St. Patrick's Day: the Tune

Music, song, dance, merriment and drinking have been synonymous with the celebration of St. Patrick by Irish people all over the world for many centuries. This year most parades will be cancelled owing to the COVID-19 virus and thousands of musicians will not have the same opportunities to perform the tune most commonly associated with the annual celebrations St. Patrick’s Day. In this blog ITMA Director Liam O'Connor will look into the history of the well-known melody. It is certainly not intended as a comprehensive or definitive account as currently there are 964 references to it in ITMA’s catalogue and not all of them can be accessed at present! 

20180226 Img Patricks Day Postcard
Postcards: early 1900s

St. Patrick’s Day is sometimes referred to as a 6/8 march, a set-dance or even a jig. It is well-known, not only in traditional Irish music circles but throughout the world. It has also been used by a surprising variety of people from military bands to romantic composer Beethoven. It was even danced to by Zulu tribal warriors during the Boer War. People the world over recognise the melody. However, its playing can be symbolic in a number of different ways and can provoke diametrically opposed reactions. Be warned, it has been known to lead to some unsavoury violent incidents on occasions! 

Bunting 1840 Patricksday
The Ancient Music of Ireland, Arranged for the Piano Forte, To which is prefixed a Dissertation on the Irish Harp and Harpers, Including an Account of the Old Melodies of Ireland, 1840

Edward Bunting transcribed St. Patrick’s Day from the playing of harper Patrick Quinn in 1792. He published a version of it in 1840 in which he remarked that the author and date of composition was unknown. However, St. Patrick’s Day was popular long before its inclusion in Bunting’s final collection. At least twenty published versions of this popular melody are catalogued in Fleischmann’s Sources of Irish Traditional Music 1600-1855. The earliest known published version appears in Oswald’s The Caledonian Pocket Companion Book XI which was printed in the late 1750s. Interestingly it includes a 4/4 version of St. Patrick’s Day which is seldom, if ever, played by the general traditional music community nowadays. It is then followed by the 6/8 melody we are more familiar with. Oswald’s second St. Patrick’s Day is really a jig variation on the 4/4 melody. Fleischmann commented on this occurrence of a slow version of a melody presented before a faster variation:

Just as in the sixteenth century pavane and galliard formed a pair of dances often based on much the same material, so in the eighteenth century this type of pairing is to be found in Irish and Scottish sources…

The melody remains very popular in Ireland for dancing purposes. Dance masters often ‘cut out figures’ or particular dance steps and movements set to St. Patrick’s Day. In 1936, Nicolás Breathnach collected an example of these dance figures from Willie Curran of Ballinure, Port Láirge. 

In a single dance that is bout a person must not only have good steps but he must also cut out some figure. When myself dances “St. Patrick’s Day” I make the figure of a shamrock on the boards. 

Breathnach includes a drawing of a shamrock and gives the direction for the dancer to move from left to right following the shape of a shamrock to return position.

Cropped Mici  Mac Gabhann Facebook
Micí Mac Gabhann (1865-1948)

Rotha Mór an tSaoil by Micí Mac Gabhann (1865-1948) details the hardships Irish gold-sekers endured on their way to Tír an Óir [The Land of Gold]. Mac Gabhann's heart pulsated with excitement when the unexpected strains of a wandering piper playing St. Patrick's Day struck him like a bolt of lightning, from a nearby hilltop in Klondike, thousands of miles from his home in Cloughaneely, County Donegal.

Ach mar bhí mé a rá, bhí mé féin amuigh ag taobh an chabháin an maidin Lá Fhéile Pádraig seo ag tógáíl canna sneachta le huisce a dhéanamh. Nuair a bhí mo dhá cheann i dtalamh, dar liom go gcuala mé ceol píob i bhfad ar shiúl. Shíl mé i dtús báire nach rabh ann ach aisling, ach i gcionn tamaill chuala mé arís é. Dhírigh mé suas mé féin ansin go n-éistinn go maith, agus dhéanfadh an cathú féin é, caidé rinne an píobaire ach stad de sheinm nuair a chuaigh mise a dh’éisteacht. Bhí sé tamall fada sular thosaigh sé arís, ach nuair a thosaigh, bhí sé ní ba chomhgaraí agus bhí an ceol ní ba shoiléire ; agus ba é an port a bhí sé a bhualadh – ‘Lá Fhéile Padraig.’ San am sin déarfainn go rabh an píobaire trí nó ceathair de mhílte uainn thuas sna cnoic ar mo chúl ; bhí mé féin corradh mór le trí mhíle míle ón mbaile, ach go díreach fhad agus a bheifeá ag bualadh do dhá bhois ar a chéile, samhlaíodh domh go raibh mé ar ais i measc mo dhaoine féin i gCloich Cheannfhaola. Chuaigh mo chroí a phreabadaigh le tréan lúchaire, sa chruth gur shíl mé go bhfágfadh sé mo chliabh.

However, not every Irishman was as pleased with hearing the same piper play St. Patrick’s Day, up and down a pub in a small town called All Gold Creek, in which Mac Gabhann and his friends descended upon to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.  It incited an angry response from an ‘Orangeman’ who was eager to set upon the piper as he was playing St. Patrick’s Day. Mac Gabhann intercepted him and struck him with a heavy punch to the back of the ear. Later that day, one of Mac Gabhann’s Donegal friends went to meet an old friend in yet another neighbouring pub and was immediately set upon by the same Orangeman. He returned to Mac Gabhann and company who vowed to avenge this attack immediately. On route, they were met with a gang of Northern Orangemen on their way out. Mac Gabhann punched the man, sending him through the window of the pub which ended the fight. The publican refused to take any money off them to replace the window when he heard that the reason the initial fight broke out was over the Orangeman’s threat in response to the piper playing St. Patrick’s Day.  

