A significant collection of traditional music was purchased by the National Library of Ireland

A significant collection of traditional music was purchased by the National Library of Ireland

Important early manuscript collection of Irish Traditional Music purchased by National Library

A significant collection of traditional music was purchased by the National Library of Ireland on Tuesday 15th April at Adam’s Auctioneers, Dublin.

Created in the late 18th century by Pádraig Ó Néill, a piper living near Carrick-on-Suir, the collection consists of four books of tunes in manuscript, a goatskin folder of mainly 18th century Dublin-printed music with tunes in manuscript on the backs of many of the sheets, and a fifth tune-book written probably by Pádraig Ó Néill’s son Conn.

The collection has always remained in private hands. It was known to George Petrie, who included 24 items from the collection in his publications, but in 1927 Donal O’Sullivan wrote that its whereabouts was then unknown.

The music in the collection amounts to around 450 manuscript tunes, of which about half are traditional Irish tunes. There are dance tunes and airs, including such as Cumhadh Eoghain Ruadh [Lament for Eoghan Rua], Rabuire on Mumhan (The Munster Bravo), Spailpin a Ruin, The Wounded Hussar, Eadhmon a Chnuic, Caitlin Triall, Cumha Alasdruim [the Lament for Alasdar MacDonnell), Miss Power by Carolan, Fiach an Mhadra Rua, ‘Cailin Deas Cruidhte na mBo’ and ‘Thugamair Fein an Samhra linn’.

More details of this item can be found at http://www.jamesadam.ie/ (click on the Previous Catalogues link, and then on Independence. The lot number is 606.)


Lot 606 PADRAIG O NEILL (1765-1832)
A very important collection of (mainly) Irish traditional music, collected and written down in manuscript by Padraig O Neill, of Owning, near Carrick-on-Suir, circa 1780-1800, comprising four books of tunes in manuscript, a goatskin folder of mainly 18th century Dublin-printed music with tunes in manuscript on the backs of many of the sheets, a fifth tune-book written probably by his son Conn, and some associated items including a range of printed works of literature from the family library.

Provenance : Private Collection, Ireland

This is a collection of the first importance for students and historians of Irish traditional music. It appears to be the earliest surviving collection of Irish music in manuscript, predating the Bunting collection (early 1790s) by about a decade. As a Munster collection, it offers obvious opportunities for comparative study with the Bunting collection (assembled mainly at the harpers’ festivals in Belfast).

Padraig O Neill [1765-1832] is himself a person of considerable interest. He was a member of a long-established farming family, descended from the Gaelic nobility, on the edge of the Golden Vale, near the borders of South Tipperary, Kilkenny and Waterford. The family descent can be traced to a branch of the O’Neill chieftains of Ulster, of which they were very conscious, and they were evidently comfortably off. Padraig operated a mill and farmed some 80 acres. He was a piper, known locally as ‘an muilleoir meidhreach’, ‘the merry miller’. There is much about Padraig and his background in Col. Eoghan O Neill’s books ‘Gleann an Oir’ (1988) and ‘The Golden Vale of Ivowen’ (2001).

The family had a tradition of learning, and Padraig’s father was a collector of Irish manuscripts. Padraig himself wrote poetry in Irish, and he assisted in publishing a devotional work (1796) and a collection of local verse in Irish (1816) in Carrick-on-Suir. He was related by marriage to the family of Sheffield Grace, and it is thought he supplied him with poetry in Irish on the Grace family, some of which Padraig may have written himself. There is a microfilm in the National Library of a substantial letter-book of Padraig’s; the original is or was in the collection of Ring College. There is evidence in books surviving from his library to indicate that Padraig had some knowledge of Latin, Greek and French; he was of course bilingual in Irish and English. There were close connections in the area with the Irish regiments in the service of France. There is a local tradition that Padraig made pike-heads in his mill for the 1798 insurgents; a cousin and close friend, Aodh O Neill, fought at Vinegar Hill and had to flee to France afterwards.

Padraig O Neill’s collections were known to other musicians at least from the mid-nineteenth century. George Petrie’s published collections include 24 airs drawn from the O Neill notebooks; it is said that one of these, titled ‘Moreen’, may have provided Thomas Moore with the air to which he wrote ‘The Minstrel Boy’. Petrie (1855) says of this air, ‘This setting has been copied from a MS book of Irish songs written in 1785 by Mr. Patrick O’Neill, a respectable farmer on the Bessborough estate’.

Donal O’Sullivan, editing the Bunting collection in 1927, stated that ‘the whereabouts of O’Neill’s collection is now unknown’. Eoghan O Neill in 1999 described two notebooks, one written on the backs of published sheets, containing some 116 tunes. The present archive is more substantial than that described by Eoghan O Neill, but is evidently the same collection.


The following are the principal contents of the collection, briefly described:


1. A collection of printed music folios stitched into a rough cover of goatskin, circa 35 x 23 cms, inscribed at front ‘Padraig O Niall 48’, also ‘Musick Book No. 2’, with about 100 tunes (almost all Irish traditional, mostly titled in Irish) inscribed in ms. on the blank backs of the printed sheets at front and rear, with a few sheets entirely in manuscript, the pages numbered 1-248. The manuscript Irish tunes include such well-known items as Cumhadh Eoghain Ruadh [Lament for Eoghan Rua], Rabuire on Mumhan (The Munster Bravo), Spailpin a Ruin, The Wounded Hussar, Eadhmon a Chnuic, Caitlin Triall, Cumha Alasdruim [the Lament for Alasdar MacDonnell, defender of Clonmel 1647, apparently the earliest recorded version], etc. There is a ms. inscription in Greek at p. 220, and some words in Latin at p. 150. The printed sheets are of some interest in their own right, mainly late18th century, Dublin printed, many of them issued by Hill of Mary-St. or with Exshaw’s or Walker’s Hibernian Magazine.

