Category Archives: Irish music

Moore’s Impact on Irish Instrumental Music (by guest contributor Dr Conor Caldwell)

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Perhaps the most noteworthy example of Thomas Moore’s impact upon the Irish instrumental music repertoire is seen through the song ‘Lesbia Hath a Beaming Eye’, which is set to the single jig tune ‘Nora Chríonna’ (single jigs are marked by 12/8 time signature and the predominance of crotchet-quaver movement). This simple tune is one of the most collected in the entire Irish repertoire. Thompson collected a three-part version as early as 1755 under the name ‘Ranger’s Frolick’, from which we can see the development of the A part familiar to us today.

A later version appears as ‘Norickystie’ in James Aird’s A Selection of Scotch, English, Irish and Foreign Airs (1790-97). It was almost certainly Moore’s song to the air that standardised the melody in 1810, although Capt. O’Farrell’s four-part version (with the C and D parts set as repeats of the A and B parts an higher octave) must also have been prominent. Later versions were also published by celebrated Irish collectors Francis O’Neill and Breandán Breathnach. The following transcription of the tune comes from the playing of the Donegal fiddler John Doherty (1900-1980) and is particularly noteworthy for his use of continuous tonic pedal in imitation of the highland pipes, achieved through the use of open tuning on the fiddle.

A key similarity between Moore’s setting and the contemporary dance tune is the retention of the flattened seventh in bars 11 and 8, respectively, of the Moore and Doherty transcriptions below. This feature is reminiscent of the Gaelic scale system which Moore’s rival, Edward Bunting overwrote in his publications.

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Of course the Irish instrumental tradition is defined by more than just renditions of dance tunes. Indeed, instrumental airs form one of the core strands of the modern tradition and a fine example of this is seen in the Dublin fiddler Tommy Potts’s (1912-1988) iconic setting of ‘Believe me if all those Endearing Young Charms’.

These are just two examples of Moore’s wider influence on the musical discourse of subsequent generations in Ireland and beyond. The teaching of Moore’s songs in Irish national schools after the formation of the Irish Free State in 1922 undoubtedly brought them into the consciousness of young musicians. His influence on the oral tradition should be acknowledged, not just in his own time, but in the decades which have followed.

Irish Song Project at Queen’s (by guest contributor Conor Caldwell)

The Irish Song Project at Queen’s University ( sought to redefine the parameters through we which we view the history of singing in Ireland. While the majority of studies of Irish song, such as Hugh Shields’ monumental Narrative Singing in Ireland, are rooted in an examination of texts, the Irish Song Project concentrated on melodic development.
A second innovation in the project was the attempt to redefine what is meant by the term ‘Irish song’. This term is loaded with connotations of a politico-religious nature, as well as being further complicated by aspects of eighteenth and nineteenth century social class and linguistic divisions in Irish society. In addressing the concept of Irish song, we mapped out a holistic approach which included many forms of music previously excluded from discussion in this field, including medieval plainchant, eighteenth century parlour songs and, of course, the works of Thomas Moore.
The historically contested nature of Moore’s work has led to his exclusion from considerations of ‘traditional’ singing in Ireland, with the poet occupying his own space in scholarly discussion. The overtly literate nature of his work, wedded with a performance aesthetic so widely popularised by the mid-twentieth century through singers such as John McCormack, caused further distantiation between Moore and the traditional music world.
However, Moore’s rehabilitation in recent years, firstly from within the art music community and more recently within traditional music circles has been aided by the breaking apart of the false oral/literate dichotomy that has existed in scholarship of Irish music. In particular, Julie Henigan’s elucidating Literacy and Orality in Eighteenth-Century Irish Song (2013), deconstructs this conceptual position and lays the foundations for a reconsideration of Moore as not only relevant within the context of the history of Irish song, but also, as has been considered by the Irish Song Project, an influence upon the emergence of a dance music canon throughout the nineteenth century.
In my next post, I will explore this idea further by looking at some musical examples from across Moore’s Irish Melodies which are demonstrative of Moore’s impact on this dance music canon.


The Minstrel Boy from Irish Melodies Number 5
The Minstrel Boy from Irish Melodies Number 5

Thomas Moore’s Irish Melodies are his best-known works. These 124 Irish tunes, arranged for voice and piano with newly-minted lyrics by Moore, were published in ten numbers between 1808 and 1834. The Gibson-Massie Moore collection evidences their popularity as domestic entertainment in the Romantic era with the multiple distinct imprints of each number (thirty for Number one alone) and in the multi-national circulation of Moore’s lyrics (a topic for a future blog post). The series gained a renewed popularity in the Victorian period through the 1846 edition illustrated by Irish artist Daniel Maclise.

