Duggan, Gaskin, Lacy, Pontet (Piccolomini), Hudson, Pigot, Horan, Marks, and W. C. Levey. Famous vocalists like Catherine Hayes, Mrs. Scott Fennell, Signer Foli (Foley), Barton McGuckin, Denis O’Sullivan, and William Ludwig deserve inclusion.

In our own day, it is only necessary to mention composers like Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, Dr. C. Woods, Victor Herbert, Mrs. Needham, Dr. Sinclair, Norman O’Neill, and Arthur O’Leary; singers like Egan, Burke, Plunket Greene, John MacCormack, P. O’Shea, Charles Manners, and Joseph O’Mara; violinists like Maud McCarthy, Emily Keady, Arthur Darley, and Patrick Delaney; organists like Dr. Charles Marchant, Brendan Rogers, Dr. Jozé, and Professor Buck; writers like Mrs. Curwen, Dr. Annie Patterson, Mrs. Milligan Fox, Professor Mahaffy, A.P. Graves, Dr. Collison, and G.B. Shaw; and conductors like Hamilton Harty and James Glover.


Walker: Irish Bards (1786); O’Curry: Lectures (1870); Hardiman: Irish Mistrelsy (2 vols., 1834); The Complete Petrie Collection (3 vols., 1902-1904); Grattan Flood: History of Irish Music (3rd ed., 1913), Story of the Harp (1906), Story of the Bagpipe (1911); Mrs. Milligan Fox: Annals of the Irish Harpers (1911); Mason: Song Lore of Ireland (1910); Armstrong: Musical Instruments (2 vols., 1904-1908); O’Neill: Irish Folk Music (1911), Irish Minstrels and Musicians (1913).

Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!