LONG-FORGOTTEN GAELIC SONGS OF RATHLIN AND THE GLENS by Sorcha Nic Lochlainn
This article first appeared in The Glynns Volume 37 (2009). It is reproduced here in full.
‘Numberless legendary and fabulous tales and songs are recited and sung in Irish round the fire, by persons who do little else. These, however, are confined to Glenariffe. A great many beautiful Irish airs are sung by the females in that part of the parish, and there are many in it who neither speak nor understand English. The lower class are very fond of music and the voices of the females are remarkably sweet.’
– An account of the parish of Ardclinis, Ordnance Survey Memoirs, 1835.1
Traditional songs have always been an important part of the culture of Gaelic-speaking areas throughout Ireland and Scotland, and there is significant evidence that Rathlin and the Glens were rich in Gaelic songs when the language was still widely spoken in the area. Virtually everyone in Rathlin and The Glens spoke Gaelic until the mid-nineteenth century; and even during the early twentieth century, there were still plenty of people in the area who could speak and understand the language, although the native speakers were starting to lose their fluency by this stage, and the language was severely weakened. A number of songs and fragments of songs remained, however. What I would like to do in this paper is to use these songs to give some insight into the culture of this area before Gaelic ceased to be the everyday language of the people.
Although the Ordnance Survey Memoirs described ‘numberless tales and songs’ in the area, not many of these tales and songs have been preserved in writing. The main reason for this is that the culture of Gaelic song and story is primarily an oral culture, where material is passed down from one generation to the next by word of mouth. Gaelic scholars did not really begin to document the folk culture of this area until the early twentieth century, by which time the language had declined so much that huge amounts of material had already been lost. A small amount of collection work did take place before the twentieth century, but the earliest collectors really did fail to take advantage of the huge resources of folklore that existed in this area while the Gaelic language was still strong.
The earliest surviving record of song collection in the Glens is found in the manuscripts of the famous musician Edward Bunting, who collected a tune in 1799 which he entitled ‘Ossianic Air The Clan Uisneach Poem of Deirdre’.2 Bunting is a very important figure in the history of Irish music. He organised the Belfast Harp Festival in 1792, and he was responsible for the collection of hundreds of traditional airs from various parts of Ireland. He was also a close friend of Dr James McDonnell from the Glens who was a well-known physician in Belfast at the time. McDonnell was a Gaelic speaker and he had received some training in playing the harp in his youth. Dr McDonnell was actually the person who encouraged Bunting to put together his famous collection of harp tunes, which is still a standard text for harp players today.
McDonnell also seems to have encouraged Bunting to collect material from his tenants in the Glens; the notes on the manuscript text of ‘The Clan Uisneach’ state that the tune was taken down
“from a Cushendall man in the lower Glens near the Giants’ Causeway. Tenant to Dr McDonnell 1799.”
Bunting wrote down the airs of a few songs in Cushendall and Ballycastle, but he spoke little or no Irish, and had little real interest in Gaelic culture. Most of the lyrics which were sung to the airs he collected are therefore now lost.
Other scholars and collectors had more success than Bunting did, and their work is much more valuable in that it gives us a greater insight into the culture of the area. Most of our knowledge about the Gaelic song tradition of this area comes from the work of the following collectors:
Robert MacAdam from Belfast was the first Gaelic scholar known to have collected some songs in the area; he did some work here between 1830 and 1850.
Eoin MacNeill was a Glenarm man and a well-known Gaelic scholar, who collected some songs here in the 1890s; he was, of course, also a man of great political importance in the early twentieth century.
Rose Young, another local Gaelic scholar who was also known as Rois NI Ogain, did a small amount of song collection here in the early twentieth century; she was brought up in Galgorm House in Ballymena, and her family were wealthy Unionist linen merchants.
Aoidhmin Mac Greagoir, who lived in Belfast, published a large amount of material on the local dialect between 1910 and 1915 (some of it is unfortunately unreliable, but a good deal of it is valuable).
Henry Morris from Monaghan did some song collection in the Glens during the 1920s and 30s.
James Hamilton Delargy was a native of the Glens but actually learned his Irish at boarding school near Dublin; he preserved some of the songs of the area in his manuscripts. Incidentally, Delargy is a very important figure in the history of Gaelic scholars, and he did a huge amount to preserve Gaelic folklore all over Ireland.
The Swedish academic, Nils Holmer, did a great deal of work here; he was really a language scholar, but he also wrote down some songs.
