The Songbooks of Fr Pádruig Breathnach

The greatest number of Irish songs ever published, over 1,000 in all, were 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 the publications, in physical and virtual 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, the two penny songster series in Irish of 1904–13, the second series (a large file) in single bound form as it appeared in 1913 in a copy owned by the Wexford poet P.J. McCall.

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 vol. 87 (2019), pp. 82–99.

NC, 1 July 2020

Contents

​Cnuasachd Bheag Amhrán. 1–6
Printed Collection

This penny songster series in Irish, intended for schoolchildren, is the rarest of Fr Pádruig Breathnach's publications. It has a strong Munster cast, its songs mainly coming from his Waterford childhood recollections of the mid-19th century and from his own collecting from gaeltacht singers in Cork city in the 1890s, augmented by collecting trips to west Cork in the early 1900s. The series appeared at intervals from 1904 to 1908, and its format of a song on every page or two, with music set in tonic solfa, provides a template which he would employ in almost all his subsequent publications.

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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. Intended for adults as well as children, it reproduces many of the songs of his Cnuasachd Bheag Amhrán series but drops its translations from English and modern poems in Irish written by such as Douglas Hyde which Breathnach had earlier set to music. They have been replaced here by some fifty traditional songs from his more recent collecting. This copy was owned by the Wexford poet P.J. McCall, a contributor of melodies and song texts to the Breathnach publications.

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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 songbooks Songs of the Gael. Incorporating his earlier publications with this title, it follows the layout he had established in his Irish-language songbooks and consists of patriotic verses newly set for the most part to traditional airs. 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 in hardcover 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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Raint Amhrán 1–4
Printed Collection

Raint Amhrán is the fourth of Fr Breathnach's penny songster series, its four numbers issued in 1916 and 1917 with the imprimatur of the Catholic church. The booklets contain religious songs in Irish exclusively. Intended for congregational singing, they were the first of their kind and can to an extent be seen as part of the de-anglicising efforts of Irish revivalists within the church. They largely comprise religious verse by poets who were part of Breathnach’s heritage such as Tadhg Gaelach Ó Súilleabháin and Pádraig Denn, set to traditional airs, and other religious items contributed by Breathnach’s fellow Munster priests Séamus Ó Floinn and Peadar Ó Laoghaire.

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Songs of the Gael. Series 2
Digitised Book

Prepared during the heightened political atmosphere brought on by the War of Independence and following on the success of the first series of Songs of the Gael, this second series was issued by October 1921, during the first months of truce in the war. It contains the same mixture of national songs and patriotic verse newly set to traditional airs as the first series, and again the items chosen belong to the more literary and elevated forms of this material. Few vernacular street ballads are included. For economic reasons, it was not issued as penny songsters but only as a single volume, as were the remaining volumes of the series.

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Ár gCeól Féinig
Digitised Book

In 1920, after he had issued the revised first series of Songs of the Gael, Breathnach returned to Irish-language song publishing with Ár gCeól Féinig, a substantial hardbound collection of 104 songs. This was a continuation in the same format of his Fuínn na Smól volume of 1913, but confusingly Fuínn na Smól was also brought out in hardback earlier in 1920 with its title changed to the more resonant Ceol Ár Sínsear. The Fuínn na Smól penny songsters were also reissued with the new title. Ár gCeól Féinig resembles Breathnach's first Irish-language collection in having a large representation of the songs of west Cork, and it also has several songs from his native Waterford. Again, Breathnach's motivations were to save these songs from being lost and to have them sung by a new generation.

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Songs of the Gael. Series 3
Digitised Book

Appearing by December 1921, during the continuing truce in the war, this third volume continued to cater to the enthusiasms of nationally minded people, especially those who had little or no Irish. The very fact of its appearance, so soon after that of its preceding volume, indicates that Breathnach’s English-language publications were enjoying a positive popular reception in the heightened political atmosphere of the times and that their songs were taking on an increased resonance for readers and singers. The volumes of the series reinforced popular understandings of Irish history at intellectual and emotional levels, and through them, songs which originated in print entered the popular oral tradition. 

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Songs of the Gael. Series 4
Digitised Book

Breathnach was writing the preface to his fourth volume of Songs of the Gael in August 1922, in the opening months of the Civil War. He planned it to be the final volume of the series, and it was published by the December of the year, accompanied by a ‘revised and enlarged’ edition of the first volume. The four volumes of the series, in which Breathnach had married traditional melodies to the verses of over forty-five historic and contemporary Irish lyricists in the English language, would long constitute a standard treasury of national song.

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Mo Cheólaidhe
Digitised Book

This school songster, a publication of 1922, was directed at older pupils in the national schools. Its songs, which had been published in Breathnach's earlier works, constitute a core canon of popular songs in the Irish language from the previous two hundred years. Some were known in all the Irish-speaking districts but there is an evident Munster bias here arising from his own musical experiences. The songs would become familiar to Irish children for decades and are even still widely known. 

