The Singing & Music Section

Adapted from ‘Feis na nGleann: A History Of The Festival Of The Glens’ by Séamus Clarke.

The Singing and Music section of Feis na nGleann was the heir in a very special way to the Belfast Harp Festival of 1792. That great festival was organised chiefly by Dr James McDonnell, a descendant of Alisdair Mac Colla McDonnell, who after assisting Montrose in his Scottish campaigns was treacherously slain after surrender at Cnoc na Nós in Munster in the wars of the Confederation, and Henry Joy, a rich industrialist, editor of the ‘News-Letter’, prominent in the Volunteer movement and uncle of the patriot, Henry Joy McCracken, hanged after leading the rebellion in the North in 1798, and his sister Mary Ann. The McCracken’s house in Rosemary Lane, Belfast, was a citadel of enthusiasm for Irish music and Irish culture generally and of advance Nationalism.

Dr James McDonnell was a Protestant, although born of a Catholic father and a Protestant mother in Glenariff, in the heart of the Antrim glens. Michael Rua McDonnell, his father, employed the harpist Art O’Neill (1734-1815) of Dungannon to teach his sons the Irish language and Irish music. He was most anxious that his sons should be thoroughly steeped in Ireland’s culture. James and his brother were educated in the hedge-school conducted by the outlawed Catholic teacher, Muiris Mac Tréinthear, who conducted his classes in the caves still to be seen at Red Bay. Later they were sent to David Manson’s school in Belfast where Mary Ann McCracken was also a pupil. He took up medicine and was to become, in the course of time, Belfast’s most distinguished doctor and friend of Tone and Russell.

He played a prominent and important part in the social life of the city, and was co-founder of the Linen Hall Library and the founder of the Belfast Dispensary. The great Harp Festival of 1792 in which he played so prominent a part was an occasion, indeed, when Belfast ‘won for itself an honourable name among all true Irishmen for the successful attempt to preserve the ancient Irish music’. Many of the ‘dear old tunes’ with which we are familiar would have been lost to posterity had it not been for the patriotic efforts of Dr McDonnell and those whom he had gathered about him. These Irish airs have, fortunately as a result, been preserved from oblivion, and the ever-growing popularity and interest in Irish music from that day to this artists to their intrinsic worth. The name of Bunting will ever be associated with our national Music. He, it was, who was employed to note down the tunes as they were played by the harpists in 1792 and the assiduity and zeal with which he entered upon his task has left the Irish nation forever in his debt.

‘Perhaps’ writes WH Gratton Flood, Mus D and author of ‘The History of Irish Music’, ‘nothing so strikingly brings home the association of Ireland with music as the fact that the harp is emblazoned on the national arms. Ireland, ‘the mother of sweet singers’, as Pope writes; Ireland, ‘where’, according to St Columcille, ‘the clerics sing like the birds’; Ireland can proudly point to a musical history of over 2000 years. The Milesians, the De Danaans, and other pre-christian colonists were musical. Hecataeus (BC 540-475) describes the Celts of Ireland as singing songs to the harp in praise of Apollo, and Aethicus of Istria, a Christian philosopher of the early fourth century, describes the culture of the Irish. Certain it is that, even before the coming of St Patrick, the Irish were a highly cultured nation, and the national apostle utilised music and song in his work of conversion. In the early Lives of the Irish Saints musical references abound, and the Irish School of music attracted foreign scholars from the sixth to the ninth century.

‘During the ninth century’, he tells us, ‘we met with twelve different forms of instruments in use by the Irish, namely:- the Cruit and Cláirseach (small and large harp); Timpan (Rotta or bowed, cruit); Buinne (oboe or bassoon); Bennbuabhal and Corn (horn); Guthbuinne (bass horn); Stoc and Sturgan (trumpet); Pepai (single and double pipes); Craoibh ciul and Crann cuil (cybnbalum); Cnámha (castanet); and Fidil (fiddle).