Sean Mac Maolain, a writer from Glenariffe who was an extremely important figure in terms of the work he did on Glens Irish, published some songs from the area as late as 1961.3
It should be noted that of the local song collectors — MacNeill, Young, Delargy and Mac Maolain — none of them was a native speaker of Gaelic; they all learned the language from other sources, although Sean Mac Maolain’s father, I understand, did have the native Gaelic of this area. None of these scholars collected a huge number of songs — some of them only collected two or three songs and many of the songs are garbled or incomplete, but every fragment is important in helping us piece together a picture of the tradition of Gaelic song in the Glens.
As regards the songs themselves, they can be divided into four categories:
- Songs associated with the Irish Gaelic tradition: that is, songs which are widespread and well-known all over Gaelic-speaking Ireland.
- Songs which were known throughout Gaelic Ireland and Gaelic
- Songs associated with the Scottish Gaelic tradition: there is evidence that Irish speakers from this area were able to communicate easily with Scottish Gaelic speakers, and that many songs were shared and swapped around as well.
- Songs of local origin: that is, songs which were composed by local people in this area. Very few of these songs remain, but they do give us an interesting insight into local history.
Songs associated with the Irish Gaelic tradition
There is evidence that, unsurprisingly, some of the most common Irish
Gaelic songs were once to be found here. One such song is ‘An Droighneán Donn’, or ‘The Brown Thorn’, first collected by Robert MacAdam between 1830 and 1850.4 ‘An Droighneán Donn’ is a love song, and it is one of the most common Gaelic songs in Ireland. It also seems to have been one of the most popular songs in this area, because several variants of it were known. Eoin MacNeill collected a second version in the 1890s,5 and Sean Mac Maolain published a third version, as late as 1961, when there was very little Irish left in the Glens.6 Mac Maolain noted that he had heard people singing the song during his youth. I have here reproduced one of the verses from the MacAdam manuscript; variants of this verse are found all over Gaelic-speaking Ireland:
‘An Droighneán Donn’
Cuirim mo bheannacht chun an tí atá in aice na gcrann
I send my greeting to the house beside the trees
Is ann a bhíos mo thathaidh go moch is go mall
It is there I make my journey both early and late
Is iomdha bealach fliuch is salach agus bóthairín cam
There are many wet and dirty paths and little winding roads
Idir mise agus an áit a bhfuil mo ró-ghrá ann
Between me and the place where my great love is.
A number of other common Irish songs were also collected locally, and some of these songs are of considerable antiquity. These songs include ‘Na Gamhna Geala’ (‘The Bright Calves’), a nostalgic song about an unhappily-married woman who longs to be out looking after the cattle, as she did when she was young. (7) This song may have become widespread around the early seventeenth century.
‘Thugamar fein an samhradh linn’ (‘We brought the summer with us’) is probably a much older song; it is impossible to fix a precise date to it, but it refers to summer festivities which originated in the pre-Christian era, and it would therefore be reasonable to assume that this song has existed in some form for hundreds of years. This is the fragment of the song that was collected in Cushendun:
‘Thugamar fein an samhradh linn’
Samhradh, samhradh, bainne na ngamhna
Summertime, summertime, milk of the calves
Thugamar féin an samhradh linn
We brought the summer with us
Samhradh buí na neoinín glégheal
Golden summertime of the bright daisies
Thugamar féin an samhradh linn
We brought the summer with us.8
This allusion to ‘bringing the summer with us’ refers to the pagan belief that human actions had an influence over the seasons, and that summer had to be brought in with May processions and other pre-Christian rituals.
When I was preparing this paper, I thought I had a fairly comprehensive list of all the songs that were known to have been collected here, but very occasionally when doing research like this you stumble across a gem. One particular gem was recently passed on to me thanks to Mairead McMullan. It is a school exercise book from 1907, and in it is a copy of a song, collected in Glenariffe, which had never otherwise been recorded in this area. I am told that the manuscript was discovered some years ago, when the exercise book was found abandoned in a dump. It was then passed on to Mairead, who very kindly gave me a copy recently. There is no information in the manuscript as to the collector who wrote the song down. All we are told is that it was collected from a ‘Mrs McGarry’ in Glenariffe. The handwriting is unfortunately quite poor, and some of it is illegible.
The song concerns a discontented marriage — a common theme in Gaelic song. It takes the form of a dialogue between husband and wife, and it is closely related to a Donegal song called ‘An Ghiobóg’.The Donegal variant of the song is very useful in helping to make sense of the Glens’ version, which seems to be incomplete. The Glens version of the song begins with the wife looking back at her youth:
Nuair a bhí mise i mo chailín óg
When I was a young girl
Ba dheas mo chulaith éadaigh
I wore a nice suit of clothes
Hata dubh is ribín deas
A black hat and a nice ribbon
is buclaí buí i mo bhróga
and yellow buckles in my shoes.
