Lute icon

The Lute in Ireland



Was the lute ever used in Ireland during the Middle Ages and Renaissance? Unlike its Scottish neighbour, the available records in Ireland seemed to suggest that it was played there only by the invading English. However, I have discovered a few references suggesting that the lute was also used by the Irish themselves.


William Ballet's Lute Book

Lutenist This highly interesting manuscript, which is in the library of Trinity College, Dublin (D. I. 21), contains a large number of the popular tunes of the sixteenth century. "Fortune my foe," "Peg a Ramsey," "Bonny sweet Robin," "Calleno," "Lightlie love Ladies," "Green Sleeves," "Weladay," (all mentioned by Shakspeare), besides "The Witches Dawnce," "The hunt is up," "The Shaking of the Shetes," "The Quadran Pavan," "a Hornpipe," "Robin Reddocke," "Barrow Foster's Dreame," "Downland's Lachrimæ," "Lusty Gallant," "The Blacksmith," "Rogero," "Turkeyloney," "Staynes Morris," "Sellenger's Rownde," "All flowers in brome," "Ballo," "Wigmore's Galliard," "Robin Hood is to the greenwood gone," &c., &., are to be found in it. "Queen Maries Dump" (in whose reign it was probably commenced) stands first in the book.

William Chappell
Popular Music of the Olden Time, Vol. 1
1859, reprinted Dover, 1965
p. 86


Lady lutenist 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.


This demonstrates that lutes were certainly physically present in Ireland during the 1500s. However, Dublin was the heart of the Pale, the area under English control. While some Scottish and Irish tunes are mentioned, all these tunes were very well-known in England at the time.

Therefore, this indicates little or nothing about the use of the lute within the Gaelic culture of Ireland, where at this period the harp was considered the national instrument. Unless some reference to it can be uncovered, we must conclude that, unlike Gaelic Scotland, where the lute seems to have been found at least on occasion, the lute was not in use at all in Gaelic Ireland.


This next quotation (a translation from Latin), shows a very early reference to the lute in Irish literature:

Bishop Patrick (Gilla Patraic) (died 1084)
from Mentis in Excessu (In Ecstasy of Mind)

[Bishop Patrick addressed the allegory below to his friend Aldwin, who became a hermit at Great Malvern, Worcestershire and was later, c. 1085, the first prior of a Benedictine house there. … The translation appears in A. Gwynn (ed.), The Writings of Bishop Patrick, 1074-1084, Scriptores Latini Hiberniae, Vol. I (Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1955), pp. 84-101.]

Then do I spy seven sisters, all alike:
Of whom four are silent, and theother three ready to talk:
The three gave utterance to the wisdom of the silent four.
One holds a lute: next to her one holds a rod in her hands:
The fourth holds the number eight in her right hand, seven in her left,
And is seen to hold unnumbered numbers in her lap.
Thus stood these silent four, in diverse form.
But one of the three holds in her hands the letters of her speechless
Sisters: the second holds strong chains and a spear:
The third a purple cloak, adorned with gold and gems:
All three I beheld with wonder at their great beauty.
The gifts they gave me I omit to tell.
Then the woman (she was the first) taught me songs of melody
On a harp that was wont to sound with six strings:
On it I make melody for the people: often I play it for my own pleasure.

The seven sisters are the seven liberal arts. The silent four are arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy. The other three are grammar, logic and rhetoric.

The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing
Derry, 1991
p. 133

Later in the same poem (quite a long one), we see more references to instruments:

Who could sing the silent speech of people who see men's hearts?
Who the endless abiding joy of the mind?
Who the united choirs singing hymns and praises,
And the love that burns in the hearts of each and all?
Who the lyres and every apt form of melody,
Psalter and strange harps or threefold organs?

I believe that "psalter" in the above verse is a mistake for "psaltery", a plucked instrument somewhat resembling a hammer dulcimer (without the hammers). These references show that lutes were known in Ireland, at least by the educated classes, but I notice that when it comes to actually playing music, the bishop prefers the harp.


The Mynshall Lute Book (c. 1597-99)

Richard Mynshall (also spelt Minshull) was born in Nantwich, Cheshire, on 26 December 1582… He acquired this blank lute royal book when he was about fifteen, and copied 39 pieces into. (The Minshull Account Book contains writing by Mynshall from this period until his death. In the Lute Book piece no. 14 is dated 1597). In or soon after August 1599 someone wrote on f. 98v the letter from the Earl of Essex to Queen Elizabeth. On 9 January 1602/3 Mynshall married Elizabeth Wilbraham… and on the death of his father four days later… he took over the family mercery business. These responsibilities possibly left him little time to pursue his teen-age study of the lute. He died in Nantwich on 17 February 1637/8.

Robert Spencer
The Mynshall Lute Book: An Introductory Study
Boethius Press, Leeds, 1975
no page numbers

98r. Endpaper, containing a poem written out by Mynshall, of which a modernised transcription follows:

Is it stretching the imagination too far to suggest that Mynshall wrote this poem shortly after Essex's downfall in 1601, having been a teen-age soldier In Ireland with Essex? Many of his relations and acquaintances had members of their families serving there …, who with daily talk of the latest news might have encouraged him to seek his fortune with them. There was a "Captain Mynshewe" in Ireland in September 1595 …, though I imagine that a 12-year-old could hardly have been a captain. However, a "Captain Mynshall" was at the battle of Kinsale, 24 December 1602 … It is possible that this was our lutenist, which would certainly explain the poem, with its reference to Essex and its tone of a hard-done-by soldier. Essex's close contact with court circles might also explain how Mynshall came to have a royal book and how Essex's letter from Ireland came to be copied into it.

98v Richard Mynshall me possiditt
a Charme for the toothe ache

A contemporary copy of a letter from the Earl of Essex to Queen Elizabeth from Ireland, 30 August 1599: From a mynde delightinge in sorowe

How this letter came to be copied into the lute book is a matter for speculation. Was this a rough draft dictated by Essex in Ireland before final drafting? The poor punctuation, the mistaken passinge for passion, cawse for course, and the afterthought insertion of since, the fashion of my death thoe the cawse of, you and no suggest that it was not copied from sight of the original. Another factor should be considered: Nantwich was on the main road from Dublin to London, along which a letter from Ireland would have been carried. Ardbraccan is 30 miles NW of Dublin. There are, then, two possibilities: first, that the 17-year-old Mynshall was at Ardbraccan with Essex; second, that he was party to letter-opening at Nantwich. The second of these seems rather far-fetched, especially in view of the errors noted above. Mynshall was intrigued enough by the letter to copy the first three words himself at the top of the page containing the complete text.

Ibid.
no page numbers

This seems to show that a lutenist was very likely present in Ireland in the 16th century. However, he was an Englishman engaged in fighting the native Irish. So again, this is not evidence of any Irishman playing the lute.


The Lover's Invitation

Finally, I have discovered a poetic reference to the lute being played along with other instruments: flute, fiddle, harp, organ, drum and trump. The organ would have been found in churches and in the private chapels of the aristocracy. The other instruments are known to have been in use in Ireland. The date of the poem is roughly 1675—just before the downfall of the Gaelic aristocracy. This is the first evidence I have found that the lute was played by the Irish (in this case, probably in the households of the Gaelic nobility). The entire poem may be found on another page: The Lover's Invitation.





Go to the fretted instrument index page.

Kells head Go to the traditional music instruments index page.

BookGo to music encyclopedia directory


Hearth Go to The Standing Stones home page

Lighthouse Go to the Standing Stones Site Map (listing of the entire contents of this website)


Stonehenge border