The so-called ‘Brian Boru’s Harp really dates from the thirteenth century and is now in Trinity College, Dublin, but there are numerous sculptured harps of the ninth and tenth centuries on the crosses at Graig Ullard, Clonmacnois, Durrow and Monasterboice.

‘The Irish Annals of the thirteenth to the fifteenth century have numerous references to distinguished harpers and singers, and there are still many beautiful airs of this period, including ‘The Coulin’ and ‘Eibhlin a rúin’’. The shape of the harp, we are told was, at first, simply that of a bent bow with strings stretching across, which would produce a tone according to their respective lengths. A most interesting representation of a harp without a forearm is to be found on one of the ornamental compartments of a sculptured cross at the old Church of Ullard, in Co Kilkenny. The absence of a fore-pillar was supplied, so that the strings could be more highly strung and their number increased. The Irish bands altered the shape of thin harps, and, as Mr Beauford says, ‘The Irish bands, by making the plane of their harps an oblique angled-triangle, fell into the true proportion of their strings, that is, as the diameter of a circle to its circumference’. As to the exact date at which these changes were made no reliable information is available. It is related, however, that in the reign of Henry II, the Irish used two kinds of harps, one soft and soothing, the other bold and rapid. The small harp would appear to have been used by ladies and ecclesiastics, and the larger one for the public assemblies of the people.

When the Harp Festival was held in Belfast in 1792, Turlough O’Carolan, ‘the last of the Irish bards’ was already dead. He died in 1738. ‘After wandering through his native land, discoursing sweet music to his friendly admirers, the blind bard returned to the hospitable home of his benefactress. On his arrival he called for his harp, and, in a momentary impulse played his Farewell to music with such feeling that his auditors were reduced to tears. He never afterwards touched his favourite instrument, and, on Saturday 25th March, 1738, the talented and principal musician of Ireland peacefully passed away. His remains were interred in The MacDermott vault, in old Church Kilronan, in the County of Galway where his ashes mingle with those of his benefactress’ and where in recent years a memorial has been placed to his memory.

Among the harpers who answered the call to come to Belfast for that memorable occasion were two blind harpers Denis Hempson from County Derry and Arthur O’Neill from County Tyrone, Dr Mac Donnell’s old teacher. They responded whole-heartedly to the call to assist in preserving ‘from oblivion the few fragments which have been permitted to remain as monuments of the refined taste and genius of their ancestors’. The three collections of airs from Bunting published in the years following testifies to the success of the Festival and the wonderful work which it accomplished. Moore has stated publicly that his love for the Irish music was due to Bunting’s publications which gave him the initiative to write his Irish Melodies which have retained their popularity to the present time. All this, as I have already indicated, was due in no small measure to a Glensman, Dr James MacDonnell, whose mortal remains, at the end of his days, were interred among his kindred in Layde graveyard in his beloved glens.

The language of Ireland was not forgotten. Steps were taken to foster it and make it better known. ‘That the Irish is the best preserved dialogue of ancient and extensive Celtic language is allowed by most liberal and enlightened antiquarians,’ wrote the Rev Wm Neilson, DD, an ardent supporter of the Harp Society. ‘To the general scholar, therefore, a knowledge of it is of great importance, as it will enable him to trace the origin of names and customs which he would seek in vain in any other tongue. To the inhabitants of Ireland it is double interesting. In this language are preserved the venerable annals of our country with so much fidelity as is usually found in records of any nation, while the poetic and romantic compositions with which the Irish manuscripts abound afford the finest specimens of elegant taste and luxuriant imagination’. Thus, as in the Feis, language and music went hand in hand.

