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  • Print, Manuscript, and Oral Literary Cultures:The Case of Eighteenth-Century Irish Song
  • Moyra Haslett (bio)

When the "Meeting of the Harpers" was organized in Belfast in the summer of 1792, its principal aim was to record and thus preserve Irish tunes that might otherwise disappear with the deaths of the harpers themselves. While the impetus was shaped by antiquarian interests of the late century, the context of the 1790s provided obvious political motives too. (The meeting was held in the Belfast Exchange Rooms from 11–13 July so as to coincide with commemorative celebrations of the fall of the Bastille.) The Irish language tutor who was to transcribe the lyrics of the songs did not attend (we don't know why), but the musician who transcribed the tunes, Edward Bunting, would go on to publish three volumes of what he called the "ancient music of Ireland" (1796, 1809, 1840), the product of many decades of research transcribing and notating Irish melodies from performances in rural Ireland and the first sustained attempt to document Irish-language song. Beyond the three published volumes, then, are the more extensive manuscripts, held by Special Collections in the library of Queen's University Belfast, and beyond those manuscripts the vanished performances themselves, which the print and manuscript records shadow.

This essay reflects on issues arising directly from the Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded "Irish Song Project" conducted at Queen's [End Page 349] University (2012–2015), which, in seeking to investigate the historical development of the different repertoires of Irish song, drew upon the evidence offered by print and manuscript cultures and supplemented these with an attempt to catch something of oral culture through performance practice as late as the emergence of audio technology in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.1 As full a survey as possible of song before 1850, with a particular focus on song-tunes, was made in order to see if there were continuities of tradition and cultural practice between songs and song traditions. Although the Bunting collection at Queen's University provided the core resource, a systematic survey of songs in manuscript and print held in many libraries was attempted. The resulting online database ( offers an indicative sample of just over two hundred songs.

Selecting songs for inclusion brought difficult issues of weighting and balance into question. How could we ensure that the vibrant culture of Irish-language song in particular would be properly represented? Stretching the parameters of the survey to 1850 allowed the project to draw upon early-nineteenth-century interest in Irish song, represented most significantly in the collections by Bunting, James Hardiman, George Petrie, William Forde, Henry Hudson, John Edward Pigot, and James Goodman. Quite a few songs got published by wending their ways into Anglophone culture, particularly in the form of ballad operas or in collections of song-tunes in the eighteenth century. The tune specification for "Eibhlin Aruin" in Charles Coffey's ballad opera The Beggar's Wedding (Dublin, 1729) indicates its existence thirty years before its first appearance in a Gaelic manuscript. The popular song "Come haste to the wedding" was included in the Dublin-performed pantomime A Trip to the Dargle or the Irish Wedding (1762).2 And the tune "Cremona" is one of many Irish airs included in the London-printed Aria di Camera (c. 1730). Since musical notation is rare in early manuscripts, certainly until Bunting's project of transcribing traditional airs, these sources are particularly significant. Engraved sheets of musical notation were often too costly for Dublin printers: while prestige publications of psalms and several notable prints of Irish tunes did include printed music, the vast majority of song-texts, including ballad opera texts, appeared without their accompanying melodies. And no Dublin printer in the early eighteenth century owned a Gaelic font, so Irish-language texts had to be anglicized unless they were published abroad.

Increased attention to bilingual crossings in eighteenth-century Ireland is evident in a number of recent works.3 But while previous studies of music in eighteenth-century Ireland have noted a number of songs and airs that traverse the traditionally perceived divisions of religion and...