The Irish Bardic Tradition

Heroic & Dark Fantasy and Science Fiction Character created by Kevin L. O'Brien

The Courtyard, © by Dorian Cleavenger

Untitled, © by Boris Vallejo

The Irish Bardic Traditionhe debt that Western Civilization owes to the Irish has been well established, but tends to go unacknowledged (Cahill p.5). Indeed, Thomas Cahill subtitled his seminal book, How the Irish Saved Civilization, as "The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe" (emphasis added). He makes no bones about his opinion: "Without the . . . Irish, . . . our own world would never have come to be" (Cahill p.4). Even accepting that this conclusion is hyperbolic, there is nonetheless overwhelming evidence that demonstrates that this often maligned people virtually single-handedly reintroduced literature and literacy, not to mention Christianity, to barbarian, pagan Europe in the centuries after the collapse of the Roman Empire.

Yet even Cahill neglects what could possibly be an equally important contribution, specifically Irish music. He can perhaps be forgiven this oversight; after all, who would deny that literature is more important than mere song and dance? But this is not a matter of what is more important, but of giving credit where it is due. It is also a matter of recognizing that music is both a reflection of a people’s culture and a shaper of that culture (Hast p.22). Much has been written about the effect of Christian liturgical music on the development of Western classical music, which was itself based on Greek, Roman, Hebrew, and Syrian styles (Machlis p.77; Flood I.php). If there was also a strong Irish Celtic influence, we should acknowledge it, if for no other reason than that it would certainly shed new light on the nature of European culture.

However, caution must be exercised in how far we can assert this claim. Just as it would be inappropriate to conclude that every significant literary development in Medieval Europe came from the Irish, so too would it be wrong to say the same about the development of European music. This would be especially true of music, because unlike books, music was not unknown in Europe before the coming of the Irish, as was noted above. However, as with Latin literature, the Germanic invasions that toppled the Roman Empire also destroyed much of the existing Greco-Roman secular musical styles, and drove the liturgical musical styles into seclusion. And being as they were illiterate, little is known of the musical styles of the Germanic tribes, so their influence — if any — on Western music cannot be accurately ascertained. In contrast, there is a great deal of evidence that Irish musical styles did have a profound effect on Western music, and so by extension on Western culture. While it would be presumptuous to declare that without Irish music "our own world would never have come to be," nonetheless it can be asserted with some certainty that it would be a rather different world from the one we are familiar with.

Even so, some grandiose claims have been made by early twentieth century scholars which cannot be substantiated, but to paraphrase one modern text, while they cannot be conclusively proven, neither can they be conclusively disproven (Hast p.207). Being as these claims are particularly thought-provoking, they will be mentioned, but no great weight will be given to them.

The Irish Bardic Tradition

That the Irish could have such a profound affect on Western music should come as no surprise. The Irish were famous, almost legendary, for their love of music (Flood I.php), as well as their skill as poets (MacManus p.176). Cahill asserts that they were "intoxicated by the power of words" (p.80), and he relates an incident when the Catholic Church sought to outlaw Irish bards. The monk Columcille, otherwise known as St. Columba, defended the bardic tradition of Ireland, declaring that poetry was an essential part of Irish life, and that Ireland would not be Ireland without it (ibid. p.186). So important was poetry and music that Irish history, genealogy, law codes, and medical traditions were composed in verse and set to music (Flood I.php; MacManus p.177).

Bard, © by Jim FitzpatrickWhile the term bard has in modern culture a general connotation of a singer and storyteller, among the ancient Celts a bard was a poet, especially a lyrical poet, something like a modern balladeer. Yet while their primary function was entertainment, they were no mere song-and-dance men (or women), but were counted as one of the three learned groups, along with the druids and the filidh (singular, fili) (Green p.39, p.98). They served both religious and secular functions, including retelling historical events, genealogies, heroic tales, myths and legends, and composing praise-poetry, wherein they would recite the exploits of the chiefs and kings. However, they also had the reputation of being able to use satire to blight and even kill (ibid.; MacManus p.182).

