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British Isles Tunes History

Turlough O'Carolan
Bunting Collection

Turlough O’Carolan (also seen as Carolan):   (1670 – 25 March 1738) was a blind early Irish harper, composer and singer whose great fame is due to his gift for melodic composition.

He is considered by many to be Ireland's national composer. Harpers in the old Irish tradition were still living as late as 1792, as ten, including Arthur O'Neill, Patrick Quin and Donnchadh Ó Hámsaigh, showed up at the Belfast Harp Festival, but there is no proof of any of these being composers. Ó Hámsaigh did play some of Carolan's music but disliked it for being too modern. Some of O'Carolan's own compositions show influence from the style of continental classical music, whereas others such as Carolan's Farewell to Music reflect a much older style of "Gaelic Harping"  (WIKI).

Edward Bunting (1773-1843) was an organist in Belfast. He was the most important collector of old Gaelic harp music, because he wrote down tunes and information direct from the playing of the last of the old Gaelic harpers.

In 1792, Bunting was commissioned by the organisers of the Belfast harpers’ meeting (commonly known now as the Belfast Harp Festival), to write down the old Irish tunes played by the harpers. He was so intrigued by the music played by these elderly harpers that he spent a lot of the rest of his life collecting tunes and information from them across Ireland. (Text edited)

Bunting also wrote down a lot of background information from the harpers, some of it scribbled in the margins of his field notebooks, some in the form of letters and other documents. (Text edited) Simon Chadwick 

For more information about Bunting and early Gaelic harp click here.

Playford: The Dancing Master (first edition: The English Dancing Master) is a dancing manual containing the music and instructions for English Country Dances. It was published in several editions by John Playford and his successors from 1651 until c1728. The first edition contained 105 dances with single line melodies; subsequent editions introduced new songs and dances, while dropping others, and the work eventually encompassed three volumes (WIKI). The tunes in Playford were the popular dance tunes and eclectic, including tunes popular all over the British Isles and a few from other countries such as France. (SGW)

Auld Lang Syne (Scottish)

Auld Lang Syne (Scottish) is a Scots poem written by Robert Burns in 1788 and set to the tune of a traditional folk song (Roud # 6294). It is well known in many countries, especially in the English-speaking world, its traditional use being to bid farewell to the old year at the stroke of midnight. By extension, it is also sung at funerals, graduations and as a farewell or ending to other occasions. Robert Burns sent a copy of the original song to the Scots Musical Museum with the remark, "The following song, an old song, of the olden times, and which has never been in print, nor even in manuscript until I took it down from an old man." Some of the lyrics were indeed "collected" rather than composed by the poet; the ballad "Old Long Syne" printed in 1711 by James Watson shows considerable similarity in the first verse and the chorus to Burns' later poem, and is almost certainly derived from the same "old song "Burns’s Original Scots



Should auld acquaintance be forgot,

and never brought to mind?

Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and auld lang syne*?


CHORUS For auld lang syne, my jo,for auld lang syne,

we’ll tak' a cup o’ kindness yet,for auld lang syne.

And surely ye’ll be your pint-stoup!

and surely I’ll be mine! 

And we’ll tak' a cup o’ kindness yet, for auld lang syne.

CHORUS We twa hae run about the braes,

and pou’d the gowans fine;

But we’ve wander’d mony a weary fit,sin' auld lang syne.           

CHORUS We twa hae paidl’d in the burn,

frae morning sun till dine;

But seas between us braid hae roar’dsin' auld lang syne.            


There is some doubt as to whether the melody used today is the same one Burns originally intended, but it is widely used in Scotland and in the rest of the world. WIKI (text edited).There are several tunes associated with this song. Here are three tunes to which the words have traditionally been sung in a medley. (SGW)

Bonny At Morn (English)

Northumbria is the only part of England with its own regional music-dialect, its own stock of melodies that are distinct in style from tunes anywhere else in the country. And of this style, Bonny at Morn is one of the masterpieces. Its peculiarity no doubt derives from the character of the local northeastern bagpipe, and the tune was surely an instrumental one before words became attached to it. A great, if neglected, pioneer folk song collector, John Bell, noted the song at the outset of the nineteenth century, but it wasn't printed until 1882, in The Northumbrian Minstrelsy.


The poem takes a curious twofold form; in part it's a lullaby addressed to a baby, and in part it's reproach to a lazy son who is 'ower lang' in his bed and won't get up.

(A.L. Lloyd, notes 'New Voices') AT MORN. English, Air (6/4 time). England, Northumberland. G Minor.


Standard tuning (fiddle).


AB.The sheep's in the meadow,

The kye's in the corn,

[Thou's ower land in they bed]

Bonny at morn.

Canny at night,

Bonny at morn,

[Thou's ower lang in thy bed],

Bonny at morn.

(Bruce & Stokoe)


"The song 'Bonny at Morn' gives us a pretty picture of family life. The baby awakes a little too early, but the big lad and the big lass are loath to rise; hence the interjaculatory phrases 'Thou's ower lang in thy bed' in the midst of the song" (Stokoe).The title appears in Henry Robson's list of popular Northumbrian song and dance tunes, published c. 1800.

