A beautiful slow air, Port na bPucai (translated as “Music of the Fairies”), from Inishvickillane Island in the Blaskets, Co Kerry. Legend tells that three islanders were rowing back to Inishvickillane when they heard these strange sounds emanating from the hull of their currach. One islander, a fiddler, picked up his bow and played along to this eerie sounds, thought to have been made by fairies. Many years later the connection was made between Port na bPucai and the song of the humpback whale. Maybe it was indeed Port na bPucai – the sound of the fairies – or perhaps the islanders heard a singing whale heading south to breeding grounds around the Cape Verdes.
Definetly one of my favourites. I had never heard the history before, though, thanks!
Port Na bPucai on Uilleann Pipes
Ronan Browne plays a beautiful version of this air on The Drones & the Chanters volume 2.
Definitely a classic slow air and very suited to the pipes - heard Mikey Smyth (a young Dublin piper) play this some years ago and it was pure magic!
Heard this also
… on Martin Haye’s Live in Seatle disc, on Forgotten Day’s played by Davy Spillane……
On Riverdance. ;)
Tony MacMahon’s version…
is eerie and gorgeous. He does this shimmering thing with his squeezebox. Although I heard it first on the Noel Hill and Tony MacMahon live album, I saw Tony play the tune live in a guest appearance with Boys of the Lough concert in Edinburgh, 1995. His rendition was just magical and all from a single row Hohner button box.
Recently heard/saw a flute version played by Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh of Danu on their One Night Stand live DVD in the special features. Another great version but it was used as background music for her interview.
Seamus Heaney wrote his poem The Given Note after hearing Sean O Riada tell the story of this air. A strong case has been made that this is one of many tunes O’Riada composed and ‘let loose’ to see what happened. Obviously the tune was assimilated into the tradition as genuine although there’s no provenance before O Riada’s time.
Peadar O Riada on his website jokes that if they got a penny for each time ‘Carrickfergus’ was played they’d be rich by now, so that’s another one.
Port Na bPucai
I read in the comments thread about this tune that it may have been written by Sean O Riada? Does anyone know about this? Either way it is a lovely tune.
Re: Port Na bPucai
This is the tune which, so i was told, was meant to have risen from the sea and which was heard by some people in a currach boat going from the mainland to the Blasket Islands (I think?). They remembered the wailing of the tune and, if memory is correct, it is meant to have come from the fairies or something. Either way, it goes down in folklore as a fairy tune and, unless you’re calling sean o’riada a fairy, i don’t think he wrote it.
Re: Port Na bPucai
That’s correct copo, it predates O Riada. An account of the tune’s origin is given in "The Western Island" by Robin Flower, published in the 1940s, still in print I think as a paperback (Oxford University Press).
The following is lifted from a contribution to the IR-Trad list by Paul de Grae:
QUOTE Paul d G
What may be regarded as the definitive recording of "Port na bPúcaí" is that on "Beauty an Oileáin: Music and Song of the Blasket Islands" (Claddagh CC56CD, published 1992). It is played on fiddle by Seán Cheaist Ó Catháin, who was born on the Great Blasket, and learned most of his music there. He died in 1972. This recording was made by Muiris Mac Conghail in 1968, a date which effectively rules out the influence of Ó Riada. Seán Cheaist’s setting is not exactly as it’s usually played today, stranger and less shaped, but very beautiful—perhaps Ó Riada polished it up a bit to produce the "modern" setting. Seán Cheaist prefaces his playing of the tune by a few words on its origin. The excellent booklet accompanying the CD gives this translation from the Irish:
"There were people from the Great Blasket who were living in Inis Mhic Uibhleáin [a.k.a. Inishvickilaune, one of the smaller Blaskets, later bought by Charlie Haughey] many years ago, about eighty years ago, and they were herdsmen looking after stock for a landlord who was living in Dingle, and they went to stay on the island every year. Then one winter’s night they were in bed, asleep, and the old woman was the first to hear the sound and she thought it was the sound of birds or something like that, that the sound … the sound was coming nearer all the time until at last she realised that it was music and she woke the old man beside her and both of them listened to the sound for a long time until they were able to remember it and it has been on the Blasket ever since, ‘The Fairies’ Lament’. That has been on the Blasket ever since that time."
UNQUOTE Paul de G
Pórt Na BPúcaí
Wow, Ronan Browne. The regulators here are stunning.
Saw Ronan playing it live at a concert last weekend. Wow. What I wouldn’t do for regs.
