What is a “planxty”?

What is a “planxty”?

I am a hammered dulcimer player from Elkhart, IN. I’m only now really getting into the Irish/Celtic scene and I am not really very well-versed in the stuff.

I’ve recently written a pretty sweet song (I think) for my dulcimer and I want to call it Planxty Cousin Bill but I’m not really sure that it’s a planxty at all.

In fact, I have no clue what a planxty really is, I’ve just seen it used before. I get the impression that it’s like a tribute or something, which is how I’m using it, but I understand there is some debate over whether or not it means a specific meter or something like that.

So if you know (or just want to say you do) what a planxty really is, then please enlighten a poor newbie….

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Planxties seem to be associated mostly with Turlough O’Carolan, the 18c blind Irish harpist. He spent most of his career travelling, or wandering, round Ireland staying for a few days at the houses of the well-to-do and playing music. At the end of his visit he would present the head of the household or family concerned with the gift (or tribute) of a piece of music composed specially for the occasion - a "planxty".
Many of the Carolan planxties are in 6-8, but there are many in 2-4, 4-4 and 3-4, so it’s not necessarily a specific dance form or meter.
With regards to the origin of the word "planxty", it seems to be one of those words the origins of which are lost in antiquity. I have heard it said that it was invented by Carolan, and also that it was originally an Irish dance, but I don’t know for sure. My own feeling is that it is derived from the ancient Greek word "planxter", meaning "wanderer". The modern word "plankton" (the minute organisms that "wander" the upper levels of the world’s oceans and provide food for whales) is derived from the same Greek root.
Trevor

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Planxty is thought to derive form the Irish word slainte. A Greek derivation seems highly unlikely to me. Have you any evidence for this?
Chris

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I read that a planxty is actually a composition written to express gratitude to a teacher.

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I don’t think O’Carolan had that many teachers!

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From what I know O’Carolan had one teacher for a short time when he was just starting out—a blind woman whom I beleive Blind Mary was written for. My understanding is that planxty means "in honor of".

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Doesn’t make too much difference where it came from, really. It actually is possible for "plankton" and "planxty"
to be linguistically related, but it would be one of those "far back in the mists of time" things, much like English and Latin often have connections (and English and French, or English and whatever).

Regardless, a planxty is a tune, any time signature, written as a tribute or thanks to *someone*. I don’t believe it was generally a teacher. Carolan often wrote them to thank a patron for patronage. There are others who wrote them as well, but Carolan’s are the most extant.

Zina

Plamas

The Planxty was written as a praise tune (A common feature of Gaelic Ireland for the artistic professions). I am only speculating, but a possible origin could be in the aglicization of a Gaelic word related to "Plamas" (fada over both ‘a’s), which means praise.

Any thoughts?

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It’s something that enthusiastic but misguided beginners, especially those with orchestral backgrounds, play at a session to the annoyance of more experienced players.

Harrumph! ; )

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My teacher said that it is a tribute to someone. So I agree with Zina.

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I think the Ancient Greek for wanderer is "planetes" from which we get the word "planet". Don’t know the origin of "planxty" but have often wondered if it is related to the French verb "plaindre". Luke

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yeah, cthuilleanpiper, I tend to not like it when at a session I am singled out and asked to play an O’Carolan tune, just because I have a harp. They mean well, but I don’t like being singled out for one, and for two I don’t like playing them at sessions!

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Ancient Greek "planetes" and "planxter" both have the same root "plan-" which is associated with travelling around , and wandering. The planets, to the Greeks and other peoples, appeared to "wander" against a backdrop of stationary stars.

Does anyone know if "planxty" predates Carolan? Ireland in those days, as it still does, had some well-educated people, some of whom whould surely have known some Greek. A possible origin for "planxty"?
Trevor

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Insofar as I know, there are other planxties out there, but whether they predate Carolan or not, I dunno…I think Red Rory had a few as well.

Anybody else read that book about how the Irish saved civilization? Great book. I love stuff like that.

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I understood that the word "planxty" is derived from an ancient word used by the Celts "plasticine". It supposedly refers to the way in which the form of the tune is malleable, and does not adhere to a strict, rigid structure.

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Another theory is that the word is derived from a word used by the Romans - "platypus", and that the term originally referred to the rather odd character of the tune. This I find a bit far-fetched though. I’d go with "plasticine".

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Oh, the joys of idle speculation!
I would tend to put my trust in what is to date the only authoritative work on O’Carolan, namely Donal O’Sullivan’s scholarly work "Carolan: The Life, Times and Music of an Irish Harper" (Routledge & Kegan Paul 1958). O’Sullivan discusses the word planxty at some length (Vol 1 pp 150-154) but does not come to any definite conclusions regarding the origin and meaning of the word.
He first proposes that the word may be onomatopoeic but then suggests that the origin may be the Latin word plangere (plango, plangere, planxi, planctus ) "on the model of the existing Irish word ‘planncaim’, which means to strike (the harp)". This sounds very plausible but more of that later.
He goes on to pose 4 more questions:
1) was the term invented by Carolan?
2) did he intend it as an English or Irish word?
3) did he use it in the titles of his pieces calling them ‘Planxty Sudley’ etc.
4) did he restrict the term to compositions which fall within some precise classification?
He concludes that the word "probably originated with Carolan as it does not appear too be found before his time, nor does it occur except in connection with his tunes."
Interestingly, "the word occurs only once in Carolan’s verse, namely in the last half of the second chorus of his song for George Brabazon :

Him, jam!, planxty, merriment,
Sing, dance, drink his health about!"

