Stóir Amhráin Program Notes

A Wealth of Song

While Celtic cultures in the British Isles and the European continent (including Wales, Cornwall, Brittany, and Galicia) have produced musical treasures for centuries, our concert focuses on two nations that face each other across the Irish Sea. Ireland and Scotland have shared Gaelic-based languages since long before St. Columba brought Christianity from Ireland to Scotland in the middle of the 6th century, and music has provided the unstoppable means of keeping their languages alive despite many challenges. Some of our songs draw on Irish or Scottish words, others on their tunes, and some on both, but one thing is certain: Stóir Amhráin–a wealth of song—has sustained the people of Ireland and Scotland through good times and bad.

The concert’s first half includes several songs inspired by the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745, an uprising to return the Stuart dynasty to power in Britain and Ireland. The Jacobites traced their claim to James (Jacobus in Latin) II, the great-grandson of Mary, Queen of Scots. Because of his Catholic leanings and fears of more sectarian strife, Parliament deposed James in the nearly bloodless“Glorious Revolution” of 1688 in which Parliament insisted that all future British monarchs must be Protestant; the arrangement placed James’s Protestant daughter Mary on the throne. When Queen Anne, Mary’s younger sister, died, the throne passed to her closest living Protestant relative, the Hanoverian (German) prince who became George I. The succession thus bypassed James Francis Edward Stuart (the “Old Pretender”), the Catholic son of James II, who led an uprising in 1715, and also Charles Edward Stuart, James II’s grandson, known as Bonnie Prince Charlie to his supporters and as the Young Pretender to his opponents. Both uprisings failed, although both exiled Stuart leaders lived comfortably in Europe for many more years.

“Mo Ghille Mear” (My Gallant Hero) is an Irish lament for Bonnie Prince Charlie and the 1745 rebellion. Irish poet Sean Mac Domhnaill (1691-1754) wrote the words shortly after the decisive battle of Culloden in 1746, full of disappointment at the failure to overthrow the Hanoverians. The song actually combines two sets of lyrics, one based on a song from the 1715 rebellion, but both from the perspective of a bereft Ireland, depicted as a widow grieving her beloved hero. Sean Ó Riada, an Irish composer and choral director, collected this tune in the 1960s. He died prematurely in 1971, and some now sing this as a lament for him as well.

As with most folksongs, the origins of “Londonderry Air” remain mysterious. One story ascribes the tune to a blind Irish harpist named Rory Dall O’Cahan who lived sometime between 1560 and 1660. One night after drinking too much, he fell asleep, dropped his harp, and woke to find fairies playing this haunting melody on it. Another claims the song, in a slightly different meter, derives from a tune called “A Young Man’s Dream,” from the 1790s. Still another version centers on a woman named Jane Ross. In 1851, while walking in Londonderry in Northern Ireland, she heard the tune played on a harp (or possibly a fiddle), tracked down the musician, and transcribed it herself, calling it after the place she first heard it. Wherever the tune came from, scores of poets have set words to it, including more than a dozen hymns, one that was sung at Princess Diana’s funeral. Perhaps the best known is “Danny Boy,” written in 1910 by an English lawyer and lyricist, Frederic Weatherly. His first attempt at setting his words to music went nowhere, but, after his Irish sister-in-law introduced him to this tune, the song found great success.

We return to music about the Jacobites with “Skye Boat Song.” With words by Englishman Sir Harold Boulton (1859-1935) and music based on a tune collected in Scotland in the 1870s by Anne Campbelle MacLeod, the song commemorates Bonnie Prince Charlie’s escape from Scotland after his army’s final defeat. After the battle, dozens of sympathizers hid him as he made his way to the west coast of Scotland. There a well-connected Scotswoman, Flora MacDonald, smuggled him, disguised as her maid, to the Isle of Skye, where he boarded a ship to France. Though the tune is traditional, the lyrics, written nearly 150 years after the event, reflect a sentimental Victorian view of Scotland’s past more than the feelings of 18th-century Scots.

“Loch Lomond” comes closer to portraying the grim reality. One music historian views the song as a Jacobite reworking of an early 18th-century Scottish love song, especially the lines about never meeting again. The victorious royal government saw the prince’s captured followers as traitors and executed many of them, some after show trials south of the Scottish border and others as far away as London. While the song’s words may refer to a literal road where common folk traveled on foot, one Celtic legend holds that if someone dies in a foreign land, their spirit immediately returns to their homeland by the low road of death. In this interpretation, the singer is a condemned soldier about to die, bidding his comrades goodbye, recalling sweet times with his love before all the fighting, but envisioning his spirit at last at peace in Scotland.

“Siúil a Rúin” may or may not have a particular event as its inspiration, although Scottish novelist Robert Louis Stevenson described it in The Master of Ballantrae as an old Jacobite song sung by Irish exiles in France. It surely reflects the sorrow of separation from those we love. In this case, a young woman has willingly released her soldier lover to go to whatever fate awaits him, even death in battle, but she laments his departure. The Irish words of the refrain literally mean “Go [or walk], my love.”

