Hugh Shields, (editor): Tunes of the Munster Pipers: Irish Traditional Music from the James Goodman Manuscripts

Reprinted from Green Man Review. It was written by Jo Morrison.

It isn’t often that a new book of tunes comes along that could successfully change the whole way we look at Irish music, but this book has that potential. Over 500 tunes are compiled in it, as recorded by James Goodman beginning back in the 1840s and spanning two decades. The collection has long been regarded as a holding-ground of Irish traditional music but was never published due to the onerous task of editing the manuscripts into a format recognizable today. The task was attempted first by an uilleann piper, Brendan Breathnach, in the 1980s, but his unexpected death brought a halt to the project. Hugh Shields from Trinity College later took on the task and brought it to fruition.

The book is well-designed, with a thorough and scholarly history of James Goodman prefacing the music itself. This biography tells us of an Irish clergyman who had a passion for the local music of his neighbors. It appears that he collected music as he converted Catholics to Protestantism, perhaps achieving the latter more through encouragement than through the stranglehold tactics taken on by many Protestant missionaries of the time. His complete comfort with the Irish vernacular clearly assisted him in this matter.

Regardless of the methods of his main profession, it was his avocation that will keep his name in history books forever, as a significant contributor to the understanding of Celtic traditional music.

Editor Hugh Shields is thorough in explaining his transcription process, and his transcriptions are clear and easily read. It is noted that the title Tunes of the Munster Pipers comes from Goodman’s vague indication of his tune sources, indicating only that his oral sources were “Munster Pipers.” It is the vagueness of the sources that makes the book lacking, for those interested in history. The tunes are undated, the sources generally unknown and uncredited, with James Goodman only noting that the tunes were from the Munster pipers, or from the Levey collection. Add to this that the lyrics to the tunes were not passed down, and it becomes evident that there was a great deal lost in the interval between Goodman’s original efforts and the completion of the manuscript. This is meant as no slight to Shields, who has done well with the materials available.

What remains is an outstanding collection of tunes, transcribed very closely to how they were played back in the mid-1800s. This has to be exciting to the Celtic scholar, as an enormous number of tunes will be new to most Celtic musicians. There are wonderful slip-jigs, reels, airs, and quick-steps that will not be familiar to many musicians. There are also a couple of especially interesting tunes, which appear to be story-tunes, telling a story through music, rather than through words. These tunes begin with an introductory piece of music followed by short themes for the players, events, and happenings of the story. One such piece tells the story of a little fox, complete with music for the horn, the hunter, the hounds, and the lament for the fox. It is unfortunate that we know little else about these tunes or how they would have been performed.

Equally exciting are the familiar tunes, especially since a number of these have come to us via oral tradition, and are significantly altered from what is shown in the Munster Pipers. Can this give us an indication of how Celtic music has evolved over the past century? Is the foreign, modal sound of this music representative of the music being played at that time? The tune “Killiecrankie” is an excellent example of this, as the tune as transcribed here is clearly the same tune as that played today, but there are significant differences in the melodic line, the written ornamentation, and even the length of the tune! The Irish jig, “The Three Little Drummers,” is shown in the manuscript to follow the same basic note progression, but without the prevalent use of thirds between the main melody notes, as I was taught it by an Irish harper. The tune is clearly the same, but the effect is significantly different.

So, who will benefit from this book? Scholars of Irish music will glean a great deal of information by intensive study of these tunes, by investigating the tunes both on their own and in relation to their related modern-day melodies. Musicians will find it a wonderful sourcebook of tunes, as long as they keep in mind that those learning the tunes from different sources may play the same tune very differently. The tunes are ideal for uilleann pipes, fiddle, piano, or harp. Great Highland bagpipe players and Scottish small-pipe players will be more limited in the tune selection, but there are still a number of gems available for their use, perhaps with minor modifications. (i.e., “Reels of the Bogies” is playable on Great Highland bagpipes if you move the single top note down.)

The text of the book is probably a bit too scholarly for those simply interested in an overview of Irish music history, or Irish history in general, although it is highly informative.

(Irish Traditional Music Archive, 1998)

Leave a Reply