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Music of Clare
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Petrie and the Music of Clare by Brendan Breathnach

Petrie travelled through Clare in 1821 and his biographer, William Stokes,[1] tells us that his visit to Kilfenora in that year was attended with the saddest recollections. The abject poverty and misery of the people he encountered depressed his spirits, but, if that were so, the music which he heard had an entirely different effect on him. He was literally fascinated by it, so much so that for long afterwards he entertained the idea that the music of Clare possessed distinctive qualities not possessed by that of other counties. Indeed, Stokes tells us that Petrie visited the county not only to collect music towards its preservation, but to pursue his theory about its particular distinctiveness. This enthusiasm finds lyrical expression again and again in the notes he added to the airs in his ‘Ancient Music of Ireland’ and in the fragment of Volume II published posthumously in 1882. Commenting on the air ‘Ag an mBóithrín Buí’ which he had notated from the singing of Teige MacMahon, Petrie writes:

With respect to the melody to which these words have been united, I should, perhaps, remark that it appears to me to be a good example, both in its structure and in its tone of sentiment, of a class of tunes which are very abundant in the county of Clare, and which, to some extent at least, may be considered as peculiar to the ancient territory of Thomond. They are usually of that compound structure known as six-eight measure, have an animated movement, and, even when blended with cadence of tenderness or sorrow, breathe a manly buoyancy of spirits, in a high degree characteristic of a vigorous race, and such as it might be expected would emanate from and be expressive of, the feelings of the great warlike and unconquered tribes of Dal-Cais.

He returns again to his fancy when commenting on ‘Bímíd ag Ól’, another air obtained from Teige MacMahon. He writes:

I may remark that vocal melodies of this spirited character would appear to have been anciently more abundant in the county of Clare than, perhaps, in any other county in Ireland, and if this be the fact, and viewing national melody as an exponent of national character, it is only such as we might naturally expect to find in the ancient territory of the Dal-Cais.

Commenting on a ploughman’s whistle Petrie says:

It is known in the county Clare as The Whistle of the Ploughman and Carters, for it is commonly used by both, to soothe and cheer their horses at their tedious and unexciting labours; and of its extreme antiquity I cannot entertain a doubt. This precious specimen of an ancient pastoral music – so full of deep and solemn tenderness, and, of its kind, such as no country but Ireland has produced, or, as I believe, could produce – was noted from the whistling of the blind Clare peasant, Teighe MacMahon, who, previous to his loss of sight, had for many years been a ploughman.

While Petrie travelled through the county and heard this music at first hand, it may well be that the contributions representing the county in his collection were taken down in Dublin. Eugene O’Curry was a colleague over the years in the Ordnance Survey and in the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin. Teige MacMahon lived for many years in the city and Frank Keane, our third worthy, had settled and married in Dublin, earning his living there as a lawyer’s clerk. In his and in MacMahon’s case there is some evidence that music was obtained from them in the city.

Eugene O’Curry and the Petrie Collection

It is hardly necessary in the pages of ‘Dal-Cais’ to offer more than a few details about Eugene O’Curry whose achievements in the field of Irish studies do indeed merit comparison with those of Daniel O’Connell in the political sphere.[2] He was born in Doonaha in 1794, the third son of Eoghan O Comhraidhe and Cáit Ní Mhadagain. His schooling began and ended among the Irish manuscripts possessed by his father and he spent the rest of his life examining, collating, extracting and cataloguing the Irish manuscripts in the libraries of Dublin, London and Oxford. Besides the work published under his own name, on the Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish and Lectures on the Manuscript Materials of Ancient Irish History, O’Curry made major contributions to Irish learning by the assistance he gave to other scholars, as we shall see in the case of Petrie.

Petrie was ignorant of Irish. He relied on O’Curry to write down the words of the Irish songs and their translation, and he was indebted to him also for providing texts for airs already notated. Without O’Curry at his side, Petrie would have failed to provide the many song texts and fragments of verse which adorn his collection. But O’Curry’s contribution did not end there. He supplied notes and lengthy essays on the subject matter of some of these songs and these, with the exception of a misguided surmise on the derivation of ‘planctsy’ are of inestimable value. They are complete, precise, and authoritative and they offer information on matters which otherwise would have been totally lost. Their scope may be seen by a brief reference to the subjects covered; the derivation of the word ‘pleraca’, ‘raca’ a Hibernicised form of the English ‘rake’, as in like manner ‘ple’, a corruption of the word ‘play’; the old method of ploughing; three men with a set of four or six horses; fairy abductions and anti-fairy charms.