Ancient Irish society recognized four grades of musician poets (MacManus p.179), of which the baird (singular bard) were the lowest and the filidh were the highest. The novice poet also learned his or her trade in one of numerous schools, where he or she spent at least three years for each grade. Not every poet achieved the highest grade, nor was there any preset period of time in which he or she had to complete the education. However, the filidh tended to make up virtually all the official poets attached to the kings. The reason was because the official poets were concerned with courtly, tribal, and national concerns (ibid. p.186), and the filidh were trained in at least 350 different poetic metres and epic legends, impromptu composition (ibid. p.179-80), and prophecy and divination (Green p.98).

So important was the poet to this aristocratic warrior society that the ollamh, or chief official poet, had a social rank second only to the king (MacManus p.176). In fact, the ollamh was considered more sacred than the king, and poets were virtually never killed. The Irish had no corporal or capital punishment; instead, a crime was punished by the payment of a dire, or fine, which was based on a person’s honor-price, and could range from a fraction of the price to some multiple thereof (Ragan-Legal Tender). The honor-price for an ollamh was seven cumhal (MacManus p.176), or bondmaids (Ragan-Legal Tender), and was worth twenty-one milk-cows, while his or her dire was generally set equal to that of the king (MacManus p.176).

Poets were generally attached to specific chiefs and kings, and were given stipends of land and cattle to support themselves (ibid. p.180), but they often journeyed about the land, visiting the strongholds of rulers and nobles, and often staying with them for as much as a year or more. The higher-ranking poets were allowed to have retinues, which usually included lower-rank poets and students. So a fili could have several baird to accompany him, as well as at least one apprentice-fili to assist him. An ollamh tended to have the largest retinue, as many as twenty-four people, but even a low-ranking fili could have ten. Yet for all their sanctity and reverence, poets could be corrupt, and stories abound of retinues staying until they ate their host out of house and home, and poets extorting rich gifts by the threat of satire.

Fiddlers' Fair, © by Clyde CaldwellIt is perhaps a measure of the importance of the filidh that, alone of any social group except the kings, they survived the depravations of the English conquerors until the seventeenth century. When Christianity made the druids superfluous, the filidh took over their roles as teachers, advisors, and witnesses to contracts, and they gradually usurped the important ceremonial roles of the baird, relegating them to the status of mere performers (Green p.98). Though the Irish monks were almost fanatical in their zeal to record the old legends, histories, and genealogies, the filidh were just as responsible for the preservation of the Irish myths, and they began the folk tradition that would make Ireland famous down to the modern age. Every artistic tradition that is considered to be characteristically Irish, from the seanchaí storyteller and the sean-nós singer, to the Irish tenor and the modern Celtic band, can be traced, directly or indirectly, to the filidh, and through them to the ancient Irish bardic tradition.

Ancient Irish Music

It has been claimed that the Ogham Script used on cenotaphs dated from between the fifth and seventh centuries (James p.163) indicates that the ancient Irish were a literary people long before the advent of Christianity (Flood I.php). Certainly the script must date from at least a century earlier, and there are references to it in the Táin Bó Cúailnge, or "Cattle Raid of Cooley", the great Ulster epic (James p.163). It is therefore not inconceivable that it may have been used for inscriptions and messages by the ancient Irish, carved into wood or stone or ivory, though there is no evidence it was used for recording oral traditions. However, an even more fantastic claim (in the sense of being weird rather than unreal) is that Ogham also served as a musical tablature, perhaps the first in Western history (Flood I.php). The Irish are also credited with inventing rhyming verse (ibid. II-3.php; MacManus p.177) and the sonata form (Flood II-3.php), and of being familiar with the diatonic scale long before its perfection in Europe (ibid.).

