CELT document E800002-017

The Songs of Ireland

Thomas Osborne Davis

Edited by T.W. Rolleston

The Songs of Ireland


The Songs of Ireland

1 THERE are great gaps in Irish song to be filled up. This is true even of the songs of the Irish-speaking people. Many of the short snatches preserved among them from olden times are sweet and noble; but the bulk of the songs are very defective. Most of those hitherto in use were composed during the last century, and therefore their structure is irregular, their grief slavish and despairing, their joy reckless and bombastic, their religion bitter and sectarian, their politics Jacobite and concealed by extravagant and tiresome allegory. Ignorance, disorder, and every kind of oppression weakened and darkened the lyric genius of Ireland. Even these, such as they are, diminish daily in the country, and a lower class comes in. We have before us a number of the ballads now printed at Cork, in Irish, and English and Irish mixed. They are little above the street ballads in the English tongue. If Hardiman's and Daly's collections be fair specimens (as we believe they are) of the Irish Jacobite songs, we should not care to have more than a few of them given to the people; but, perhaps, there may be twenty, which, if printed clearly in slips, would sell as ballads in the Irish districts.

Assuming that the morsels given in O'Reilly's Catalogue of Irish writers do not exaggerate the merits of the older bards, their works would supply numberless pastoral, love, joy, wailing, and war songs. A popular editor of these could condense them into three or four verses each—cut them so as exactly to suit the airs, preserve the p.226 local and broad historical allusions, but remove the clumsy ornaments and exaggerations. This is what Ramsay, Burns, and Cunningham did with the Lowland Scotch songs, and thus made them what they are—the best in Europe. This need not prevent complete editions of these songs in learned books; but such books are for libraries, not cabins.

There is one want, however, in all the Irish songs—it is of strictly national lyrics. They are national in form and colour, but clannish in opinion. In fact, from Brian's death, there was no thought of an Irish nation, save when some great event, like Aodh O'Neill's march to Munster, or Owen Roe's victory at Beinnburb, flashed and vanished. These songs celebrate M'Carthy or O'More, O'Connor or O'Neill— his prowess, his following, his hospitality; but they cry down his Irish or 'more than Irish' neighbour as fiercely as they do the foreign oppressor. True it is, you will find amid the flight of minstrels one bolder than the rest, who mourns for the time when the Milesians swayed, and tells that 'a soul has come into Eire,' and summons all the Milesian tribes to battle for Ireland. But even in the seventeenth century, when the footing of the Norman and Saxon in Ireland was as sure as that of the once-invading Milesians themselves, we find the cry purely to the older Irish races, and the bounds of the nation made, not by the island, but by genealogy.

We may remark, in passing, that on no hypothesis did these same Milesians form more than the aristocracy of ancient Ireland—a class—a race of conquerors.

Dr. MacHale has made a noble attempt to supply this deficiency by his translation of Moore into Irish; but we are told that the language of his translation is too literary, and that the people do not relish these songs. A stronger reason for their failure (if in so short a time their fate can be judged) is, that the originals want the idiom and colour of p.227 the country, and are too subtle in thought. This remark does not apply to Moore's love songs, not to some, at least, of his political lyrics, and we cannot doubt that, if translated into vernacular Irish, and printed as ballads, they would succeed. For the present nothing better can be done than to paraphrase the Songs of the Nation into racy and musical Irish; though a time may come when someone born amid the Irish tongue, reared amid Gaelic associations, instructed in the state of modern Ireland and filled with passion and prophecy, shall sing the union and destiny of all the races settled on Irish ground, till the vales of Munster and the cliffs of Connaught ring with the words of Nationality.

But whatever may be done by translation and editing for the songs of the Irish-speaking race, those of our English-speaking countrymen are to be written. Moore, Griffin, Banim, and Callanan have written plenty of songs. Those of Moore have reached the drawing rooms; but what do the People know even of his? Buy a ballad in any street in Ireland, from the metropolis to the village, and you will find in it, perhaps, some humour, some tenderness, and some sweetness of sound; but you will certainly find bombast, or slander, or coarseness, united in all cases with false rhythm, false rhyme, conceited imagery, black paper, and blotted printing. A high class of ballads would do immense good—the present race demean and mislead the people as much as they stimulate them; for the sale of these ballads is immense, and printers in Dublin, Drogheda, Cork, and Belfast live by their sale exclusively. Were an enterprising man to issue the choice songs of Drennan, Griffin, Moore, on good paper, and well printed, he would make a fortune of 'halfpenny ballads.'

The Anglo-Irish songs, though most of the last century, are generally indecent or factious. The cadets of the Munster Protestants, living like garrison soldiers, drinking, p.228 racing, and dancing, wrote the one class. The clergy of the Ulster Presbyterians wrote the other. The Rakes of Mallow and The Protestant Boys are choice specimens of the two classes—vigorous, and musical, and Irish, no doubt, but surely not fit for this generation.