The implication is that she was financially comfortable as a young girl, but she is not quite so well-off now, and is not happy about it. Then the husband replies that he was equally well-off:
Nuair a bhí mise i mo bhuachaill óg
When I was a young boy
Ba dheas mo chulaith éadaigh
I wore a nice suit of clothes.
Bhí mo lámha gan teannachadh
My hands were not bound
(i.e. I was free to do as I pleased).
Then the wife laments that she was forced to marry the husband and that if she hadn’t married him she would be wasting away in poverty. This possibly means that she would have been disowned by her family if she had refused the marriage they had arranged for her. She also calls the husband a ‘cealgaighe’, a deceiver.
The Glens version of the song doesn’t tell us how exactly he was deceitful, but the Donegal variant states that the husband misled the wife about his own poverty —she believed she was marrying a well-off man, but in fact his nice suit of clothes was borrowed and he was up to his ears in debt. The Glens version of the song doesn’t mention this detail but it does shed light on the probable meaning of the song.
Finally, the last verse of the song is quite garbled but it is possible to make out the following romantic sentiment:
‘It’s a pity you can’t treat a spouse the way you’d treat a cow or a sheep
If it doesn’t please you, you bring it to the market.’
Songs which were known throughout Gaelic Ireland and Gaelic Scotland
There is some evidence in this area about the tradition of singing what were known as Fenian lays — that is to say, long, chant-like songs which related the deeds of the mythical heroes Fionn and the Fianna. The songs and stories about Fionn and the Fianna seem to have been very popular here as they were in many areas of Gaelic Ireland and Gaelic Scotland. Edward Bunting collected one of these songs in 1809, again from a tenant of Dr McDonnell’s. Unusually for Bunting, he also wrote down some of the words although the complete song was undoubtedly much longer than this.
The song is connected to one of the tales involving Oisín, son of Fionn Mac Cumhaill, and St Patrick:
Lá dá raibh Pádraig i nDun
One day when St. Patrick was in Downpatrick
Gan saibhre gan ní ‘s gan é ag ó1
Without wealth, without possessions and without a drink
Ghluais se go tigh Oisín mhoir mhic Finn
He went to the house of great Oisín son of Fionn
Ar leis a budh b(h)inn an glór
He who had the sweet voice.9
As mentioned above, this particular version was collected in 1809; other variants have been collected throughout Ireland and Scotland. An early written version of this song is to be found in ‘Duanaire Finn’, (‘The poem book of Fionn’), the manuscript of which dates from 1627. The poems in this manuscript are reckoned by scholars to have been composed between 1100 and 1500 — making this a very old song indeed. It is not known where the ‘Duanaire Finn’ version of the song was collected, but the poem book itself has a Glens connection.
It was commissioned by Captain Sorley MacDonnell, one of the Antrim McDonnells, as a record of the ancient tales and poems about the Fianna. The manuscript was later edited and published by the Glenarm scholar, Eoin MacNeill. Many other Fenian lays probably existed in this area — the local storytellers were renowned for their knowledge of the traditions relating to Fionn and the Fianna — but these have now all been lost.
There is also some valuable evidence in this area about the singing of laments for the dead, a custom which was once widespread throughout Gaelic Ireland and Gaelic Scotland.
‘Caoineadh na dTrí Muire’‘The Lament of the Three Marys’, an ancient song about the crucifixion of Christ, used to be sung at funeral processions in Cushendun (10). This song was sung at wakes and funerals all over Ireland and a small number of related songs also survive in Scotland. There was also an ancient Gaelic custom of composing a lament on the occasion of every bereavement. These laments tell the listeners about the good qualities of the person who died, and express the sorrow of those left behind. This tradition of singing laments was sometimes described by observers as ‘The Irish Cry’, although it was widespread in Scotland as well and according to the Ordnance Survey Memoirs of North Antrim and Rathlin in 1831, ‘The Irish cry at funerals is still kept up here by the Roman Catholics, and is arranged with more melancholy sweetness than in any other part of Ireland’.11 This practice went back to pagan times and was strongly discouraged by the clergy, so that it eventually died out. Unfortunately we have no record of exactly what kind of laments were sung here but they presumably followed the same pattern as other laments sung in the rest of Ireland and in Scotland.