Regardless of whether these claims are true, there are some features of ancient Irish music which may be fairly certain, or at least very likely. It seems that the Irish used a pentatonic scale based on A, C, D, E, and G, from which five modes could be constructed (ibid. IV.php). These modes were determined by which note they started with. Pentatonic scales are also prevalent in Asian cultures; the black keys on a piano comprise the pentatonic scale in Western music. It was called a "gapped" scale because, characteristic of pentatonic scales in general, B and F were omitted; in fact, they seem not to have been introduced until sometime between the eighth and twelfth centuries, probably by the importation of Continental musical styles. Perhaps the most famous of the ancient Irish modes is the fourth (G AC D EG), because it is the mode in which most airs that have reached us down to the modern age, particularly the Anglo-Irish airs, were written. The English were the people who introduced the missing seventh note (F), and Western G-major scales must flatten the seventh in order to reproduce the tonality of the fourth Irish mode, for which reason it is called the flat seventh. It is this mode that many writers have described as the most certain characteristic of an ancient Irish air, despite the fact that the flat seventh is a modern form of an ancient Irish mode (ibid.).

The Muse of the Lyre, © by Geof IsherwoodAnother stereotype of Irish music is its melancholy, sensitive nature (ibid.). The poet G. K. Chesterton once wrote, "For the great Gaels of Ireland, / Are the men that God made mad. / For all their wars are merry, / And all their songs are sad." (Cahill p.78) Numerous writers have credited the minor scale for this effect, yet the minor scale was used predominantly for jigs and other sprightly dance tunes, whereas the plaintive laments, war-songs, chants, hymns, and lullabies tended to be composed in the major scale. Still, there does seem to be a tender strain in all the ancient airs, even the liveliest ones, for as Thomas Moore, the Irish musician and musical historian, observed, "But so oft hast thou echoed the deep sigh of sadness, / That ev'n in thy mirth it will steal from thee still." (Flood IV.php) The source for this, however, is in the ancient pentatonic scale itself rather than one or another particular mode.

The principle compositional style for ancient Irish music, called Adhbhantrirech, was divided into three parts (ibid.). Geantraighe was used for love songs and other gay tunes; Goltraighe was used to compose war-songs and other solemn tunes; and Suantraighe, was used to create lullabies and other relaxing, meditative tunes. Goltraighe compositions appear to form the bulk of the airs that have been passed down to us, and suantraighe compositions survived as "Irish lullabies" and in liturgical hymns, but geantraighe tunes appear to have disappeared. Some themes may, however, still be present in modern jigs.

As to the form that ancient Irish music took, that is more problematic, but some analysis has been attempted. In his 1905 book, A History of Irish Music, William H. Grattan Flood asserted that "nearly all [Irish] ancient tunes are of symmetrically short construction, having the emphatic major sixth, and the thrice-repeated final cadence (the thrice-struck tonic at the close). . . ." (ibid.) He then quotes Dr. George Petrie, from the biography, Life of Petrie by Sir William Stokes: "These melodies are all in triple or three-four time, and consist of two parts, or strains, of eight bars each, and the same number of phrases, divided into two sections." (ibid.) Based on this, Flood makes the extraordinary claim that the Irish invented the basic structure of the sonata form: "However, there is not a shadow of doubt that we have Irish tunes long before [the thirteenth century] — certainly before the Anglo-Norman invasion — which are characterized emphatically by an artistically constructed ternary or three-phrase arrangement, that is, a phrase of four bars, not unfrequently repeated, followed by an apparent modulation." (ibid.) Regardless, it is this musical form that has led some scholars to believe that Irish airs are comparatively modern, one assertion placing them as late as the eighteenth century. Interestingly, however, the maker of this assertion recanted years later and admitted that "the date of those airs is much more ancient" (ibid.). As such, this lends credence to the possibility that, even if the Irish did not invent the sonata form, they were using a form very much like it.

Ancient Irish Musical Instruments

When discussing the musical instruments used by the ancient Irish, care must be taken to distinguish between true ancient instruments and so-called traditional instruments. The former Untitled, © by Gerald Bromwould have been in use during the pre-Christian Iron Age, whereas the latter are more correctly associated with the folk music tradition, which began sometime during the Medieval period, most likely after 1000 C.E. This leaves a gap of approximately 500 years during which the Irish transitioned between one set of instruments and the other. Yet this is where the great bulk of historical records comes from, further compounding the confusion. Also, what often adds to the confusion is that the Irish names for the ancient instruments tended to be translated using the names of traditional instruments.