Great opportunities came with the Volunteers and United Irishmen, but the men were wanting. We have but one good Volunteer song. It was written by Lysaght, after that illustrious militia was dissolved. Drennan's Wake of William Orr is not a song; but he gave the United Men the only good song they had— When Erin First Rose. In Paddy's Resource, the text-book of the men who were 'up', there is but one tolerable song— God Save the Rights of Man; nor, looking beyond these, can we think of anything of a high class but The Sean Bhean Bhochd, The Wearing of the Green, Lysaght's Island, and Reynolds' Erin go bragh, if it be his.

Two of Lady Morgan's songs, Savournah Dilis and Kate Kearney, have certainly gone through all classes; and perhaps we might add a little to these exceptions; but it is a sad fact that most of the few good songs we have described are scarce, and are never printed in a ballad shape.

There is plenty, then, for the present race of Irish lyrists to do. They have a great heritage in the national music. It has every excellence and every variety. It is not needful for a writer of our songs to be a musician, though he will certainly gain much accuracy and save much labour to others and himself by being so. Moore is a musician of great attainments, and Burns used to compose his songs when going over, and over, and over the tune with or without words. But constantly listening to the playing of Irish airs will enable any man with a tolerable ear, and otherwise qualified, to write words to them, p.229 Here, we would give two cautions. First—that the airs in Moore's Melodies are very corrupt, and should never be used for the study of Irish music. This is even more true of Lover's tunes. There is no need of using them, for Bunting's and Holden's collections are cheaper, and contain pure settings. Secondly—that as there are hundreds of the finest airs to which no English words have been written, and as the effect of a song is greatly increased by having one set of words always joined with one tune, our versifiers should carefully avoid the airs to which Moore, Griffin, or any other Irishman has written even moderately good words.

In endeavouring to learn an air for the purpose of writing words to it, the first care should, of course, be to get at its character—as gay, hopeful, loving, sentimental, lively, hesitating, woeful, despairing, resolute, fiery, or variable. Many Irish airs take a different character when played fast or slow, lightly or strongly; but there is some one mode of playing which is best of all, and the character expressed by it must determine the character of the words. For nothing can be worse than a gay song to calm music, or massive words to a delicate air; in all cases the tune must suggest, and will suggest, to the lyrist the sentiment of the words.

The tune will, of course, fix the number of lines in a verse. Frequently the number and order of the lines can be varied. Three rhymes and a fall, or couplets, or alternate rhymes, may answer the same set of notes; or rhymes, if too numerous, may be got rid of by making one long, instead of two short lines. Where the same notes come with emphasis at the ends of musical phrases, the words should rhyme, in order to secure the full effect. The doubling two lines into one is most convenient where the first has accents on both the last syllables, for you thus escape the necessity of double rhyming. In the softer airs the effect of this is rather agreeable than otherwise.


Talking of double rhymes, they are peculiarly fitted for strong political and didactic songs, for the abstract and political words in English are chiefly of Latin origin, of considerable length and gravity, and have double accents. The more familiar English words (which best suit most songs) contain few doubly-accented terminations, and are, therefore, little fitted for double rhyming.

Expletive syllables in the beginning of lines where the tune is sharp and gay are often an improvement, but they should never follow a double rhyme.

In strong and firm tunes, having a syllable for every note is a perfection, though one hard to be attained without harshness, from the crowd of consonants in English. With soft tunes, on the other hand, it is commonly better to have in most lines two or more light notes to one syllable, so that the words may be dwelt on and softly sounded; but where and how must be determined by the taste of the writer.

The sound of the air will always show the current of thought, its pauses and changes; and a nice attention and bold sympathy with these properties of a tune is necessary to lyrical success.

A great advantage, too, of writing for existing airs is the variety of metres thus gained, and the naturally greater variety of thought and expression thus suggested.

We have spoken, in reference to Ballads, of the use of Choruses and Burdens, and said that we thought there were some Ballads which were injured by them; but all songs, save (perhaps) those of desperate sorrow, gain by burden lines and choruses. They are almost universal in the Native Irish and Lowland Scotch. Beranger has employed them in most of his songs, and Moore in many of his. A chorus should, of course, contain the very spirit of the song—bounding, if it be gay; fierce, if it be bold; doting, if it loves. Merely repeating one verse between, or at the p.231 head or tail of another, is not putting a chorus; it must be the verse which beats the best on your ear, and has the most echo in your heart. So, too, of burdens; they are not made merely by bringing in the same words in like places. They must be marked words forcibly brought in.

