CELTIC MUSIC IS SOCIAL. But whether sung in celebration or lament, it’s also the art of the solo performer. Even though a half-century of ceilidh bands have planted the sound of a rollicking ensemble in our ears, nothing grabs the evening’s spotlight like a solo harp or pipe, or perhaps the two in duet, with a tune that’s both sad and exhilarating.
It comes from the rough-and-tumble relationship of people and land, from the misty depths of a history so fantastic you can’t help but know it’s true.
Think of the divine race of Ireland, the Tuatha Dé Danann, who came from the goddess Danu long before the Celts were here and ruled Ireland until driven by the Gaels, the Celtic ancestors, to an underground kingdom.
Those gods were competitive rascals, and each had a specialty with which to prove supernatural abilities. Music was important even back then, as we learn from a minstrel and warrior named Lugh. His particular prowess was a mastery of the three song styles: Geantrai, or joyful songs; Goltrai, or sad songs; and Suantrai, the lullabies. When he sang one, it changed you.
When you hear a pipe sound a mournful, unfamiliar tune in the night, you know it’s coming from one of the sīdhs, the fairy mounds of the Tuatha Dé gods. And in the tune, pure and sweet, is all of the wonder and heartbreak of the Irish.
This is the music that gives hope to the farmer, scrabbling for food in barely arable land. Picture a bent, solitary figure, shadowed by a descending sun, dropping the far end of a hoe, expertly landing a corner of its blade in the stalk of a young thistle. With a practiced jerk of the wrist he yanks the stalk from the ground, again admiring the tenacious grip of a root so short.
Pink-flowered thistles belonged to the land long before he plowed this small plot for a garden, but his seedlings, their tendrils struggling to see light of day, must grow into the bushes and vines that will yield food for his family in the coming months. He hums a pleasant, rhythmic air as he works, looking over the fields to the rath, or what he whimsically thinks of as a rath, as its walls have long since crumbled.
His children play fantasy games there, and that’s when they give voice to songs he’s never heard before. Inspired like the great O’Carolan, who holed up in a rath near his father’s house while he suffered with love for a fancy miss who’d have nothing to do with him. And it was there that one of the good people, one of the Fairy Queens, struck him with rapture and inspired the first of his many immortal melodies.
Now those tunes have taken root in the Irish consciousness: like the thistle, so beautiful from afar, but a thorny challenge when grappled with directly. He catches himself humming and stops. Call it a superstition, but today our farmer has to conserve his music. Tonight he’ll be fiddling at the ceilidh.
Ah, there’s a tradition. After so many years of casual community parties, or house ceilidhs, a more formalized ensemble began playing at the parish halls in the late 1940s, where you’d find a fiddle and flute, of course, as well as piano, accordion, drums, and bass.
But this is an evening that could be as long ago as way back when or as recently as yesterday. The air is thick with a moisture that refuses to turn into rain. Misty curtains hang from the nearby trees as he trudges over a rise and sees his cottage ease into view. Another tune plays in his head and he can’t help but give voice to it, a tune his cousin played during a recent family visit. He’s played it several times since, but only at home, and it’s a gorgeous little number. Even his wife was moved to pick up her harp and try it.
So tonight they’ll offer it at the ceilidh, but only later in the evening, only after they’ve shared a few rounds of what’s familiar. Meanwhile, there’s a sweet aroma greeting him from the cottage, and he hurries to see what’s on the table.
O’Neill said it best. Capt. Francis O’Neill collected all the Irish tunes he could think of and came up with Music of Ireland, with enough left over to make up 1,001 Gems of Irish Music and Dance Music of Ireland. And this from a man who turned his back on a career as a monk and worked as a merchant seaman, got shipwrecked on a Pacific Island, and raised sheep in California. He taught school, sailed the Great Lakes, worked on the railroad, and, in 1901, became police chief of Chicago! O’Neill said that “Irish music has all sweetness, tenderness, humor, pathos, fervor, grandeur, and tragedy of real life, because it sprang from the heart of a race which underwent every phase of human experience and existence.”
Celtic music is a food for the soul, and all the good singers and players have been nourished with copies of the O’Neill collections. And it’s so simple. It’s all in the tune, and any attempt to fancy it up with complicated harmonies misses the point. These are the tunes originally picked up by itinerant minstrels who had no need to write anything down. Like O’Carolan, they played for the pleasure of their hosts, naming songs after patrons and loved ones, neighbors and friends.
Hearing a Celtic harp is a treat of simplicity, and yet, as with the music of Mozart, it takes great skill to achieve that end. Listen to “Carolan’s Farewell to Music,” a bittersweet tune enshrined by O’Neill that O’Carolan is said to have played with unsteady fingers on his harp shortly before his death in 1738. With flute and harp joined in this lament, it needs no words to convey its deep emotion.
That’s the virtuosity that links all of these selections, but they’re also linked by magic. As the Tuatha Dé so well understood, every one of these tunes will sneak into you and change you, and you’ll be better for the change.
– August 1998