Printed source: Bruce & Stokoe (Northumbrian Minstrelsy), 1882; pp. 88-89.

Brian Boru's March (Irish)

​Brian Boru was the Irish Warrior King that united all the Irish tribes against the onslaught of the Vikings in Ireland in the 10th century. When praying and giving thanks on his great victory after the Battle of Clontarf in 1014, he was assassinated by a rogue Viking, ending the reign of one of Ireland’s most revered and charismatic leaders (

Down by the Salley Gardens (Irish)

​Down By the Salley Gardens (Irish: Gort na Saileán) is a poem by William Butler Yeats published in The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems in 1889.  The verse was subsequently set to music by Herbert Hughes to the traditional air The Moorlough Shore (also known as "The Maids of Mourne Shore") in 1909.


Down by the salley gardens my love and I did meet;

She passed the salley gardens with little snow-white feet.

She bid me take love easy, as the leaves grow on the tree;

But I, being young and foolish, with her would not agree.

In a field by the river my love and I did stand,

And on my leaning shoulder she laid her snow-white hand.

She bid me take life easy, as the grass grows on the weirs;

But I was young and foolish, and now am full of tears. 


The Foggy Dew (Irish)

​There are several melodies associated with the title The Foggy Dew, as well as an English Song called The Foggy, Foggy Dew, made popular by Burl Ives.  The first tune was used for a song about the Easter Uprising of 1916. (SGW)


Another song called “Foggy Dew” was written by Canon Charles O’Neill (1887-1963), a parish priest of Kilcoo and later Newcastle, County Down, sometime after 1919.The music is from a manuscript that was in possession of Kathleen Dallat of Ballycastle. That manuscript gives Carl Hardebeck as the arranger. It is the same air as the traditional love song The Moorlough Shore. (WIKI)

The Gartan Mother's Lullaby (Irish)

"Gartan Mother's Lullaby" is an old Irish song and poem written by Herbert Hughes and Seosamh Mac Cathmhaoil, first published in Songs of Uladh [Ulster] in 1904. Hughes collected the traditional melody in Donegal the previous year and Campbell wrote the lyrics. The song is a lullaby by a mother, from the parish of Gartan in County Donegal. The song refers to a number of figures in Irish mythology, places in Ireland and words in the Irish language. (WIKI)


Sleep, O babe, for the red-bee hums

The silent twilight's fall:

Aibheall from the Grey Rock comes

To wrap the world in thrall.

A leanbhan O, my child, my joy,

My love and heart's-desire,

The crickets sing you lullaby

Beside the dying fire.

Dusk is drawn, and the Green Man's ThornI

s wreathed in rings of fog:

Siabhra sails his boat till morn

Upon the Starry Bog.

A leanbhan O, the pale half moon

Hath brimmed her cusp in dew,

And weeps to hear the sad sleep-tuneI sing, O love, to you.

Faintly sweet doth the chapel bell

Ring o'er the valley dim:

Tearmann's peasant-voices swell

In fragrant evening hymn.

A leanbhan O, the low bell rings

My little lamb to rest

And angel-dreams, till morning sings

Its music in your head.

Sleep, O babe, for the red-bee hums

The silent twilight's fall,

Áibheall from the Grey Rock comes

To wrap the world in thrall.

A leanbhan O, my child, my joy,

My love and heart's-desire,

The crickets sing you lullaby

Beside the dying fire. (WIKI)

The Gentle Maiden (Irish)

An ancient Irish tune from the Bunting Collection of 1840. “Gentle Maiden," as heard by Bunting from the old Irish harpers, and which was known to some of them as far back as 1745. 

Joy to the Person of My Love (Early Scottish)

This tune may be found in the Skene Manuscript as well as other old manuscripts.  It is from the courtly tradition of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods (SGW). Skene Manuscript (National Library of Scotland ms adv.5.2.15)  probably compiled c.1630, though this is a guess; it could date from as early as 1615 or as late as the 1650s. Written by, or for, John Skene (d.1644) of Hallyards, Lothian, or his son William. Written in tablature for the mandore, a kind of small lute. (From:

South Wind (Irish)

​This air is taken from a song titled A Ghaoith ón Deas (Oh Wind from the South). The song was printed in Edward Bunting’s 1809 Collection of Irish Folk Music, though Bunting also notated the tune under a different title, "Why Should Not Poor Folk," stating it as having been transcribed from the playing of a harper of County Clare in 1792. The text of the song has been attributed to a Domnhall Meirgeach Mac ConMara, of County Mayo, and deals with a poet conversing with the wind, speaking of his longing for his homeland.(

The Water is Wide (English)

"The Water Is Wide" (also called "O Waly, Waly") is a folk song of English origin, based on lyrics that partly date to the 1600s. It remains popular in the 21st century. Cecil Sharp published the song in Folk Songs From Somerset (1906). It is related to Child Ballad 204 (Roud number 87), Jamie Douglas, which in turn refers to the ostensibly unhappy first marriage of James Douglas, 2nd Marquess of Douglas to Lady Barbara Erskine. (WIKI)  The original song may have been Scottish and  there is another tune associated with “O Waly Waly” that you may want to look up. (SGW)

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