Explore Early Sound Recordings of Irish Traditional Music at ITMA

As part of the Explore Your Archive campaign, we invite you to discover some of the remarkable material in ITMA's collections. In this exhibition you can listen to early recordings of Irish traditional music, see photographs from ITMA's collection, and discover some of the stories behind ITMA’s unique collection of wax cylinder recordings.

For more information on Explore Your Archive please visit our news page.

Contents

Thomas Edison / Levin C. Handy
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The earliest physical format used for the recording and playback of sound was a cylinder mounted on a revolving phonograph mandrel. The invention in 1877 of the American Thomas Edison, this format employed a cylinder which was at first covered by tinfoil, and then by ‘wax’, celluloid, and other substances. Increasingly replaced by gramophone discs from the late 1890s, cylinder recordings were essentially obsolete technology by the period of the First World War, although Edison persisted with their production until the onset in 1929 of the Great Depression. This photograph, taken in Washington D.C. on 18 April 1878 by Levin Handy, shows Edison seated beside his tinfoil phonograph. Edison, aged thirty one, was visiting Washington to demonstrate his invention to President Rutherford B. Hayes.

In August 1878 the tinfoil phonograph went on display to the Irish public in Dublin for the first time. See, Nicholas Carolan, ‘The Talking Machine Comes to Ireland’, in Dear Far-Voiced Veteran: Essays in Honour of Tom Munnelly, Anne Clune, ed, (Clare: The Old Kilfarboy Society, 2007), pp.73−83, for more information. ITMA Reference Number: 27117-BK

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Patsy Touhey wax cylinder recordings with an Edison Standard Phonograph
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From 1888 Edison produced a series of improved phonographs using wax cylinders. Wax cylinder recording machines were used for the professional and amateur recording of Irish traditional music both in Ireland and in the diaspora. The production of home phonograph machines from 1892 onwards allowed musicians to record their own music. The Edison Standard model pictured here was first made in 1897. It was an affordable machine, initially costing $20, and was marketed for home use.

The brown wax cylinder recordings seen here are of uilleann piper Patsy Touhey from the Busby-Carney collection, which is now held at the Irish Traditional Music Archive. The recordings were made by Touhey himself. 

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The sword in hand, reel / Patsy Touhey, uilleann pipes
Sound Recordings

The uilleann piper Patsy Touhey was the most celebrated Irish traditional musician of his day. Born in Ireland in 1865, he flourished in the USA as a professional entertainer and became a prime mover of the Gaelic music revival in the States. Today his music is a byword for unsurpassed virtuosity.

His crucial importance to the history of Irish traditional music is that he is the earliest traditional musician of whom we have a substantial body of sound recordings, giving us a unique insight into the incredibly rich world of traditional music-making in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

A remastered recording from the Busby-Carney collection is given here. It features a spoken introduction by Touhey followed by 'The sword in hand' reel played on the uilleann pipes. The recording was made by Touhey himself. An audio playlist, 'Patsy Touhey, Irish-American Piper on Cylinder, 1900s', is available for listening in ITMA's Digital Library

By 1901 Touhey was running a unique mail-order service out of his home in New York.  From a catalogue of 150 airs and dance tunes, it was possible to request cylinders custom-made for $1 each or $10 for twelve.  Some of these cylinders have survived, and a CD of Touhey's music has been issued, ITMA Reference Number: 16343-CD. A full account of Touhey's life and music can be found in the book The piping of Patsy Touhey by Pat Mitchell and Jackie Small, ITMA Reference Number: 240-BK.

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Patrick J. Touhey, uilleann pipes / unidentified photographer
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This photograph of Patsy Touhey was first published in Francis O'Neill's book The dance music of Ireland: 1001 gems in 1907.

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Francis O’Neill, collector / unidentified photographer
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Captain Francis O’Neill (1848–1936), a traditional musician from Tralibane in west Co Cork, was also chief of police in Chicago from 1901 to 1905. He made and published there, in collaboration with various associates, large and highly influential collections of Irish traditional music, from 1903 to 1924. O’Neill was also a pioneer in the sound-recording of Irish traditional music and a number of his cylinders have come to light in recent years (see here), a selection of which are available on CD.

Francis O’Neill also wrote and published in Chicago two ground-breaking studies of Irish traditional music: Irish Folk Music: A Fascinating Hobby in 1910 and Irish Minstrels and Musicians in 1913. In the course of his researches for these and other volumes, he painstakingly undertook the collection of existing visual images of Irish traditional musicians and music performance, and the creation of others. O'Neill's various books contain therefore the largest pictorial collection illustrating Irish music made until his day; many of the images would not exist if he had not commissioned them. A selection of images from O'Neill's books are reproduced in ITMA's Digital Library here.

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Wooden box addressed to Richard Henebry
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in 1907 Captain Francis O'Neill used this box to send cylinder recordings from Chicago to Richard Henebry in Co Waterford. The cylinders were recorded by O'Neill and included recordings of some of the best known Chicago-Irish musicians of that time, including pipers Patsy Touhey and James Early, and fiddle player James McFadden.

The Revd Dr Richard Henebry/ Risteard De Hindeberg (1863–1916) was born into an Irish-speaking farming family in Mount Bolton, Portlaw, Co Waterford.

The family was musical. Henebry played the fiddle, as did his mother, and he had a great interest in traditional singing and uilleann piping. An outstanding but eccentric scholar, he became a Catholic priest, and after a doctoral course of philological studies in Germany was briefly professor of Irish in the Catholic University of Washington DC in the 1890s, and later taught in Berkeley University in California.

