Corpus of Electronic Texts Edition
A Philosophical Survey of the South of Ireland [...] (Author: Thomas Campbell)

Letter 44


The antiquarians of this country contend, that Ireland is pointed out by Diodorus Siculus under the name of BELEPION, i. e. the Erin of the God Beal. He described it as being about the bigness of Sicily, and being over-against the Celtae, as fruitful and pleasant, abounding with large groves, and round temples, wherein the Priests, or Druids, sung to their harps the praises of Apollo. He reports, that the God used to converse with the natives, and that in nineteen years they could bring the moon so near as to discover her mountains and vallies. From whence they would infer it to have been intimated, that the Irish were acquainted with the cycles of both sun and moon, and that they had made some progress in astronomy by the help of glasses. Be this, however, as it may, there is a concurrence of so many circumstances, in this passage, applicable to Ireland, that it amounts to an exact description.


The name Erin, the situation, the size of the island, the Druids with their harps, the harp sacred to Apollo, and at this very day the ensign armorial of the kingdom.

But it is not necessary to recur to dubious authorities for proof that the Irish were, in a very early period, addicted to music. The fact is supported by the most unexceptionable evidence; a sketch of which I cannot refrain from giving you, though I must confess that I never so much as learned the gamut. I shall not therefore pretend to write as a musician, but as an antiquarian — and you will allow me to be, like some other antiquarians, very fond of what I do not understand.

We have already seen that the Druids, Bards, Musicians, &c. of Ireland had portions of land assigned them for their maintenance. It may be well supposed that the musicians had this legal ettablishment, not only as they were officers of the court, but as they were ministers in the public worship of the Gods. The high honours and emoluments, attendant on this art, must naturally have produced eminence in


many of its numerous professors. Accordingly, Cambrensis, who scarcely allows the Irish any other good quality, confesses their transcendancy in music. He strains his style to such a pitch, in order to express this peculiar excellence, that it is almost impossible to translate him. ‘In musicis solum &c.’ ‘I can only praise their excellence in instrumental music, in which they are skilled incomparably above any other nation I have seen. — Their instruments are the harp, the pipe, and the timbrel.’ Polydore Virgil holds the same language, ‘Hiberni sunt musicae peritissimi.’ And the Welch chronicles affirm, that ‘Griffith Ap-Conon, King of North Wales, being of Irish lineage by his mother, and also born in Ireland, carried with him from thence divers cunning musicians into Wales, who revised in a manner, all the instrumental music used there. Which appears as well by the books written in the same, as also by the names of the tunes and measures used among them to this day.’

The Cognoscenti, I think, allow that Ireland is a school of music. Ellen-a-Roon


has always been esteemed as one of the finest melodies of any country; Langolee and Kindu-Deelas are of the same cast. Pasquali used to play the first of these with variations; which, they say, only weakened its original force. Though nothing can be more lively than their common jig tunes, their finest airs are of a plaintive turn, and supposed to have been those set to the elegies for renowned warriors, or to the sighs of complaining lovers. Of the latter sort are those I have named, as is evident from the titles61; and in the same line is that charming melody, Molly-a-Store; for which Mr. Ogle, knight of the Shire for the county of Wexford, has written some beautiful stanzas.

They talk of a wonderful master they had of late, called Carolan, who, like Homer, was blind, and like him, went about singing and playing his rhapsodies. His poetry was in Irish, and not much praised, but his music is celebrated. From an early disappointment in love he is said to have attuned his harp to the elegiac


strain. I have heard one of these compositions played, and to me the sounds were as expressive of such a situation of mind, as the words of a love-sick elegy. The history of one of his famous compositions, called 62 Tiarna-Mayo, — which was somewhat in the dirge style, — is said to be this: The musician had offended Lord Mayo by some witty sarcasms, of which he is reported to have been very liberal, and was forbid his house. After some time he prevailed to be heard, and he sang this palinode in concert with his harp at dinner; with which, Orpheus-like, he so charmed the powers of resentment, that he was presently restored to his Lordship's favour. I have heard divers others of his tunes called Planxties, which are in the convivial strain, and evidently calculated to inspire good humour, and heighten the jollity of the festive hour. They go by the names of those gentlemen, for whose entertainments they were composed, as Planxty-Connor, Planxty-Johnston, Planxty-Jones, &c. The last of these has been


dignified by better words than those of the Bard, by Mr. Dawson, late Baron of the Exchequer, and is now called Bumper Squire Jones.

