Ancient music of Ireland

A few pages mainly inspired by the collections of Edward Bunting, who had attended the famous Belfast Harp Festival in 1792 and had been engaged to note down the music from the last harpers, before it would vanish with them for ever.
The tunes (in MIDI format, i.e. not music, but mere mechanical sound output of sheet music !)   are an attempt to reflect this very stage of Irish music, standing, at this end of the 18th century, at the crossroads of several traditions, combining and blending them, in various proportions, and creating something new. Very roughly :
- until the end of the Middle Ages, "bardic" music of the harpers (cruitire), accompanying the poets' (file) verses, widespread in all island and continental celtic area. Religious choral music, war-pipe music, work songs are likely to have been heard by many ears.
- around the 17th century, music of the itinerant harpers, who had lost their statute of court musicians when clans were swept away. Their way of life has been described by Arthur O'Neill (1734-1818) in his (on line) memoirs.
- Baroque music, which had a great influence upon composers like Carolan, and arrangers like Lyons,
- preromantic "classical" music, strongly influencing collectors like Bunting, and the arrangements they published.
- Later on, popular and nationalist musics and songs, dance music (often imported from England or the continent) will be in their turn merged into the ever shifting tradition.

after Michael Praetorius' Theatrum Instrumentorum (1618) : Irish harp with brass strings

This situation, between popular and scholarly music (echoed in the social position of the last harpers) is probably representative of other traditions (see welsh harp & piobaireachd page). It is expressed further in the coexistence of anonymous tunes along with others, more or less mythically credited to different composers.

after "The Image of Ireland", by John Derrick (1581)

This kind of music, unlike the mediæval european music which is purely modal and develops its lines around a few emphasized notes of the scale, is often (for the first time ?) built on particular subsets (chords) of the scale.
Another feature, extensively discussed by Bunting, is the occasional lack of certain notes of the scale. This distinguishes some pibroch-like tunes (Scott lamentation), which he credits with less antiquity than airs spanning the whole scale, attributing it to a "fashion" at Rory Dall's time. Yet pentatonic scales do not seem to be a late discovery in the gaelic world !
Nevertheless if not strictly modal, it remains "horizontal". Hence, a minimal harmonization has always been sought in the present arrangements : Melodic richness is best emphasized in a "poor" harmonic framework, i.e. a melodic line loses its own flavour if coming about within a parallel harmonic shift (That is true of modern traditional music as well).
The arrangements have been displayed in various ways : either they take up published scores (mainly by Bunting) or they (carefully !) harmonize melodies ; they often combine the two options, the harmonized rendering coming afterward.


The tune are in GM-MIDI format. Arrangements have been created with Cakewalk and Band-in-a-Box. It may be necessary, according to your soundcard, to change drum canal (default 16 to 10), in the few tunes where they're present.

You should install the typeface Bunchló.ttf, by Vincent Morley. (Click here to download the 16 Ko zip file, then unzip and save it to your fonts folder) in order to see the Gaelic lettering, on the next pages.
Try Footlight MT Light (© The Monotype Corporation) font too

With MidiNotate, you can convert my MIDI files to musical notation that can be immediately viewed on the screen as the music is playing, and print them as sheet music.
go to MidiNotate


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Early Irish Music

Carolan's Compositions

Dance Music

Other Celtic Musics


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O'Neill's Memoirs

Fiacail Phádraig  (ca. 1350)