While in America he became friendly with Captain Francis O’Neill in Chicago and other Irish musicians. Suffering from ill-health, he returned to Ireland about 1903, and made a valuable collection of early cylinder field-recordings in Waterford in 1905. 

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Dr de Hindeberg cylinder sound recording / Henri Chamoux
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In 1905, Dr Richard Henebry(also know in Irish as Risteárd de Hindeberg, and in German as de Hindeberg or Hindeberg) made a series of wax cylinder recordings in Co Waterford. After correspondence with leading German ethnomusicologists, Henebry sent fourteen wax cylinder recordings to the Berlin Phonogramm-Archiv for copying and analysis in 1907.  Three sets of cylinder copies and one set of copper negatives called galvanoplastic negatives (galvanos) were made. This image shows one of the cylinder copies made in Germany in 1907. 

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Galvano : de Hindeberg XIII
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Wax cylinders can be replicated by using a galvanoplastic negative (galvano). This is a copper tube which carries the inverted groove on its inner surface and can be used for producing positive wax copies. The original wax cylinder was usually destroyed during the galvanisation process. The galvano presented here, de Hindeberg XIII, was made in 1907 from a cylinder recording that was sent by Dr Richard Henebry, Co Waterford, to Erich Moritz von Hornbostel at the Berliner Phonogramm-Archiv. 

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Red wax cylinder : de Hindeberg XIII
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Since 1998, the Berlin Phonogramm-Archiv has made red wax copies from galvanoplastic negatives (galvanos) which are then transferred to digital sound carriers.

This red wax cylinder was made from a galvano by the Berliner Phonogramm-Archiv in 2009. It is a copy of Henebry's 1905 recording known as 'de Hindeberg XIII' which features Margred Ni Neill singing 'Bean an fhir ruaidh'.

For more information about the relationship between Richard de Hindeberg and the Berlin Phonogramm-Archiv, see Susanne Ziegler, ‘From Waterford to Berlin and back to Ireland: Richard Henebry’s wax cylinder recordings and the Berlin Phonogramm-Archiv’ in Ancestral imprints: histories of Irish traditional music and dance, Thérèse Smith, ed, Cork: Cork University Press, 2012, pp. 1-18. ITMA Reference Number: 36370-BK.

In 2006 the Henebry wax cylinder recordings in ITMA's collection were digitised by Henri Chamoux using an archeophone. The galvanos could not then be dealt with at that time. The Berlin Phonogramm-Archiv had a set of the ‘de Hindeberg’ wax cylinder copies along with letters and notes from Henebry, but had been unclear as to their history until 2006. As a result of cooperation between the ITMA and the Berlin Phonogramm-Archiv, in 2009, new digital audio files were created using the galvanos along with new red wax cylinder copies.

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Henebry’s notes on cylinder recording XIIIa
Digitised Books

A handbook of Irish music was written by Richard Henebry and published in 1928, twelve years after his death. The collection of fourteen cylinders that Henebry recorded in Co Waterford in 1905 and later sent to Berlin in 1907 is described in A handbook of Irish music. This page includes Henebry's notes on the first of two songs sung in Irish by Margared Ni Neill on the cylinder recording known as 'de Hindegerg XIII'.

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Henebry’s transcription of ‘Bean on fhir ruaidh’ from cylinder recording XIII
Digitised Books

Henebry's transcription of Margared Ni Neill singing 'Bean an fhir ruaidh' in 1905 on cylinder recording 'de Hindeberg XIII' is shown here. It was first published in Henebry's A handbook of Irish music in 1928.

Henebry had a keen interest in Irish music scales and intonation and the 'scientific study of Irish music' which he outlined in Irish Music: being an examination of the matter of scales, modes, and keys, with practical instructions and examples for players, (Dublin, 1903). A reproduction of this booklet is availabel in ITMA's Digital Library here with a selection of earlier studies presented here.

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An maidrín ruadh, song / Shaun Lawless, singing in Irish, singing in English
Sound Recordings

One of the cylinder recordings made by Richard Henebry in Waterford in 1905 featured Patrick O'Neill singing 'An maidrín ruadh'. A version of the song was recorded on wax cylinder again two years later when Shaun Lawless sang into a phonograph for the Sterling Company of London at the annual Oireachtas Irish-language cultural festival of the Gaelic League in Dublin in August 1907. 

Sterling had been invited to Dublin by its agent John O’Neill, a prominent Dublin record dealer and bicycle manufacturer, and the intention was clearly to make recordings for commercial sale. Accordingly the featured artists, almost all singers performing traditional and national songs in Irish and English, are modern concert performers. They include none of the unaccompanied old-style gaeltacht singers who were also at the festival, although one story-teller in Irish from Limerick was recorded. More recordings than the number surviving were made by Sterling in Dublin in 1907, but the company went into liquidation early in 1908, and it is certain that none were ever issued.

The Sterling recording of 'An maidrín ruadh' sung by Shaun Lawless featured here is one of seventeen surving cylinder sound recordings made at the Oireachtas in 1907 that are now part of ITMA's collection.

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Sterling cylinder box / Henri Chamoux
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Images of ITMA cylinders are presented in an image gallery here. It can be viewed in conjunction with an ITMA audio playlist of Sterling cylinders, which are available here, along with the story of their creation.

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