Corpus of Electronic Texts Edition
Irish Music and Poetry (Author: Thomas Osborne Davis)


No enemy speaks slightingly of Irish Music, and no friend need fear to boast of it. It is without a rival.

Its antique war-tunes, such as those of O'Byrne, O'Donnell, Alestrom, and Brian Boru, stream and crash upon the ear like the warriors of a hundred glens meeting; and you are borne with them to battle, and they and you charge and struggle amid cries and battle-axes and stinging arrows. Did ever a wail make man's marrow quiver, and fill his nostrils with the breath of the grave, like the ululu of the north or the wirrastrue of Munster? Stately are their slow, and recklessly splendid their quick marches, their Boyne Water, and Síos agus síos liom, their Michael Hoy, and Gallant Tipperary. The Irish jigs and planxties are not only the best dancing tunes, but the finest quick marches in the world. Some of them would cure a paralytic, and make the marble-legged prince in the Arabian Nights charge like a Fag-an-Bealach boy. The hunter joins in every leap and yell of the Fox Chase; the historian hears the moan of the penal days in Drimindhu, and sees the embarkation of the Wild Geese in Limerick's Lamentation; has these reversed and ask the lover if his breath do not come and go with Savourneen Deelish and Lough Sheelin.

Varied and noble as our music is, the English-speaking people in Ireland have been gradually losing their knowledge of it, and a number of foreign tunes—paltry scented things from Italy, lively trifles from Scotland, and German opera


cries—are heard in our concerts, and, what is worse, from our Temperance bands. Yet we never doubted that The Sight Entrancing, or The Memory of the Dead, would satisfy even the most spoiled of our fashionables better than anything Balfe or Rossini ever wrote; and, as it is, Tow-row-row is better than poteen to the teetotalers, wearied with overtures and insulted by British Grenadiers and Rule Britannia.

A reprint of Moore's Melodies on lower keys, and at much lower prices, would probably restore the sentimental music of Ireland to its natural supremacy. There are in Bunting1 but two good sets of words— The Bonny Cuckoo, and poor Campbell's Exile of Erin2. These and a few of Lover's and Mahony's songs can alone compete with Moore. But, save one or two by Lysaght and Drennan, almost all the Irish political songs are too desponding or weak to content a people marching to independence as proudly as if they had never been slaves.

The popularity and immense circulation of the Spirit of the Nation proved that it represented the hopes and passions of the Irish people. This looks like vanity; but as a corporation so numerous as the contributors to that volume cannot blush, we shall say our say. For instance, who did not admire The Memory of the Dead? The very Stamp officers were galvanised by it, and the Attorney-General was repeatedly urged to sing it for the jury. He refused—he had no music to sing it to. We pitied and forgave him; but we vowed to leave him no such excuse next time. If these songs were half so good as people called them, they deserved to flow from a million throats to as noble music as ever O'Neill or O'Connor heard.


Some of them were written to, and some freely combined with, old and suitable airs. These we resolved to have printed with the music, certain that, thus, the music would be given back to a people who had been ungratefully neglecting it, and the words carried into circles where they were still unknown.

Others of these poems, indeed the best of them, had no ante-types in our ancient music. New music was, therefore, to be sought for them. Not on their account only was it to be sought. We hoped they would be the means of calling out and making known a contemporary music fresh with the spirit of the time, and rooted in the country.

Since Carolan's death there had been no addition to the store. Not that we were without composers, but those we have do not compose Irish-like music, nor for Ireland. Their rewards are from a foreign public—their fame, we fear, will suffer from alienage. Balfe is very sweet, and Rooke very emphatic, but not one passion or association in Ireland's heart would answer to their songs.

Fortunately there was one among us (perchance his example may light us to others) who can smite upon our harp like a master, and make it sigh with Irish memories, and speak sternly with Ireland's resolve. To him, to his patriotism, to his genius, and, we may selfishly add, to his friendship, we owe our ability now to give to Ireland music fit for The Memory of the Dead and The Hymn of Freedom, and whatever else was marked out by popularity for such care as his.

In former editions of the Spirit we had thrown in carelessly several inferior verses and some positive trash, and neither paper nor printing was any great honour to the Dublin press. Every


improvement in the power of the most enterprising publisher in Ireland has been made, and every fault, within our reach or his, cured—and whether as the first publication of original airs, as a selection of ancient music, or as a specimen of what the Dublin press can do, in printing, paper, or cheapness, we urge the public to support this work [...]—and, in a pecuniary way, it is his altogether.

We had hoped to have added a recommendation to the first number of this work, besides whatever attraction may lie in its music, its ballads, or its mechanical beauty.

An artist3, whom we shall not describe or he would be known, sketched a cover and title for it. The idea, composition, and drawing of that design, were such as Flaxman might have been proud of. It is a monument to bardic power, to patriotism, to our music and our history. There is at least as much poetry in it as in the best verses in the work it illustrates. If it do nothing else, it will show our Irish artists that refinement and strength, passion and dignity, are as practicable in Irish as in German painting; and the lesson was needed sorely. But if it lead him who drew it to see that our history and hopes present fit forms to embody the highest feelings of beauty, wisdom, truth, and glory in, irrespective of party politics, then, indeed, we shall have served our country when we induced our gifted friend to condescend to sketching a title-page. We need not describe that design now, as it will appear on the cover of the second number, and on the title-page of the finished volume.