The Airs in O’Neill’s

The Airs in O’Neill’s

Are the airs in O’Neill’s (or any instrumental airs for that matter) tunes that once had lyrics?

And am I right in thinking that, given the number of airs in O’Neill’s, they were more commonly played then than they are now?

Re: The Airs in O’Neill’s

Many had or have lyrics. The section title is Airs, Songs, so he’s acknowledging that some had lyrics and others didn’t (or they may have been lost). In other of his books he even talks about some of this, where someone may have had a scrap of lyrics for an air, and that reminded him of another version of it, and so on.

I doubt they were more commonly played, or less commonly played, than they are now. His goal was to collect as many Irish melodies as he could, no matter how common or uncommon they were. Also, take note that for the Dance Music of Ireland (published only 4 years later) he removed this section as musicians were more interested in the dance music (and wanted something more affordable).

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Re: The Airs in O’Neill’s

There’s quite a tale as a back story to the existence of lyrics to airs. Bunting, and Petrie as well, did try to notate lyrics in their collecting. Unfortunately an artifact of Irish history has completely divorced many lyrics from their appropriate melodies. William Bunting was not a native speaker of Gaelic, so while he collected melodies, another man who was a native Gaelic speaker was tasked with collecting and notating the lyrics. Bunting was a passionate Irish partisan patriot. The man collecting the lyrics proved to be a collaborator and informer to the British Crown, helping to thwart the Uprising of 1798. Bunting and his backers absolutely cut themelves off from the man and his work, and the melodies were published sans lyrics. The lyrics to several hundred airs didn’t see the light of day for well over a hundred years.

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Re: The Airs in O’Neill’s

The man in question was Patrick Lynch. He kept a diary detailing his travels around Ireland collecting lyrics. In this diary, he noted the lyrics and particulars of the source. His diary is still extant, and is housed in Queens University Library in Belfast.

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Re: The Airs in O’Neill’s

Really good stuff. Thank you.

Re: The Airs in O’Neill’s

Super cool. This all is a potential rabbit hole, to be sure.

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About the tunes themselves, what I find interesting is the manner in which these airs were evidently performed.

We see the entirety of the presentation in The Coolin.

There are six distinct sections:

1) a fairly straightforward version of the tune

2) a version with dramatic pauses

3) "a little faster" with melismatic runs

4) "slow", perhaps back to the original tempo, an octave lower, a simpler version of the tune consisting of the main thematic notes, and strongly dotted

5) "lively" with runs like the 3rd section but an octave lower, and with detached/staccato portions

6) "slower" (back to the original tempo?) still an octave down from the first three sections, a simplified version of the tune like the 4th section but with dramatic pauses, and ending with a run down to the lowest note of the fiddle (G on the G string).

Fascinating to ponder on the similarity, in several ways, to the Highland piobaireached.

The pauses on the Highland pipes are simulated by putting High A’s bewteen lower notes.

It was standard practice in piobaireachd to return to the slow original air-like theme in the middle, and at the end, of the several faster variations just like is seen in The Coolin.

The other airs in O Neill’s are presented as a single version, and we can see that while some of these would have been the 1st section of a multi-part presentation like The Coolin, others such as Have You Been At Carrick? and The Dark Woman Of The Glen (with the florid melismatic runs) probably represent a later variation in a multi-variation presentation of the tune corresponding to #3 in The Coolin.

Re: The Airs in O’Neill’s

You should be careful making the assumption that the way this air is written down is the way it would have been performed. We do have recordings of early Irish (and Irish American) musicians playing airs, so it’s instructive to listen to those.

As well, Paul De Grae’s research on O’Neill’s sources often shed light on these things, and the Coolin is a good example:
"The first two parts of this setting seem to have been borrowed, with very little alteration, from either the Coulin in Joseph C. Walker’s “Historical Memoirs of the Irish Bards” (no. X of the “Irish Melodies”), or from Aird’s Coolun (AS 5:71), which is practically identical to Walker’s air. O’Neill was familiar with both collections.

After these two parts the time signature is repeated, unnecessarily, and the remainder consists of an exact duplicate of Bunting’s melody (EB 3:119, Coolin, or Lady of the Desert) and four variations, grace notes and all, omitting only the accompaniment and harmonies. "

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Re: The Airs in O’Neill’s

It’s worth looking up the information from the tune archive, which usually has citations or sources listed for more research:
https://tunearch.org/wiki/Annotation:Coolun_(The)
"the Irish collector Edward Bunting noted the tune from the harper "Hempson, at Magilligan in 1796," who learned his set with variations from the famous harper Cornelius Lyons (of the Barony of Clanmaurice) who composed them in 1700 (Lyons, a friend and companion of O’Carolan, had built his reputation as the arranger of variations in a more ‘modern’ style to old melodies such as this and "Eileen a Roon")"
The variations have a Baroque feel, to my ear, which seems to agree with the idea that Lyons composed them in a more "modern" style. They also seem similar to the types of theme and variations of other melodies printed in O’Farrell’s (as well as other sources).

My conclusion is that this is not at all a good representation of the way a musician of that time period would have played this or any other air. In general, I wouldn’t assume that melodies that have James or Francis O’Neill as the source, and those that have no source listed, have been transcribed from an aural source, although of course there are many that were. Checking O’Neill’s writing, or refering to Paul’s notes, is a necessary step before any assumptions are made.

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Re: The Airs in O’Neill’s

The things posted above IMHO strengthen the link to piobaireachd rather than weaken it.

Because we have a late 17th century harper playing airs with a series of variations.

I believe that piobaireachd is the survival, in the Highland piping tradition, of an earlier harping tradition.

The assertion that a theme-and-variation format is "modern" doesn’t stand up to scrutiny IMHO. It’s an ancient format that survives in many traditions the world over, and musics very much like piobaireachd survive in India and Africa for example. The fact that it was also popular in the art music of the European Baroque doesn’t mean that it was a unique creature of that time and place.

I very much believe that this old way of presenting airs existed in Ireland and echos of it are sometimes still heard.

Re: The Airs in O’Neill’s

Maybe, or maybe it’s a link to the baroque tradition. (The influence of baroque/classical/Italian music has been mentioned in discussing the playing and composition of Turlough O’Carolan, for instance).

"I believe that piobaireachd is the survival, in the Highland piping tradition, of an earlier harping tradition" - it’s possible that earlier harping tradition was influenced by other styles of music…

At any rate, the information contradicts the idea that the Coolin was performed "as written" in O’Neill’s or that it’s indicative of any particular contemporary style of slow air playing, since it’s a mix of at least two versions lifted from other collections, and not a transcription from a contemporary aural source.

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