Because of the lack of written records before 500 C.E., determining which instruments, if any, were used by the ancient bards is problematic. One instrument that is certain, however, was the human voice, based on the more modern sean-nós singing tradition. Indeed, considering their extensive training, it is easy to imagine the filidh singing their repertoire a cappella. Yet since at least the higher ranking ones most likely had baird as part of their retinues, it is inconceivable that they would not have used them for accompaniment.

Another instrument that is highly likely to be have been present was the harp. This chordophone is extremely ancient, predating the Celts themselves. However, Diodorus has quoted Heccataeus as observing that the Irish of 500 B.C.E. used harps (ibid. I.php). More recent references include a mention by Amergin MacAmalgaid in 544 C.E., a reference in a distich on the death of St. Columba (the latinized version of Columcille) in 596, and the chronicle of the death of Ailill the Harper in 634 (ibid.). A third instrument that can be strongly speculated about is an idiophone known colloquially as the bones. Literally two pieces of solid material that are struck together, it can be made of wood, metal, ivory, or even bone, and is conceivably the oldest instrument known to mankind. A final instrument that may have been present, but for which we have no corroborating evidence, is a membranophone known by the modern name of bodhran. It consists of a circular wooden frame with skin stretched over one end, and is held in one hand and struck with the other by a small baton. Though a mainstay of tradition folk music and modern Celtic bands, there is no certainty that the ancient Irish had such an instrument, though it is probable they had some kind of membranophone.

Even if a definitive list of Iron Age pre-Christian instruments cannot be made, between the seventh and ninth centuries various instruments were described in glosses written into the margins of copied manuscripts. Though a few of these may have been influenced by or even derived from Continental instruments, a few may also have been in use since the first century (ibid. III.php). Surprisingly, no membranophones were described. This is particularly unusual, considering that virtually every culture has had some form of drum or the like. However, an idiophone was described, called the cnamha, which has been identified as a form of castanets (ibid.). While it is possible these may have evolved independently from more primitive idiophones such as the bones, it is more likely that it is a Continental import.

The Song of the Harpist, © by Howard David JohnsonNo less than seven aerophones were listed (ibid.). Two were varieties of horns (though one may have been more like a bassoon), and one a form of trumpet; there were also pipes, similar to panpipes or hornpipes, or possibly both. These may have been Continental imports, though horns are mentioned in the ancient sagas and the Brehon Laws. The buinne seems to have been a type of recorder, while the feadan is generally believed to have been similar to the fife. Both seem to be mentioned in the ancient sagas. The cuislenna was the bagpipes, perhaps the quintessential Celtic instrument. What few people know, however, is that the bagpipes is not Scottish, but Irish. Modern Scots are descended from Irish settlers who intermarried with Briton and Pictish natives; much of Scottish culture, including the language and musical instruments, was imported from Ireland. The cuislenna was mentioned in the Brehon Laws, which can be traced at least as far back as the seventh century (Ragan-Law Texts). The modern uilleann pipes are descended from the cuislenna, but the older instrument was inflated using the mouth. It would seem likely that the cuislenna is of ancient origin, but it did not really come into prominence until the eleventh century.

Four chordophones were listed (Flood III.php). The fidil, or fiddle, is almost certainly of English origin, while the crann ciuil, or cymbalum, is probably a Continental import. The timpan came in a variety of forms, with three to eight strings, and was played with a bow or plectrum. The appearance of the varieties cannot be accurately determined, though the eight-string psalterium probably resembled the dulcimer. The quintessential harp came in two basic forms. The clairseach was the heroic harp of the ancient Iron Age Irish Celts (ibid.). It was a large instrument with as many as 60 strings, though 30 was more typical. Its range was about four octaves, from CC to D. It was usually tuned to the G-major fourth mode, but could be retuned to the C-major first mode or the D-major second mode. It was said to have a perfect and complete diatonic scale.

