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Grier Manuscripts

Stephen Grier (c.1824–1894), a native of north Longford, moved to Newpark, Beihy, in south Leitrim in 1852. An uilleann piper and fiddle player, he compiled a collection of over 1,000 melodies, transcribed mainly in the 1880s.

In 1998 the McNamara Family recorded an album Leitrim's Hidden Treasures which included tunes sourced from this local manuscript collection. 

In 2019 ITMA in collaboration with the current custodian of the Stephen Grier Collection, Hugh Maguire, digitised and made publicly available for the first time, the ten original manuscripts as well as contemporary transcriptions of the individual tunes, downloadable as PDFs. The Stephen Grier digital exhibition was formally launched by former ITMA Archivist and Music Researcher Jackie Small at the Willie Clancy Summer School 2019.

We are indebted to Jackie Small for permission to reproduce his description of the Grier Collection which he delivered at the launch in July 2019 at the ITMA Pop-Up Archive. 

1. GENERAL DESCRIPTION OF THE GRIER COLLECTION

(a) TUNE TYPES / GENRES IN THE COLLECTION

The Grier collection is, primarily, a collection of instrumental music. The level of proficiency required to play the tunes varies widely, with some pieces being suitable for beginners or improvers, and others requiring an extremely challenging level. The vast bulk of the collection is Irish traditional dance music, and in this respect the collection looks quite modern. Most of the tune types popular in Irish traditional music today are represented in abundance.

  • Probably the most formal of its contents are the sets of quadrilles. Quadrilles were, of course, a hugely popular dance form in the 19th century among genteel society throughout the United Kingdom. The quadrille is, of course, the origin of what we know in traditional music circles today as set dancing. The examples in Grier are presented quite formally and with great care, with all of their parts – or ‘figures’ – carefully numbered, usually from 1 to 5.
  • Reels: There are plenty of reels in the Grier collection – and, in fact, one of the biggest MS books in the collection is devoted almost entirely to reels. Among these, Grier’s masterpiece is a very long and elaborate version of the Scottish reel ‘Lucy Campbell’.
  • Jigs: There are also plenty of jigs in the Grier collection, and these include double jigs, slip jigs, and single jigs. There are also jig-like tunes that we’d probably designate as ‘slides’ today. In Grier’s time, I imagine that they were used mainly to accompany the dancing of the quadrille.
  • Hornpipes
  • Polkas: the large number of polkas reflects the fashion that was in vogue all around Europe and in European-influenced countries and societies in Grier’s time. It reflects also the fact that polkas were used in figures of the quadrille.
  • A tune-type that Grier calls ‘quicksteps’. Quicksteps in Grier can be what we’d describe today as jigs OR polkas.
  • Waltzes
  • Strathspeys
  • Planxties: This is a very interesting genre; it would seem to point to tunes written by or associated with Carolan, the 18th-century harper / composer. Local researchers point out the interesting fact that Carolan at one time actually lived in the same area as did Grier, and the suggestion has been made that perhaps some of the planxties in the collection might stem from Carolan by means of the process of oral transmission locally.
  • Marches: These include quite a number of elaborate pieces, with some perhaps of military origin. These may reflect what has been described by local researchers as a strong tradition of brass bands in the area.
  • Airs are a very important and prominent category. Some seem not far removed from versions that could be used by singers; others are elaborate versions probably intended only as instrumental pieces. It is probably significant that there are no song lyrics in the MSS.

Among the song airs are some with titles that look like phonetic versions of titles in Irish – like ‘The Droighneán Donn’, ‘Sa Mhúirnín Dílis’, and ‘Síle Ní Ghadhra’.

I was intrigued to see song titles that originate in the United States, like the Stephen Foster song ‘Hard Times Come Again No More’; and the American Civil War song ‘Before the battle, Mother’ – and I found this a bit mysterious. I wondered what was Grier’s connection with the United States?

Among other song material, there are, of course, the Thomas Moore songs that were so popular at the time – the very popular ones are in the collection, and also one I wasn’t aware of before, one with the beautiful title, ‘Go where glory waits thee’.

2. Context – local or international tunes

The Grier collection contains local tune titles for what I assume are local tunes, for example:

  • ‘Walk on the Tharogues’ [and local expert in Grier’s home area Fr. John Quinn has made a suggestion about the derivation of the word ‘Tharogues’ – this discussion is in the inlay information for the CD ‘The Legacy of Stephen Grier’]
  • ‘The Newpark Reel’ [Newpark was where Grier himself lived]

But there is a very wide catchment area for tunes in the Grier collection, and he goes far beyond the local context for much of his collection. We see the European influence in the:

  • Waltzes
  • Polkas

We see the strong influence of Scotland in:

  • The genre the reel;
  • Strathspeys;
  • Tune titles like ‘Scotch Molly’, ‘Money Musk in the Scotch Way’, ‘The Scotch coming over the borders’, ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me - in the Scotch Way’, and ‘Scotch Quadrille’.

The United States has a presence in the collection, as we’ve seen.

Influences from England include:

  • The genre the hornpipe;
  • Marches [many, perhaps, associated with brass bands or military bands?];
  • The quadrille – which is, of course, of European origin, but which probably came to Grier because of its great popularity throughout the entire United Kingdom, emanating from London;
  • We see the influence of England also in tune titles like ‘The Downshire Quickstep’, ‘Lord Wellington’s Reel’, ‘The Duke of York’s March’, ‘The Duke of Clarence’s Slow March’, ‘The Duke of Wellington’s Slow March’, as well as tune titles that sound English, like ‘Miss Parker’s Whim’, ‘Sir David Hunter Blair’s Reel’, and, of course, ‘Sir Roger de Coverley’.


3(a) APPEARANCES OF Grier’s music already (1)

By the 1970s, awareness of the existence and the importance of the Grier collection had begun to spread. The collection had come to the attention of Breandán Breathnach, who was probably the major authority on Irish traditional music in the 20th century.

In the 1970s, Breathnach was engaged, on behalf of the Irish Government, in making what he called a complete collection of Irish dance music. He was very interested in MSS collections, and he made copies of the Grier MSS. He selected approximately 240 tunes from Grier for inclusion in his complete collection. The result of this was that more than 60 of Grier’s tunes were published in the posthumous Breathnach collection ‘Ceol Rince na hÉireann’, vol. 4, published in 1996.

3(b). APPEARANCES OF Grier’s music already (2)

For some time now, the growing awareness of the Grier collection has meant that music from it has been performed and recorded by traditional musicians. Commercial CD releases of performances of music from the Grier collections that I’m aware of include:

  • ‘Leitrim’s Hidden Treasure’: this CD from the McNamara family of south Co Leitrim is devoted exclusively to music from that area, and it contains a high proportion of tunes sourced from the Grier collection;
  • ‘Fonnchaoi’: this CD from accordion player Verena Commins & fiddler Julie Langan contains a lovely set of hornpipes from Grier;
  • The CD ‘The Legacy of Stephen Grier’, from Séamus McGuire (on fiddle and viola) & John Lee (on flute), is very recent, and is the only one I know that is devoted exclusively to music from the Grier collection;
  • Apart from those CDs, local researchers tell us that there are many other appearances of Grier tunes on commercial CDs, mainly due to the music-teaching activities in south Leitrim by Fr. John Quinn, that tireless champion of the music of Stephen Grier;

One feature shared by both ‘Leitrim’s Hidden Treasure’ and ‘The Legacy of Stephen Grier’ is that their inlays feature comprehensive and authoritative background information about the music contained on them, and this is provided by Fr. Quinn.

 Jackie Small, 2019