A 19th-Century Sliabh Luachra Manuscript

The worn, much-used manuscript presented here gives us an historically important glimpse into an older layer of Sliabh Luachra music. It is one which predates the quadrille-based polkas and slides which now characterise the music of this region on the borders of counties Cork, Kerry and Limerick, and which are thought to have been first introduced in the late 19th century.

Perhaps the most interesting item the manuscript contains, from a historical viewpoint, is a unique version of 'Máirseáil Alasdruim' (as 'Alexander Gigg') and a related tune 'Church Hill'. Both form part of a famous suite of traditional programme music which commemorated a north Cork battle of 1647. This was once popular throughout Munster, especially among uilleann pipers, but has long ago vanished from the live tradition. Also revealing of the richness of the music of the region at the time of the manuscript's compilation are the elaborate slow airs it contains.

The contents are otherwise typical of Irish traditional music manuscripts of its period: a mixture of jigs, reels, hornpipes, song airs, country dances, and other popular current items, including English and Scottish pieces. Many seem to have come originally from printed sources, but the semi-literate spelling of some titles – especially of those in Irish – indicates also an oral dimension to the collection. Judging from the occasional use of bowing marks, it may have been at least partly compiled by fiddle players.

The manuscript was acquired by Breandán Breathnach (1912-85) through an 'E. Finnegan from D. Curtin of Stagmount, Rockchapel', Co Cork. It was among the Breathnach papers donated to the Irish Traditional Music Archive by his family in 1987, and it had been indexed by him for his massive file-card resources which are now also in ITMA. It has been digitised by ITMA staff for preservation and dissemination. Interactive scores of the music are also available here.

The manuscript consists of twenty-one 24 x 16 cm leaves of music paper pre-printed on both sides, and hand-sewn in a homemade leather cover. It contains forty-two pages of music in varying states of legibility, written in staff notation by more than one hand and perhaps over more than one generation. The volume has been paginated twice, the second time by Breathnach, and the confused original pagination shows that the first two leaves at least are now missing from it. It is also otherwise incomplete: there are several instances of tunes lacking beginnings or ends. The manuscript has been scanned by ITMA staff and is presented here in the exact order in which it is now bound, which is sometimes in conflict with both paginations.

Although the manuscript is undated, it probably belongs to the mid-19th century. The latest dateable item it contains is ‘Pop Goes the Weasel’, a tune which enjoyed a craze from the 1850s. A mid-century date seems confirmed by the fact that it contains no polkas or slides as such. Various names and addresses are inscribed in the manuscript: John O'Sullivan; Humphrey O' Sullivan; Edmond Scanlan, Mellan by Rockchapel, Co Cork; E. Coakley; Minnie D. Curtin; Thomas Leahy; Mrs Tom Leahy, Ballycomane, Tournafulla, Co Limerick; David Curtin; and Mike Murphy. From these, it is clear that the manuscript originally belongs to the Sliabh Luachra area.

The manuscript, which Breathnach called the 'Curtin manuscript', can usefully be compared with the ITMA manuscripts of the 20th-century Sliabh Luachra fiddle and accordion teacher Pádraig O'Keeffe which are available in facsimile and as interactive music scores here. Echoes of a local slow-air tradition suggested in the Curtin manuscript may have survived into the 20th century in the many airs played by O'Keeffe and imparted by him to his pupils.

With thanks to the Breathnach family.

NC, MG & JS, 1 August 2014