Music: Early Modern Music

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Early Modern Music

An eclectic cadre of native and foreign sources chronicles the music, song, and dance from 1500 to 1800. The most striking feature of its musical landscape is the genesis of what is known today as Irish traditional music and the decline of the harp music of the Gaelic court, a dilemma induced by the perplexities of Tudor and Stuart politics. Both Henry VIII and Elizabeth I passed decrees prohibiting music. The píobaire (piper), bard, and aois ealaíon (artistic class) were frequently outlawed. In contrast to royal skepticism, Tudor scribes Edmund Spenser and Fynes Moryson left vivid accounts of Irish music from sword dancing in the court of the lord deputy, to the Gaelic kerne (professional soldiers) of Fiach MacAodha Ó Broin being led into battle by pipers. Native musicians also registered their impressions of the Tudor conquest, from the Desmond rebellions (1569 and 1579) to the Nine Years War (1594–1603). A poignant eulogy to the period is the Munster air "Caoineadh Uí Dhomhnaill," which recalls O'Donnell's defeat at Kinsale (1601). The subsequent Flight of the Earls (1607) marked a watershed in Irish musical culture. Apart from a minority of performers who accompanied their chiefs into exile, those who remained behind were deprived of aristocratic patronage. Henceforth, the archaic trinity of file (poet), reacaire (reciter), and cruitire (harper) crumbled. Despite its displacement of native performers, the settlement of English and Scottish colonists in the northeast corner of Ireland during the Plantation of Ulster (beginning in 1609) brought a new injection of musicians, among them Gaelic-speaking Presbyterians from Galloway and Argyle.

Just as music reflected the Tudor conquest, so too did it mirror the bellicose politics of the seventeenth century, from the Ulster Rebellion (1641) to the Williamite Wars (1689–1691). Among the musical records of the period are: the "Lament for Eoghan Rua O'Neill" (composed by Carolan in memory of the Confederate leader); "Alasdruim's March" (eulogizing Alasdair MacColla, killed at Cnoc na nDos in 1647); "Seán Ó Duibhir A'Ghleanna" (lauding the exploits of John O'Dwyer during the Cromwellian Wars); "Gol na mBan san Ár" (a piping dirge simulating the march to Aughrim in 1691 and the crying of the women after the slaughter); "Marbhna Luimní" (cognate of the Scottish "Lochaber No More," lamenting the exile of Sarsfield and the Wild Geese after the fall of Limerick); "Clare's Dragoons" (extolling Wild Geese valor in the French army at Fontenoy in 1745); and "Éamonn A'Chnuic" (praising raparee, or political dissident, Éamonn Ryan, forced to become an outlaw after a fracas with a Williamite tax collector).

Although love songs like "Dónal Óg" and "Úna Bhán" composed by anonymous poets dominated the amhráin (vernacular songs) by the late 1600s, older airs survived in "Laoithe Fiannaíochta" (evoking the exploits of Fionn MacCumhail). Caoineadh (laments) also endured, from amhrán bheannaithe ("sacred songs" derived from medieval apocrypha) and keening songs, like "Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoire" (Lament for Arthur O'Leary, penned by his wife Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill in 1773), to formal and semilearned marbhna (bardic elegies). The latter were composed by poets like Aogán Ó Rathaille (1670–1728) and Dáibhí Ó Bruadair (1625–1698). The aisling ("vision poem/song," in which the poet meets an enchanted lady, symbolically Ireland) evolved during the eighteenth century. "Úr Chill an Chreagáin" by the Ulster poet Art Mac Cumhaigh (1715–1774) is among the best known.

The Eighteenth Century

The Williamite wars left 90 percent of Irish land in Protestant hands. By 1700 a series of harsh anti-Catholic penal laws had been passed that excluded Catholics from Parliament, the army, the legal professions, and government services. Access to land, education and religious worship was also restricted. Songs like "An Raibh Tú ar an gCarraig?" (Were you at the Rock?), "Caoineadh an tSagairt" (Priest's Lament), "Pill, Pill, Rúin Ó" (lament for the Donegal priest, Dominick O'Donnell, who converted to Protestantism under duress) and "An Spailpín Fánach" (recalling the demeaning hiring fairs that marked the life of the migrant laborer) all mirror the toils of the penal era.

By 1730 folk poets and musicians accepted their reduced status as clerics, farmers, peddlers, and hedge schoolmasters. Although in Munster they continued to hold courts of poetry, their folk compositions were now more community oriented and dealt with a range of religious, legal, and economic issues. Their work also acted as a form of political journalism, as in Whiteboy songs like "Príosún Chluain Meala," Riocard Bairéad's "Eoghan Cóir," and the rich corpus of Jacobite songs that emerged in the 1700s. The latter reflected a common Gaelic culture that linked Ireland with Scotland. In the wake of the Jacobite risings (1715 and 1745) poets and musicians like Seán Clárach MacDomhnaill, Piaras MacGearailt, Seán Ó Tuama, and Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin lauded the Stuarts in songs like "Mo Ghile Mear" and "Rosc Catha na Mumhan," and in piping airs like "Loch na gCaor." After the Battle of Culloden (1746), the Young Pretender was immortalized in Ireland by musical code names like "The Blackbird," which still survives as a set dance today.


