I was reading the descriptions of people’s appearance in Togail Bruidne Dá Derga (The destruction of Daderga’s hostel), an early medieval Irish story from the Ulster Cycle, when I was interested to note these quite vivid descriptions of people at the court of the Irish High King, Conaire Mór mac Eterscél, who is said to have reigned in the first century BC or AD.
I have not posted for a while because I my time has been largely taken up with preparations for Scoil na gCláirseach next month.
As well as corresponding with attendees, and dealing with the hydra-like timetable, trying to corral all the different tutors, speakers and other events into some kind of order, I have been preparing for my own presentations.
This year, as usual I am leading the ever-popular field trip, where we visit all of the historical Irish harps in Dublin museums, and also presenting the very challenging one-hour overview of the entire tradition. This is pretty tough, trying to boil down everything to its essence. I have been working on a new handout, a kind of map or venn-diagram of the repertory, trying to illustrate the nature of the core repertory and peripheral stuff, and to categorise the core repertory – I think that what survives is in some ways not at all representative of what was played in the old tradition.
I am also leading two specialist sessions. I am giving a presentation on my work researching the music and traditions of Raghnall Mac Ailein Òig, which should be a great opportunity for me to refine my ideas on him. I did some more digging on his journey to Achnacarry to visit Cameron of Locheil – I have still not managed to locate the River Sgaitheal, but I did enjoy a digression reading all about Glen Pean.
Also I will be chairing a seminar on the Cloyne harp; we will have two different chromatic Irish harps on site, so this seems a great opportunity to get everyone together to discuss this difficult and intriguing subject.
You can now get a video of the entire one-hour lecture plus a PDF of the handout with lots of further reading references, from the DIAS website
Last week and this week and next week the theme for my Saturday afternoon harp class in Dundee is Christmas music. Early this morning I suddenly decided that the wren song tradition would be a fun thing to do today – I have worked on Bunting’s 1809 setting of the Wren song before with a student, so I knew it was a great tune to give the class. But I also wanted to work on the traditions behind the wren hunt and so I had a quick look round to remind myself.
Fintan Vallely’s Companion to Irish Traditional Music has a nice little article on the wren, with a lovely photo of wren boys in Dingle – I would guess the photo was pre-WW2, one of the boys has a fife and two have bodhrans (which gave me a chance to talk about that!). The article also included one verse of the wren song, which fits Bunting’s tune pretty well.
I checked in Donal O’Sullivan’s notes on the Bunting tunes, and he does go into a lot of detail on the wren hunt but I did not spend too much time following up his references this morning.
Looking online I got a couple of excellent references. I got the pointer of the cutty wren song in Herd’s Scots Songs of 1776 – google books provided me with facsimile pages and all of a sudden I remembered that I knew this song from 20 years back, so I walked round the house trying to remember how it went. Every so often a whole new section of the question and answer would pop back into my head. In the class I managed to sing it and some of them even joined in with the answer sections – great fun, and not often that I sing an old song dragged up out of the back of my mind like that.
But the most fun was seeing a reference to Liam Clancy’s 1953 recording of the wren song on the LP, The Lark in the Morning. I have a copy of this LP which I had for some reason never got round to playing much so I had the fun of finding the record, setting up the equipment and listening to his lively version of the wren. This is another song I know from way back (I have it on an old cassette tape of traditional British and Irish midwinter songs), and I was amused to hear him mentioning the town where he lived and also his mother by name in the song.
Of course this evening as the gear was out and the record propped up against the bookcase I sat down on the floor and listened to both sides. What a beautiful and moving set of performances. At times I laughed out loud, and at other times there was a tear in my eye.
This week I was visiting harpmaker Natalie Surina in Oughterard. My photo shows the early morning mist rising between the hedgerows.
The front cover of Collette Moloney’s book, The Irish Music Manuscripts of Edward Bunting, an Introduction and Catalogue, published in 2000 by the Irish Traditional Music Archive, shows an oil painting of an elderly gentleman holding a harp.
The caption on the back of the book says “Front cover ‘A Portrait of a Harper’, Irish School, c. 1800 (formerly attributed to James Barry: courtesy National Gallery of Ireland)”.
So if we trust the art experts who give these very definitive sounding opinions, this is a portrait painted in Ireland by an Irish artist about the year 1800. But who is the harpist?
I long ago recognised that the harp in the painting is of a type known today as a ‘Bohemian harp’, it is a type of instrument that was native to Germany but was also widely used in Scandinavia. The most diagnostic part of the harp really in this painting is the little soundholes arranged in a cross shape. But other aspects of it – the general shape of the instrument, the pale soundboard compared to the dark wood of the rest of the instrument, (not to mention the very un-Irish right hand treble) all indicate it is a German or Scandinavian harp of the late 18th century.