Superstitions about changelings and fairy abductions underline the theme of the song, ‘Seo hu leo’, or, as it is more commonly called, ‘A bhean ud thíos’. The song was written down by George Petrie from the singing of Mary Madden, a poor blind country woman from County Limerick but then resident in Dublin, and it was published by him in his ‘Ancient Music of Ireland’. Eugene O’Curry furnished a lengthy commentary on the theme of this song and the words, with a translation and O’Curry’s commentary, are here reproduced from Petrie’s volume for the light they shed on the strange beliefs held on these matters in the Clare of a century and a half ago. The spell of the words has been left unaltered; the air is a West Cork version noted by Prionsias O Ceallaigh and is somewhat more developed than that published by Petrie.

Seo hu leo

Seo hu leo

Seo hu leo

O’Curry’s Commentary:
From Petrie’s Collection

The preceeding rare and remarkable poem contains, I am bold to say, more of authentic fairy fact and doctrine than, with some few exceptions, has ever been published in Ireland. The incident here clearly narrated was believed, at all times, to be of frequent occurrence. It was for the last sixteen hundred years, at least, and is still, as firmly believed in as any other fact in the history of this country, that the Tuatha de Dananns, after their overthrow by the Milesians, had gone to reside in their hills and ancient forts, or in their dwellings in lakes and rivers – that they were in possession of a mortal immortality - and that they had the power to carry off from this visible world men and women in a living state, but sometimes under the sembalnce of death. The persons taken off were generally beautiful infants, wanted for those in the hills who had no children, fine young women before marriage, and often on the day of the marriage, for the young men of the hills who had been invisibly feasting on their growing beauties – perhaps from childhood; - young men in the same way for languishing damsels of fairyland; - fresh well-looking nurses for their nurseries. The usual mode of abduction was by throwing the object into a sudden fit or trance, and substituting in its place an old man or woman, or sickly child, as the case might require; but apparently there was no exchange. At other times the object died to all appearance, and was buried in the usual way, but people generally guessed whether it was a real death or not. In other cases the person was whipt off the brink of a river, lake, or the sea, by a gust of wind, and apparently drowned and lost, but had only been taken down to some noble mansion and plain, over which the water was but a transparent atmosphere.

The poem tells its own story fully and clearly. The allusions to the luxuries of the fairy mansion carry it back to a period anterior to the general use of the more modern inventions of wine and whiskey, &c. Now whiskey, or ‘Uisge Beatha’, is known to have been commonly used in Ireland for three hundred years; and if it had been an ordinary luxury at the time of writing the poem, there can be no doubt that it would be included in the list of good things of fairydom.

It may be further observed, that the poem is not written in the language of the poets of the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries, and there is not one corrupt word or ‘Anglicism’ in it, defects from which very few Irish poems of the last two hundred years are free. The abducted person in this poem seems to have been a married woman, and a nurse. She also appears to have been snatched off her horse, probably under the semblance of a fall and death; and that her rank was respectable is shown by her having ridden her own palfrey. She sees from within ‘Lios-a-Chnocain’, or the Fort of the Hillock, a woman, probably a neighbour, standing on the brink of a stream which passes by the fort, and in the intervals of her ‘Seo hu leo’, or hushaby, for her new nurseling, she contrives to convey to the listener her wishes line after line to the end of each stanza, and then, in order to gain time for further thought, and see if she is still unobserved within, she finishes with a more prolonged and endearing ‘Seo hu leo’, addressed to her infant.

The old men tied in fetters, in the second stanza, are men who had been formerly carried off in the prime of life, but were kept to be substituted for other young men when carried off from their young wives or friends.

The bit of wax candle which her husband was to carry securely in the palm of his hand was – in more modern times – a candle blessed on Candelmass-day, and with which no house in Ireland was unprovided. The black-hafted knife was the only formidable mortal weapon in fairy warfare – a single thrust or stab from it was fatal; but a second rendered the first one harmless.

The use of the black-hafted knife in our poem appears to have been to strike the leading horse of the woman’s fairy chariot when going out through the gap or door of the fort the next day, by which the magic veil which concealed her would be destroyed; and the possession of the herb which grew at the door of the fort was to guard her from all future attempts at her recapture. Her urgent request for an immediate release was in accordance with a belief that fairy captives are redeemable within a year and a day, but after that they are lost for ever.