Other anecdotes end with more tragic consequences. For example the British Army were involved in the South African wars in 1899-1902 when St. Patrick's Day was played and danced to in the following circumstance, resulting in the deaths of two Boer marksmen whose curiousity got the better of them:

In the trenches the Cape coloured boys played concertinas oblivious to danger, and their lack of concern spread – perhaps without too much difficulty – to the Irish defenders... On St. Patrick’s Day, a concertina broke out into riotous discord in our trench and the fellows danced and otherwise made noises”, all of which sounds suicidal in the presence of the renowned Boer marksmen. But not everyone in the trench was celebrating, because when the Boers with uncharacteristic rashness looked over the parapet, two of them were promptly shot.
Irish Step Dance In The Boer War
How the Irish Soldiers in Ladysmith Celebrated St. Patrick’s Day. Drawn by Sidney Paget from a sketch by Ernest Prater and published in the Sphere, London, 28 April 1900

For some people St. Patrick’s Day is perceived as a lively and uplifting melody. Its appeal was used to lift the spirits of exhausted military troops on occasions: 

The first British adventure in Afghanistan began in 1839. The army fought its way through mountains and deserts - with 'St. Patrick's Day reviving exhauste troops once again.

A very interesting insight into the effect this merry melody could have on listenerseven in the most strenuous, taut and dangerous situations is illustrated in the following account of a tense negotiation between the British Army and the Zulu chiefs supported by their tribal warriors.In this case,the playing of St.Patrick’s Day completely diffuses potentially explosive situation and had the effect of inspiring an open air impromptu Zulu dance

Six months after Isandhlwana, Zulus were defeated at Ulundi and their kingdom broken up into eight tribal areas, each under a chief. But before the Zulus were finally pacified a crisis arose which music helped first to create and then to dispel. General Sir Evelyn Wood had called a meeting of some of the chiefs and intending to impress them and their warriors  he ordered the band to play God Save the Queen and the troops to cheer. Either the sombre national anthem or rousing ‘hurrah’ upset the Zulus and it was only their chiefs’ calm demeanour that held them in uneasy check and the atmosphere became so tense and forbidding that discussions were clearly impossible. To clear the air the bandmaster was ordered to play a lively tune and being an Irishman he obliged with St. Patrick's Day. First a few Zulus arose, then a few more and then the whole lot, as if the Pied Piper of Hamelin was after them and they could not help themselves. In less than five minutes the whole dusky host were swaying to and dancing to the music ... all all on the best of humour!
Niccolo Paganini / from a painting by Georg Friedrich Kersting

The melody was often used as an unofficial National Anthem of Ireland and was often played following God Save the Queen in ceremonies when Ireland was under British colonial rule. In Cork in 1831, the most celebrated violinist in the world at the time, Niccolò Paganini, performed St. Patrick’s Day with his own variations to an enthralled and proud audience. The following review is from the Cork Constitution October 1831 reads:

Paganini – the incomparable – the matchless Paganini gave another Concert on Thursday evening, at the Theatre Royal, which was not so well attended as those that preceded it, in consequence of a generally received opinion that he had left the town. The paucity of numbers, however, only appeared to give an additional stimulus to the Signor’s efforts to astonish and delight; for if possible he was more successful in this respect than at any of his previous Concerts. To convey a proper idea of the display of his unrivalled powers of execution in the Irish Air of Patrick’s Day, with variations of his own composition on one string, would be a difficult task for the most accomplished and experienced proficient in the science of Music. The raptures of the audience, the loud and vehement calls of encore, and the enthusiastic cheering that followed, when Signor Paganini responded to the call, were tests of the delight which his performance imparted!  

Paganini’s biographer John Sugden points out that:

the St. Patrick’s Day Variations on the Irish National Anthem were, of course, written especially for this tour and as his visit to Cork happened to coincide with the arrival of Sir Edward Codrington’s fleet at the nearby estuary in Cobh, an interesting test of loyalty must have arisen for any naval personnel who attended his concerts.

Beethoven also made orchestral arrangements of some Irish and Scottish melodies including St. Patrick’s Day. George Thompson collected some Scottish, Irish and Welsh melodies for which he sought orchestral arrangement and he commissioned Beethoven to undertake this job.

Nineteenth century music collector George Petrie does not appear to be overly enamoured with the tune and he complained that: 

The thoughtless, impulsive Irishman of a lower social order will prefer the airs of ‘Patrick’s Day’, or ‘Garryowen’, to all the lively melodies of his country
Dr. Petrie of Dublin, Illustrated London News, 1866

For those of you who, like Petrie, the ‘Klondike Orangeman’ and the two befallen Boer soldiers, do not fall under the charm of this melody it may be best not to listen to track below! For the rest of you, may I suggest you throw a few spontaneous steps in the confines of your place of self-isolation and imagine Zulu warriors or the feisty Micí Mac Gabhann and his piper as dance partners!  

This version of St. Patrick’s Day comes from a 1929 recording by The Comerford Trio.

St. Patrick's Day / The Comerford Trio

Written and researched by Liam O'Connor

Presented by Grace Toland