How The Ancient Irish Excelled In Music

From the very earliest ages Irish musicians were celebrated for their

skill, not only in their own country but all over Europe. Our native

literature, whether referring to pagan or Christian times, is full of

references to music and to skilful musicians, who are always spoken of in

terms of the utmost respect.

Everywhere through the Records we find evidences that the ancient Irish,

both high and low, were passionately fond of music. It was mixed up with

their daily home-life, and formed part of their amusements, meetings, and

celebrations of every kind. In the religious tales music is always one of

the delights of heaven; and a chief function of the angels who attend on

God is to chant music of ineffable sweetness to Him, which they generally

do in the shape of beautiful white birds. A good example of the people's

intense fondness for music is found in an old Irish religious poem, in

which the hard lot of Adam and Eve for a whole year after their expulsion

from Paradise is described, when they were--as the poem expresses

it--"without proper food, fire, house, music, or raiment." Here music is

put among the necessaries of life, so that it was a misery to be without


In the early ages of the Church many of the Irish ecclesiastics took

delight in playing on the harp; and in order to indulge in this innocent

and refining taste they were wont to bring with them, on their missionary

journeys, a small portable harp, with which they beguiled many a weary

hour after their hard work.

In very early times Irish professors of music were as eagerly sought after

on the Continent as those of literature and general learning, so that they

were sometimes placed at the head of great music-schools. At a later time

it was quite common among the Welsh bards to come over to Ireland to

receive instruction from the Irish harpers. In the eleventh century one of

the Welsh kings, Griffith ap Conan, brought over to Wales a number of

skilled Irish musicians, who, in conference with the native Welsh bards,

carried out some great improvements in Welsh music. Ireland was long the

school for Scottish harpers also, who regularly came over, like those of

Wales, to finish their musical education--a practice which continued down

to about 150 years ago.

Giraldus Cambrensis, a Welshman, who visited Ireland in 1185, though very

much prejudiced against the Irish, says that Irish harpers were

incomparably more skilful than those of any other nation he had ever heard

play. From that period, in spite of wars and troubles, music continued to

be cultivated, and there was an unbroken succession of great professional

harpers, till the end of the eighteenth century, when, for want of

encouragement in the miserable condition of the country under the penal

laws, the race died out.

The Harp is mentioned in the earliest Irish literature: it is constantly

mixed up with our oldest legends; and it was in use from the remotest

pagan times. The old Irish harps were of a medium size, or rather small,

the average height being about thirty inches: and some were not much more

than half that height. They had strings of brass wire which were tuned by

a key, not very different from the present tuning-key. Irish harpers

always played with the fingers or with the finger-nails.

The Irish had a small stringed instrument called a Timpan, which had only

a few strings. It had a body like a flat drum, to which at one side was

attached a short neck: the strings were stretched across the flat face of

the drum and along the neck: and were tuned and regulated by pins or keys

and a bridge. It was played with a bow or with the finger-nail, or by both

together, while the notes were regulated in pitch--or 'stopped' as

musicians say--with the fingers of the left hand, like those of a fiddle

or guitar. This little instrument was a great favourite, and is constantly

mentioned in Irish literature.

Harpers and timpanists were honoured in Ireland beyond all other

musicians; and their rights and privileges were even laid down in the law.

Kings had always harpers in their service, who resided in the palaces and

were well paid for their services.

The harp and timpan were the chief instruments of the higher classes, many

of whom played them as an accomplishment, as people now play the piano and

guitar. But the bagpipe was the great favourite of the common people. The

form in use was what we now call the Highland or Scotch pipes--slung from

the shoulder: the bag inflated by the mouth. This form of pipes took its

rise in Ireland: and it was brought to Scotland in early ages by those

Irish colonists already spoken of (page 11). There is another and a better

kind of bagpipes, now common in Ireland, resting on the lap when in use,

and having the bag inflated by a bellows: but this is a late invention.

The old Irish had also Whistles and Flageolets, with holes for the fingers

and blown by the mouth, much like those of the present day. Some

flageolets were double, and some even triple, i.e., with two, or with

three, pipes, sounded by a single mouthpiece, and having holes which were

all stopped by the fingers. On many of the great stone crosses are

sculptured harp-players and pipe-players, from which we learn a great deal

about the shapes and sizes of the several instruments.

The Irish had curved bronze Trumpets and Horns of various shapes and

sizes, which, judging from the numbers found buried in clay and bogs, must

have been in very general use. In the National Museum in Dublin is a

collection of twenty-six ancient trumpets, varying in length from 8 feet

down to 18 inches. The larger ones are of most admirable workmanship,

formed by hammering; curved, jointed, ornamented, and riveted with

extraordinary skill and perfection of finish.

