Ireland's Music Collectors

Old manuscripts make very many references to the playing of music but in the absence of a system of musical notation we have nothing concrete to provide us with specimens of the music played in ancient Ireland. Most of the airs, songs and tunes which are preserved were probably composed in the last three hundred years, the majority belonging to the latter half of the 18th Century and the opening years of the19th Century.

The oldest Irish airs preserved in manuscript are the few contained in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. One of these is entitled “Callen O Costure Me”. Professor Murphy has shown that this is a phonetic representation of the title of a popular song Cailin O Chois tSuire Mé. The above is found in Shakespeare’s HenryV (iv4).This air is found among a collection of songs bound together with William Ballet’s lute book which belongs to the last quarter of the 16th Century. This is the earliest record of an Irish song written in musical notation. The air is a variant of the Croppy Boy.

In the year 1726 the first collection of Irish music appeared entitled A Collection of the Most Celebrated Irish Tunes and containing forty nine airs. This collection was published by John and William Neale, father and son, Christ Church Yard, Dublin. The only copy of this collection available now is preserved among a collection of Edward Bunting manuscripts at Queen’s University, Belfast.

EDWARD BUNTING 1773 - 1843
Bunting was the first of the Great Collectors of Irish music and song who took down and annoted the music from musicians who played it traditionally. This collection was published in 1796 and was entitled General Collection of the Ancient Irish Music. Bunting was born in Armagh in 1773. He was a musical prodigy and was appointed substitute organist at the age of eleven in Belfast. He had a classical background in music but got his first experience and contact with Irish Music when he was appointed at the age of nineteen to take down the various airs played by the Harpers at the Belfast Harp Festival in 1792. This festival was organised by a group of patriotic citizens with the object of noting the music, poetry and oral traditions of Ireland from the old Harpers. This Festival holds an extremely important part in Irish Musical history for it marked the first and the last time that the music of the Harpers was written down in any quality.

Although attractive fees were offered only ten Irish players came plus one Welshman. They ranged in age from 15 yrs to 97 yrs and six of the Irish Harpers were blind. In addition to his work with the Harper’s Bunting collected music also from folk musicians in Co. Mayo and the other western counties. He published his extensive collection in three volumes. Thomas Moore used many of Bunting’s airs and adopted the music to his own lyrics.There is evidence to suggest that Bunting altered the keys in which many of the Harpers played their tunes, in contravention to the instructions he received. He was appointed as musical scribe to the Belfast Harp Festival.

HENRY HUDSON 1798 - 1887
He was a medical doctor but his real love was Irish music. From 1841 - 1843 he was editor of The Citizen, a Dublin monthly magazine of a high standard of culture. Month by month he published no less than one hundred and six tunes from his manuscripts. He died in Co. Cork in 1889 and left many valuable manuscripts of music behind him.The total number of tunes came to eight hundred and seventy.

GEORGE PETRIE 1789 - 1866
He was born in Dublin of Scottish ancestry. He was a painter and archaeologist and also worked on the Ordinance Survey. His great love in life was Irish music and from an early age he collected and wrote down tunes he heard from the country people. He assisted Bunting in the publication of his third volume, which appeared in 1840. In 185I Petrie was instrumental in founding the Society for the Preservation and Publication of the Melodies of Ireland, which issued his Ancient Music of Ireland in 1855. It contains one hundred and forty seven airs with copious notes both historical and analytical.

His collection contains spinning tunes, lullabies, plough tunes, song airs of various types, dance tunes and compositions of the Harpers. Petrie died in 1866 and three important volumes of his work appeared after his death. Finally, Petrie’s daughter entrusted to Sir Charles Stanford three bound manuscripts of her father’s work. From these Stanford produced his complete Petrie Collection of one thousand five hundred and eighty two tunes in 1905.

WILLIAM FORDE C. 1759 - 1850
William Forde made his headquarters in Cork. He gave lectures on classical composers and in Irish music too. He collected many tunes from musicians around Munster He also toured Sligo, Leitrim, Galway, Roscommon and Mayo bringing back very many beautiful melodies. He noted down hundreds of unpublished airs from a fiddler in Ballinamore. He appealed for subscribers so that he could publish his General Collection of Music of lreland, Ancient and Modern. He failed to get 250 subscribers to pay one guinea each so the collection was never published in his lifetime.

JOHN EDWARD PIGOT 1822 - 1871
John Edward Pigot was born in Kilworth, Co. Cork in 1822. He joined the Young Ireland Movement in 1841 and became very friendly with its leader, Thomas Davis. The Nation newspaper was the organ of the young Irelanders and Davis appealed to people to write patriotic songs for it. Davis and Pigot published adverts in The Nation asking those who had Irish tunes to send them in.This seems to be the start of the Pigot collection. In 1844 Pigot went to study for the Bar. While in London he made friends with Patrick McDowel, a celebrated sculptor and an ardent collector of traditional airs. McDowel gave Pigot very many tunes and he collected many more from Irishmen in London. He went to Bombay in 1865 and practiced at the Indian Bar He returned home due to ill health and died in 1871. He collected more than two thousand airs.