The belief in the fairy influence, and in the ordinary means of counteracting it by the agency of herb-men and herb-women, was not confined to the votaries of one form of Christianity. I remember when Father Mathew Molony, parish priest of Moyarta and Kilballyowen, was drowned in crossing on horseback at ‘Bealbunadh’, the inlet of Oystercove, or Skeagh, on the lower Shannon, Clare side, about three miles below Kilrush, his mother, and his brothers, who were sensible and ‘well informed’ men, continued not only for a year and a day, but for seven years, to put in action all the available anti-fairy force of the whole province of Munster for his recovery, and this with a confidence that was sickening to my father and mother, who were the only two people I ever knew in that country who were total unbelievers in such doctrines. It is hardly necessary to say that poor Father Molony never came back.

The popular belief in the abduction of fine healthy young women to become fairy nurses, which is the subject of this little poem, is so well known that it scarcely requires an illustration, yet, as an example of the tenacity with which the Irish peasantry still cling to this superstition, I may relate an occurrence which came within my own knowledge, though it has already been given to the public in Mr Wilde’s ‘Popular Superstitions of the Irish Peasantry’. I well remember in the year 1818, Mary, the wife of Daniel Kelly, a bouncing, full, auburn-haired, snow-white-skinned woman, about twenty-eight years of age, died suddenly on a summer’s day while in the act of cutting cabbages in her garden. Great was the consternation throughout the whole parish of Moyarta, in the south-west of Clare, at this sad event, the more particularly as several persons, who were in a westerly direction from her at the time, declared that they had seen and felt a violent gust of wind pass by and through them in the exact direction of Kelly’s house, carrying with it all the dust and straws, &c., which came in its way. This confirmed the husband and friend of the deceased in their impression that she had been carried off to nurse for the fairies. Immediately Mary Quinn, alias ‘The Pet’ (Maire an Pheata), and Margaret M’Inerheny, alias ‘Black Peg’, two famous fairy women in the neighbourhood, were called in, who, for three days and three nights, kept up a constant but unavailing assault on a neighbouring fort, or rath, for the recovery of the abducted woman. But at the end of that time it was found that the body, or what in their belief appeared to be the body, of Mary Kelly, could not be any longer kept over ground, wherefore it was placed in the grave, but still with a total unbelief of its identity. Her bereaved husband and her brothers watched her grave day and night for three weeks after; and they opened it, in the full conviction of finding only a birch broom, a log of wood, or the skeleton of some deformed monster, in it. In this, however – I need scarcely add – they were grievously mistaken; for they found in it only what they had placed there, but in a much more advanced state of decomposition.

Petrie frankly acknowledged his indebtedness to his friend. Writing to O’Curry, who was then in London, he expresses the wish to have him beside him again; Petrie was proceeding with his second volume, “that is to say, between ourselves, as well as I can without you beside me. But in truth I can do nothing of consequence except in the way of preparation till I have you again to aid me.”

Teige MacMahon,
Songster and Shanachie

Some personal details about Teige MacMahon may be gleaned from a long forgotten article in the ‘Irish Monthly’, January, 1886, by Mrs Morgan John O’Connell and happily brought to light by Dr. Thomas Wall in an article on Teige MacMahon and Peter O’Connell in ‘Bealoideas’ (xxx) 1962.[4] Mrs. O’Connell’s account, entitled ‘The Last of the Shanachies’, tells how she visited MacMahon in the Kildysart workhouse and she recalls the broad bent figure, the ruddy face, the long thick white hair and the wrinkled hands. As a youth Teige, who came from Kilmurry McMahon, worked at Money Point, not far from Kilrush, for a brother of Peter O’Connell, the famous lexicographer. He farmed and quarried there during “the year the oats were pulled out of the ground,” some year of phenomenal dryness before the Clare election of 1826. He returned home to his own people who were cottier tenants, but - his sight failing - he came to Dublin where, cauched for cataract, he made a recovery. The recovery was not to be permanent and gradually he sunk into total blindness. His chance meeting with O’Curry in Dublin, from which followed his introduction to Petrie, is related by Mrs. O’Connell;

Teague was walking one day outside Dublin talking Irish to another man when he was stopped, accosted in Irish, and asked where he was from. Teague immediately named his remote birth place. “I am a Kilmurry man too,” said his interlocutor in Irish, and this was no less a person than Eugene O’Curry, probably the best Irish scholar of his day. The Irish professor of the Catholic University took up his old neighbour and was good to him, and made him known [to] richer men interested in Irish lore, and then Teague had fine times. He is fully convinced that but for his blindness they would have made him porter in the Royal Irish Academy. He knew Dr. Todd, and Dr. Lyons, and Stokes, and his son, the Councillor, and the late Mr. Pigott and Mr. O’Mahony, who keeps him in newspapers and tobacco, and Mr. Joyce; but his man is “The Doctor”, the gentle kindly Dr. Petrie. Many a tumbler of punch has Teague partaken in a corner of his dining room while “singing songs and the doctor playing them on the fiddle, and some other tricean (?) taking them down.”