The cruit was the smaller of the two. According to the description of a fourth century B.C.E. poet, it started out as being similar to the lyre and plucked with the fingers, but by the sixth century C.E. it had become an oblong instrument with a neck and fingerboard, and six strings played with a bow. Four ran over the board, while two were strung outside of it. It was probably played resting on the knees or on a table. A variant of the cruit was called the creamthine cruit. It also had six strings, and one source claims it was the parent of the violin (ibid.). Another variant, the cionnar cruit, had ten strings, was played with a bow or plectrum, and was claimed to be the origin of the guitar (ibid.). Even if these claims are not true, however, these instruments suggest the ease with which airs played on them could be later played on fiddle and guitar.

The Dissemination of Irish Musical Tradition

Chasing Fire, © by John Jude PalencarWhen the monasteries took over the role of the bardic schools, many filidh became monks, and vice versa. It was therefore natural that when Irish monks began to emigrate to Britain and Europe to establish new monasteries, some of their number would be highly trained in music and poetry. However, the roots of this religious diaspora lay in the nature of the conversion of the Irish to Christianity.

Ireland may be unique in that it is the only country we know of which experienced a bloodless conversion. While there was resistance to Christianity, it took the form of debate and recalcitrance, not bloodshed. There are no records or stories of any chief or king killing missionaries or converts. Cahill believes this is because of the way St. Patrick performed his proselytizing, specifically by becoming an Irishman in both habit and thought (p.113), which allowed him to explain Christianity in a way that the Irish could understand and accept. Regardless of the exact reason, the Irish converted willingly, with little opposition from the power elite beyond words, and even among those who did not convert, Christian values still took root, a case in point being that slavery in Ireland was abolished during or shortly after Patrick’s lifetime (ibid. p.110).

Oddly enough, this actually bothered early converts. Having heard the tales of the saints and martyrs made famous in Catholic tradition, many asked why they had not been worthy to have their blood shed for their new faith. Referring to this as the Red Martyrdom (ibid. p.151), many invented a new form they called the Green Martyrdom (ibid.), in which they took themselves off to isolated locations and became hermits. Unfortunately, later converts saw these "green martyrs" as spiritual leaders and began to seek them out, eventually living with them in their "isolation". These congregations formed the nuclei for the first monasteries, which begat new monasteries as the old ones became overcrowded.

Almost from the very beginning, these were different from European monasteries. For one thing, many admitted women as well as men, and more than a few were founded and run by abbesses (ibid. p.172). For another, they became centers of learning almost from the very beginning. The reasons how or why may never be fully known, but as Cahill points out, the Irish were well-known as "lovers of learning" (p.150). From their own records, it is certain that the Irish monasteries were primarily concerned with literary pursuits, especially the copying of predominantly Latin, but also some Greek and a few Hebrew, manuscripts, and recording their own history and legendry. Yet music was also an important element of their lives. Certainly, the Irish sang hymns at their services, and being as more than a few filidh and baird had become monks, no doubt they taught their brethren even as they would have taught students and apprentices. To what extent the Siren, © by John William Waterhousebardic tradition was preserved in the monasteries cannot be ascertained with accuracy, but it is known that monks as early as the sixth century C.E. were writing poetic verses, often in the margins of the manuscripts they were copying.

Nonetheless, soon Ireland was so crowded with monasteries that there was almost no isolated place left to put one. As a result, the monks hit upon a new form of martyrdom, one which was based on the voluntary exile of Columcille (St. Columba of the Catholic Church) to the island of Iona in 564, where he set up a new monastery. Called the White Martyrdom (ibid. p.184), it involved bands of monks traveling first to Britain, then to Europe, to create new monasteries. They considered it martyrdom because, as they saw it, they were voluntarily leaving Ireland forever. As in Ireland, these settlements became centers of learning, centers from which literacy and literature spread once again throughout Europe, in some cases after centuries of neglect. And there is evidence that the bardic tradition was transplanted as well. As one example, the monastery of St. Gall in Switzerland, which was a famous music school as early as the mid-seventh century, was founded by an Irish monk named Cellach, whose name was latinized to Gallus, or Gall. He had himself been a student in a music school before he became a monk.