The Harp Festival of 1792 was commemorated in Belfast in the year 1903. Among those interested and prominent in the organising and promotion of the commemoration were Francis J Biggar, MRIA, J St Clair Boyd, MD, RL O’Mealy and the then budding young composer Herbert Hughes, who acted as hon Secretary to the committee. All of these were in one way or another associated with the foundation of Feis na nGleann. Francis J Biggar, as we have already seen, chaired the meeting of Glensmen at which Feis na nGleann was inaugurated, and both RL O’Mealy and Herbert Hughes acted as adjudicators in the singing and music section at the first Feis, and at the Feis in the years succeeding. Joseph Campbell collaborated with Herbert Hughes, who was then collecting airs in remote parts of Donegal. He wrote the English words for many of Hughes’ melodies. Many of his pieces have passed through the years into oral tradition and some of them such as ‘My Lagan Love’ and ‘The Blue Hills of Antrim’ and many others are popular at concerts, although few know the name of the author. Songs of Uladh, an outstanding publication of his work, was illustrated by his brother John, an artist, whose work was first displayed at the first Feis in 1904.

The O’Mealy family originated in County Westmeath and RL served an apprenticeship to the drapery trade in the town of Boyle, Co Roscommon. Later he worked in John Arnott’s in High Street, Belfast – premises which were blitzed in the 1941 air-raids on Belfast. Eventually after many years of service he became a floor manager, and died on the 14th March 1947. RL O’Mealy was regarded as the Prince of Irish Pipers and it has been said of him that, ‘You would have stood to your neck in snow to listen to him’. He travelled often to London to attend meetings of Irish literary societies and he was associated with those prominently connected with the Gaelic revival such as Douglas Hyde, Lady Percival Grey, Dinny McCullough and, of course, Francis J Biggar. On the 13th February 1976 the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum were fortunate in acquiring a set of Uileann pipes made by O’Mealy, after his retirement from Arnott’s in 1937, when he devoted himself to the full time making of pipes as a teacher. From reports it would seem that he was a perfectionist, repeatedly putting his pupils over their exercises, to their great disappointment when they were anxious to make hurried progress.

For many years, Feis na nGleann included among its adjudicators the distinguished name of Carl Hardebeck who, although not of Irish birth or blood, came to love the land of his adoption and its language, music, customs and traditions. When his business venture failed he turned to teaching music and to playing the organ in a church in order to earn his living.

Then in 1897 he won first prize for an original anthem at the Feis Ceoil and came to Dublin to hear the work performed. ‘Then for the first time’, he said, ‘I have heard the real Irish music – arrangements by Esposito, Dr Culwick and others, the songs of Standford and Graves – and the beauty and plaintiveness of it enthralled me.’ He added: ‘But the best was yet to come’.

He joined the Gaelic League and went through the books of O’Growney and studied the ‘Poets and Poetry of Munster’ and so he arranged his first songs. Then he heard a singer from Clare sing at a Gaelic League concert, and from that moment his life’s work was apparent to him.

Looking back over the years it is interesting to notice the effort that was being made to bring the boys and girls of County Antrim to a truer and better appreciation of our Irish songs and music. The music and singing competitions in the past demonstrates the steady expansion of this section and the determination of the committee to encourage a better knowledge of musical heritage, love and appreciation amongst our young and indeed, amongst all sections of the Irish people for that rich treasure that has been handed down to us.

At Feis na nGleann in 1956 and subsequent years there were piano competitions in addition to those noted above. The objection to including piano competitions was the difficulty of having a suitable piano available at the various Feis venues.

For a great number of years the adjudicator – rather the principal adjudicator – in the singing and musical section of Feis na nGleann was Peadar O Dubhda who was born in the village of Kilkerly in the land of Gaelic poets just outside Dundalk. For years he was a familiar figure at Feis na nGleann and he brought with him each year that never failing interest and enthusiasm for the language and all things Gaelic. One would not recognise as he came amongst us that somehow he had found the time to write 25 books in Gaelic, many of them for children, hundreds of poems that he set to music and also a number of plays, that he had spent twelve years translating the Bible into Gaelic. This work which was handwritten with many illustrations in colour is now in the National Library – a ms. of some three million words in over 3000 pages. This is a work, we are told which is nationally regarded as an amazing achievement by one who had his first lesson in the language when he was twelve years of age and when as a boy he had purchased an O’Growney for three pennies.