They tell me, that in his latter days he never composed without the inspiration of whiskey, of which at that critical hour, he always took care to have a bottle beside him.

Ennius ipse pater, nunquam nisi potus, ad arma
Profiluit dicenda —’’

His ear was so exquisite, and his memory so tenacious, that he has been known to play off, at first hearing, some of the most difficult pieces of Italian music, to the astonishment of Geminiani.

The name of Mr. Poeckridge ought not to be lost to the lovers of harmony, as he has enriched the art by the invention of the musical glasses now improved into the harmonica; an instrument, if not of the greatest force, yet certainly of the sweetest tones in the compass of melody. He was born to a good estate in the county of Monaghan, but more attached to music


than oeconomy, he, like many other men of genius, outlived the possession of it, and was obliged, in his old age, to make out a precarious subsistence by the exercise of his art: he lost his life but a few years since, in an accidental fire in Cornhill.

From what has been now observed relative to the distinguished excellence of the Irish musicians, particularly in ancient times, compared with what has been proved, in former letters, that Ireland was the old Scotia, it will not, I flatter myself, be difficult to trace the origin of what is now called, and justly enough, the Scots music. We have seen that there is proof positive, from their own chronicles, that the Welch received their instrumental music from Ireland, let us now see whether there be not proof presumptive, the strongest which the nature of the thing is capable of, that the British Scots borrowed their music also from the same quarter.

It is in vain to say, as is generally said, that David Rizzio was author of the Scots music. There is an internal evidence against such a supposition; the wild and pastoral singularity of the Scots melodies is


incompatible with the grave and learned compositions of Italy. And there is an external evidence still more strong: Rizzio was Secretary, not Musician, to the Queen of Scotland. His father had been a musician by profession, but we do not find that he was one himself. That he might, however, have played, improved, and collected the Scots airs, is very probable; but that a young dissipated Italian,— busied in the intrigues of a court, and attendance on a Queen so fair, and so condescending as Mary, — could in a few years have disseminated such multifarious compoistions through a nation, which despised his manners, and hated his person, is utterly incredible.

Nor can this invention be ascribed to the Abbey of Melross. For where is the likelihood that a set of cloistered monks should either invent or propagate a national music? The most that could be expected from such a lazy tribe would have been a jubilate on the nativity of their founder, or some ascetick of their order. For what have such places ever produced, but meagre annals of the church, superstitious lives of


ficticious saints, or some wretched Latin rhimes? Monasteries have, to be sure, been the conservators of literature, but rarely the inventors of any thing laudable.

Nor is it to be believed, what is still more credible, that James the First of Scotland was the author of the Scots tunes, though Buchanan does say, ‘that he excelled in music more than became a King,’ and though Tassoni relates that he composed sacred hymns, in which he was imitated by a prince of Venosa. As well might we suppose, that his descendant, James the Sixth, was author of the literature of England, because he was a very learned clerk, and wrote the Basilikon Doron.

The honour then of inventing the Scots music must be given to this country, the antient Scotia, so renowned for music in old times; from whence, as we have incontrovertibly proved, the present Scotia derived her name, her extraction, her language, her poetry, &c. I have said incontrovertibly; but what will not be controverted, as well as advanced? Mr. Guthrie, the geographer, among other excellencies of his native country, would persuade us that it


was of old famous for cookery, for this reason, that minced collops is a Scotch dish. The learned writer, however, must have forgot that Macbeth had said, when he found that, though Banquo was murdered, Fleance was still alive, and fled,

We have scotched the snake, not killed him.

The scotch is, to this day, in universal use in Ireland for that operation of mincing or bruising their flax, whereby they separate the pith from the stalk; and for which, I am told, they have scatching mills. We may, therefore, venture to restore that savoury dish scotch'd collops to Old England, and the Scots tunes, as well as the songs of Ossian, to Old Ireland.

But farewell! I hope still to eat my Christmas pye with you, &c.