The Rise of Western Musical Culture

The degree to which the ancient Irish bardic tradition influenced Western musical development may never be completely understood, especially because it may be difficult to separate fact from numerous grandiose claims. Nonetheless, some facts are known; what remains to be seen is just how far conclusions may by extrapolated from these facts.

As stated earlier, the Germanic invasions that toppled the Western Roman Empire largely destroyed secular music styles and drove liturgical styles into the isolation of monastery and church. This early liturgical music was based on Christian hymns that were developed in the days before the Emperor Constantine. After Christianity became the official religion of the Empire, this music gradually evolved into plainchant or plainsong, which eventually became the Gregorian Chant. It was by its very nature mono- or heterophonic (Hast p.171-2), without ornamentation or harmony, and has been described as "very elementary" (Flood II.php). Polyphony did not appear until the introduction of the organum style around 900 (Hast p.197). This led to the development of the melisma style, which was the first true counterpoint (ibid.). Eventually, true harmony appeared around 1200 with the development of the triadic style (ibid. p.198).

The Melody of Your Demise, © by Linda BergkvistThere is some evidence, however, that polyphony and possibly even harmony may have been known in Europe as early as 700 (ibid. p.196). If true, this is significant, because it places the development of these styles around the same time the Irish monks were establishing their monasteries in Europe. The question to be answered, then, is did the Irish know polyphonic and harmonic music? The possibility may not be as farfetched as it first appears. There is a late twelfth century passage that describes what most likely is harmonic, possibly even triadic, singing by a group of Welsh entertainers (ibid.). The commentator further noted that this was "no product of trained musicians, but was acquired through long-standing popular practices." Indeed, it would be arrogant to conclude that, just because they provided the first solid evidence of triadic harmony, Continental religious and royal composers were the first to discover it (ibid. p.207). Nonetheless, without definitive written records, the evidence is largely circumstantial, and all we can do at present is speculate.

One interesting phenomenon is that the secular musical styles that emerged with plainchant were championed by two distinct groups of poet-musicians: the minstrel, who entertained the masses, and the troubadour, who served the royal courts (Machlis p.87). Though their repertoire was different, their similarity to the bard and fili is uncanny, particularly in their duties. Like the filidh, troubadours sang the praises of the royals and nobles, recited their deeds and genealogy, and preserved traditions. They also often had retinues of performers to accompany them or sing and play in their stead. Like the baird, the minstrels played important social and religious roles, such as being news carriers and acting as messengers. While a mere correlation is far from causation, can it really be seriously considered a coincidence that the emergence of Medieval secular music took the same form as the Irish bardic tradition?

It is known that St. Patrick taught his converts how to sing the liturgical chants he knew, and this has led a number of scholars to argue that the Irish obtained their musical acumen from the Gregorian Chant (Flood I.php). The problem with this is that the Gregorian Chant did not appear until about 600 (Machlis p.77), whereas Patrick died in 461. Besides which, it was well known that the Irish were beautiful singers; no less an authority than St. Jerome declared so (Flood I.php). Though beauty is subjective, it is interesting to note that this was probably in comparison to liturgical music. Could this be an indication of harmony? Regardless, it is generally acknowledged, as one source put it, that "the Irish melodies belong to a stage of musical development very much anterior to that of Gregorian chant." (ibid.)

Being a Green Mother, © by Michael WhelanBut did the Irish actually have harmony? Some writers have assumed so. One has stated that certain glosses prove the Irish knew part-singing, or polyphony (ibid. II-2.php). Another based his conclusion on the construction of the cruit, and even went so far as to state that Irish harmony was superior to that of Hucbald, in that it admitted major and minor thirds as well as fourths, fifths, and octaves (ibid. II.php). Still another writer claims that the Irish had counterpoint in the form of discant or even organum. If these claims are true, then it suggests that rather than developing on their own, these styles were introduced into European liturgical music by the monks of the White Martyrdom, and the dates assigned to them by Western historians are simply those of the first unambiguous examples found in manuscripts.