O’Sullivan argues that as these words are in English, it seems likely that Carolan intended it as an English word, not an Irish one. In the context here the word would appear to be onomatopoeic as earlier suggested.
Although Carolan composed about 170 pieces in honour of patrons these were generally simply given the names of the said patrons as titles. For example the tune commonly known as "Planxty Irwin" is given by O’Sullivan as "Colonel John Irwin".
In the three earliest sources for Carolan’s music only four tune titles contain the word "Planxty", two of which are in 6/8, one in 4/4 and one in 6/4. O’Sullivan concludes that " Carolan did not, in general, use the term ‘Planxty’ in the titles of his piece, and that the tunes called Planxties are not amenable to any strict classification."

I’m not convinced by the suggestion of the latin derivation, although the perfect form "planxi" sounds exceedingly close to "planxty". In the context of "Him, jam!, planxty…" the word would appear to be purely onomatopoeic and used solely for the effect produced by its sound rather than for its meaning. Furthermore, the University of Notre Dame latin dictionary gives "plangere" as "to beat , strike, esp. noisily; to strike the breast, head, etc., as a sign of grief" rather than striking the harp. This might be credible if the four tunes mentioned in the earliest collections were laments but sadly, they are jolly, lively tunes (oxymoron intended!).

I can see no evidence that planxty has anying to do with the ancient Greek "planxter", likewise the French "plaindre". The Irish "pl

More Carolan facts

According to O’Sullivan, Carolan’s first teacher was a MacDermott Roe (not related to Mrs MacDermott Roe his first patron) and not Blind Mary.
Blind Mary was also a harpist.
Carolan may or may not have had a cousin Bill.

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Sorry about the length. Perhaps I should have just scanned in the whole chapter and gone for the record for longest posting, probably held by Will!

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Who, me?

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Nah. Will is actually too good a writer to hold that title.

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On the other hand, I did list all those damn tunes in one post…not exactly narrative prose, but I might hold the record just based on character spaces….

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Well, now, I have to think about that one. Even with all those tune names, I bet I’ve probably rabbited on longer than you have on one post or another, and with less effect, too…hey, while we’re up there in MT, we should collectively write a tune we’ll call Planxty Helena…

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Good info, miles—it will propably end all of this idle speculation. I really should read that book….!

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Helena is a place not a person, so it would be an unprecedented use of the word. In the spirit of the onomatopoeic use of the word by Carolan himself why not "Planxty Schmanxty!"
Chris

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LOL Good one…but I still like Planxty Helena Handbasket

Plankety Planx

Or, Maybe O’Carolan wrote these tunes as jingles for early Game Shows.

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"Planxty Flakes" goes great with "Planxty Milk"

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"The Planxty’s Right"? "I’m kookoo for Planxty Puffs"?

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In O’carolans context a planxty is simply a tune written for and dedicated to a patron. Consider he depended on these patrons for his livelihood so an original tune is part of his product.

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Thank you, milesnagopaleen, for your exhaustive account. I don’t think I need to read the book now! Trevor’s wandering plankton is etymologically correct and I like the association with the wandering minstrel. As for my "plaindre", there’s no evidence whatsoever to support it, but I was thinking in terms of "plaintive cry" — while a planxty isn’t a dirge, it’s hardly in the same category as Whiskey in the Jar. Anyway, a great thread. Luke

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I understood it the way that planxty means something like "cheers"..

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Just a thought!
Planc is the Irish word for a beat.
This to me is a better bet for the origin of planxty or plaincsti than Greek.
It most likely however came into Irish from the Latin plangere to beat or strike.
Your man Carolan was a good Catholic and would have had a fair smattering of the Latin.

Re: What is a “planxty”?

You are all wrong.

The word "planxty" is in fact a corruption, an amalgamation if you like, of two words, Planck’s tea.

This is all down to the famous German physicist Max Planck, who, in between periods of deep thought regarding quantum theory, very often really needed a nice cup of tea to sort himself out. During these frequent tea-breaks he would centre his mental processes by listening to recordings of Irish traditional music. His favourites by far were the numerous recordings of O’Carolan’s compositions. Many of these had previously been un-named, but it seemed appropriate at the time to call them Planck’s Tea Tunes. This very soon after became corrupted to the more Irish sounding "Planxty", and the name has stuck.

Whether this explanation is true or merely a figment dreamt up by this correspondent’s imagination is something which you the reader must decide.

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@leisg.

It’s the one I like the best.

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A tune written in honor of someone.

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The scholarship of the Oxford English Dictionary II is generally highly respected. Here’s the etymology - basically, origin unknown. I quote:

——
Origin: Of unknown origin.
Etymology: Origin unknown.
Probably not < Irish (compare quot. 1855). Irish plancstaí is probably < English; quot. 1724 antedates evidence in Irish (compare also quot. a1738 in the note below). Irish pléaráca , originally ‘revelry, reckless merriment’, is often used as an equivalent term.

Perhaps imitative of the plucking of a harp.

Some suggest its formation in some way from Irish plancadh striking (e.g. a harp) or its etymon classical Latin plangere to strike, beat (see plangent adj.). Compare -ty suffix1.

The word has also been suggested to be an alteration of Irish sláinte health, toast, also used in the titles of praise poems (see slainte int.).

The development of this style of music is attributed to Turlough O’Carolan (Toirdhealbhach Ó Cearhbhalláin 1670–1738), harper and composer, who may also have coined the term, although he did not use it as much as later editors and commentators of his work. For an example in context from his work, compare the following, although it is unclear whether the word is meant to be Irish or English:
a1738 T. O’Carolan Seórsa Brabston (George Brabazon) in T. Ó Máille Amhráin Chearbhalláin (1916) 177 Hí hó! súd é an siollaire, Hom-bó! dubhshlán duine faoi, him-jam plancstaí, merriment, Sing, dance, drink his health about.
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