Songs associated with the Scottish Gaelic tradition
Unlike the songs collected on the mainland, which were mainly (though not exclusively) composed in Ireland, the songs collected on Rathlin Island were predominantly Scottish in origin. One of the most common songs sung on the island was called ‘Domhnall agus Morag’ —’Domhnall and Morag’. This is a Scottish Gaelic wedding song. In the Scottish Gaelic tradition it was quite common practice for the local bard to celebrate a wedding by composing a song about it. This particular song became very well-known all over Scotland, and the chorus tells us that this was a wedding which was much talked about:
‘Domhnall agus Morag’
‘S é Domhnall, ‘s é Domhnall, ‘s e Domhnall a rinne an bhainis
It was Domhnall, it was Domhnall, it was Domhnall who had the wedding
Domhnall agus Morag a rinne an bhainis ainmeil
Domhnall and Morag who had the famous wedding.
This was a very common song on Rathlin, but one verse in particular makes it quite clear that this is a Scottish song in origin:
Bha móran de na huaislean ann, is tuathanaigh na hAlbna;
There were many noble people there, and the farmers of Scotland as well;
Bha caiphtín Inbhir Aghrath ann — ‘sé am pádhadh a rinne a mharbhadh!
The Captain of Inverary was there — it was the thirst that killed him!12
This song was recorded some years ago by the Donegal group, ‘Altan’. Other Scottish songs collected on Rathlin include ‘Fear a’ Bháta’, or ‘The Boatman’. This song was composed in the eighteenth century, by a woman called Jane Finlayson, who was from the island of Lewis, off the north-west coast of Scotland.13 The song deals with a woman who is waiting for her boatman to come home. The following is an excerpt from the Rathlin variant of the song:
‘Fear a’ Bháta’
Théid mé suas ar a chnoc is airde
I will go up on the highest hill
Féach an bhfeic me fear a’ bháta
To see if I can see the boatman
An dtig thú anocht, nó an dtig thú amárach?
Will you come tonight, or will you come tomorrow?
Nó muna dtig thú idir is truagh atá mé.
Or if you don’t come at all, I will be wretched.
This is one of the most common songs in Scottish Gaelic and a very lengthy Rathlin version was published by the Monaghan collector Énrí Ó Muirgheasa.14
Some very ancient Scottish songs also survived on the island. In the year 1526, a lament was composed for a Scottish nobleman from Inverness, called Lachlann Mackintosh, who was killed falling from his horse. The story goes that Lachlann Mackintosh was a famous horseman but that it was prophesied that his death would be caused by a black horse. He was riding a black horse on the way to his wedding in 1526. When the horse proved unmanageable, he became fearful and took out his gun and killed it. A piebald horse was then brought to him and he followed the same route but when the piebald horse saw the body of the black horse, it shied so badly that Mackintosh fell off and was killed.15
His wife composed a lament for him. This song, known as ‘Mackintosh’s lament’, became widespread in Scotland and also made its way to Rathlin where it was collected from various people in the early twentieth century. The Rathlin version of the song became somewhat garbled with the passage of time but the following verse is very closely related to the lament which still survives in the Scottish tradition:
Leag ‘s (ch)a do thóg iad thú
They struck you down and they did not raise you
Leag ‘s (ch)a do thóg iad thú
They struck you down and they did not raise you
Leag ‘s (ch)a do thóg iad thú
They struck you down and they did not raise you
In bealach a’ gharraidh.16
In the road to the garden
The Rathlin version of the story behind the song also became quite incoherent over the years. The story seems to have become intertwined with local legends about magical water-horses and the explanation that eventually emerged on Rathlin was that the song was a lament made by the fairies for a magical water-horse which was killed.
Incidentally, for some reason the story concludes with a prophecy that a woman called McCurdy, who is married to a man called McCurdy, can raise the water-horse from the dead if she brushes her skirts against a well at Doonmore on Rathlin Island. So this song is very interesting in that it demonstrates how a song from 16th century Inverness could still be popular in Rathlin as late as the 1930s, but it also shows how much songs and stories change and evolve over long periods of time.
On a lighter note, a number of Scottish dance-songs were also collected on Rathlin. These are fast, rhythmic songs, often with comical words and they are used for dancing to if no musical instruments are available. One such example is as follows; no tune survives for this song, but the rhythm of the words is so pronounced as to suggest that the song was used for dancing to:
Na mnán ar an dallaraigh
The women on the tear
‘S na mnán ar an daoraigh
And the women on the rip
Bhá té a’ loscadh a cuiricean
One was roasting her kerchief
(Up until the eighteenth century, married women in the Highlands of Scotland wore kerchiefs on their heads to show their married status)
Bhá té a’ loscadh a léine
One was roasting her shirt
Bhá té a’ loscadh a h-apron
One was roasting her apron
Ait a bhiodh an réiteach
In the place where the matches were made.’17
This word ‘reiteach’, an elaborate matchmaking ritual, refers to a custom found only in Highland Scotland and the allusions to the ‘reiteach’ and to the married woman’s kerchief show how strong this song’s connection to Scotland is. As mentioned above, this type of lighthearted dance-song is very much a Scottish tradition which made its way to Rathlin.
A number of chants and customs relating to New Year festivities were also recorded on Rathlin, showing strong links to the Scottish Gaelic New Year celebrations. On Rathlin, the Hogmanay ritual of first-footing was accompanied by a chant which was also very common all over Gaelic Scotland:
Cóileann, cóileann, fo’n a bhóiteann
New year, new year, under the bundle of straw
(The straw probably refers to the fact that people who took part in seasonal rituals often disguised themselves with straw head-dresses; mummers traditionally did this as well)
Eadar cloch is crann
Between the hearthstone and the crane
(This can be explained by the fact that the first-footers expected to receive a gift — the gift was often concealed beside the fireplace)
Go mbeannaighe Dia an toigh atá ann
May God bless the house
Fir is mná is páisdean
Men and women and children.
This particular version of the chant was recited a few years ago by Alex Morrison, the last person who has native knowledge of the Gaelic of Rathlin Island. Other versions threaten adverse consequences if the woman of the house fails to be generous to the first footers:
‘Éirigh suas a bhean an toigh’
Get up woman of the house
A’s tabhair domhsa bannach, gimeach, grúmach
Give me bread, [the words ‘gimeach’ and ‘grtimach’ are unclear]
A’s sliocht an im ar a’ mhásach
And spread the butter on the bread
Mana bhfuighe mise sin
If I don’t get that
Thig croman as cúl Cnoc Leithid
A hawk will come from the back of Knocklayde
A’s scíobfaidh e thu leis
And it will snatch you away with it.18
The mention of Knocklayde is quite interesting, since this is a chant of Scottish origin. What often happens is that people, once they have taken on a piece of folklore, insert local knowledge and local superstitions into it to make it their own. I should mention that this chant was found in north Antrim, as well as on Rathlin. The food and gifts given to the first-footers in this ceremony were later donated to the poor.
Songs of local origin
As well as all the Irish and Scottish songs above, we also find a small number of songs in this area which seem to have been composed here. The most famous of these local songs is, of course, ‘Aird a’ Chuain.’ But a couple of other little-known local songs have come to light as well and they give us some important insights into our local history and culture.
The first local song I will discuss is a song called ‘Squire Boyd’. It was collected by Robert MacAdam in Cushendall between 1830 and 1850, and the person who sang the song for MacAdam was John McCambridge. Unfortunately, like many of the songs collected in this area, no tune survives for this song. The song itself is also incomplete and the text is somewhat garbled.The first part of the song seems to deal with the destruction of hawthorn trees, which were believed to have been the homes of the fairies. The following is an excerpt from the song which describes the displeasure of the fairies when their hawthorn trees are cut down:
Is an n-fionag sí caint amach as an tom
And the fairy maiden speaking from the bush
Sna bainnibh le sgeag an aruis
[Saying] don’t disturb the thorn of our dwelling
Far a bhfuil teaghlach na Righ
Where the families of the [fairy] Kings
Faoi na sgeathaigh faghail díon
Are sheltering under the thorns
Is a n-iomadach sluagh a bharr air
And many crowds of fairies are there as well.19
There is also a reference in the song to ‘na tenantaidh thruaigh ga ndíbirt’ — ‘the poor tenants being scattered’. This would seem to mean that the fairies are seen as the rightful tenants of the hawthorn trees, and that they have no homes when the hawthorn trees are destroyed. It therefore looks as though this is a song which has been put in the mouths of the fairies, and is a complaint that the fairy thorns are being desecrated. There is actually some evidence that people in this area were particularly superstitious about fairy thorns, so much so that the superstition is commented on in the Ordnance Survey Memoirs for the area: ‘[the people’s] prejudice against cutting down or removing old hawthorn trees is very strong, as they confidently believe that the committal of such an act will be followed by some signal misfortune to the perpetrator’.20
The first part of the song, then, deals with the fairies and with their complaint that hawthorn trees should not be disturbed. Then, in the manuscript, part of the text is missing. After that, however, the final fragment of the song gives us valuable information as to when the song was composed:
Ona dh’imigh Squire Bóid cha nfhuaramar cóir
Since Squire Boyd went, we haven’t had fair treatment
O ein neach a bhfuil beo sa tír-sa
From anyone alive in this land.