Among the household of every king and chief there was a band of

trumpeters--as there were harpers--who were assigned their proper places

at feasts and meetings. Trumpets were used for various purposes:--in war;

in hunting; for signals during meetings and banquets; as a mark of honour

on the arrival of distinguished visitors; and such like. For war purposes,

trumpeters had different calls for directing movements--for battle, for

unyoking, for marching, for halting, for retiring to sleep, for going into

council, and so forth.

The ancient Irish were very fond of a Craebh ciuil [crave-cule], or

'musical branch,' a little branch on which were suspended a number of

diminutive bells, which produced a sweet tinkling when shaken: a custom

found also in early times on the Continent. The musical branch figures

much in Irish romantic literature.

The music of ancient Ireland consisted wholly of short airs, each with two

strains or parts--seldom more. But these, though simple in comparison with

modern music, were constructed with such exquisite art that of a large

proportion of them it may be truly said no modern composer can produce

airs of a similar kind to equal them.

The Irish musicians had various 'Styles,' three of which are very often

mentioned in tales and other ancient Irish writings: of these, numerous

specimens have come down to the present day. The style they called

'Mirth-music' (Ganntree) consisted of lively airs, which excited to

cheerfulness, mirthfulness, and laughter. These are represented by our

present dance tunes, such as jigs, reels, hornpipes, and other such

spirited pieces, which are known so well in every part of Ireland. The

'Sorrow-music' (Goltree) was slow and sad, and was always sung on the

occasion of a death. We have many airs belonging to this style, which are

now commonly called Keens, i.e., laments, or dirges. The 'Sleep-music'

(Suantree) was intended to produce sleep; and the tunes belonging to

this style were plaintive and soothing. Such airs are now known as

lullabies, or nurse-tunes, or cradle-songs, of which numerous examples are

preserved in collections of Irish music. They were usually sung to put

children to sleep. Though there are many tunes belonging to these three

classes, they form only a small part of the great body of Irish music.

Music--as already remarked--entered into many of the daily occupations of

the people. There were special spinning-wheel songs, which the women sang,

with words, in chorus or in dialogue, when employed in spinning. At

milking-time the girls were in the habit of chanting a particular sort of

air, in a low gentle voice. These Milking-songs were slow and plaintive,

something like the nurse-tunes, and had the effect of soothing the cows

and of making them submit more gently to be milked. This practice was

common down to fifty or sixty years ago; and I well remember seeing cows

grow restless when the song was interrupted, and become again quiet and

placid when it was resumed. The same custom was common in the Highlands of

Scotland. While ploughmen were at their work they whistled a sweet, slow,

and sad strain, which had as powerful an effect in soothing the horses at

their hard labour as the milking-songs had on the cows: and these

Plough-whistles also were quite usual till about half a century ago.

Special airs and songs were used during working time by smiths, by

weavers, and by boatmen. There were, besides, hymn-tunes; and young people

had simple airs for all sorts of games and sports. In most cases words

suitable to the several occasions were sung with lullabies, laments, and

occupation-tunes. Examples of all the preceding classes of melodies will

be found in the collections of Irish airs by Bunting, Petrie, and Joyce.

The Irish had numerous war-marches, which the pipers played at the head of

the clansmen when marching to battle, and which inspired them with courage

and dash for the fight. This custom is still kept up by the Scotch; and

many fine battle-tunes are printed in Irish and Scotch collections of

national music.

The man who did most in modern times to draw attention to Irish music was

Thomas Moore. He composed his exquisite songs to old Irish airs. They at

once became popular, not only in the British Islands, but on the

Continent and in America; and Irish music was thenceforward studied and

admired where it would have never been heard of but for Moore.

Of the entire body of Irish airs that are preserved, we know the authors

of only a very small proportion; and these were composed within the last

two hundred years. Most of the remaining airs have come down from old

times, scattered fragments of exquisite beauty that remind us of the

refined musical culture of our forefathers. No one now can tell who

composed "The Coolin," "Savourneen Dheelish," "Shule Aroon," "Molly

Asthore," "Eileen Aroon," "Garryowen," "The Boyne Water," "Patrick's Day,"

"Langolee," "The Blackbird," or "The Girl I left behind me"; and so of

many other well-known and lovely airs.

The national music of Ireland and that of Scotland are very like each

other, and many airs are common to both countries: but this is only what

might be expected, as we know that the Irish and the Highland Scotch were

originally one people, and kept up mutual intercourse down to recent


How Kings Chiefs And People Were Subject To The Brehon Laws How The Ancient Irish Excelled In Music facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail