Irish Melodies

Programme Note: John Buckley

Of all the countries in the world, Ireland possesses the most varied and beautiful folk music.
Sir Arnold Bax

The Repertoire
The repertoire of traditional Irish music is widely regarded as one of the richest and most beautiful in the world. It consists of a vast range of melodies of unusual diversity, which broadly speaking can be divided into two categories; slow airs and dance music. The slow airs are often reflective and even melancholic in character and almost always have words, originally in Gaeilge (the Irish language), but increasingly in English during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Irish poets, writing in either Irish or English frequently sought to match their verses to well-known tunes and consequently the melodies are often known by several names.

The dance tunes display a dazzling variety of rhythmic motif and style. Amongst the most popular forms are the jig of the single, double, and slip variety, the reel, the hornpipe, the polka, and the slide. Other dances such as the strathspey, quadrille, mazurka, and waltz have also been assimilated into the Irish tradition.

The question as to what constitutes an Irish melody has been much discussed, but is somewhat outside the scope of this introduction. Essential elements however include the rhythmic patterns of the various dances, a highly developed style of ornamentation and the tonality of the music. Traditional Irish melodies are for the most part modal in tonality, the standard minor scale of European art music being extremely rare. By far the most common modes are the C mode (Ionian), D mode (Dorian), G mode (Mixolydian), and A mode (Aeolian). All modes of course can be transposed to start on any note. The absence of particular notes (usually the 4th or 7th) within these modes in certain melodies can also furnish a particular inflection and tonal character.

Carolan and the Harping Tradition
The harping tradition in Ireland, which dates back at least a thousand years, stands somewhat apart from the folk-music of the common people. The status of the harper in early Gaelic society was, like that of the bardic poets, extremely high. Poet and harper were next in rank only to the chieftain, and patronage from the Gaelic aristocracy was readily available.

The best known representative of the harping tradition is Turlough Carolan (1670-1738), who composed a large body of very distinctive melodies, over two hundred of which are preserved. Most of Carolan’s melodies were composed for his patrons and almost all bear the name of the dedicatee e.g. Bridget Cruise, Lord Inchiquin and a very beautiful melody Eleanor Plunkett, which is on track three on this CD. Carolan was familiar with the music of the Italian Baroque, in particular that of Corelli, Vivaldi and Geminiani and the style of his compositions combines elements of the baroque and the Irish folk-music of the time. Carolan is regarded as the last of the great harper composers, a late and astonishing flowering of a tradition that was already beginning to die out. Carolan’s melodies and those of the other harpers are now entirely assimilated and regarded as an essential component of Irish traditional music.

The Collectors and Publishers
Due to the land settlement policies of the English colonial powers during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the old Gaelic order was gradually dismantled and along with it the harping and bardic traditions. By the late eighteenth century the harping tradition had almost entirely disappeared and was not revived again until the mid-twentieth century.

The eighteenth century did however witness the first stirrings of interest in the preservation, collection, arrangement and publication of Irish melodies. John and William Neal’s A Collection of the Most Celebrated Irish Tunes published in Christ Church Yard, Dublin in 1724, constitutes the first serious attempt to collect and publish these tunes. The collection consists of 49 Irish melodies, including a number by Carolan, arranged for violin, German flute or oboe. Only one copy of this first publication is known to survive, that owned by Edward Bunting and now preserved along with his papers in Queen’s University, Belfast.

Edward Bunting and Thomas Moore
Bunting (1773-1843) was born in Armagh and was something of a musical prodigy. He was nineteen and working as a church organist when he was commissioned to collect and notate the tunes played at the Belfast Harp Festival of 1792. The leading figure behind the organization of the festival was James McDonnell, a doctor interested in preserving the music of the harping tradition. The festival was organised primarily to gather together as many harp tunes as possible, before the rapid decline in the number of itinerant Irish harpists caused the tradition to die out entirely.

Bunting’s subsequently travelled throughout the north and west of Ireland, further refining and developing his collection. The 66 melodies collected were published, many for the first time, in 1796 as A General Collection of the Ancient Music of Ireland. Further volumes were published in 1809 and 1840.

Bunting’s publications not only preserved the tunes in his piano arrangements, but provided Thomas Moore (1779-1852), with a source of wonderful melodies for his inimitable verses. Eight of the twelve airs in the first set of Moore’s Irish Melodies (1808) are taken directly from Bunting. The ten sets of Irish Melodies gained phenomenal popularity, which holds to this day, ensuring that the associated melodies remained in the public consciousness, albeit in transformed circumstances.

George Petrie and Later Collectors
Bunting’s publications also set the pattern for future collectors of Irish traditional melodies. One of the foremost was the extraordinary George Petrie (1790-1866), the antiquary, archaeologist, editor and collector. In 1851 the rather grand-sounding Society for the Preservation and Publication of the Melodies of Ireland was established with Petrie as its president. Petrie’s concern was that Irish traditional music was in danger of total extinction, of becoming ‘a parted dream’ in his own colourful metaphor, in the wake of the catastrophic Great Famine of 1845-1850. In another striking phrase, Petrie refers to ‘the sudden silence of the fields’ as he travelled around the country collecting the melodies.

The Society nurtured ambitious plans to publish in the region of 1000 of Petrie’s collection in annual volumes. Its sole publication however was to be the first volume of The Petrie Collection of the Ancient Music of Ireland in 1855 containing 147 melodies. If for no other reason than the first appearance in print of an extraordinarily beautiful tune without name from County Derry, the publication merits a distinguished place amongst the great collections of Irish traditional melodies. This melodic jewel is now known and loved world-wide as Danny Boy and an arrangement for flute and string quartet can be heard on track two of the CD.

Subsequent publications of Irish melodies worthy of mention include The Music of Ireland (1903) and Dance Music of Ireland (1907) edited by Francis O’ Neill (1848-1936), Old Irish Folk Music and Songs (1909) edited by P. W. Joyce (1827-1914), and the four volumes of Irish Country Songs (1909, 1915, 1934 and 1936) edited and arranged by Herbert Hughes (1882-1937). Four of the greatest Irish melodies on the CD were collected, arranged and published by Hughes: The Bard of Armagh, My Lagan Love, She Moved Through the Fair and Down by the Sally Gardens.

The monumental Sources of Traditional Music edited by composer and musicologist Aloys Fleischmann (1910-1992) catalogues every Irish traditional melody in printed editions between c.1600 and 1855. The project which was begun in the 1950s and published posthumously in 1999 contains close to 7000 fully annotated tunes. Fleischmann observes that after 1855, the amount of published and manuscript sources of Irish folk music become even more voluminous.

The Oral and Aural Tradition
Though thousands of Irish melodies are now available in printed collections, the tradition was and remains primarily an oral and aural one. Tunes are passed from generation to generation both within individual families and the broader community. From a historical perspective, traditional folk music implies transmission through an oral tradition. Songs and instrumental pieces are performed, varied and developed over a long period of time, and consequently are generally not attributable to a single composer or author. The English folk-song collector Cecil Sharp observed that over a period of time, the most appealing variants of a song would be taken up by performers. The song would evolve, so to speak and the current version would thus have been collectively composed by the community of traditional performers.

The Melodies and Arrangements on the CD
Irish folk-music is very much a living tradition with a world-wide following. It is in a constant state of renewal and reinterpretation and we hope that his CD will add to the development of the tradition. This is not a traditional album in the conventional sense of the term. The arrangements fuse the traditional melodies with elements of baroque and classical styles. The arrangements incorporate techniques such as modulation, countermelody, development, variation, cadenza–like passages, chromatic harmony and counterpoint, but always keep the melodies in the foreground. The arrangements are as varied and diverse as the melodies themselves and range from the straightforward to the highly developed and elaborate.

All the arrangements on this CD are based on the best-known versions of the melodies in current circulation. With such an enormous wealth from which to choose, William Dowdall and I used two simple considerations for the selection; melodies we both loved and with a view to creating a sense of balance and contrast between the slow airs and the dance music. They are all melodies that we have grown up with and that have formed part of our musical consciousness from early childhood.

We are very fortunate to have the services of some of Ireland’s finest musicians on this CD, The Dublin String Quartet, concert harpist Andrea Maliř, Irish harpist Anne-Marie O’ Farrell, violist Lisa Dowdall, singer Jimmy Kelly, percussionist Noel Eccles and master flautist William Dowdall.

Notes on the Individual Melodies

Track 1: Two Jigs: The Rocky Road to Dublin, The Blackthorn Stick
(flute, Irish harp and percussion)

The Rocky Road to Dublin is unusual in the repertoire of Irish jigs in that it has a well established set of words, some of which are even sung by Mr. Deasy in James Joyce’s Ulysses: lal the ral the ra, the rocky road to Dublin. The song was already popular in the nineteenth century and various versions appeared in publications during the latter half of the century. It gained renewed popularity in the 1960s when Irish ballad groups such as The Clancy Brothers and The Dubliners performed and recorded it. The tune is a slip or hop jig in 9/8 metre and has a wonderfully lilting feel.

The Blackthorn Stick, a double jig in 6/8 makes a good complement. The change of key from the minor sounding Aeolian of The Rocky Road to Dublin to the bright G major key of The Blackthorn Stick about half way through the track gives the arrangement a lift of mood and energy, without demanding a dramatic change. The simultaneous shift of the meter from 9/8 to 6/8 also adds a sense of uplift and forward momentum.

Track 2: Danny Boy (flute and string quartet)

Danny Boy, also known as The Derry Air is perhaps the best-known Irish traditional melody. Its iconic status raises it to the level of a cultural anthem, known worldwide as a symbol associated with Irishness and Irish identity. It comes as something of a surprise to learn that the famous words were written as late as 1910 by the English barrister Frederick Edward Weatherley and simply tacked on to the already celebrated melody. It would appear that Weatherley never even set foot in Ireland.

The melody itself first appeared in print in Petrie’s Ancient Music of Ireland, which was published in 1855. Petrie credits Miss Jane Ross of Limavady in Co. Derry, with placing the tune at his disposal. Miss Ross had collected and notated the melody from a local traditional musician but unfortunately could not ascertain its name. She did however state that it was ‘very old’, an assertion fully supported by Petrie.

With its distinctive phrasing, its suspensions (notes on weak beats immediately repeated on the following strong beats), its underlying implied harmony and climactic high note in the penultimate phrase, the wonderful melody is in many respects more characteristic of European art music than of traditional Irish folk melody. The arrangement on this CD for flute and string quartet is direct and straightforward, the quartet providing a warm backdrop for the eloquent melody in the flute and is dedicated to William Dowdall’s uncle Tom Harvey who often sang it at house parties.

Track 3: Eleanor Plunkett (flute and Irish harp)

Little is known about Eleanor Plunkett, the dedicatee of this exquisite melody by Carolan, except that she lived in Robertstown, Co Meath, close to where Carolan himself was born. Carolan’s lyrics to this melody suggest that Eleanor was the last of the Plunkett family. Like many other Catholic families, the Plunketts lost their lands during the Cromwellian land settlement in Ireland in 1652. The main intent of this act was to remove all Irish Catholic landowners west of the river Shannon, granting their lands to the British government and its agents, an early form of what is now known as ‘ethnic cleansing’.

Even though Carolan’s melody is in a major key, the overall mood is suffused with a sense of a wistful melancholy, appropriate to the theme. The arrangement on the CD has three verses: first, the melody in the flute with harp accompaniment; second, the melody transfers to the harp, while the flute adds a quiet countermelody; and third, a more elaborate an ornamented version once again on flute, with harp accompaniment.

Track 4: The Plains of Boyle
(flute, viola, concert harp and percussion)

This very attractive hornpipe takes its name from the rich limestone grasslands to the east of the town of Boyle in County Roscommon. We should not however take this to mean that the hornpipe in some way sets out to depict the limestone plains. As Breandán Breathnach notes in reference to traditional Irish dance tunes in his Folk Music and Dances of Ireland (1971), Titles have no musical connection whatever with tunes; they are merely labels used for ready identification.

The earliest recording of The Plains of Boyle was made in 1924 by piper Michael Gallagher, who is sometimes credited with naming the tune, which had circulated before then as gan ainm (without name). It is now one of the favourite hornpipes of Irish traditional musicians. With its repetitive rhythms and clear form, the tune has much in common with baroque music and the arrangement on the CD sets out to exploit this connection. The arrangement is one of the most elaborate on the disc and consists in a series of variations and developments on the tune, with chord sequences suggestive of the style of George Frideric Handel.

Track 5: The Coulin (solo flute)

The Coulin is one of most outstanding of the slow Irish airs. The title is an abbreviation or anglicisation of An Chúilfhionn meaning the fair-haired one. The tune has been in circulation for at least two hundred years and was used by Thomas Moore as the melody of his Though the last glimpse of Erin with sorrow I see, published in 1807 in volume one of his Irish Melodies. The tune has always been held in high regard: the folk-music collector and editor Francis O’Neill considered this “The Queen of Irish Airs.” It is a love song in praise of a fair-haired girl Her hair curling and twining, hanging down about her shoulder. There is a great elegance of phrase and boldness of sweep in the melody. It lends itself well to the individual interpretation of the singer or instrumentalist. The arrangement by flautist William Dowdall demonstrates a wonderful use of ornamentation and displays the rich sonority of the flute as an ideal instrument for the melody.

Track 6: Down by the Sally Gardens (flute, viola and concert harp)

Down by the Salley Gardens is a poem by William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), published in his first book The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems (1889). Yeats indicated in a note that it was an attempt to reconstruct an old song from three lines imperfectly remembered by an old peasant woman in the village of Ballisodare, County Sligo, who often sings them to herself. The poem was subsequently matched to an old air known as The Maids of Mourne Shore, collected and arranged by Herbert Hughes. The song Down by the Salley Gardens was published in the first volume of Hughes’s Irish Country Songs in 1909.

The arrangement on the CD is a free flowing fantasia on the tune. The melody is played at first on the flute with harp accompaniment before the first entry on the viola. The viola provides a darker sonority against which the flute adds a decorative countermelody. A short but elaborate cadenza for the solo flute leads to the concluding version of the melody.

Track 7: Airs and Jig: The Hills of Templeglantine (air), Táimse im Chodladh (air), Tell Her I Am (jig) (flute, string quartet, concert harp, percussion)

The Hills of Templeglantine is a newly composed melody in Irish traditional style especially written for this CD. Templeglantine is the parish in West Limerick, where I was born and raised: the rise and fall of the melody reflects the landscape of rolling hills. The tune is interlinked with Táimse im Chodladh (I Am Asleep), one of the greatest of the old slow Irish melodies. Táimse im Chodladh is an Aisling, an allegorical poem in the form of a dream or vision and dating from the 17th and 18th centuries. Ireland appears in the guise of a beautiful maiden, who laments the downtrodden state of the Irish people and encourages rebellion.

Slow airs are frequently followed by a dance tune at traditional Irish music sessions to provide an effective contrast. The jig tune Tell Her I Am appeared in O’Neill’s The Music of Ireland published in Chicago in 1903. The arrangement on this CD takes the tune at a moderate pace, in keeping with its easy lilting feel, the melody alternating between flute, harp and string quartet. The inclusion of djembe adds a somewhat exotic flavour to the arrangement.

Track 8: My Lagan Love (alto flute, concert harp, string quartet)

The lyrics of My Lagan Love are by the Irish poet Joseph Campbell (1879–1944), who collaborated with the folk-song collector and arranger Herbert Hughes. The tune was collected by Hughes in County Donegal in 1903 and published with Campbell’s words in Songs of Uladh in the following year. The original title of the ballad was The Belfast Maid, the Lagan being the river on which Belfast is built.

