Lady Dufferin, Songs from the 19th Century

Helen Selina Blackwood’s (1807−1867) musical legacy can be found among the Irish Traditional Music Archive’s collections of 19th- & 20th-century published sheet music and song books, as well as in sound recordings, mostly from the era of the 78 rpm disc. Grand-daughter of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, she was a well-known figure in the fashionable social and literary circles of Victorian England, as was her sister Caroline Norton.

Among other accomplishments, both women wrote and published poetry, songs, prose, and plays. In 1827 Helen married Price Blackwood, heir to the Marquess of Dufferin and Ava. With their son Frederick, she regularly visited the family estate in Clandeboye, Co Down during her lifetime.  Price died in 1841, and she remarried George Hay, Earl of Gifford in 1862.

Helen published a number of songs which were to prove popular in London and the United States, including ' 'The Lament of the Irish Emigrant', 'Terence’s Farewell to Kathleen', 'Oh Bay of Dublin', 'Sweet Kilkenny Town', and 'Katey’s Letter'.  While a privileged life shielded her from the realities of Irish poverty, her songs do reflect an awareness of the emotional impact of emigration but in somewhat stylised terms. Frederick’s political career and his graphic description of Skibbereen in 1846, may also have informed her song writing. The songs were published individually, and included in many late-19th- and early 20th-century compilations (Roud Folk Song and Broadside Indexes cite 200+ instances of 'The Irish Emigrant'). Our digital collection consists of a family memoir taken from Songs, Poems and Verses (London, 1894) and A selection of the songs (London, 1895) containing musical notation and three items of sheet music.

The ITMA catalogues also reveal their sound-recording legacy, from recordings of Count John McCormack and Danny Doyle to instrumental pieces in popular waltz medleys. For your listening pleasure, we have included two recordings: 'The Irish Emigrant', sung by the English tenor, Walter Dalby (Sterno, 1928−1935), and 'Terrence's Farewell to Kathleen' played as a waltz by the Gallowglass Ceili Band (Columbia, 1958). 

Did Helen’s songs enter the oral tradition? As discussed in ITMA’s Popular Irish Sheet Music, 1900s ‘The lines between Irish popular and traditional song and music are hard to define, and the genres have significant resemblances. Often sheet-music material that is created by known poets and composers for commercial, literary, or other cultural purposes, enters oral tradition and comes to be considered as of anonymous origin.’  ITMA collections show, as yet, little or no documented evidence for her songs in the oral tradition. If you know of singers who sang or sing Helen’s songs in the oral tradition, we would be very interested to hear about them.

With thanks to Seán Keogh for permission to use the Gallowglass Ceili Band’s recording of  'Terrence's Farewell to Kathleen' and to sheet-music donors Steve Gardham & Vincent Duffe.

GT, MG, SC & BD, 1 August 2015