This reference to Squire Boyd is very important in terms of establishing when the song is likely to have been composed. The title of ‘Squire’ Boyd suggests that the person in question was a landlord, and it is well known in the area that the Boyd family were landlords around Ballycastle from the early seventeenth century onwards. The interesting thing about this song is the implied reference to the fact that Squire Boyd treated the people fairly. It is most unusual in Gaelic tradition to hear a landlord being praised in any way. Landlords were usually regarded as the enemy, so the fact that Squire Boyd was given this kind of praise — the fact that the people seem to have missed him —suggests that he must have been a very exceptional landlord indeed.
The most likely Squire Boyd to merit this praise was Hugh Boyd who was a well-known figure in the area in the eighteenth century and who died in 1765. He was a very unusual landlord in that he took great care of his tenants and workers. For example, when the price of bread increased hugely in the mid-eighteenth century, Squire Boyd purchased wheat, employed local people to bake bread with it, and then sold it to his workforce at a fraction of the price they would otherwise have paid for it. He also did huge work to improve the local economy; he organised the building of a new harbour in Ballycastle, and actually part-financed the building work himself; he also established quarries, a glassworks and Boyd’s bar in Ballycastle, which is still open today.21
After his death, unfortunately, there were some difficulties with the management of the Boyd estate and all this good work was allowed to fall into ruins. It is clear that Hugh Boyd was an exceptional landlord and would no doubt have been greatly missed by his tenants after he died. It seems more than likely that he is the ‘Squire Boyd’ mentioned in the song and this would suggest that the song was probably composed within a few years of his death in 1765. In this song, therefore, we can get an interesting insight into what the local people thought of this remarkable character known as Squire Boyd.
Another local song is the following fragment of a spinning song collected by James Hamilton Delargy. Women often used to sing while they were spinning wool in order to ease the monotony of the work. Unfortunately the tune was never collected, but these are some of the surviving words of the song:
I nGleann Bhaile Éamoinn a chodluigheas mo stor
In Glenballyeamon my love sleeps
Ca oidhir ca ón tá mo chroidhe a’ chomh lag
Alas my heart is so weak
Chan fhuil fonn ar mo ghlór
My voice can’t raise a song
Rachaidh mé sa phobal is cruinní ró mhor
I will go out to the meeting places among the big crowds
Líonann mo shúil le mealltai cheo
My eyes fill with a mist of tears
Chan fhaicim í ‘seasamh i misg na maighidean óg
I don’t see her standing among the young maidens.22
This is a very simple love song and unfortunately we have very little information about it but the reference to Glenballyeamon marks it out as a local song and it does give an insight into the fact that this kind of local song was a feature of the tradition in this area.
Finally, the most famous song to have been composed in this area is called ‘Aird a’ Chuain’. ‘Aird a’ Chuain’ is a townland about a mile to the west of Cushendun; the placename has been anglicized as Ardicoan. The earliest surviving written copy of the song is to be found in Robert MacAdam’s manuscript which dates from between 1830 and 1850 and the song is about the homesickness and loneliness of a man who emigrated from the area. The following is one of the verses from MacAdam’s manuscript:
‘Aird a’ Chuain’
Dam beidhin féin a nAirde-Chuain
If only I were in Ardicoan
A n-aice an tsléibh’ atá i bhfad bhuaim
By yon far-off hill
Gheabhainn ól ann, ceol is imirt
I would get drink there, music and sport
Is chan fhuighinn bás a n-uaigneas
And I wouldn’t die in loneliness.
The song also refers to the tradition of emigrants returning home to die, which was quite a common phenomenon, as most Irish emigrants wanted to die in their homeland:
Dam beidh agam ach coite ‘s ramh
If only I had a boat and an oar
Is gom beidhin ag iomram ar an rámh
And if only I were rowing with the oar
Dúil leis an Rígh is ruigean slán
Hoping to God to reach my destination safely
Is go bhfuighinn-se bás in Éirinn
So that I would die in Ireland.
There is no question about the theme of the song. It is obviously a song about exile and homesickness. There is, however, a question mark over the identity of the person who composed the song. It has been generally assumed that John McCambridge from Cushendall was the composer; the first person to ascribe the song’s authorship to McCambridge was Eoin MacNeill from Glenarm. McCambridge’s name certainly appears at the top of the earliest written copy of the song but recent research has cast some doubt on the assumption that McCambridge was the author.
