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Thoughts on the origins of Irish traditional music

Ornament Ornament The following are some of my views on the origins of Irish traditional music. In part, this is a response to the very interesting article by Caoimhín Mac Aoidh, so if you haven't done so, you should read that first. There is virtually no direct evidence in this subject area, so everything is just an opinion, and nothing can be proven.

This document has been divided into two parts for convenience.

It seems to be agreed that Irish traditional music as it is played today emerged in the 1700s. And I believe that the "Punctuated Equilibrium" model is a good description. With this model, we are most interested in the points of change. So the interesting question is, what kind of music was played in Ireland before 1700?

Leafy thingThe 1700s were a very turbulent century for the Irish. This was the period when the old Gaelic aristocracy, who were for centuries the patrons of the poets and musicians of Ireland, were dispossessed of their influence and estates. The failure of the two Jacobite uprisings in Scotland marked the beginning of a period of intense cultural persecution of Gaelic Scotland. It was at this time that the cultures of Gaelic Scotland and Gaelic Ireland were split apart, and henceforth regarded as separate entities. Up to this time, they had been considered to be a single culture.

You could argue from two different points of view. One is that traditional Irish music is related to music found elsewhere in Europe. Most Irish musicians would agree that today there certainly is a relationship with the music of Lowland Scotland and the north of England. In that case, should not such relationships have existed in earlier times? This point of view makes it possible to look to other countries in Europe for some ideas as to what was going on.

The other point of view is that the Gaels had their own indigenously derived music, which was unique and not connected to what was going on anywhere else in Europe.

I suspect that both points of view are a bit extreme, and that the real answer is probably somewhere in the middle.

Let's start by looking at the 1700s, when the music we play now evolved. What was the situation for a musician at that time?

Edward Bunting A truly amazing thing separates us from having no knowledge whatsoever. In 1792 Edward Bunting, a young church organist was hired to transcribe the music of a number of harpers who appeared at a festival in Belfast. This festival had been sponsored by an early example of what we now call the antiquarian movement. These were people who realized that Gaelic culture was being destroyed, and were doing their best to collect it before it was gone. They lacked the training of modern scholars, and had a tendency to collect indiscriminately and make ill-founded judgements about the origins and relationships of things. But nevertheless, we owe them a big debt, because if it wasn't for their collecting old manuscripts, folk-tales, etc., modern scholars would have much less to work on. And their ill-founded guesses about things were really the foundations of modern scholarship. We're not really any more intelligent; we just have a bit more evidence and many more years to think about it.

Denis Hempson The amazing thing that happened to Edward Bunting was that one of the harpers who turned up in Belfast was Denis Hempson. Hempson was the last living traditional Gaelic harper, playing with fingernails on a wire-strung harp. All the other harpers, although their tunes were Irish, played gut-strung harps that were the same as those elsewhere in Europe, and their playing styles similarly were based on European styles. Hempson was already well into his nineties when he met Bunting. He made such a strong impression on Bunting that Bunting spent the rest of his life collecting traditional music, at considerable financial cost to himself. Hempson lived to be well over 100, and Bunting collected not only tunes from him, but a considerable amount of lore and technical terms in Gaelic.

So it's to the amazing longevity of Hempson (in those days before modern medicine!) and the dedication of Bunting that we owe a large part of our knowledge about pre-1700s music in Ireland. However, we have to remember that this was all filtered through, first Hempson, and then, Bunting, who couldn't play the harp or even speak Irish!

Caoimhín adds:

I asked whether Lynch just collected the words to the tunes.

Now, the first question that arises is that the old harpers were patronized by the aristocracy. So the argument goes, it doesn't really matter what they did, because the traditional music of today comes from the music of the people, which is a completely different tradition that evolved among the peasantry, not connected to what was happening in the big houses.

I can show an excellent counter-example to this theory, which is sean-nós singing. In the last two centuries sean-nós singing has indisputably been an art of the peasantry. Yet, as Sean Ó Tuama has pointed out, if you look at it side by side with the trouvère and troubadour songs of medieval France, there is an unmistakable similarity in style. And in medieval France, these songs were an aristocratic art form; in fact, many of them are known to have been composed by princes, dukes and even kings (one has been preserved by King Richard the Lion-Hearted, for example).

