George Petrie: Distorting the Voice of the People?

George Petrie: Distorting the Voice of the People?

A review of The Petrie Collection of the Ancient Music of Ireland, edited by David Cooper.

This is a handsomely presented and expensive re-publication of George Petrie’s The Ancient Music of Ireland, Volume 1 (1855) and the posthumously published (and obviously incomplete) Volume 2 (1882). There is a new introduction by the editor, David Cooper of the University of Leeds, who has also re-set the music. The Irish texts have also been re-set into a new typeface as well as being modernised and edited by Lillis Ó Laoire.

Speaking of Petrie’s 1855 volume in Irish Folk Music Song and Dance (New Edition, Dublin, 1974) the late Donal O’Sullivan stated that:

Petrie combined knowledge and enthusiasm in full measure, and on this book he should be rated as great a nation-builder in the cultural sphere as was O’Connell in the sphere of politics.

So, a reviewer is faced with the choice of deciding whether he should approach this work as if it were a holy shrine to be venerated, or perhaps a whited sepulchre propped up for generations by ill-informed gasbags. Actually, it is a bit of both.

As JMI is a broad church let us assume that some of its readers will not be totally au fait with Petrie and his works and give a rough outline of these. George Petrie was born in Dublin in 1789 (or 1790, you get both). He was a Renaissance man and Victorian, a scholar, musician, archaeologist, artist and organiser, Loyalist and patriot. His work on round towers and the royal site at Tara was ground-breaking and his myriad antiquarian articles appeared, not only in lofty academic journals, but in popular magazines for the dissemination of knowledge such as the Dublin Penny Journal, which he edited himself. These and many other publications he illustrated with his finely drafted drawings. As a painter he favoured landscapes and many of these were exhibited by the RHA, an organisation with whom he had a longstanding affiliation

Without a shred of doubt, we, the generations who succeed him, are in debt to him on innumerable levels. As an antiquarian, he was a meticulous scholar. His work for the Ordnance Survey Office displayed an ability to comprehend many levels of scholarship and he obviously was a charismatic leader who deployed this capacity to motivate colleagues like Eugene O’Curry, John O’Donovan and the ill-fated James Clarence Mangan. This makes it all the more galling that, in the field of folksong scholarship, he displayed a level of amateurishness that he certainly would not have tolerated from colleagues in the many other fields in which he shone.

Petrie had a genuine love of music of all kinds from a very early age. His fondness for opera, German bands, symphony orchestras, street musicians and ballad singers is well documented in the standard biography/hagiography, The Life and Labours in Art and Archaeology of George Petrie, written by William Stokes shortly after his death in 1866.[1] Even as a teenager he was accustomed to carry a pencil and notepad and was always prepared to note down music or song wherever he encountered them. Indeed, the very first song in AMI 1, ‘An Cailín Rua’ (The Red-Haired Girl), was noted by the young Petrie when he heard the strains drifting from a tavern near which he resided in Dalkey in 1815. It was sung by a couple of country girls and their soldier boyfriends. With the beautiful tune he is ‘tempted to give a stanza or two – for more than a specimen would scarcely be tolerated.’ It is an ominous opening, reflecting a mind-set which greatly devalues Petrie’s work, a point to which I will return.

Stokes’ description of Petrie at work collecting on Aran in 1857 has been reproduced with the tedious regularity of Pepys’ account of Mrs Phipps singing ‘Barbra Allan’, so I will not inflict it on the readers of JMI yet again. Viewed from this chronological distance the image is that of the grand man from Dublin having the local peasants brought before him with their musical offerings. Having notated the airs he played them back on his violin for the performer to tell him if they considered he had the tune properly. I have often wondered how many of these timorous locals, speaking in a language which his colleague Eugene O’Curry had to translate for him, told his honour he was wrong?

And yet … and yet, there is such a wealth of worthwhile song airs in his collection. Best compare its form of presentation to the Natural History Museum in Merrion Square where the Victorian display methodology is actually part of its charm, but charm is not an essential ingredient in scientific discourse. And Petrie certainly wished his work on music to be evaluated at the same level as his other scientific pursuits.