The hauntingly evocative melody has a muted, wistful and introspective character, which finds an ideal expression in the darker timbre of the alto flute. The tune, which is played three times in the arrangement on the CD, is in mixolydian mode, commonly found in Irish traditional slow airs. In effect, the mixolydian mode is a major scale with a lowered 7th note. This change of just one note is responsible for the sense of strange and startling richness in the words of the composer Arnold Bax.

This is one of the more extended arrangements on the CD. The melody appears three times in different arrangements with elaborate introduction, linking, and closing sections for the harp and string quartet.

Track 9: The Lark in the Clear Air (solo flute)

The words of The Lark In The Clear Air were written by the Irish poet, barrister, antiquarian, artist and public servant Sir Samuel Ferguson (1810-1886). It appears that Lady Ferguson learned to sing an old tune called The Tailor and it was to this melody that Samuel Ferguson set his words. This version was published in The Irish Song Book with Original Irish Airs edited by Alfred Perceval Graves in 1894. The tune is one of the best-loved of all Irish traditional slow airs.

The sublime melody has a great sweep in its melodic flow. The structure of the melody is extremely simple. There are four phrases in the form aaba, the opening phrase (a) being played three times, while the contrasting (b) section raises the tune into another dimension. The wonderful uplifting character of the melody is brilliantly evoked in the opening lines of Ferguson’s poem:

Dear thoughts are in my mind,
and my soul soars enchanted,
as I hear the sweet lark sing,
in the clear air of the day.

Track 10: She Moved Through the Fair
(alto flute, concert harp and string quartet)

She Moved Through the Fair is another beguiling melody collected and arranged by Herbert Hughes and published in the first volume of his Irish Country Songs. The words were written by Padraic Colum (1881-1972), who was a poet, novelist, and playwright and a leading figure of the Celtic literary revival. The poem She Moved Through the Fair was first published in Wild Earth and Other Poems in 1916. Colum’s stated aim was to create words as simple and as clear, as raindrops off the thatch.

The melody too has a great simplicity with a reflective, meditative and inward quality. In this arrangement, the melody is played three times on the alto flute. The extensive introduction, links and coda are impressionistic in style and suggestive of the French school, in particular Maurice Ravel. The mellow combination of alto flute, concert harp and string quartet aims to capture the feeling of the melody and the words:

She stepped away from me and she moved through the fair,
And fondly I watched her move here and move there,
Then she went her way homeward with one star awake,
As the swan in the evening moves over the lake.

Track 11: Variations on The Gneeveguilla Polka (solo flute)

Gneeveguilla is a small village in south east Kerry about 12 miles from Killarney. It is located in a region called Sliabh Luachra, (mountain of rushes) one of the outstanding areas of traditional music in Ireland. The region has a unique and distinctive musical style making extensive use of the polka and slide. The polka is a dance of Bohemian origin, which spread throughout western Europe during the mid-nineteenth century. The Sliabh Luachra region has developed its own version marked by strong vigorous rhythms, fast tempo and exuberant energy.

Variations on The Gneeveguilla Polka is an original work in the classical tradition of theme and variations as can frequently be found in the music of Haydn, Beethoven and Brahms. The lively traditional polka theme is played at the start, middle and end of the piece, interspersed with five virtuosic variations for solo flute.

Track 12: The Streams of Bunclody
(singer, flute, viola and concert harp)

Bunclody is a town in County Wexford in the south east corner of Ireland. This is the only song on the CD and is one of the favourites of ballad singer Jimmy Kelly. The anonymous poem was published in 1888 in Irish Minstelry, edited by H. Halliday Sparling. Sparling adds that the poem is from a Dublin ballad-slip of very uncertain date, but certainly before 1850. The words have a bitter-sweet quality dealing with love, longing, regret and emigration. Interestingly the song has a ‘floating verse’ i.e. a verse from another unconnected song, in this case the English folk-song The Cuckoo.

The melody has a very attractive and gentle quality and I have kept the arrangement uncomplicated. There are five verses to the song, with the singer accompanied mainly by the harp. The linking sections are played by the full ensemble.

Track 13: The Snowy Breasted Pearl (solo flute)

The version of the melody of Péarla an Bhrollaig Bháin (The Snowy Breasted Pearl) in this arrangement first appeared in print in Petrie’s Ancient Music of Ireland of 1855. Pertie collected the song from Eugene Curry in County Clare and translated the original Irish words into English. It is a love song, full of flowery language, particularly in translation: its cadences are all expressive of an imploring and impassioned tenderness, in Petrie’s own phrase.

Like a number of other slow airs on the CD, the phrase structure of The Snowy Breasted Pearl is aaba. The opening phrase is played three times with a contrasting and more expansive phrase towards the middle. The entire melody has a graceful and elegant contour, beautifully evoked in the performance by William Dowdall.

Track 14: The Bard of Armagh (flute and Irish harp)

The Bard of Armagh is another wonderful song collected and arranged by Herbert Hughes. It originates in County Tyrone and was published in volume two of Irish Country Songs in 1914, though it dates from the mid nineteenth century. It has a nostalgic quality, wherein the bard Phelim Brady as an old man reminisces and reflects longingly on the days of his youth and vigour. The same melody is used in the famous cowboy song The Streets of Laredo.

In the arrangement on this CD, I have treated the melody as a gentle wistful and lyrical lament, a reflection on youth and old age. A notable feature of the melody is the upward leap of an octave between the first two notes, and this becomes a characteristic motif in the arrangement. The tune is played alternately by flute and Irish harp with a short newly-composed central link between the verses.

Track 15: The Mason’s Apron (flute, string quartet and percussion)

The tune was first published in A Selection of Scotch, English, Irish and Foreign Airs I-IV (1790-1797) edited by James Aird and published in Glasgow. The title given in this publication is The Masson Laddie, but the tune has all the essential elements of the reel we now know as The Mason’s Apron. There is considerable evidence that many Irish reels are in fact of Scottish origin or influence. If The Mason’s Apron is amongst these, it is now fully absorbed into the Irish tradition and has become one of the most popular of all the dance tunes.

Like numerous Irish dance tunes, the melody makes considerable use of repetition, giving an almost minimalist character to the music. The tune is in two parts of eight bars each, which are repeated to give the pattern aabb, totalling thirty two bars. The eight-bar phrases also contain internal repeated motifs and after completion the entire melody is played over again as often as required. The arrangement here focuses on this repetitive aspect of the tune, but seeks to achieve variety by a range of techniques including the addition of countermelodies, changes of texture and orchestration, modulation and syncopation. The arrangement of this vibrant melody attempts to bring the CD to an exciting conclusion.

© John Buckley 2011

Tracks 5, 9, 13 arranged by William Dowdall
All other tracks arranged by John Buckley

Irish Melodies - Performers
William Dowdall: Flute (all tracks)
Dublin String Quartet: (Tracks 2, 7, 8, 10, 15)
Aoife Dowdall: Violin
Orla Ní Bhraoin: Violin
Siúbhán Ní Ghríofa: Viola
Jenny Dowdall: Cello
Jimmy Kelly: Singer (Track 12)
Lisa Dowdall: Viola (Tracks 4, 6, 12)
Anne-Marie O' Farrell: Irish Harp (Tracks 1, 3, 14)
Andreja Maliř: Concert Harp (Tracks 4, 6, 7, 8, 10, 12)
Noel Eccles: Percussion (Tracks 1, 4, 7, 15)

Producer: Wayne Laird
Assistant sound engineer: Darby Carroll
Recording Venue: Rathgar Methodist Church, Brighton Road, Dublin 
Recording Dates: August 29th to September 1st 2010