As mentioned above, Robert MacAdam collected the earliest written version of the song in the nineteenth century and he wrote McCambridge’s name at the top of it. Robert MacAdam was in the habit of writing the name of the informant at the top of each piece of material he collected. So this manuscript does not state for certain that McCambridge was the author of the song; all it means is that McCambridge was Robert MacAdam’s informant for the song. If we look at the manuscript copy of the song ‘Squire Boyd’, we see McCambridge’s name written at the top of it as well. McCambridge certainly did not write ‘Squire Boyd’ — Hugh Boyd was dead long before McCambridge was born — so this suggests that MacAdam collected both songs from McCambridge, and that McCambridge was just the informant and not the author of both these songs.
As well as being collected from John McCambridge, MacAdam’s manuscript copies of the two songs ‘Squire Boyd’ and ‘Aird a’ Chuain` also share another common feature. Both songs contain a series of asterisks within the body of the song-text. What this means is that part of the song was corrupted or garbled — so much so, that the collector was unable to make any sense of it. I would suggest that if McCambridge had composed either of these songs, he would surely have been able to provide the full, uncorrupted text for the collector. It is also worth noting that the song ‘Aird a’ Chuain’ was collected from a number of local native Gaelic speakers in the early twentieth century and none of these people ever said that McCambridge was the author. If he had been the author, local people would surely have remembered that fact. McCambridge only died in 1873, which places him well within the lifetimes of many people who knew the song. It is inconceivable that the identity of an author could have been forgotten so quickly.
There is also some evidence that the song was actually composed about a hundred years before it was ever collected from John McCambridge. One woman in Glenariffe in the early 1920s said that ‘Aird a’ Chuain’ was composed about a man who was forced to flee the country rather than emigrating voluntarily. She said about this man:
Ba lon dubh é, agus b’eigean dó teitheadh as a’ tír
He was a ‘blackbird’ [i.e. a Jacobite], and he had to flee the country.23
‘Lon dubh’ is literally a blackbird, but the interesting thing about this description is that in Gaelic tradition this description ‘lon dubh’ was used to describe a supporter of the Jacobite cause — that is, a supporter of Bonnie Prince Charlie or his father, James, who were the pretenders to the English throne. There is actually a mention of Bonnie Prince Charlie in MacAdam’s manuscript which is the earliest known written version of the song:
S iomdha amharc a bh’agam pféin
Many times I have looked out
Ó Shruan Ghearráin go dtí an Mhaoil
From Garron Point to the Mull of Kintyre
Ar loingeas mór a’ caith ar ghaoith
At a great ship being driven by the wind
Agus cabhlach an Rígh Seorlaidh
And King Charlie’s fleet.
This mention of Bonnie Prince Charlie, together with the use of the description ‘Ion dubh’, means that there is a strong possibility that the song is actually connected with eighteenth-century Jacobitism. The Jacobite movement was active all over Gaelic Ireland and Hector MacDonnell has previously written in The Glynns about the strong Jacobite tradition among his own ancestors in this area.24 So if this evidence is taken into account, it looks as though the song may well have been composed in the mid-eighteenth century, perhaps around the time of the Jacobite rebellion of 1745. This means that John McCambridge could not possibly have composed it. The Jacobite cause had long since been defeated by the time McCambridge was born in 1793.
There is one other important local tradition about the author of the song ‘Aird a’ Chuain’. In local folklore, there is an account of a Cushendun shepherd called Cormac O’Neill having composed the song. He was supposed to have been working in Dieskirt when he composed it and he is reputed to have lived in ‘the house presently owned by Mrs Doran’.25 This information appears in Robert Sharpe and Charles McAllister’s book, A Glimpse at Glenariffe, and I am told that the information was noted down from two of the last Irish speakers in the Glens, Jim Bhriain McAuley and Anna McAllister. Unfortunately, records from this period are very sparse, and I have not been able to find out any more about this Cormac O’Neill but I would suggest that he is quite likely to have been the composer of the song since local knowledge is usually fairly reliable in cases like these.
One final word about ‘Aird a’ Chuain’. It seems to have been a song that everybody in the area knew whether they were singers or not. There is quite a lot of evidence that people who were not singers recited the words as a poem. Sean Mac Maolain, the great Gaelic scholar from Glenariffe, wrote that the Glens people had a particular respect for the song. Even in an area that was once so rich in songs, this song was particularly important to the people. For this reason, ‘Aird a’ Chuain’ lasted right up until the Irish language was lost altogether. Jim Bhriain McAuley, the last native speaker in the Glens, knew the song and recited it for a collector as late as 1981, a couple of years before he died.26 It is clear, therefore, that ‘Aird a’ Chuain’ was a very important part of the culture of this area, and it is still well known in Gaelic-speaking areas throughout Ireland.