Throughout the eighteenth century, traffic in and out of Ireland had a direct impact on music, song, and dance. Gaelic-speaking "wintermen" (fishery workers) headed to Newfoundland, dissenting Scots-Irish transplanted whole communities to Appalachia, while dissident "croppies" (United Irishment influenced by Jacobin ideas, who cropped their hair in the new French style of the 1790s) found new vocations after serving prison sentences in Australia. All these exiles helped to disperse Irish music overseas. In-bound traffic facilitated the adoption of the modern violin (fidil in Irish) and imported a bevy of dancing masters who sold their steps to all classes of society. These were particularly popular in Munster, where they worked with hedge schoolmasters. Sources for the early history of dancing are nebulous. By the 1600s, English accounts refer to the "hay," "fading," "trenchmore," and "rince fada" (long dance) as popular forms. The latter was danced when bonfires were lit on May Eve. Until the late 1700s, when it was ousted by new French dances, it was performed at the close of public balls. In 1780, the English geographer Arthur Young noted that "dancing is general among the poor people, almost universal in every cabin. Dancing masters of their own rank travel through the country from cabin to cabin, with a piper or blind fiddler; and the pay is sixpence a quarter. It is an absolute system of education." Young, who traveled in Ireland from 1776 to 1779, cited jigs, minuets, and cotillions as the most common dances. Reels and hornpipes did not gain prominence until the 1790s. By then, the printed collections of Golden Age masters Neil Gow and Nathaniel Gow, William Marshal, and other Scottish composers were gaining new audiences in Ireland. Hence, the presence of Scottish reels like "Miss MacLeod," "Lord MacDonald," "Lord Gordon," and "Lucy Campbell" in Irish repertories.


Although composers like Rory Dall Ó Catháin (c. 1550–1640) had enjoyed considerable status a century earlier, by now the remnants of the bardic order were reduced to a few itinerant harpers. Patronized by ascendancy landlords and a scattering of Gaelic families, their music acquired the features of continental composers. The most prominent was Turlough Carolan (1670–1738) whose work was published during his own lifetime. Astutely aware of his working milieu, he offered music that was an eclectic mix of Irish and non-Irish tunes, composed in a variety of dialects from baroque to vernacular dance music. When it became clear that the oral art of the harper was facing extinction, efforts were made to preserve it. In 1730 a contention of the bards met in Limerick. In 1780 James Duggan, an Irishman living in Denmark, sponsored harp festivals in Longford in order to provide support for harpers and create awareness for their plight. These eleventh-hour efforts peaked at the Belfast Harpers' Festival in 1792. Fueled by republicanism and antiquarianism, this venture brought together ten exponents (nine men and a woman) to have their music transcribed by nineteen-year-old Edward Bunting. The oldest attendee was nonogenarian Denis Hempson (1697–1807), who contributed "An Chuilfhionn." Bunting's General Collection of the Ancient Music of Ireland (1796) contained music collected at this caucus. Adding to existing collections (Neale, Lee, and Walker), this seminal work set the tone for other collectors and composers in the nineteenth century; among them Thomas Moore, who reinvented the atrophied harp music of Gaelic Ireland for the new pianofortés and drawing rooms of Regency society.

The End of the Early Modern Era

Whereas songwriters like Antaine Raiftearaí and Tomás Rua Ó Súilleabháin were coming to prominence by the late 1790s, their work would be marginalized by macaronic songs (incorporating bilingual lyrics) and English language ballads. Despite their cultural distinctions, songs in both traditions continued to address familiar topics like love, work, recreation, death, and the supernatural. Political songs mirrored the events of the time (United Irishmen risings in Counties Antrim, Down, and Wexford, and the French landing in Mayo). Dance music reflected circumstances in America and France that influenced Irish politics. Just as the Industrial Revolution and the synergy of the Romantic period led to the invention of new instruments in Europe; in Ireland pipe makers perfected the unique multireed uilleann pipes, which reached their present state of development (combining drones, chanter, and regulators) in the 1790s. Sheet music and tutors soon followed, among them O'Farrell's Collection of National Irish Music for the Union Pipes, published in London in 1800.

At the end of the early modern era, Dublin's predilection for western art music, which reached an epitome in 1742 with the première of Handel's Messiah, would decline with the drift of colonial society to London after the Act of Union. By now, however, Irish traditional music had spread worldwide. Sustained by an expanding population, especially in the rural clacháns of the west of Ireland, where music making followed the cyclical calendar of the agricultural year, dance music and set dancing experienced dynamic growth in the late 1700s, only to be devastated by famine and diaspora a half century afterward.

SEE ALSO Arts: Early Modern Literature and the Arts from 1500 to 1800; Carolan, Turlough; Music: Modern Music; Raiftearaí (Raftery), Antaine


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Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin

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