NOTES AND COMMENTS ON O'NEILL'S "MUSIC OF IRELAND" (and related topics)



Quick links:

"Music of Ireland" folders (and total number of tunes in each):
= airs (625)
= Carolan compositions (75)
= hornpipes (225)
= jigs (415)
= miscellaneous tunes (marches etc.) (70)
= reels (380)
= slip jigs (60)

O'Neill's "Dance Music of Ireland" ("the 1001")

"Waifs and Strays of Gaelic Melody"

sortable index for 3 volumes (Excel spreadsheet)

Francis O'Neill wikipedia bio link




This section of the webABC site contains the tunes included by Francis O'Neill in his collection "The Music of Ireland", published in 1903.

The importance of this collection and the subsequent "Dance Music of Ireland" ("the 1001", dating from 1907) to contemporary traditional music cannot be overstated. These works have their faults, to be sure, but considering that none of the musicians involved in providing the raw material or in assembling it in usable form were "professional" musicians, the quality of the production remains a standard by which all subsequent traditional tune collections may be judged.

It is of interest to note that O'Neill never fell into the trap of trying to force traditional material into a "classical" mold, a fault that besets the best efforts of his collecting predecessors like Petrie and Joyce. O'Neill was content to let the contributions submitted for publication by the traditional musicians of Chicago stand on their own with a minimum of editing, without the need for expressions or ornamentations which, while so familiar to classical musicians, have no place in what is basically folk music.

Conservatory-trained musicians like Villiers Stanford and Darley, although they can be praised for their interest in traditional music, approached it in an entirely different spirit than O'Neill, and were not comfortable with what we might call today "the pure drop".

O'Neill was a performer of the music before he was ever a collector; the difference between a reel and a hornpipe (for example) was in the air that he breathed; the proper keys and correct playing tempos were second nature to him and to those in his circle, as well as to those musicians who learned from them, down to the present day. There are tunes in the O'Neill's collections that can be played note-for-note out of the books that will be thoroughly familiar to a trad musician of 2016. The same cannot readily be said of the "classical" collectors, with their predilection for flat keys and third-position fingerings!

Another element in O'Neill's work that I find of great interest is the simple fact that every tune in "the 1850", "the 1001", and the later "Waifs and Strays of Gaelic Melody" (1922) has a name. There are no "gan ainm" entries to encumber the work as so often occur in the later volumes of "Ceol Rince na hEireann", Breandan Breathnach's great mid-20th century collection. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that the Chief and his colleagues supplied names where none could be found or agreed on (as Breathnach once commented in reference to a tune to which he himself had supplied a name, "mé fein a bhaist é" - "I myself christened it"). If this were in fact the case, however, the invention or substitution of a name by the Chicagoans is transparent to us today. Unless the Chief has advised us of the fact in one of his books, we're most likely unaware of the "christening".

A final note on the O'Neill collections:
As anyone familiar with music of any type knows, music is capable of generating its own changes over time. It might not be too extravagant to think that no piece of music, from the simplest to the most complex, is ever performed exactly alike on every occurrence. This fact is certainly apparent in the treatment of O'Neill's material in the hundred or so years it has been in existence: over time many of O'Neill's tunes are no longer played the way they were notated. For example, many tunes that O'Neill has as A "modal" tunes (C and F sharp, G natural) are played today as A minor (F sharp, C and G natural). Why this changed is probably a doctoral thesis topic (my own guess is that it represented a conscious or unconscious lessening of the Scots influence that was so prevalent in "Celtic" traditional music - cf. O'Farrell's collection, which has far more Scots tunes than Irish).

When encountering a unfamilar O'Neill tune in three sharps, I would respectfully suggest that the player try it both ways, i.e. as written and as an A minor tune.I can almost guarantee that the A minor version will sound more "Irish". (Of course this procedure won't work with "Mason's Apron" or "Colonel Rodney" or any other tune whose A major status is unquestioned.)

In the webABC transcriptions, I have tried to present two versions of these tunes, one in the original key and one in A minor. If you're not a note reader, the sound files should have both versions, and you can decide which is more to your taste (and hope that anyone else playing the same tune agrees!)