At the end of a long career in the language movement when in 1963 he had reached the ripe old age of 83 years he could say looking back over the years that the sort of Ireland he had dreamed of and striven for had not been realised, but he who was cast in the mould of optimism declared he saw the foundations for it laid and another breeze coming soon would fan the smouldering fires of revival again into flame. Such were the men who brought the Gaelic message to encourage the competitors yearly at Feis na nGleann.

It was indeed fitting that Miss Barbara McDonnell should have been elected the first President of Feis na nGleann. She was the direct descendant of that Dr James McDonnell, whom we noticed for his work in organising the Harpers Festival in Belfast so long ago. Francis J Biggar became Treasurer of the Feis Committee on its formation and did everything possible to promote its objects. ‘Oh! why do not Irishmen cultivate, encourage, cherish and hoard up in their innermost souls’, asked Dr Eugene O’Curry, the distinguished scholar and Professor of Irish History and Archaeology at the Catholic University, ‘the priceless treasure of never-failing consolation and delight afforded by their matchless music, if but worthily understood and performed?’ Feis na nGleann are most anxious to bring that understanding of their music to the Glens’ people and these competitions are so aimed as to encourage a high degree of musical performance. For ‘no enemy’ we agree with Davis, ‘speaks slightingly of Irish Music and no friend need fear to boast of it. It is without a rival. Its antique war-tunes, such as those of Byrne O’Donnell, Alestiom, and Brian Boru, stream and crash upon the ear like the warriors of a hundred glens meeting; and you are borne with them to battle, as they and you charge and struggle amid cries and battle-axes and stinging arrows. Did ever a wail make man’s marrow quiver, and fill his nostrils with the breath of the grave like the ululu of the north or the everrasture of Munster? Surely are their slow, and recklessly splendid their quick marches, their ‘Boyne Water’, and ‘Síos agus síos liom’, their ‘Michael Hoy’ and ‘Gallant Tipperary’. The Irish jigs and planxties are not only the best dancing dunes, but the finest quick marches in the world. Some of them would cure a paralytic, and make the marble-legged prince in the Arabian Night’s change like a Fág-an-Bealach boy. The hunter joins in every leap and yelp of the ‘Fox-Chase’; the historian hears the moan of the penal days in ‘Drimindhu’, and sees the embarkation of the Wild Geese in ‘Limerick Lamentation’; and ask the lover if his breath do not come and go with ‘Savourneen Deilish’ and ‘Lough Sheelin’.

The association of Feis na nGleann with piping goes back to the first Feis of 1904 when Francis J Biggar brought along the Armagh pipers and that association of the Feis has been renewed in recent years when their present-day successors have attended to grace Feis concert platforms and perform during intervals on the occasion of the field day. Piping in Ireland goes back many centuries and reference to it is found in a ‘Dinnseanchas’ or topographical poem called ‘Aonach Carma’, and eleventh century composition found in the Book of Leinster. The reference is as follows:

Pipai, fidlí, fir cen gail,
Cnámfhir ocus cuslennaig
Slúag etig engach egair
Béccaig ocus búridaig

(Pipes, fiddles, men without weapons,
Bone players and pipe blowers
A host of embroidered ornamented dress
Screamers and bellowers)

‘It is obvious’ says a writer in Cran (quarterly organ of the Celtic League), that the player of the pípaí here mentioned differed from the cuslennaig or pipe blowers; and since pípaí, modern píopaí, was found some centuries to designate the bag pipes, it is reasonable to assume that in its earliest recorded occurrence in Irish the term likewise related to this instrument.

‘The earliest representations of pipe-playing are to be seen on the High Crosses and illustrations are next recorded in the 16th Century. A rough wood carving of a piper formerly at Wordstock Castle, Co Kilkenny, and the picture of a youth playing the pipes drawn on the margin of a missal which had belonged to the abbey of Rosgall, Co Kildare, belong to this century. The two pipes depicted are obviously the prototype of the present day Píob Mhór or war pipes….

‘There is no record of the pipes or any other musical instrument being played on the field of battle in pre-Norman Ireland;, the writer tells us. ‘In later times the pipes were regarded by foreign commentators as being peculiarly the martial instrument of the Irish. ‘To its sound this encouraged, fierce and warlike people march their armies and encourage each other to deeds of valour’.