2. A small oblong manuscript notebook, circa 12 x 19 cms, stitched, 82 numbered pages (lacking p. 23-24), front and rear leaves worn and soiled, inscribed on p. 43 ‘Patrick O Niel / Oning’, also inscribed p. 36 where dated January 21st 1787, containing circa 35 tunes with accompanying verses, mainly Scottish.

3. An oblong notebook bound in heavy card, circa 15 X 24 cms, pages numbered 3-64, p. 21 inscribed ‘Patrick O Neils Book’, containing circa 80 tunes from a wide variety of sources, some Irish traditional, also including ‘Handel’s Water Piece’ , Dead March from Saul, ‘God Save Our King’, ‘Yanky Doodle’, also Corelli’s 10th Concerto, marked ‘An sinm is siadh annsa leabhar’ [the longest piece in the book], p. 31.

4. A small quarto manuscript notebook, circa 20 x 17 cms, stitched, pages numbered (9)-138, some pp. lacking, containing some 130 tunes, many Irish traditional, some titled in Gaelic, incl. Miss Power by Carolan (p. 65), Fiach an Mhadra Rua (p. 79), some Scottish, others including Rule Brittannia, Morgiana, the Copenhagen Waltz, etc., some pages of accounts at rear, last page dated 16 June 1807.

5. An oblong notebook bound in heavy card, circa 19 x 25 cms, paper with printed stave lines, pages numbered (3)-74, some unnumbered pages bound in at end, a few early pages with corners torn away, containing some 80 tunes from various sources, including some Irish traditional.

6. A small oblong manuscript notebook, circa 15 x 19 cms, stitched, pages numbered (1)-19, page 19 inscribed ‘Cornelius O Neill of ONing’, containing circa 20 mainly traditional tunes incl. ‘Cailin Deas Cruidhte na mBo’ (p. 127), ‘Thugamair Fein an Samhra linn’ (p. 19) etc., worn and fragile. This Cornelius O’Neill is probably Padraig’s son Conn (1830-1897), though his uncle (1729-1780) was also Conn or Cornelius.


Taken together these notebooks include (at a rough estimate) about 450 manuscript tunes, of which about half are Irish traditional, including both slow airs and dance tunes, some of them almost certainly the earliest versions preserved. There is also a significant number of Scots marches and dance tunes, and a wide variety of other popular tunes, songs and pieces, some derived from classical sources, all noted down with no regard for distinctions. The collection is generally fragile, and in urgent need of conservation treatment and rebinding or other protection.



A box of associated items include a printed 18th-century collection of airs and dances (non-Irish), pp. 113-166 only, probably from Patrick O’Neill’s library; Ovid’s Epistles in Latin, Dublin 1770, with Padraig O Niall’s signature on title page; and a collection of about 24 books from the O Neill family library, many Dublin printed, mostly leather bound, 18th or early 19th century, many probably from Padraig O Neill’s personal collection, including a Greek and Latin lexicon, Homer’s Iliad in Latin 1787, a volume of Nature Displayed, 1742, Martial’s Epigrams in Latin 1701, Timon le Misantrope, 1749, in French, Les Aventures de Telemaque, 1756, in French and English, O’Reilly’s Irish-English Dictionary.
These books are mostly not in good condition, but they are of interest in showing the range of literature available to a learned family in the Gaelic tradition, living far from urban centres under the Penal Laws. The books and their significance are extensively discussed in Col. Eoghan O’Neill’s The Golden Vale of Ivowen (2001), a copy of which is with the collection.

This is a collection of unique significance and value for scholars and practitioners of Irish traditional music, of comparable, if not more importance to the Bunting collection (in P.R.O.N.I.). Its significance will be immediately apparent to any student of traditional music sources.
Sold for €85000

Re: A significant collection of traditional music was purchased by the National Library of Ireland

Sorry, I admit to not having read the whole post so excuse my ignorance. But can this book be viewed by the public in the National library?

Re: A significant collection of traditional music was purchased by the National Library of Ireland

It’s of interest to note that only about half of the 450 transcribed tunes are described as Irish in origin. Pádraig Ó Néill was a piper after all, so you might presume that he’d be steeped in the local music.

So, if he was representative of pipers of the time, then clearly he had a strong interest in other forms of European music of the day - did he play other instruuments?

But then, perhap’s he was not representative of other pipers as the act of being able to notate and collect this music would set him apart from his less literate fellow musicians playing the music of the ordinary folk of the day.

He was obviously from a fairly weathy family and presumably moved in those circles.

Posted .

Re: A significant collection of traditional music was purchased by the National Library of Ireland

From Martin’s post it looks like these documents are in a very fragile condition, so the public won’t have access for quite some time. I would hope that facsimiles become available in due course. In the meantime we can only wait and drool.

Re: A significant collection of traditional music was purchased by the National Library of Ireland

It will be interesting to see if any tunes are found in this that had otherwise been lost.

Re: A significant collection of traditional music was purchased by the National Library of Ireland

Fair play to the National Library for forking out the money for this important collection. I believe the estimates and interest for the manuscripts were very high. Had they into private hands they may have disappeared for another century two.

Re: A significant collection of traditional music was purchased by the National Library of Ireland

It will also be interesting to see if any tunes which may be duplicated in eg O’Neill’s, differ much in this document from the O’Neill’s or whatever version. Isn’t O’Neill’s supposed to be far from perfect in the versions of many of the tunes it has?