There is a very good explanation for how this came about. Ireland came under English domination in the 1100s. But at that time the King of England ruled a large part of modern-day France. The nobles who arrived to subdue the natives and build castles all over the country were mostly Norman French. This is shown by, among other things, a number of French words being adopted into the Irish language (e.g., French chambre, Irish seomra, both meaning "room", sound almost identical), many of them legal terms. Over the centuries, the Normans learned to speak Irish and became, as is often said, "more Irish than the Irish". Their surnames are still found in Ireland today, such as Fitzgerald, de Lacey, etc. And we even find hybrid surnames like Fitzpatrick!

Lute ensembleWe can tell by the style of buildings that French stone-masons were brought to Ireland and influenced local building traditions. The same thing seems to have happened with song. Now, I ask, why should not the same thing have happened with dance music. If the Norman nobles brought their troubadours with them, they probably brought dance musicians too.

This question is complicated a little by the fact that very little medieval dance music has survived. There are only about 50 pieces in existence, about enough to make two CDs. Some think that perhaps most of it was improvised, although the existing pieces seem composed. In any case, the tradition must have been passed along aurally. The most common medieval dance type that we have is the estampie (also called istampitta and other similar names). As far as is known, the tunes were quite similar over all Europe. Estampies are frequently in a mixture of 6/8 and 9/8 time, so this may well have been the ancestor of both jigs and slip jigs.

In the case of this dance music, again we must ask whether what we have is peculiar to the aristocracy, while the peasants were doing something else entirely. But we need to consider how people lived in the Middle Ages. Before the invention of the chimney (as James Burke has pointed out), there was no such concept as personal privacy. Everyone from the lord of the castle down to the boy who cleaned out the dog-kennels ate and slept in the same big hall. Whatever entertainment went on was for the benefit of the lord, but the kennel-boy was there to see it too. While it is true that there were peasants living in huts, not in castles, they were probably relatives of the kennel-boy. And they probably lived near a castle, to have somewhere to take refuge when the rival clan came to attack, as happened so often in those days.

Gaelic life

(If you look at the 16th century picture shown here, you can clearly see that the servants tending the fire could hear the harper just as well as the noblemen sitting at the table.)

Another thing that would have been heard in such settings were long epic poems, some of which date back to around 300-600 AD or even earlier. These are the famous Gaelic poems such as the Táin Bó Cuailnge. Many of these survived on the lips of the peasantry into the 20th century. (Only illiterate people, generally speaking, are capable of feats of memory such as having 50 poems of 15000 lines off by heart. But it can still be found today, for example in central Asia.)

The old "Big House" lifestyle lasted even into the 18th century. Daniel Corkery says:

Bardic harperThe aristocracy also supported poets. The subject of the poetry was generally praise of the lord, dwelling of course on his generous nature in respect to poets, but also usually setting out his noble lineage. This poetry was a high art form, using extremely complicated rhyme schemes. Master poets were highly respected. They were not servants at all. In fact, if they felt they were not sufficiently rewarded they could compose very telling satires! The tradition of satire, sometimes causing the death of the satiree, is a very old one in Ireland.

Now from our point of view, such poems might not be considered very interesting, since a large part of them consisted of long lists of genealogies. However, an interesting thing happened when the Gaelic order collapsed. The great bardic colleges of Ireland died out in the mid-1600s, although they lingered to some extent in Scotland into the 18th century. The poets fell on hard times. Yet they found new patrons among the peasantry. They travelled around from village to village, receiving the humble hospitality of the peasants in exchange for poetry. The full story of this is told in Daniel Corkery's classic work The Hidden Ireland. Ireland is rather a unique place in Europe in having a high art form entirely supported by peasants, although I suspect you might find something like it in Africa. But was there anywhere else in Europe where the native aristocracy was replaced wholesale by an occupying foreign power in a short period of time? (The same kind of thing might have happened after the Norman conquest of England, but we have no documentation of it.)

Of course, the poets had to change their style a bit. They gave up the complicated metric structures and rhyme schemes for the simpler ones we find in Irish today (actually the rhymes in Irish poetry are still more complex than the simple ones used in English poetry). They had to change their subject matter as well. Naturally, their standard of living dropped considerably. And we have the entire process documented because they composed poems complaining about how terrible everything was!