JAMES GOODMAN 1828 - 1896
James Goodman differs from all collectors we have mentioned in that he was a native Irish speaker. He was born and reared in Ventry on the Dingle Peninsula. His father was the rector of Dingle. James was interested in music and the many stories, legends and poetry that existed in abundance locally and before he left home he learned to play the flute.

In due course, he graduated from Trinity College and followed in his father’s footsteps and was appointed to a curacy near Skibbereen. In 1860 he was transferred to Ardgroom near Castletownbere which was then Irish-speaking. During his six years residence in this place he compiled his great collection of traditional airs. In all his collection came to almost two thousand Irish traditional melodies with their proper titles in Irish or English.

PATRICK WESTON JOYCE 1827 - 1914
Patrick Weston Joyce was born in Glenosheen in the year 1827. He was a native Irish speaker as Irish was the spoken language in Glenosheen and The Ballyhoura Hills at that time. He received his early education in the local hedgeschools and became a teacher. He was later appointed principal of Marlborough St. Training College for teachers in Dublin. He was one of the outstanding educationalists of his day. He was the author of numerous works on Irish History folklore and mythology including a social history of ancient Ireland. He was one of the greatest collectors of traditional music and song, publishing such valuable collections as ancient Irish music and Old Irish Folk music and songs.The latter collection contains 842 traditional Irish tunes and songs.This collection also contains music collected by Forde and Pigot which were not previously published.

Captain "Chief" Francis O'Neill
CAPTAIN FRANCIS O’NEILL I848 - 1936
O’Neill is regarded as one of the foremost collectors of traditional music and song. He was a flute player himself and so had a deep understanding of the music. He was Chief of Police in Chicago and recruited traditional Irish musicians into the police force. He collected tunes from all available sources and published the following collections:
  • 1903 - O’Neill’s Music of Ireland containing 1,850 assorted pieces of music, airs, jigs, reels, hompipes, long dance marches etc
  • 1907 - 1,001 tunes
  • 1915 - 400 tunes arranged for piano and violin
  • 1922 - Waifs and Strays of Gaelic Melodies 365 pieces
  • He also published books giving biographies of the musicians from whom he collected music. In 1913 he published one such book entitled Irish Minstrels and Musicians. In 1910 he published a book called Irish Folk Music - a fascinating hobby. His collections are regarded as a very important reference for traditional Irish musicians.


BRENDAN BREATHNACH 1912 - 1985
Brendan Breathnach was a civil servant who worked in the Dept. Of Agriculture. He was always interested in collecting traditional Irish music and regularly noted tunes he heard musicians play. He was seconded from the Dept. of Agriculture to the Dept. of Education where he was entrusted with the mammoth task of travelling the country to meet musicians and write down their versions of jigs, reels, hompipes etc.

He collected over 7,000 traditional Irish tunes and these are held by An Gum. To date five of his collections are published as follows:

  • Published 1963 - 213 (no. of tunes)
  • Published 1976 - 314 (no. of tunes)
  • Published 1985 - 230 (no. of tunes)
  • Published 1998 - 225 (no. of tunes)
  • Published 1999 - 224 (no. of tunes)

The last two collections were published after his death. His collections are highly regarded among musicians and are very important as a source of interesting versions of tunes.

PROFESSOR ALOYS FLEISCHMAN 1910 - 1992
Fleischman was Professor of Music at University College Cork. He undertook the work of writing a complete catalog of traditional Irish tunes from 1600 - 1855.   This onerous and important work took forty years to complete. The work was competed after his death and two major collections totaling seven thousand tunes were published in 9999. The work was completed by Professor Michael O’Suilleabhain, University of Limerick.

THE ROCHE COLLECTION 1866 - 1961
Frank Roche was born in Elton, Knocklong, Co. Limerick He inherited his love of music and dance from his father John who was a dancing master. Frank held the Munster Belt for Irish Dancing at one stage. He studied violin and piano in Cork and set up a dancing and music academy in Limerick City along with his father and brothers. He later moved back to Elton permanently where he and his brother Jim taught music and dancing. He began the task of putting together his collection of Irish music in 1891. He published his first edition of two volumes in 1912 and a new revised edition of three volumes in 1927. His last music publication was in 1931 entitled Airs and Fantasies. The Roche Collection, which was put of print for many years, was re-issued and published by Ossian Publications in I 982. There are 566 Irish airs, marches and dance tunes in the collection.While many of the tunes are well known there are many unusual versions of tunes

Thanks to Dónal O'Connor for much of this information

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