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Amhráin agus Ceól ár dTíre Féin 1–2
Printed Collection

With the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922, it was an educational policy of the new government that singing in the national schools should be taught through Irish and that the songs taught should be in the Irish language. These new twopenny Breathnach publications of 1923 were further provision for that policy. Their contents, drawn partly from his earlier songsters but with new additions, were chosen to appeal particularly to younger children.

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Sídh-Cheól 1–2
Printed Collection

Pádruig Breathnach began Sídh-Cheól, a substantial new hardback series, in 1924. The 77 songs of the first volume are all in Irish, with words and melodies presented in his usual standard method, but this series was written mainly in English and was accompanied by notes and an extensive vocabulary. Aimed at adult learners such as 'advanced Gaelic Leaguers', it also helped promote the Irish language in the new state. The songs were mostly new, in that they consisted of hard-to-find literary verses which had not previously been set to music. The second and final volume of the series, a straight continuation of the first and containing 78 songs, appeared in 1926. 

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Music of the Gael 1–3
Printed Collection

Also in 1924, having provided collections of songs in Irish for the schoolchildren of the new Irish Free State, Fr Breathnach turned to editing patriotic and inspiring songs in English in three similar twopenny songsters for the Dublin educational publisher Fallons. Entitled Music of the Gael: The Ideal Song Book for Irish Children and containing lyrics mostly of the previous century, these were the first of his publications in which the melodies are harmonised in two or three parts, probably with school choirs in mind. Although she is not credited, the harmonisation is likely by the musician Dr Annie W. Patterson with whom Breathnach would collaborate in several of his remaining publications.

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Traditional Irish Airs 1–8 (in two series)
Printed Collection

Among the few quibbles ever directed at the Breathnach publications was that his use of tonic solfa music notation caused difficulties for those who were only accustomed to staff notation. In 1924 he addressed this problem by publishing 50 of his tunes in staff notation in collaboration with Dr Annie W. Patterson. She wrote piano accompaniments for the melodies and also arranged each one for two and three voices. The first verse of each song was underlaid. The resulting large-format publication appeared in four numbers which constituted a first series, and its success led in 1925 to a second series of four numbers containing 52 melodies. The cover image of the harper is by a fellow Gaelic Leaguer, the artist Ailbhe Ó Monacháin of Belfast.

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Ceol Ár Sínsear, 1923 edition
Digitised Book

Pádruig Breathnach’s Ceól Ár Sínsear of 1923, probably his most influential Irish-language publication, is a revised, expanded and through-paginated final edition of the volume which made its first appearance in 1920 as a hardback collection of the earlier seven penny booklets of the title. Confusingly, these seven had earlier been issued separately and as a single 1913 hardback volume under the title Fuínn na Smól, and had themselves incorporated many of the contents of Breathnach’s first Cnuasachd Bheag Amhrán booklets. The 1923 edition provided the words for his 1924 and 1925 Traditional Irish Airs collections of arranged melodies in staff notation. The three, comprising a substantial body of songs for voice and piano and for school choirs, would hold the field until the 1960s.

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‘The Exile of Erin’ Who Wrote It?
Digitised Book

In mid-1921 Fr Breathnach, writing as the Rev. P.A. Walsh, published a ‘pamphlet’ on the century-old question of the song ‘The Exile of Erin’. This once-acclaimed piece had been published as his own composition by the famous Scottish poet Thomas Campbell in 1803 but his authorship had been convincingly challenged by the family and friends of the Leitrim songwriter George Nugent Reynolds who had died in 1802. Having taken part in an exchange of letters on the subject with the music historian W.H. Grattan Flood (a supporter of Campbell’s) in October 1920 in the Irish Independent newspaper, Breathnach laid out the evidence in support of Reynolds in the 1921 pamphlet. The controversy continued between the two in the Irish Monthly magazine of the same year.

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An Smólach, An Chéirseach, ?An Fuiseoigín
Printed Collection

Fr Breathnach ended his publishing career in 1926 as he had begun it in 1904: with the editing of cheap songsters in Irish for schoolchildren. Their melody lines harmonised in two or three parts by Annie W. Patterson, these balanced the three concurrent harmonised numbers in English of the Music of the Gael series. As the Free State settled down to nation building, bilingual national song provision had now been made by Breathnach, Patterson and their publishers for every level of current practice, educational and social, solo and ensemble, vocal and instrumental. A puzzle remains: although a third number of this series entitled An Fuiseoigín was advertised, no copy has been found in any collection. Was it ever issued? Is it a ghost publication?

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Songs and airs collected by Fr Pádruig Breathnach and colleagues
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From the 1890s Pádruig Breathnach was a collector of traditional songs and airs, long before he became an editor and anthologist of them, and he continued as a collector into the 1920s. The attached pdf article lists the songs and airs that he and his colleagues, notably Áine Ní Raghallaigh, collected in the field, and it reproduces his own source-notes for these items.

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A checklist of the songbooks of Fr Pádruig Breathnach, 1904–1926
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It is difficult to construct the bibliography of the numerous songbooks produced by Pádruig Breathnach as many, particularly his penny songsters, were not noticed in the press on publication or acquired by libraries. A provisional checklist of his publications will be found in the attached pdf article and readers are asked for help with information or copies they may have.

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