I am very grateful to Ciaran Ó Duibhín, who has provided a comprehensive list of sources for Antrim Gaelic on his website, www.smo.uhi.ac.ukl–oduibhinloirthearlbiblio.txt This piece of research would not have been possible without this valuable resource. I am also very grateful to Mairead McMullan for providing me with a copy of a song manuscript from 1907 which is in her possession.
- Angélique Day and Patrick McWilliams (eds), Ordnance Survey Memoirs of Ireland: Parishes of County Antrim IV: 1830-8: Glens of Antrim, 13 (Belfast: The Institute of Irish Studies, The Queen’s University of Belfast, in association with The Royal Irish Academy, 1992), p8
- Edward Bunting MSS, held in Queen’s University Belfast. MS 27, no 68. See also Colette Moloney, The Irish music manuscripts of Edward Bunting (1773-1843): An introduction and catalogue (Dublin: Taisce Cheol Dfichais Eireann, 2000)
- Sean Mac Maoláin, ‘A mbéinn féin in Aird a’ Chuain’, An tUltach, vol 38, no 12 (December 1961), p4
- Robert MacAdam MSS (MS 31), held in the Central Library, Belfast
- Eoin Mac Neill, ‘Irish in the Glens of Antrim’, The Gaelic Journal:Irisleabhar na Gaedhilge, 6 (1895-6), 106-110 (p108)
- Mac Maoláin, ‘A mbéinn féin in Aird a’ Chuain’, p4
- Aoidhmín Mac Greagoir (ed), ‘Na Gamhna Geala’ An tUltach, vol 5, no 5 (June, 1928), p6
- Róis Ni Ógáin (ed), Duanaire Gaedhilge (Baile Atha Cliath: Comhlucht Oideachais na hÉireann, Tta, 1921), p16, fn p90
- Bunting MSS, Queen’s University, Belfast. MS 27, no 67. See also Moloney, The Irish music manuscripts of Edward Bunting, p326
- Ní Ógáin, Duanaire Gaedhilge, p115
- Angélique Day, Patrick McWilliams and Nóirín Dobson (eds), Ordnance Survey Memoirs of Ireland: Parishes of County Antrim IX: 1830-2, 1835, 1838- 9: North Antrim Coast and Rathlin, vol 24 (The Institute of Irish Studies, The Queen’s University of Belfast, in association with The Royal Irish Academy, 1994), p99
- Seosamh Laoide (ed), An Cúigeadh Leabhar (Baile Átha Cliath: Connradh na Gaedhilge, 1914), p186
- Anne Lorne Gillies, Songs of Gaelic Scotland (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2005), p67
- Énrí Ó Muirgheasa (ed), Dhá Chéad de Cheoltaibh Uladh (Baile Atha Cliath: Oifig Mita Foillseacháin Rialtais, 1934), pp102-103
- Margaret Fay Shaw (ed), Folksongs and Folklore of South Uist (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 1999), p134
- Nils M Holmer MSS, RBÉ, Dublin, p376
- Nils M Holmer, The Irish Language in Rathlin Island, Co Antrim (Dublin: Hodges Figgis, 1942), p137
- Holmer MSS, RBE, Dublin, p338
- MacAdam MSS, Central Library, Belfast
- Day and McWilliams, Ordnance Survey Memoirs of Ireland: Parishes of County Antrim IV, p8
- Hugh Alexander Boyd, Old Ballycastle: and, Marconi and Ballycastle: Two Lectures (Belfast: Irish News, 1968), pp16-19
- Watson, ‘Seamus Ó Duilearga’s Antrim Notebooks’, p92
- Seosamh Laoide, (ed), An Ceathramhadh Leabhar (Baile Atha Cliath: Connradh na Gaedhilge, 1922), p132
- Hector MacDonnell, ‘Jacobitism and the Third and Fourth Earls of Antrim’, The Glynns, 13 (1985), (pp51-53)
- Robert Sharpe and Charles McAllister, A Glimpse at Glenariffe (Ballycastle and Coleraine: Impact Printing, 1997), pp115, 187
- ‘Candida’ [Eibhlin NI Bhriain], ‘An Irishwoman’s Diary’, The Irish Times, 28 September 1981, p9