In 1851 the Society for the Preservation and the Publication of the Melodies of Ireland (SPPMI) was founded. It had ten Vice Presidents who were mainly aristocratic wastes of space, a top-dressing of societal respectability – which as we shall see, would have been extremely important to Petrie. The Council of the SPPMI however contained such eminent scholars and collectors as Eugene Curry (sic), Henry Hudson, John Edward Pigot and William Wilde. The president was Petrie himself. The SPPMI was instituted ‘for the purpose of Preserving, Classifying, and publishing (National) airs of every kind, and likewise all such words (whether in the Irish or English language) connected with them ….’ Elaborate plans for collection were outlined and a central deposit for existing collections was arranged. Central to the existence of the Society was the publication of an annual volume of music. At the time of the founding of the Society there was enough material for five volumes of Dr Petrie’s collection alone. Unfortunately the single volume and its posthumous fragment are all that ever saw the light of day.

In the original volumes the melodies come with piano accompaniment added by Petrie or his daughter. These have been removed by David Cooper, who also checked the published music against Petrie’s manuscript volumes in the National Library of Ireland and Trinity College Dublin. As the original volume measured 10” by 13” and the current one is 9.5” by 6” the music is much shrunk, making legibility that much more difficult (for ageing eyes at any rate).

Will the contemporary reader find Petrie’s volumes interesting? Yes, without a doubt. Many of the songs (and songs comprise the larger part of the collection) come with headnotes which are essays in themselves. His friend and colleague, Eugene O’Curry, was the source of many of the songs himself, and was obviously Petrie’s main source of information on Irish language matters. He was able to guide Petrie through aspects of the tradition wherein he was an insider; an eminent scholar yes, but one who knew the Limerick Asylum as well as he knew the Royal Irish Academy.

When Bunting was compiling his later volumes he was offered contributions by the young and enthusiastic Petrie, some of which he accepted. He finally desisted further on the grounds that his own work would be swamped. Petrie has much to say on his mentor, most of which can be interpreted as the utterances of a disillusioned and disgruntled scholar who is, in line with the etiquette of the time, far too gentlemanly to indulge in robust condemnation. Nevertheless, most of Petrie’s remarks on Bunting’s work can only be described as ‘damning with faint praise’.

As Petrie saw in Bunting the opportunity to present his collection to a wider audience, a younger collector from Limerick saw in Petrie exactly the same opening. This was Patrick Weston Joyce, who was in many ways to be Petrie’s successor. Along with the many musical items contributed by Joyce there are many notes in which Joyce also demonstrates his familiarity with ‘the inside track’. Particularly interesting and informative are his detailed descriptions of traditional dancing and his portraits of the informants from whom he obtained his songs and music. Reading his contributions here one sees clearly the stylistic traits which were to culminate in his Old Irish Folk Music and Song (1909).

There are several other individuals who sent musical items to Petrie, and though not the most prolific source, it would be bizarre not to mention Miss Jane Ross of Limavady who supplied a tune for which she had no name for the 1855 volume. Petrie labelled it simply ‘Londonderry Air’. If there is beauty in this tune (and many eminent critics will avow there is), generations of Brylcream tenors and sobbing sopranos have long made this writer’s teeth clench at the very opening bars which are inevitably followed by Fred Weatherly’s maudlin lyrics. The fact that this tune is known from no other source is worth considering. The reader is referred to an excellent article ‘A New Light Upon the Londonderry Air’ by that great folksong scholar, Anne G. Gilchrist, where she argues convincingly that the Air is actually a serendipitously botched attempt by Miss Ross at transcribing the previously mentioned ‘Cailín Rua’.[2]

I cannot now recall the musical which features the song ‘I Love Him, But he Embarrasses Me’, but it would seem to sum up Petrie’s attitude to the songs he collected. While praising the ‘artless simplicity’ of these ‘peasant songs’ he goes on to add:

I am aware, however, that the opinion which I have thus ventured to express is not likely to find a very general concurrence in the so-called musical world, but it is not for that world that this work is intended. (p. 246)

Regrettably, there is little to substantiate this disclaimer in his documentation of the songs which make up the bulk of this collection. His distaste for many Irish, and practically all English, texts is universally evident in these volumes. He may deny subservience to the genteel world of the musical soiree, but he certainly gives the impression that one eye never left the polite society among whom he moved. He may have mixed with the purveyors of traditional music, but he was perennially aware of his own social order and constantly on guard lest he offend bourgeois respectability. Furthermore, he was prudish to a staggering degree (as was his successor, Joyce). In an age which put coverings on piano legs lest they excite or upset the viewer, Petrie did it with song texts. Let me cite some examples:

The heart-achingly beautiful ‘An Casadeach Bán’ is: ‘ … of such a nature as will not allow even a specimen of it to be translated’ (p. 60) He regrets even having to use the name of the tender night-visit song, ‘Blow the Candle Out’, but cannot recall any other name for the air and so he is: ‘… obliged to apply to it the name of a very objectionable street ballad to which it is was unhappily united.’ (p. 98). The fact that he concedes that it had ‘a very extensive popularity in the Munster counties’ and was sung there since the eighteenth century[3] counted for nil and he refused to print the words.

Amazingly, the numerous versions he had of ‘The Nobleman’s Wedding’ were: ‘… all so rude and imperfect as to be unworthy of publication.’ (p. 203). Instead he prints a version composed by his friend William Allingham. This reaches new depths of bathos with verses such as: ‘Clothed like a minstrel, her former true lover/Has taken his harp up, and tuned all the strings;/There, among strangers, his grief to discover,/A fair maiden’s falsehood he bitterly sings.’

Is it fair to castigate a Victorian gentleman for a priggish outlook on the songs he found all around him? I maintain that it is. The mores of his period may explain his attitude, it does not excuse it, for we are dealing with a scholar. Scholarship then, as now, demands objectivity. Other Victorian and Edwardian collectors with high social standing did not balk at collecting material with sexual content (real or imagined). Neither the Reverend James Duncan, schoolmaster Gavin Greig, or the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould omitted gathering a portion of ‘high-kilted’ songs in their collecting activities. Even if the publishing houses of their day would not normally consider publishing such material, these collectors were aware of the importance in gathering all strata of folksong and preserving it for posterity. Petrie, as an archaeologist, should have been aware, more than most, that a collector does not dismiss musical artefacts, even if they are not to the collector’s taste. When an archaeologist unearths an artefact, be it pottery shard or Ardagh chalice, he does not begin to break off bits which do not appeal to him and discard them. Similarly, song is the combination of both music and words; to separate the elements is to destroy the integrity of the whole. No one can destroy this integrity and retain the least claim to proper folksong scholarship.

But there is more … There are several other areas where Petrie is either downright idiosyncratic or even clueless. Writing on one song he says:

It does not possess either poetic merit or novel characteristics sufficient to induce me to give insertion to more than one of its six eight-line stanzas, and I give this only as a specimen of its rhythm and metre. (p. 253)

The offending piece of worthless poetry? ‘An Ceo Draíochta’! I would have thought that his friend and collaborator, Mr O’Curry, would have informed him that it was written by Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin, a poet who is generally regarded as possessing some little talent. ‘Andrew Magrath’ (Aindrias Mac Craith, ‘An Mangaire Súgach’) fares a little better and Petrie admits that he was at least ‘clever’, but he cannot let it go without censure and has to add that he was also ‘deplorably licentious’.

He deems it necessary to ‘suppress’ the Irish name for ‘Oh, Rouse Yourself, It’s Cold You’ve Got’ and gives only one verse of the street ballad in English in order to demonstrate that it is ‘quite worthless.’

So, one is driven to ask, just what did he like? Some indication is already signalled in his preference for the Allingham re-writing of the traditional ballad quoted above. His preference for the parlour song is made even more clear in his comments on ‘One Sunday after Mass’. It is a song of the ‘Colin and Phoebe’ variety which may be found in abundance in works like Pills to Purge Melancholy or Tea Table Miscellany; twee pastoral fantasies for the idle rich who liked playing shepherd and shepherdess in their drawing rooms while probably starving genuine rural workers on their seldom-visited estates.

One Sunday after Mass,
As young Colin and his lass
Through the green wood did pass,
All alone, and all alone:

Chorus. All alone, and all alone.

He asked her for a póg,
And she called him a rogue,
And she beat him with her brogue,
Och hone, and och hone!
Chorus. Och hone, and och hone!