That this could have happened is not quite so fantastic. St. Gall monastery was a famous music school by 650; it would have been in a strong position to pass along the concepts of polyphony, discant, and harmony to its students, who would have spread them throughout Europe. In 653, St. Gertrude of Brabant asked two Irish monks to teach her nuns to sing, and afterwards the brothers stayed on to establish a monastery at Fosse. St. Aldhelm is credited as the first Saxon writer to make use of neums, yet he was tutored by the Irish monk St. Mailduff, who in the latter half of the seventh century wrote many hymns acknowledged to be quite beautiful. Meanwhile, Aldhelm acknowledged that many of his fellow Saxons went to Ireland to be taught in its monastic schools (ibid.). These are but a few examples of Irish monks teaching music to Europeans. Is it unreasonable then to speculate that the Irish may have introduced polyphony and harmony into Christian plainchant?

However, there are other contributions made by the Irish for which there can be no doubt. The monk Sedulius (in Irish Shiel), composed in the fifth century the Introit of the Mass of the Blessed Virgin, which is still sung throughout the Catholic Church (ibid.). At the end of the eighth century, Pope Adrian sent a copy of the Sacramentarium to Charlemagne, but the Emperor’s Irish scholars altered the book as they copied it and added material from their own music. At the same time, the Pope sent a copy of the Antiphonarium to St. Gall, where again it was altered and had new material inserted. These are but two examples of Irish monks introducing Irish music into the early plainchant books. In the ninth century, under first Moengal (in Latin Marcellus) and later his student Tuathal (in Latin Tutilo), St. Gall became the greatest music school in Europe. During that time, a large number of Gregorian Chants were composed by the Irish monks and added to the chant books (ibid. II-2.php). One monk, named St. Notker Balbulus, in 870 composed perhaps one of the most famous tropes of all time, the Antiphona de Morte, which begins Media vita in morte sumus — "In the midst of life, we are in death" (ibid. II-3.php). Once again, these are but a few examples of the massive contribution made by Irish monks, much of which may still lie undiscovered, thanks to the penchant of Churchmen for latinizing Irish names.


Galadriel's Harp, © by Stephen HickmanThe ancient Irish were great lovers of learning, poetry, and music, which expressed itself in their bardic tradition. This tradition was inherited by the Christian monks, who not only preserved it, but also expanded it into new arenas and disseminated it into new lands. In turn, this tradition fertilized and invigorated the developing Western musical culture. But to what extent cannot be fully determined. At the very least, the Irish helped to protect, spread, and teach early plainchant and later Gregorian liturgical music. They also increased the quantity and quality of works in these styles, adding some of the most beautiful and famous melodies into Catholic religious services. Yet there also seems to be some evidence to suggest that the Irish introduced several major innovations that revolutionized Western music: the diatonic scale, neums, tabulation, ornamentation, polyphony, counterpoint, and harmony. The truth may actually lay somewhere in between. In any event, it would seem evident that the Irish did for Western music what they did for Western literature: they revived it at a time when it almost disappeared, and they propelled its development forward at a greater rate than might otherwise have been possible. Had it not been for the Irish, it seems likely that Western classical music would be different from what it is now, perhaps very different, and perhaps less varied and majestic.

Go here for a list of Irish Song lyrics.


Cahill, Thomas. How the Irish Saved Civilization. New York: Doubleday. 1995.

Flood, William H. Grattan. A History of Irish Music. Accessed: 9 May 2007.

Green, Miranda J. Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legend. London: Thames and Hudson. 1997.

Hast, Dorothea E., James R. Cowdery, and Stan Scott. Exploring the World of Music. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt. 1999.

James, Simon. The World of the Celts. London: Thames and Hudson. 1993.

Machlis, Joseph, and Kristine Forney. The Enjoyment of Music, Ninth Edition. New York: W. W. Norton. 2003.

MacManus, Seumas. The Story of the Irish Race. Old Greenwich, CT: Devin-Adair. 1921.

Ragan, Michael. The Brehon Law. Accessed: 16 May 2007.

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