(Once I realised it was a German or Scandinavian harp in the picture, I started thinking that the man’s face looked quite Germanic as well).
Just this week I was looking at the online facsimiles of the Journal of the Folk Song Society of Ireland (more info on my Bunting mss page) and I noticed, in an article about Samuel Fergusson (vol vii p.11), a mention of the Swedish harpist Herr Sjoden, who visited Ireland in 1879.
I have not yet found a portait of Adolf Sjödén (1843-1893) for comparison – could he be our man I wonder?
Irish piper Ronan Browne played at the three HHSI concerts, in Kilkenny, Galway and Dublin last week. One of the tunes he played on his more modern set of pipes was Port na bPúcaí, a most amazing slow air. I already knew that Ronan did a lot of work with archive recordings, and he mentioned that this tune was transmitted via a single archive recording, a fiddle performance by Seán Cheaist Ó Catháin which was released on a CD, Beauty an Oileáin: Music and Songs of the Blasket Islands (Claddagh CC56CD, 1992).
Seán Cheaist’s performance is very interesting and beautiful and I have spent today learning to play it on the fiddle. It has an interesting structure, with repeating phrases having “open” or “closed” endings – you could indicate it as A1 A2 B1 B2 B1 A2 – meaning that the second half is twice as long as the first. The 7th note of the scale is deliciously ambiguous – it tends towards either the flat or sharp 7th at different points of the tune, but never quite gets to either.
[Fraoch] went southwards to his mother’s sister, that is to Boand, in the plain of Bregia; and she gave him fifty black-blue cloaks, whose colour was like the backs of cockchafers, each cloak had four blue ears [or lappets]; and a brooch of red gold to each cloak. She gave him besides fifty splendid white shirts with fastenings of gold; and fifty shields of silver with borders of gold. She gave him a great hard spear, flaming like the candle of a royal house, to place in the hand of each man of his party, and fifty rings of burnished gold upon each spear, all of them set off with carbuncles, and their handles studded with precious stones. They would light up the plain the same as the glittering light of the sun. And she gave him fifty gold-hilted swords, and fifty soft-gray steeds, on which his men sat; all with bridle-bits of gold, with a crescent of gold and bells of silver on the neck of each steed of them. And they had fifty crimson saddles, with pendants of silver thread, and with buckles of gold and silver, and with wonderful fastenings upon them (the steeds); and their riders had fifty horse-switches of Findruine, with a crook of gold upon the head of each horse-switch, in their hands; and they had besides, seven grayhounds in chains of silver, and a ball of gold upon (the chain) between each pair of them. They wore shoes of red bronze (Cred-Uma); and there was no colour which approached them that they did not reflect it. They had seven trumpeters among them, with trumpets of gold and silver, wearing many coloured raiments. Their hair was light golden; and they had splendid white shirts upon them. There were three buffoons preceding the party with silver-gilt coronets upon their heads, and each carried a shield with emblematic carvings upon it; and crested heads, and ribs of red bronze in the centres of these shields; and there were three harpers (cruitire), each with the appearance of a king, both as to his dress, and his arms, and his steed….
[While they were at Cruachan, Ailill asked Fraoch if the harpers would play after dinner.] This was the condition of these [harps]. There were harp-bags (crotbuilcc) of the skins of otters about them, ornamented with coral, (Partaing) with an ornamentation of gold and of silver over that, lined inside with snow-white roebuck skins; and these again overlaid with black-gray strips [of skin]; and linen cloths, as white as the swan’s coat, wrapped around the strings. Harps (Crota) of gold, and silver, and Findruine, with figures of serpents, and birds, and grayhounds upon them. These figures were made of gold and of silver. Accordingly as the strings vibrated [these figures] ran around the men. They [the harpers] played for them then, until twelve men of Ailill’s and Medb’s household died of crying and emotion.
(taken from Eugene O’Curry’s Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish, vol. 3, pps. 219-222)
I’m just back from Kilkenny where I have been running Scoil na gCláirseach and its associated concert series – sold out in Galway!
For me the best moment was the visit, organised at the last minute, of Senegalese griots Solo Cissokho and Seckou Keita to the School of Music to demonstrate their traditions. It was fascinating to see Solo’s response to Ann Heymann’s question about the nitty gritty of the old tradition – he asked for the video camera to be switched off before saying anything more.
Here is Brenda’s wonderfully atmospheric photo of Solo: