R. Henebry, A Handbook of Irish Music, 1928

One of the most substantial of the theoretical works on Irish music, and one that is difficult to understand, is A Handbook of Irish Music by the Rev. Dr Richard Henebry (Risteárd de Hindeberg, 1863–1916). Henebry was a traditional musician from an Irish-speaking and musical farming family in Co Waterford, a Roman Catholic priest who had served in Britain and the United States, an academic with a doctorate in Celtic studies awarded in Germany, and an early field recorder in Ireland of Irish music on cylinder.

A person of strong opinions on many subjects, and something of an eccentric, Henebry also had firm views on the nature of Irish traditional music. These were first aired in his 1903 pamphlet Irish Music, but were revealed at their fullest in the Handbook, which was edited by his colleagues in University College Cork in the years after his death and published in 1928 by Cork University Press, aided by the subscriptions of friends and admirers and with a preface by Tadhg Ó Donnchadha, his successor as Professor of Irish Language and Literature in Cork. The book is based on a surviving Henebry manuscript which lacks some pages but which is otherwise published in its entirety, with the addition of four missing melodies from family members and some footnotes and indexes. A facsimile of the Handbook is presented below.

The original manuscript of the Handbook was divided by the editors into five sections: 1 Introductory; 2 Of the Writing of Irish Music; 3 Of the Coarser Analysis of Irish Music; 4 Structural Analysis; 5 Of the Finer Analysis of Irish Music, or Tonometric Examination. Henebry had been influenced by the thinking of early German and American ethnomusicologists as well as by his own observations, and understood music as arising from the emotions rather than the reason, and sharing its characteristics with animal utterance. He gives primacy to vocal music over instrumental music, and pays most attention to the pitches and intervals, scales and modes which he considers ‘natural’ to Irish music. In this connection he expends much time on note frequency counting that he had carried out on tunes from the published collections of George Petrie and Patrick Weston Joyce.

The most valuable features of the book are the versions of tunes he gives from his own experience and the incidental information he gives on singers and musicians, including his own mother. The fifth section of the book deals with the melodies he himself had recorded on phonograph in Co Waterford in 1905 (available for listening here) and which had been subjected to tonometric analysis in the Berlin Phonogramm-Archive in 1907. The melodies were transcribed for the Handbook from notations said by the editors to be Henebry’s (but which may actually have been those of the Berlin analysts) by the singers and music editors Séamus de Clanndiolúin and Maighréad Ní Annagáin.

For further information on Henebry and his music, see the links following  the Henebry playlist here.

With thanks to the Breathnach family, donors of the book.

NC & MG, 1 June 2015