The Songbooks of Fr Pádruig Breathnach

The greatest number of Irish songs ever published, over 1,000 in all, was collected, edited and set to music by An tAthair Pádruig Breathnach / Fr Patrick A. Walsh (1848–1930), a Vincentian Catholic priest and cultural nationalist who is now a forgotten figure.

Some 470 of these songs are in Irish and 530 in English. Drawn from oral, manuscript and printed sources, they were published in a sequence of cheap popular songsters and songbooks mainly by the Dublin firm of Browne & Nolan from 1904 to 1926. Every song text was set to a melody in tonic solfa. Sales of these publications ran into the tens of thousands, and they would have a lasting influence on the oral tradition of both languages.

Pádruig Breathnach was born during the Famine in a largely Irish-speaking district near Carrick-on-Suir, Co Waterford. Having been educated locally and in the seminary of Maynooth, Co. Kildare, he was ordained a priest about 1873; most of his ministry was carried out in the cities of Cork and Dublin. He was interested in music and song from his youth, and, as an early enthusiast for the preservation and revival of the Irish language, he joined several Irish-language organisations before becoming a member of the new Gaelic League in 1893. As a young priest in Cork, he collected songs in Irish from his parishioners and on holidays in west Cork. More than 150 Irish-language songs in his collections, words and music, were collected in Cork and Waterford by himself or by his close associate Áine Ní Raghallaigh (1868–1942) of Macroom, a Gaelic League singing teacher.

In the early 1900s, when he himself was in his fifties, Breathnach was persuaded to begin publishing songs in Irish in penny songsters for schoolchildren. The success of his efforts led him to continue with similar songsters aimed at members of the growing Irish-language revival. The songsters were eventually collected into book form in 1913, and he went on to produce a series of further Irish-language songbooks for over a decade. Many of their songs were new, insofar as Breathnach selected verses by various authors and set them to music collected by himself or chosen by him from the published collections of Irish melody. Breathnach was also aware of the national value of the English-language songs of Ireland and by 1915 he had begun the publication of these songs, again in penny songster form and eventually in a series of songbooks. His publishers advertised these as containing over 1,300 pages of song. Dr Annie Patterson (1868–1934), a lecturer in music in University College Cork, collaborated with Breathnach in some of his final publications, harmonising song melodies and republishing melodies in staff notation.

Having enjoyed great success in the early decades of the Gaelic League and of the Irish Free State, Breathnach’s compilations became increasingly outmoded because of their use of the superseded cló Gaelach print for Irish text and of tonic solfa for melody. The last were withdrawn from sale in the 1960s, although their value was still recognised and their songs were often republished in later works.

To date no library in Ireland or abroad has held all of Fr Breathnach’s song publications, in spite of their importance in the history of Irish traditional music and of their continuing value for singers and song scholars. ITMA has now assembled a complete collection of all of his published songs, although it does not yet have all in their original formats. In keeping with Breathnach’s philosophy of making the songs as accessible as possible, it intends to republish these freely online over the coming months, in facsimile and with relevant accompanying information. This new project begins with the rarest of Breathnach’s publications, both of his penny songster series in Irish of 1904–13, the second series (a large file) in single bound form.

Cnuasachd Bheag Amhrán le haghaidh Aos Óg na Gaedhilge d’Fhoghluim ins na Scoileanna 1–6

Fuínn na Smól 1–7

For further detail on Fr Pádruig Breathnach and his song collections, see the recent article by Nicholas Carolan, ‘Fr Pádruig Breathnach and Irish Traditional Song’, Béaloideas: the journal of the Folklore Society of Ireland, vol. 87 (2019), pp. 82–99.

NC, MG, ED, 31 July 2020


​Cnuasachd Bheag Amhrán. 1–6
Printed Collection

This penny songster series in Irish is the rarest of Fr Pádruig Breathnach's publications. It appeared at intervals from 1904 to 1908, and much of its content would be recycled in his next series Fuínn na Smól. These copies, and other Breathnach publications, come from the ITMA Breandán Breathnach Collection.

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Fuínn na Smól. 1–7
Digitised Book

This is the second Breathnach penny series in Irish as it was published in a single bound form in 1913. This copy was owned by the Wexford poet P.J. McCall, a contributor to the Breathnach publications. ITMA holds only the separate numbers 3, 4 and 7 of the original songsters, and would appreciate the donation of the original numbers 1, 2, 5 and 6, or the loan of them for copying.

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Songs of the Gael. Series 1
Digitised Book

This is the 1922 ‘revised and enlarged’ final edition of the first series of Fr Breathnach’s highly successful English-language songbook Songs of the Gael. Incorporating his earlier publications with this title, it follows the layout he had established in his Irish-language songbooks. The series had begun life as twelve penny songsters with paper covers; the first six were reissued in hardcover in early 1915 and all twelve by the end of the year. A new edition of this latter publication subtitled ‘Series 1’ appeared in 1920, the first of four series of Songs of the Gael which would contain in all over 1,300 pages of song.

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