Irish choruses have often a glorious effect in English songs, nor need anyone familiar with the peasantry, or with Edward O'Reilly's Irish Writers, published as the first part of the Transactions of the Iberno-Celtic Society be at any loss for them.

These are some of the minutiae of song-writing, which we note for the consideration of our young writers, leaving them to add to or modify these, according to their observation.

Of course, different men and different moods will produce various classes of songs. We shall have places for all, Songs for the Street and Field require simple words, bold, strong imagery, plain, deep passions (love, patriotism, conciliation, glory, indignation, resolve), daring humour, broad narrative, highest morals. In songs for the wealthier classes, greater subtlety, remoter allusion, less obvious idiom and construction, will be tolerable, though in all cases we think simplicity and heartiness needful to the perfect success of a song.

If men able to write will fling themselves gallantly and faithfully on the work we have here plotted for them, we shall soon have Fair and Theatre, Concert and Drawingroom, Road and Shop, echoing with Songs bringing home Love, Courage, and Patriotism to every heart.

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Title (uniform): The Songs of Ireland

Author: Thomas Osborne Davis

Editor: T.W. Rolleston

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Electronic edition compiled by: Beatrix Färber

proof corrections by: Margaret Bonar

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2. Second draft.

Extent: 3536 words

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Publisher: CELT: Corpus of Electronic Texts: a project of University College Cork

Address: College Road, Cork, Ireland—http://www.ucc.ie/celt

Date: 2005

Date: 2008

Distributor: CELT online at University College, Cork, Ireland.

CELT document ID: E800002-017

Availability: Available with prior consent of the CELT programme for purposes of academic research and teaching only.

Source description

Editions of this text and/or other writings by Thomas Davis

  1. Thomas Davis, Essays Literary and Historical, Dundalk 1914.
  2. Sir Charles Gavan Duffy (ed.), Thomas Davis, the memoirs of an Irish patriot, 1840–1846. 1890.
  3. Thomas Osborne Davis, Literary and historical essays 1846. Reprinted 1998, Washington, DC: Woodstock Books.
  4. Essays of Thomas Davis. New York, Lemma Pub. Corp. 1974, 1914 [Reprint of the 1914 ed. published by W. Tempest, Dundalk, Ireland, under the title 'Essays literary and historical'.]
  5. Thomas Davis: essays and poems, with a centenary memoir, 1845–1945. Dublin, M.H. Gill and Son, 1945. [Foreword by an taoiseach, Éamon de Valera.]
  6. Angela Clifford, Godless colleges and mixed education in Ireland: extracts from speeches and writings of Thomas Wyse, Daniel O'Connell, Thomas Davis, Charles Gavan Duffy, Frank Hugh O'Donnell and others. Belfast: Athol, 1992.