In his old age Teague returned to Clare and entered the workhouse in Kildysart where he was regarded as a personage by the other inmates, receiving newspapers and tobacco all the way from Dublin and having his name printed by the learned Dr. Petrie. “He was, in fact,” wrote Mrs. O’Connell, “the only thoroughly happy person I ever saw in a workhouse.” In all Teague contributed over fifty airs to Petrie, only the smaller part surely of that blind man’s repertoire.

Frank Keane
and the Petrie Collection

A brief entry in a manuscript in the Royal Irish Academy identifies Frank Keane who contributed two airs, a double jig and a caoine to the 1855 volume. Pronsias O’Cathain, alias Francis Keane of Clare, married and living in Dublin (1868-’76) was a lawyer’s clerk and, I believe, mostly self-educated. The manuscript in question is a translation of Paradise Lost, made by Keane himself.[5] Keane submitted two entries in a competition organised by the Royal Irish Academy for a report on the state of the Irish language. He was awarded first prize for his essay on Munster; his account on Ulster was really a second essay on Munster.

The address on the first essay is 29, North Frederick Street, Dublin, and that on the other essay is 20, Newcomen Avenue, North Strand, Dublin. Since he was lawyer’s clerk the first address was most likely that of the office where he worked. In a manuscript collection of literary stories and poems, which he began compiling in the Autumn of 1844, Keane signs himself Francis Keane of Kilfenora, County Clare; otherwise Prionsias O’Cathain ó Baile Atha Cliath anois, acht, roimhe seo, ó Chill-iarrach, Cill-Chaoi, Contae an Chlair, Eirinn.

It is interesting to see that the request for remembrance which Irish scribes were wont to append to their transcriptions is, in Keane’s formula as follows:

“Guidhgidhe lucht, eistighthe, trocaire ó Dia don sgriobhnoir, agus don leithoir leis (pray, listeners, for God’s mercy for the writer and for the reader also). The person capable of reading such manuscripts was designated an “Irishian”, a word still current in the speech of the county to describe a person regarded as good at Irish. These manuscripts were not compiled for their private enjoyment by literary scribes but for the use of the whole community, and a comment by Keane in his essay on the language of Munster, concerning the practice of reading stories from them at gatherings of the people, is worth recording;

“They find great pleasure and amusement in reading those manuscripts, especially on winter nights, on which occasions the neighbours of the surrounding districts flock together for the purpose of hearing them read, the reader being often obliged to perform his task with no other light than that of what people commonly called “a sgiolpog of bogdeal” or the light of a bogrush dipped in oil extracted from fish livers.

The reader concluded his reading by speaking the prayer quoted above and his listeners responded with “Amen, a Thiarna.”

Frank Keane contributed a Munster double jig to the 1855 Volume, a tune he had learned from his brother, one of the best professional fiddlers in the south of Ireland. Elsewhere Petrie mentions Keane’s music book as the source of other tunes and Keane is credited with over eighty airs in the complete Petrie collection. His contribution is particularly valuable for the dialogue songs formerly sung by women at comhar for spinning, knitting, sewing or other such co-operative work. It may be said that the versions in the complete collection betray Petrie’s uncontrollable itch for amending airs he received, transposing from sharp to flat keys, effecting rhythmical and even melodic changes.

An affected disdain for peasant effusions and Victorian squeamishness towards the Irish texts on Petrie’s part rendered the Clare contribution less valuable than it might have been. This attitude comes clearly through in his comments on these songs;

‘Ag an mBoithrin Bui;’ the words have but slender merit; but as a peasant composition, they are not wanting in delicacy of feeling.
‘As truagh gan peata an mhaoir agam;’ the words though of no high poetic merit, are not without interest, from their natural simplicity and as an illustration of the thoughts of Irish peasant life.
‘Suig anseo a mhuirin laimh liom;’ the words are unfit for publication.
‘Ar lorg na ngamhan do chuireasa mo leansbh;’ of the old Irish song sung to this melody, Mr. Curry had heard many versions, but all of them more or less corrupted and otherwise unfit for publication.
‘Da gcastai bean tanarai liom’: the Irish song to this air is not admissible in this work.