“The Parting Glass” expresses both the joy of sharing friendships and the sadness of saying goodbye, whether to close a convivial celebration or to toast a friend who has died. The song remained a favorite for bidding the old year farewell on New Year’s Eve till “Auld Lang Syne” replaced it. The song has both Irish and Scottish roots. It first appeared in a Scottish broadside in 1770, but at least some of the verses date back to around 1605 when they were included in a collection of Scottish airs. Our version comes mostly from Ireland, where the song had become well-established by the mid-20th century, if not earlier.

We close the first half with “The Lake Isle,” composed by Ola Gjeilo (b. 1978), whose works we have performed many times, twice with him at the piano.  Anglo-Irish poet William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) wrote the original poem in 1888. It describes the rural landscape of County Sligo in western Ireland where Yeats spent nearly all his summers as a boy. Yeats got his inspiration for the poem from the sound of a fountain in London. You can hear moving water throughout this setting in the rhythmic repetition of the words “Innisfree go to Innisfree,” like water lapping at the shore. Even more, the ever-moving piano part continues, as it did for Yeats, wherever he was—country or city—for the memory lives, like music itself, in the heart.

Like many folksongs, “Dúlamán,” a work song from Northern Ireland, has intriguing words that can be interpreted in various ways. Perhaps the song tells of a young woman anticipating the young men who will soon come wooing. Perhaps it suggests the rare and remarkable properties of Irish seaweed, whether for dyeing, for cooking, or for other purposes.  In any event, we present two different settings by two of Ireland’s outstanding contemporary conductors and composers, both of whom have several arrangements included in our program. Michael McGlynn (b. 1964) wrote the first setting of “Dúlamán,” sung by CAE’s tenors and basses. Best known as founder and director of the Irish choir Anúna (established in 1987), McGlynn has composed every sort of music, much of it with Irish-language lyrics. Desmond Earley’s setting, later in the program, employs the whole choir and a bodhrán (Irish drum). Earley serves as artistic director and conductor of the Choral Scholars at University College Dublin and is considered one of Ireland’s foremost choral conductors. In addition, he has performed as an early-music keyboard specialist in Europe and the United States, including in Oregon with the Portland Baroque Orchestra and at Lewis and Clark College.

Despite a Cornish song of the same name, the Irish version of “The White Rose,” sung by the ensemble’s treble voices, has much more in common with “Siúil a Rúin.” In both songs, the lyrics alternate between Irish and English. Both also take the perspective of a young woman who gently releases her lover to go where he must. With the white rose standing as a pledge of pure and generous love, this song too bids her lover to go safely, even if far from her.

“Courting Is a Pleasure” hints at another cause of separation—emigration to America during the Irish famine of the 1840s. In the space of less than a decade, over a million Irish people starved to death, and over two million left the country in hopes of a better life in the United States and Canada. This could explain the song’s many variants collected in North America, from Southern Appalachia to Newfoundland, complete with different titles (for example, “Lovely Molly,” “Loving Hannah”) and different names for the faithless lover. In true folksong fashion, this one presents some mysteries, including what’s in the bottle the woman mentions. Is she offering a parting toast in good will, or is she preparing to poison the man who wronged her and then escape to America? We will never know.

But we do know the historical context for “The Wind That Shakes the Barley.” Written by Limerick-born poet Robert Dwyer Joyce (1836–1883) with music arranged by Laurie Betts Hughes (now Laurie de Leonne), the song takes the perspective of a doomed young Wexford rebel about to sacrifice his love and his life to take part in the rebellion of 1798. Unlike much of the strife in both Ireland and Scotland, this rebellion had little to do with religious differences. Instead, Irish Catholics and Protestants stood united in their desire to overthrow English domination of Irish life, much as American colonists had recently done. The references to barley derive from the rebels’ practice of carrying barley or oats in their pockets as provisions when on the march. After the rebellion, people saw the patches of barley as marking the mass graves of the slain rebels. As the barley will grow every year, the song implies, so will Irish resistance to English power.

“The Maid of Culmore” may refer to Irish migration to America in the mid or late 19th century, but it definitely continues the theme of separation and lost or unrequited love. Culmore, located near Derry on the River Foyle in Northern Ireland, was a major port of embarkation for Irish emigrants. The song reveals little about the maid herself or her destination, but the singer is so desperate to find her that he conjures great storms and is willing to travel to America where he knows no one. From a masculine perspective, this song shows that men too grieve lost love.

We close with a song that has a very personal meaning for our singers. As we have done for almost a decade, we end every rehearsal by singing it to each other. Garry A. Cornell, an Ohio-based composer of mostly sacred music, set this well-loved Irish blessing in the 1970s. Originally written in Irish, the blessing focuses on three aspects of nature that recall God’s care for humanity: the wind, the sun, and the rain, all at their most benevolent. We wish this blessing on each other every week, and on you today, until we meet again.

~ Susan Wladaver-Morgan