Selected further reading

  1. Arthur Griffith (ed.), Thomas Davis: the thinker & teacher; the essence of his writings in prose and poetry. Dublin: Gill 1914.
  2. William O'Brien, The influence of Thomas Davis: a lecture delivered by William O'Brien, M.P., at the City Hall, Cork, on 5th November 1915. Cork: Free Press Office, 1915.
  3. Johannes Schiller, Thomas Osborne Davis, ein irischer Freiheitssänger. Wiener Beiträge zur englischen Philologie, Bd. XLVI. Wien und Leipzig, W. Braumüller, 1915.
  4. Michael Quigley (ed.), Pictorial record: centenary of Thomas Davis and young Ireland. Dublin [1945].
  5. Joseph Maunsell Hone, Thomas Davis (Famous Irish Lives). 1934.
  6. M. J. MacManus (ed.), Thomas Davis and Young Ireland. Dublin: The Stationery Office, 1945.
  7. J. L. Ahern, Thomas Davis and his circle. Waterford, 1945.
  8. Michael Tierney, 'Thomas Davis: 1814–1845'. Studies; an Irish quarterly review, 34:135 (1945) 300–10.
  9. Theodore William Moody, 'The Thomas Davis centenary lecture in Newry'. An t-Iubhar (=Newry) 1946, 22–6.
  10. D. R. Gwynn, O'Connell, Davis and the Colleges Bill (Centenary Series 1). Oxford and Cork, 1948.
  11. D. R. Gwynn, 'John E. Pigot and Thomas Davis'. Studies; an Irish quarterly review, 38 (1949) 145–57.
  12. D. R. Gwynn, 'Denny Lane and Thomas Davis'. Studies; an Irish quarterly review, 38 (1949) 15–28.
  13. N. N., Clár cuimhneacháin: comóradh i gcuimhne Thomáis Daibhis, Magh Ealla, 1942. Baile Átha Cliath (=Dublin) 1942.
  14. Christopher Preston, 'Commissioners under the Patriot Parliament, 1689'. Irish Ecclesiastical Record, 5th ser., 74:8 (1950) 141–51.
  15. W. B. Yeats, Tribute to Thomas Davis: with an account of the Thomas Davis centenary meeting held in Dublin on November 20th, 1914, including Dr. Mahaffy's prohibition of the 'Man called Pearse,' and an unpublished protest by 'A.E.', Cork 1965.
  16. Theodore William Moody, 'Thomas Davis and the Irish nation'. Hermathena, 103 (1966) 5–31.
  17. Malcolm Johnston Brown, The politics of Irish literature: from Thomas Davis to W. B. Yeats. Seattle (University of Washington Press) 1973.
  18. Eileen Sullivan, Thomas Davis. Lewisburg, New Jersey: Bucknell University Press, 1978.
  19. Mary G. Buckley, Thomas Davis: a study in nationalist philosophy. Ph.D. Thesis, National University of Ireland, at the Department of Irish History, UCC, 1980.
  20. Giulio Giorello, "A nation once again": Thomas Osborne Davis and the construction of the Irish "popular" tradition. History of European Ideas, 20:1–3 (1995) 211–17.
  21. John Neylon Molony, A soul came into Ireland: Thomas Davis 1814–1845. Dublin 1995.
  22. Robert Somerville-Woodward, "Two 'views of the Irish language': O'Connell versus Davis." The History Review: journal of the UCD History Society, 9 (1995) 44–50.
  23. John Neylon Molony, 'Thomas Davis: Irish Romantic idealist'. In: Richard Davis; Jennifer Livett; Anne-Maree Whitaker; Peter Moore (eds.), Irish-Australian studies: papers delivered at the eighth Irish-Australian Conference, Hobart July 1995 (Sydney 1996) 52–63.
  24. David Alvey, 'Thomas Davis. The conservation of a tradition.' Studies; an Irish quarterly review, 85 (1996) 37–42.
  25. Harry White, The keeper's recital: music and cultural history in Ireland, 1770–1970. (Cork 1998).
  26. Joseph Langtry; Brian Fay,'The Davis influence.' In: Joseph Langtry (ed.), A true Celt: Thomas Davis, The Nation, rebellion and transportation: a series of essays. (Dublin 1998) 30–38.
  27. Joseph Langtry, 'Thomas Davis (1814–1845).' In: Joseph Langtry (ed.), A true Celt: Thomas Davis, The Nation, rebellion and transportation: a series of essays. (Dublin 1998) 2–7.
  28. Patrick Maume, 'Young Ireland, Arthur Griffith, and republican ideology: the question of continuity.' Éire–Ireland, 34:2 (1999) 155–74.
  29. Sean Ryder, 'Speaking of '98: Young Ireland and republican memory'. Éire–Ireland, 34:2 (1999) 51–69.
  30. Ghislaine Saison, 'L'écriture de l'histoire chez la Jeune Irlande: quelle histoire pour une nation du consensus et de la réconciliation?' In: Centre de recherche inter-langues angevin, Écriture(s) de l'histoire: Actes du colloque des 2,3 et 4 décembre 1999. (Angers 2001) 435–46.
  31. Gerry Kearns, 'Time and some citizenship: nationalism and Thomas Davis.' Bullán: an Irish Studies Review, 5:2 (2001) 23–54.
  32. Helen Mulvey, Thomas Davis and Ireland: a biographical study. Washington, D.C., Catholic University of America Press, 2003.

Davis, Thomas Osborne (1910). ‘The Songs of Ireland’. In: Thomas Davis: Selections from his prose and poetry‍. Ed. by T. W. Rolleston. Dublin and London: The Talbot Press, pp. 225–231.

You can add this reference to your bibliographic database by copying or downloading the following:

  author 	 = {Thomas Osborne Davis},
  title 	 = {The Songs of Ireland},
  editor 	 = {T. W. Rolleston},
  booktitle 	 = {Thomas Davis: Selections from his prose and poetry},
  publisher 	 = {The Talbot Press},
  address 	 = {Dublin and London},
  date 	 = {1910},
  pages 	 = {225–231}


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Creation: by Thomas Davis

Date: 1844/45

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  • The text is in English. (en)
  • One word is in Latin. (la)
  • A few song titles are in Irish. (ga)

Keywords: literary; prose; 19c

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  1. 2014-11-30: Minor update; new wordcount made. (ed. Beatrix Färber)
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  7. 2005-07-12: File proofed (1). (ed. Margaret Bonar, Dublin)
  8. 1996: Text captured by scanning. (ed. Audrey Murphy)

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  1. This essay, together with another of less value, was reprinted from The Nation by M. J. Barry as an introduction to his Songs of Ireland, 1845. [Ed.] 🢀


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