A similar verdict is passed on ‘Cearc agus Coileach a d’imigh le cheile’ and, after two verses of ‘An buachaill caol dubh’, contributed by O’Curry, Petrie breaks off, “this is enough, and, perhaps, too much,” and then goes on to declare that, “the song called ‘Cassideich Ban,’ or ‘White Cassidy,’ which is sung to the ‘Buachaill Caol Dubh’ in the province of Connaught is still less appropriate to the sentiment of the melody and, is moreover, of such a nature as will not allow even a specimen of it to be translated.” In respect of all this the reader ignorant of Irish can rest assured that most of these songs are utterly harmless.

To this prudishness Petrie allied an aversion from sentiments of disaffection which might seem to threaten the burgeoning empire for which he displayed a keen affection. The air, ‘O Bhean an tighe, nach suairc é sin?’ had been chosen by the White boys and other illegal combinations of southern peasantry as their choral song and night march.

Such rude ballads were not without a certain degree of interest, as expressive of a popular mind during periods of its excitement, and their preservation would not be without value to the historian.

Having commented thus, Petrie used only one of the few verses which O’Curry could remember of the song. Teige MacMahon, from whom he had written the air, could doubtless have supplied him with all other verses, and other songs of the kind, had Petrie a mind to write them.

Petrie hastens to add two verses of ‘A chuisle mo chroi,’ sung to the same air which, though modern, he has

much pleasure in adding to the other fragments already given as exhibiting one of the better and abiding fruits of the Irish peasant nature, in strong contrast to those partially acquired and temporary ones which had been superinduced by untoward circumstances, happily not likely again to occur.

‘Slán cois Maighe,’ written from O’Curry’s singing is presented as;

An unobjectionable specimen of the talents and thoughts of one of the most distinguished of a class of men, usually hedge schoolmasters, who for nearly a century, by their writings, teachings, and, too generally, reckless lives, exercised an influence over the minds, and as may be feared, even the moral feelings of the finehearted but excitable peasantry of Munster, to which too little importance has been hitherto attached by the Irish historian.

‘The Ancient Music of Ireland’ was the first of three projected volumes which the Society for the Preservation and Publication of the Melodies of Ireland had hoped to present to the public. Petrie’s collection “consists of considerably more than five hundred unpublished airs, carefully selected from the results of many years investigation.”[6] The Society’s prospectus had announced that the collection would be accompanied by:

An introductory dissertation upon the history, antiquity, and characteristic structure of Irish Music, by that most eminent Irish antiquarian (Petrie), the former portions of which will also embrace the learning of another distinguished member of the Council, Eugene O’Curry M.R.I.A.

A note in the 1885 volume refers to this dissertation being in preparation and added that it could not be satisfactorily published before the editor had completed his editorial work on the whole collection. Petrie was already working on the second volume in 1855 but had edited only thirty nine airs and sent them to the press when the Society broke up.

The Society’s prospectus shows that O’Curry was assigned a major part in the preparation of the proposed dissertation. We do not have to surmise about how valuable his contribution would have been. In all probability the lengthy chapters on the music of the ancient Irish with which he closed ‘On the Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish’ had been gathered in the first instances for use in this dissertation. That work shows his unrivalled knowledge of the manuscript material bearing on the subject and the notes furnished to Petrie for the ‘Ancient Music of Ireland’ reveal his “extraordinary knowledge of the lore and customs of the old Celtic race,” to quote Petrie.

A reading of Petrie’s own editorial notes in his published collection provides us with no grounds for supposing that in regards to Irish music Petrie had combined knowledge with enthusiasm in full measure as asserted by Donal O’Sullivan. Enthusiasm he had in abundance but his knowledge of the music, as exemplified in his editorial comments, is largely encompassed in the word ‘sentiment’ which he appeared unable to desist from using; and his strictures on pipers for their ignorance of the major and minor modes betray a lack of understanding of even the basic elements of the music. Without O’Curry’s transcription and notes Petrie’s volume would be somewhat of a curiosity, affording us an insight into the social and political sentiments of its compiler. Shared sympathies, no doubt, led O’Sullivan into his extravagant claims about the achievement of his subject in the musical field.

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