Although manuscripts of Irish origin containing individual songs date back to the 12th century, it is not until the 18th century that the phenomenon of compiling collections of Irish songs appears to have begun. A cultural division between musical practitioners and the middle-class market meant that texts and tunes were usually collected and circulated separately. English-language lyrics dominated the print market, as with Charlotte Brooke’s 1789 translation of Irish song texts as Reliques of Irish poetry. Edward Bunting’s 1796 publication, A General collection of the ancient Irish music, contained some song tunes collected from harpers at the 1792 Belfast Harp Festival, but no lyrics. While the comic operas of Charles Coffey (d. 1745) and John O’Keeffe included Irish tunes with new lyrics (including the latter’s The Poor Soldier of 1783), it was not until 1808 with the publication of the First number of Thomas Moore’s Irish Melodies that an entire collection of Irish tunes appeared together with newly-created (English) lyrics. Moore used instrumental tunes as inspiration for his lyrics; he also adapted his musical sources (notably in form and rhythm) to better suit their new purpose as songs. Bunting’s 1809 collection included some songs with English lyrics; Holden’s Collection of the most esteem’d old Irish melodies with new words arranged as songs duets or glees followed about a year later. Centres of publication for Irish song included Dublin and London; in 1825 the Edinburgh publisher Robert Purdie issued R.A. Smith’s The Irish minstrel a selection from the vocal melodies of Ireland. The mid-nineteenth century saw an increase in song and tune collecting within Ireland as interests in antiquarianism and also in articulating Irish national identity intensified. Bunting’s third collection was published in 1840. Members of “Young Ireland,” an Irish nationalist movement, created a journal known as The Nation (1842-48) which spawned The Spirit of the Nation, ballads and songs … with original and ancient music, arranged for the voice and piano forte, as issued by James Duffy of Dublin in 1845. Throughout the earlier decades of the nineteenth century, the antiquarian and folk-song collector George Petrie shared Irish tunes with Bunting, Moore, and Holden before publishing his own first collection in 1855.
Featured image: William Henry Brooke and William Bromley; ‘As vanquish’d Erin’; London: James Power; 1824. Courtesy of Special Collections & Archives, Queen’s University Belfast.