Of this piece of drivel Petrie tells us:

This song, like others of its class, was a favourite one at the dinner or supper table, even in good society … I may, perhaps, add that such songs were not uncommon in Ireland during the latter half of the last century, and they were usually the compositions of men not only of good education and talents, but frequently, of a distinguished position in society. (pp. 142-3)

Verbum sat sapienti. One cannot escape the corollary that Petrie thus considered his informants to be generally lacking in ‘good education and talents’ and certainly not belonging to ‘good society’. Cooper assents with and quotes Stokes to assert that Petrie ‘… collected Irish music, not for the benefit of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy and gentry who were, he felt, “a different race – a race who possess no national music”, but for the ordinary citizen.’ Looking at the list of Petrie’s vice presidents in the SPPMI and the evidence presented in these volumes one can find little to substantiate this assertion.

To the many songs here which had their texts severely edited, censored and/or suppressed, may be added scores more whose airs were published in Stanford’s posthumous The Complete Collection of Irish Music as Noted by George Petrie (1902-5). Here we encounter title after title and tune after tune which are obviously songs, but of their words we know little or nothing. They have vanished forever on the tide of time. And we will never know how much more could have been rescued were it not for Petrie’s unfortunately disdainful attitude towards so many of them.

There are many more aspects and points which could usefully be addressed in order to properly evaluate Petrie’s published work. Objective interpretation is required; we owe it not only to him but to Francis Keane, Mary Madden, Patrick Coneely, Teigue McMahon and the many other singers and musicians who passed on their music to us through Petrie. Even though this work is hugely flawed there is no doubt that we still owe a debt to Petrie and others like him, who at least had the interest and initiative to gather this material and do so unaided and unpaid. Whatever we may think of his work and that of Bunting, Joyce and others, there is no doubt that their records are in many cases the sole reports of items and aspects of our musical traditions to which we no longer have access.

Professor Cooper has written widely on Bartók, electronic and film music. He was educated in the Belfast Royal Academy and various British universities. He is a composer and prolific writer on myriad musical subjects. Two of his most recent essays concern themselves with Orange song,[4] and ‘Ulster music’ is one of his declared research interests. So, after almost one hundred and fifty years, what has this new edition brought us? Not a lot, actually. The work he did on re-setting the music, already noted, is its main importance. There is an extremely good index which makes reference to the book’s contents very easy. He has expanded the table of Petrie’s materials and sources originally published by Donal O’Sullivan.[5] This now includes relevant numbers from the Breandán Breathnach Index. As well as jettisoning the piano accompaniment he has also discarded the beautiful font in which the Irish texts were printed in the original volumes. If memory serves me well, this font was actually designed by Petrie himself. The Irish has been modernised by no less an authority on song than Dr Lillis Ó Laoire.

Regarding Irish, there is one title in the 1882 volume which has always puzzled me and in this edition we receive no elucidation. It is ‘Maidin fhomhair, nó, Cailín Péacach’ which Petrie translates as ‘The Harvest Maiden’, or ‘The Sprouting Maiden’. Could this be a version of ‘Eochaill’ (‘Maidin fhómhair ‘s mé a’ dul go hEochaill’)? Probably not, as the tune is not particularly analogous. If Petrie meant to print ‘maighdean’ (maiden), this makes sense, but Maidin fhomhair is simply modernised as Maidin Fhómhair. What a ‘Sprouting Maiden’ is, I have no idea. ‘Péacadh’ can indeed mean ‘germination’, but Dineen and Ó Dónall gloss ‘caílín péacach’ as a beautiful or gaily dressed girl, which is surely a more reasonable translation.

There is little new in Cooper’s Introduction relating to Petrie himself and I have been unable to refer to his entry in the new Grove to ascertain if there is anything extra in his entry on Petrie there. On Petrie’s collecting methods we have little more than the Aran sketch, although we are given some idea of his musical preferences as Cooper spends some time discussing the ‘Characteristics of Irish Melodies Identified by Petrie’. Still, many questions remain unanswered, such as the reason for publishing Volume 2 in fragmentary form without explanation. (It actually breaks off half way through an entry.) He devotes some time to Petrie as a ‘nineteenth-century romantic idealist’ which may help us understand, to some degree, the strangeness of some of Petrie’s writings as cited above. It is with some considerable insight that Cooper notes:

Through the provision of piano accompaniments, the arrangements became performable in the front parlours of the bourgeoisie, who, reassured by the reification of the artefact, were able to sing and play what they could now regard as ‘their’ national music. (p. 12)

Unforgivably, Francis Hoffmann’s collection of music from the Petrie manuscripts (which was published even before the 1882 volume), is neither mentioned in the text or listed in the bibliography.[6]

Having demonstrated elsewhere that he is not without some knowledge of traditional song in Ireland, Dr Cooper then goes on to perpetuate the major failing of the work he is editing. As pointed out repeatedly above, the commentary on the songs is lamentable. This is not commented on in any detail, let alone amended. Any editor who takes on the publication of a new scholarly edition of an earlier work owes it to his or her readers to elucidate its flaws as well as highlighting its merits. While there are things that Petrie got wrong, there are also things that he could not have known, but are easily accessible to students of folksong today. Much information can be found by using such tools as the indexes of Laws and Roud to identify the texts that Petrie did not know or would not print. People with a knowledge of the songs in this collection are readily available to fill the many gaping informational holes in this publication. Why were they not asked for help if the editor could not do it himself? Why on earth did he not make more use of his translator, who is a highly respected authority on, and performer of, traditional singing in Irish?[7]

It is undeniable that an edition of Petrie in the light of twenty-first century folksong scholarship is required. Unfortunately, this is not it. Let us hope we do not have to wait another hundred and fifty years for one.[8]

The Petrie Collection of the Ancient Music of Ireland, edited by David Cooper, Cork University Press, 2002, ISBN 1 85918 301 8 (HB), vi + 298pp €60. 

See David Cooper’s response here.

1. William Stokes, The Life and Labours in Art and Archaeology of George Petrie (London, 1868). For a more recent life see Grace Calder, George Petrie and the Ancient Music of Ireland (Dublin, 1968).
2. Anne G. Gilchrist, ‘A New Light Upon the Londonderry Air’ in Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society 1:3 (London, December 1934), pp. 115-121.
3. I recorded the late Martin Howley of Fanore, County Clare, singing this in the 1970s.
4. ‘Lámh Dearg: Celtic Minstrels and Orange Songsters’ in Celtic Cultural Studies. An Interdisciplinary Online Journal [ISSN 1468-6074[. ‘On the Twelfth of July in the Morning … or the Man who Mistook his Sash for a Hat’ in Folk Music Journal 8:1 (London, 2001), pp. 67-89.
5. Donal O’Sullivan, ‘The Petrie Collections of Irish Music’ in Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society 5:2 (London, December 1946), pp. 1-12.
6. Francis Hoffmann, Ancient Music of Ireland from the Petrie Collection (Dublin, 1877).
7. See, Lillis Ó Laoire, Ar Chreag i Lár na Farraige: Amhráin agus Amhráinithe I dTóraigh (Conamara: Cló Iar Chonnachta, 2002).
8. Dr Marion Deasy’s PhD thesis, New Edition of the Airs and Dance Tunes from the Music Manuscripts of George Petrie, LL.D., and A Survey of his Work as a Collector of Irish Folk Music, 2 vols, National University of Ireland, 1982, is referred to. Perhaps it is time this work was re-examined with a view to publication?

Published on 1 January 2003

Tom Munnelly (1944-2007), born in Dublin but resident in Miltown Malbay, Co Clare, since 1978, made the largest field-collection of Irish traditional song ever compiled by any individual. After recording privately in the 1960s, and collecting especially from Traveller singers, he became a professional folklore collector and archivist with the Department of Irish Folklore, University College Dublin (now the UCD Delargy Centre for Irish Folklore and the National Folklore Collection), from 1974 to date, with a concentration on English-language song. He lectured and taught widely, was a leading activist in many folk music organisations and festivals, including the Folk Music Society of Ireland, the Willie Clancy Summer School and the Clare Festival of Traditional Singing, and he served on national bodies such as the Arts Council. He was the founding Chairman of the Irish Traditional Music Archive from 1987 to 1993. Recently he was presented with the festschrift Dear Far-Voiced Veteran: Essays in Honour of Tom Munnelly, and was made an honorary Doctor of Literature by the National University of Ireland Galway.

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