Ceist! Cia do cheinneóchadh dán?;
a chiall is ceirteólas suadh:
an ngébhadh, nó an áil le haon,
dán saor do-bhéaradh go buan?
Question! Who will buy a poem?
Its meaning is genuine learning of scholars.
Will any take, or does any lack,
a noble poem that shall make him immortal?
Gé dán sin go snadhmadh bhfis,
gach margadh ó chrois go crois
do shiobhail mé an mhumhain leis—
ní breis é a-nuraidh ná a-nois.
Though this is a poem with close-knit science,
I have walked all Munster with it,
every market from cross to cross—
nothing gained from last year to this time.
D'éirneist gémadh beag an bonn,
níor chuir fear ná éinbhean ann,
níor luaidh aoinfhear créad dá chionn,
níor fhéagh liom Gaoidheal ná Gall.
Though a groat were a small earnest,
not one man or woman offered it:
no man mentioned the reason;
neither Gael nor Gall gave heed to me.
Ceard mar so ní sochar dhún,
gé dochar a dol fa lár:
uaisle dul re déiniomh cíor—
ga bríogh d'éinfhior dul re dá?
Such an art as this is no profit to me,
though it is a misfortune that it should fall to the ground:
it were more honourable to become a maker of combs—
what use is it to anyone to profess poetry?

Mathghamhain Ó Hifearnáin (Mahon O'Heffernan),
early 17th century
Osborn Bergin
Irish Bardic Poetry
Dolmen Press, 1970
No. 54

As Caoimhín has pointed out, the aristocracy supported musicians of various kinds, including harpers, who are known to have also performed for the enjoyment of ordinary people as well. Now I ask, might not the same thing have happened to the musicians as to the poets? The harpers would be the exception, because to travel with a harp you need to own a horse to carry it, which required money. So the harp died out. But, as Caoimhín says:

So I postulate that many of the former patronised musicians (other than the harpers) were driven to depend on the peasantry. In doing so, their styles might change somewhat, as did the poets, but they would also retain much influence from their previous training. Caoimhín has mentioned to me, with respect to the lineage of the Doherty family of travelling fiddlers in Donegal, that

One fact that many contemporary accounts remarked on was that the Gaels never fully adopted the feudal system. There was an aristocracy, of course, but under the clan system each clan member felt the chief to be only slightly superior to himself, and felt well able to demand his traditional rights from the chief. This was very surprising to those accustomed to conditions elsewhere in Europe, where the aristocracy was more or less free to oppress the peasantry at will. So again this speaks against there being a cultural gulf in Irish society.

We have some more evidence of this from the earliest known records of Scottish music. These are three manuscripts of lute music dating to the early 1600s. They were compiled by members of the upper classes, but the music is quite a mixture. Along with court music (not surprisingly for Scotland, mostly of French origin) can be found folk songs such as Corn Rigs and The Flowers of the Forest, and some "ports", i.e., compositions of the traditional Gaelic harpers.

So if the aristocratic musicians, thrown on hard times, had to adapt their style to the tastes of the peasantry, what was the new style? Was there in fact some parallel musical stream among the peasantry, which has totally escaped documentation, to which they had to adapt? Well, we know that at that time there was a big change in style-this is precisely the time when the jigs, reels, and others start to appear. And these types of tunes have indisputable relationships outside Gaeldom. Could two massive style changes have taken place simultaneously?

I argue that it was all part of the same process-because we have a better documented case for a style change occurring elsewhere in Britain just at the same time.

I argue that this period was the end of the line for division playing. Before we look at why it ended, let's look a division playing itself and where it came from.

Trio with luteIn medieval and Renaissance music in Europe, instrumental performance was held to be inferior to vocal performance; music was held to be inherently vocal. An instrumental performance was considered as an instrumental version of a vocal original. As such, music was always composed to fit a vocal range. For example, in Italy we encounter estampie melodies equipped with popular religious words, which are known as "lauda". We don't know whether the dance tunes originally had secular words. But we can see in early accounts, and late survivals in such places as the Faroe Islands, that in the early Middle Ages dancers usually sang as they danced, and no instruments were used.

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