Posted by: Ardcrú Books | July 6, 2008

On the Origins of Irish Tunes

Where did all those jigs and reels and hornpipes come from? According to the Co Sligo flute player Seamus Tansey, they came from:

The singing of the birds, the ancient chants of our forefathers, the calls of the wild animals in the lonely countryside
the drone of the bees and the galloping hooves of the wild horses.

Another flute player, the late Vincent Broderick from near Loughrea in Co Galway, once recalled working on the bog in his youth. “You hear the lark singing, the frog croaking in the bog hole or the wind whistling through the heather. All these things seem to record inside your brain.” Already a half dozen names of tunes spring to mind.
Vincent Broderick described the origin of one tune. He was sheltering from a thunderstorm under the bank of a bog and reading a story about crocks of gold in The Leprechaun in Kilmeen, by Seamus O’Kelly. “And I went to sleep and when the rain was over, the sun came out and a lovely rainbow formed across the bog. All of a sudden this music came into my mind. That was the two tunes I composed – The Rainbow’s End and The Crock of Gold.” Other titles by Vincent Broderick include A Frog in the Pond, The Swan’s Nest, and The Mountain Stream. Even a tune he composed since moving to Dublin, The Mad Cow Roundabout, about Dublin’s chaotic M50 motorway, manages to retain a rural link. He has 200 tunes to his name.

The greatest living composer of traditional Irish tunes, Paddy Fahey, also from Co Galway, this time to the south of Loughrea, has been a farmer all his life.
It was the poet and folk singer Fred Johnston who told me this story about Paddy Fahey and a visiting student who was writing her thesis on the composer. Directed to the fields where he worked, the student asked him where he got his inspiration?
“Well,” replied the shy and reserved farmer, “I composed one in that hollow over there . . . another by those bushes in the next field … and another one on my way from the barn.”
Anecdotal, I admit, but as time goes by, I think there is more and more truth in it.

The amazing thing about Ed Reavy was that he composed his 500 or so tunes not on the boreens or in the fields of his native Barnagrove in Co Cavan, but in Philadelphia, to which his parents emigrated when he was still a teenager.

Mick Moloney has written that back in Cavan “The Reavys’ own house was a popular location for sessions. They owned a big barn where the local musicians used to congregate for sprees – music and dancing. He took to America with him vivid recollections of these evenings of merrymaking and those memories were always to stay with and inspire him.”
Ed Reavy was in his thirties before he started composing and lived until he was 90. How often his imagination visited the dreamscape of his youth?


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