The Given Note
Seamus Heaney’s poem The Given Note is under close ©op¥®igh™ supervision, given the few instances of it on the web… funny for a poem that, from the page or the CD, so easily rephrases itself into the air…
It is very beautiful and can be read at:
Note that the tune on "Beauty an Oileáin" is hardly recognisable as the tune most commonly played now.
Another sleeve note tells of local theories about the origin of the tune, including a cetacean one (whales would rub themselves to the fishermen’s boat) Possibly. Or the wind in the rigging? I’ve often heard the eerie sound of wind, or ‘speed breeze’ overtones on ferries myself…
You may have noted also that Heaney took the poetic liberty to speak of a HEro as opposed to a woman going out there and bringing it back for all to hear, as at some of the most local accounts seem to indicate…
“Pórt Na bPúcaí” ~ 18:15 - 21:32
The fabulous beauty & music of Blasket islands, Kerry - Na Blascaóid - Ceol na nOileán …
Uploaded on 31 Dec 2011 ~ tg4amhran
“Pórt Na bPúcaí”
O Riada probably improved the tune, particularly the second art which rises beautifully and mysteriously. It`s certainly not like most trad airs. I wonder if he did the same thing with Aisling Gheal. He certainly left his mark on Irish culture, from Mise Eire, through Ceoltoiri Chualann, various masses, and these mysterious airs like Carrickfergus, Port na bPucai, Aisling Gheal and Mna na hEireann.
Port na bPucai
Just listened to the new Sean O Riada album 2014. Marvellous music and it features mainly airs played on the piano and harpsichord from the 1960`s and concerts in early 1971. There is a stunning version of Port na bPucai on piano, which becomes jazzlike, with a steady, menacing bass. Most sources say that Blasket islander Sean Cheaist`s fiddle version of Port na bPucai is unlike the modern form, so, it is most probable that O Riada composed it…..or at least reworked it and improved it. Not bad to have a traditional tune begin life as a Sean O Riada composition.
A final word..sorry for the frequent posts. Just heard Sean Cheaist O Cathain Blasket island version of Port na bPucai, courtesy of Peter Laban, and it is the same core version as Sean O Riada`s version, minus O Riada`s jazz section. So, the original definitely came from the Blaskets, as O Riada said…which adds to the charm and mystique of the tune. Seamus Heaney`s poem is relevant.
Bless you Peter Laban! 😀
pookas or fairies?
definitely an otherworldly tune ! I’m hoping someone with a knowledge of Irish mythology
can help out here- if the English translation of the title was ‘music of the fairies’ shouldn’t the Irish title be
‘Port na Sidh’ and if its really Pookas we’re talking about, and not fairies at all, shouldn’t the translation be
’ Music of the Devils’ - Flann O ‘Brien in At Swim Two Birds defines a Pooka as ‘a class of Irish Devil’.
Afficionadoes of Celtic myth please chip in……………………
Re: Pórt Na BPúcaí
Puca - a ghost, a mischievous spirit, a sprite. Compare the Welsh pwca, or English Puck. Not so much a ‘fairy’ as a spirit that was associated with certain places and which was occasionally helpful, but more often not.
Pórt Na BPúcaí,
A complex version in terms of ornamentation from the CD, Behind The Mist (Various Artists), played by Davy Spillane on a Low F whistle. This is the first track, the final track being the same tune played on the pipes. Spillane also plays a version on the pipes on his own CD, Forgotten Days.
Re: Pórt Na BPúcaí
Here is the Sean Cheaist O Cathain 1968 recording
Pórt Na BPúcaí, X:3
transcribed from Martin Hayes’ live recording - his mesmeric interpretation of the Sean Cheaist O Cathain version
It might seem as though I can’t add up. The metre is irregular in the Hayes recording - bars seem (to me) to shift between 2 and 3 crotchets to the bar. I’m sure there would be other ways to transcribe this.
Re: Pórt Na BPúcaí
I had a go at this haunting air today, on Hammered Dulcimer, English Concertina & Fiddle.
As many translations of the title include the word Fairies, I’ve added photos of the Ancient Oakwood of Breen, in north Antrim, to the video. The wood has long been associated with fairies & this, plus its ancient rath & standing stone are thought to explain why these ancient Sessile Oak trees were spared attention from the axe.
I think pucai would be associated mainly with solitary spirit creatures often in animal form. It might sometimes be taken to include forms of water horse (Eich Uisce) or kelpie too.
Re: Pórt Na BPúcaí
First time I heard this was when I saw Barry Lyndon in the theatre (back in the 70’s). Sean Potts and Paddy Moloney played it in a set (I think it was just called "Tin Whistles" on the soundtrack). First tune I ever "picked out" by ear. Haunting.