This distinctively Irish type of pipes which emerged at the beginning of the eighteenth century has as its distinguishing features:
1. The bag filled by a bellows, not from a blow pipe;
2. A chanter or melody pipe with a range of two octaves as compared with a range of nine notes on the older pipes;
3. The addition of regulators or closed chanters which permit an accompaniment to the melody.

These pipes are known as uileann pipes, from the Irish ‘uile’ elbow and there has been a great surge of interest in their type of piping at present. Feis na nGleann, with its long tradition ranging back over the years, as we have seen to that great prince of the art RL O’Mealy and Miss NJ Johnston founding member of the Feis from Carnlough and Ulster’s only, at that time, uileann piper, is more than hopeful that when the musical competitions resume a wide range of competitors in this art may be attracted and present themselves in the competitions.

Feis na nGleann as I have already indicated, is very proud of its early and long association with Hardebeck, a man whom Vincent O’Brien, the teacher of John McCormick, said ‘will take his place near Carolan, the last and greatest of these seers, in future estimates of our men of music’. ‘His settings’, writes Séan Neeson, are so finely integrated that they do not sound like arrangements at all; the fusion is as great as in any modern, art song, a degree of perfection missed by some of the greatest composers – Beethoven and Brahms, for instance – in setting traditional songs. Hardebeck is undoubtedly the greatest of all collectors of Irish music; greater than Bunting, greater than Petrie, greater than Joyce. He showed us, as effectively as Bartok and Kodaly has led us from Brahms and Liszt to the real Hungarian folk-song, the grief that yawns between true Gaelic song and what formerly passed for Irish folk-song in arrangements such as those of Standford, or in Moore’s Melodies. No Irish musician of the future can afford to neglect Hardebeck.

‘Few Irish composers’, Seán Neeson assures us, ‘have held a place in the repertory of one of the greatest orchestras, but Sir Hamilton Harty kept Hardebeck’s setting of ‘The Lark in the Clear Air’ in the programme of the Halle Orchastra while he was with it. It is true, as Professor Fleischmann has pointed out that some of his original work is too facile, derivative in romantic Wagnerian style, but those beautiful songs: ‘The Song of Glendun’, ‘Buailtear mo Chreidhil’ and ‘Deirdre’s Lament’ make us wonder what was lost when Hardebeck abandoned original work to follow his star’. Feis na nGleann have always acknowledged that in his association with it Carl Hardebeck honoured the Feis in a way far beyond their expectations. Living up to being worthy of that great honour has ever been a problem that weighed greatly upon their decisions in preparing the Clár of the Music and Singing section.

For more than a century past there has been a vigorous growth in the number of European schools of national music. Perhaps, Feis na nGleann through the instrumentality of its singing and music section can in its own small but significant way assist in heralding such a development in Ireland. With the work and labours of such men as the late Seán O Riada and Seoirse Bodley such a hoped for and distinctive school of Irish music as a real possibility must be near. Hopefully that day may be soon.

Feis na nGleann was not long established when it published a little booklet of Irish songs and poems. Its contents were: ‘The Blue Hills of Antrim’, Seosamh Mac Cathmhaoil; ‘Ireland’ by John Stevenson, author of ‘Pat McCarty, Farmer of Antrim’; ‘The Boy from Ballytearim,’ by Moira O’Neill; ‘The Irishman’, by James Orr, the Bard of Ballycarry; ‘Silent, O Moyle’; by Thomas Moore; ‘A Glen Song’, by Ethna Carbery, author of ‘The Four Winds of Erin’; O’Donnell Abú!’ by Mr J McCann; ‘Willie Gilliland’, by Sir Samuel Ferguson, author of ‘Lays of the Western Gael’; and ‘A Song of Defeat’, by Steven Gwynn, author of ‘Highways and Byeways in Donegal and Antrim’. Thus did the pioneers of Feis na nGleann set a headline that we must try to emulate.