Indeed, the most iconic of Moore’s Melodies have become thoroughly ingrained in our modern culture. Foremost amongst these is The Minstrel Boy from Number five. This is often associated specifically with the cause of Irish political freedom–for example as featured in ‘Reflecting the Rising’, the RTÉ centenary concert to mark the 1916 Easter Rising–but which in brass band arrangement has also become a regular feature during the annual Remembrance Sunday service held at The Cenotaph in Whitehall, London in November to honour all who have suffered or died in war. The Minstrel Boy, with its celebration of freedom and homage to brave personal sacrifice, has also been adopted by film-makers to mark or commemorate actions as diverse as those of the ‘1st United States Voluntary Calvary’ in the Spanish-American War of 1898 (Rough Riders, 1997), the American Invasion of Normandy in World War II (Saving Private Ryan, 1998), and a failed US Army mission in Somalia during the early 1990s (Black Hawk Down, 2001). It is Moore’s poignant lyrics that have given the tune, ‘The Moreen’, this particular resonance:

“The Minstrel-Boy to the war is gone,

In the ranks of death you’ll find him;

His father’s sword he had girded on,

And his wild harp slung behind him.

‘Land of song!’ said the warrior-bard,

‘Tho’ all the world betrays thee,

One sword, at least, thy rights shall guard,

One faithful harp shall praise thee!’

The Minstrel fell! – but the foeman’s chain

Could not bring his proud soul under;

The harp he lov’d ne’er spoke again,

For he tore its chords asunder;

And said, ‘No chains shall sully thee,

‘Thou soul of love and bravery!

‘Thy songs were made for the pure and free

‘They shall never sound in slavery.’”

Are you aware of any arrangements or recordings of Moore’s The Minstrel Boy? If so, we would be delighted to learn of these through the comments page of this blog.

Images Courtesy of Special Collections, The McClay Library, Queen’s University Belfast


20 March 2016

Where are the Visions from National Airs Number 5
Where are the Visions from National Airs Number 5

In our previous blog we mentioned that a total of 72 songs were published across the 6 Numbers of the National Airs.  The origin of all but two of the airs used is identified i.e. Slumber, Oh! Slumber and Where are the visions, both from Number 5.  Our previous blog was about Slumber, Oh! Slumber, and today’s blog is about Where are the visionsWhere are the visions is set in the key of F major and in 3/8 time.  Following a 16 bar piano introduction the singer begins in bar 17.  Each of the four verses is divided by a piano interlude.  The piano accompaniments for all songs in Number 5 were composed by Henry R. Bishop.  Many of the National Airs include an option for more than one voice and are listed in the index in Power’s early editions as ‘Harmonised Airs’.  As can be seen in the photograph Where are the visions may be performed by one singer or as a duet; the duet is set in thirds.  The words of the song are transcribed below:

“Where are the visions that round me once hover’d,

Forms that had grace in their shadows alone,

Looks, fresh as light from a star just discover’d,

And voices that music might take for her own?”

Time, while I spoke, with his wings resting o’er me,

Heard me say “where are those visions, oh, where?”

And, pointing his wand to the sunset before me,

Said, with a voice like the hollow wind, “There!”

Fondly I look’d, when the wizard had spoken,

On to the dimshining [sic] ruins of Day,

And there, in that light, like a talisman broken,

Saw the bright fragments of Hope melt away.

“Oh! Lend me thy wings, Time” I hastily utter’d,

Impatient to catch the last glimmer that shone;

But scarcely again had the dark wizard flutter’d

His wing o’er my head, ere the light all was gone.

If you know the origin of the air for Where are the vision please let us know in the comments.

Image Courtesy of Special Collections, The McClay Library, Queen’s University Belfast


10 March 2016

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Slumber, Oh! Slumber
Moore’s National Airs Number 5

While examining copies of Moore’s National Airs extant in Special Collections at the McClay Library, QUB, I was amazed at the number of different countries and cultures which inspired the poet-songwriter.  The song series includes airs from Spain, India, Hungary, Russia, Denmark and Malta.  There are 12 songs in each of the 6 Numbers.  That makes a total of 72 songs in the National Airs series.  Slumber, Oh! Slumber from Number 5 is one of only two songs in the whole series where the origin of the air is not identified.  The song is in the key of B flat major, set in 2/4 time and has two verses.  The singer begins in bar 11 after a 10 bar piano introduction.  The two verses are divided by a 6 bar piano interlude.  I’ve transcribed the words below:

“Slumber, oh! Slumber if, sleeping thou mak’st

My heart beat so wildly, I’m lost, when thou wak’st!

Thus sung I to a maiden, Who slept one summer’s day,

And like a flow’r o’er laden With noontide sunshine, lay.

Breathe not, oh, breathe not, ye winds, o’er her cheeks,

If mute thus she charm me, I’m lost when she speaks.

Thus sing I, while awaking, She murmurs words, that seems,

As if her lips were taking Farewell of some sweet dream.”

Perhaps some of our readers might know the origin of the air.

Let us know in the comments.

Image Courtesy of Special Collections, The McClay Library, Queen’s University Belfast