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Minstrels and Metaphors

Minstrels and Metaphors: the hidden messages in early 19th Century Celtic song collections

NEWSFLASH: I have a whole chapter on the literary, bardic side of Celtic song collections in my forthcoming book, Our Ancient National Airs, due to be published on 28 March 2013 by Ashgate.

Moore's Irish Melodies
Minstrels and bards are often mentioned in early national song collections.  Find them (or their harps) on covers, engravings, in the songs themselves, or in the prefaces.  R. A. Smith's Scotish Minstrel is a great example:-

Besides the songs familiar to every Caledonian, many hitherto unpublished will be found in this collection which we doubt not will be highly relished by those who prefer the simple breathings of nature to the laboured combinations of art.  Not a few of these wild flowers have been gathered from the peasantry of our country.  Several of them, from their extreme simplicity, and the scale from which they are framed, must satisfy every one acquainted with the characteristics of Scottish music, that they are the compositions of minstrels of a remote age.  Many of the Jacobite songs and airs were taken from the withered lips of auld kimmers and carles, whase bluid yet warms at the remembrance of Prince Charlie

According to the plan of this work, several airs have been arranged to the simple stanzas of olden time, in preference to the more polished verse of modern days; for this we need make no apology to him who feels that,

'Each simple air his mother sung
Placed on her knee, when helpless young,
Still vibrates on his ear.'
You can see this volume in the Whittaker Library here at RSAMD.

Why so much emphasis on minstrels?  Because they're seen as carrying on the oral tradition, as opposed to identifiably authored songs.  In some contexts, they're seen as champions of liberty against tyranny (see Mary Helen Thuente, The Harp Re-Strung, a very insightful book about the United Irishmen, published by Syracuse University Press, 1994, for more on this topic), although it has also been suggested by other authorities that, in literary terms, they're symbolic of patronage, too.  After all, who paid the minstrels and bards?) 

Notice also, that the songs are described as "wild flowers" and "breathings of nature".  Why?  Because the flowers are a metaphor for something natural, not artificial - something that has grown since time immemorial.

It is important to note that these images and metaphors are not restricted to musical collections of songs.  An 1858 edition by George Gilfillan of Bishop Thomas Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, offers you the opportunity to find both 18th century Percy's minstrels and bards, and 19th century Gilfillan's natural metaphors.  (View a GoogleBook 1864 edition of this book, in full-text here.)  Just look at the rich metaphors in Gilfillan's preface:-

The Very Metaphorical Rev. Gilfillan
It was not surprising that, in such a dreary dearth, a small bunch of wild flowers, culled, as it were, from the walls of a ruined castle, but, with the scent of free winds, and the freshness of the dew, and the tints of the sun upon the leaves [...] should attract notice and awaken delight ...

John Martin's 'The Bard': an
artistic interpretation from the 1820s


This is a list of the items I mentioned in my paper at the IAML 2011 Dublin conference. Items are listed in the order I mentioned them. If I didn't mention them - they won't be listed here! Feel free to contact for further discussion. 

  • My paper was subsequently published in Fontes Artis Musicae, and you can read the draft version here. Karen McAulay, 'Minstrels of the Celtic Nations: Metaphors in Early Nineteenth-Century Celtic Song Collections', Fontes Artis Musicae, Vol.59 no.1 (Jan-March 2012), pp.25-38.
  • You'll find much more on this subject in my forthcoming book, Our Ancient National Airs, due March 2013, published by Ashgate.
  • Thomas Gray - poem, 'The Bard' - arguably the original inspiration for the whole minstrelsy genre!
  • Jones, Edward, Musical and poetical relicks of the Welsh bards (1794)
  • Jones, Edward, Bardic Museum (1802)
  • Smith, Robert Archibald, Scotish Minstrel (1820-24)
  • Smith, Robert Archibald, Irish Minstrel (1825)
  • Moore, Thomas (& John Stevenson), Moore’s Irish Melodies(1808-1834)
  • Baptie, David, Musical Scotland (1894)
  • Letter from R. A. Smith to William Motherwell dated 13th Oct 1823, Glasgow University Library, GB 0247 MS Robertson 3/13, ff.22r-23r.
  • Cromek, Robert, Remains of Nithsdale and GallowaySong, (1810) (poet Allan Cunningham contributed)
  • Cunningham, Allan, The Songs of Scotland (1825) – poetry collection
  • Percy, Thomas, Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765) – poetry collection
  • Percy, Thomas, Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, ed. George Gilfillan (1858)
  • Owenson, Sydney (Lady Morgan), The Wild Irish Girl (1806) – novel
  • Owenson, Sydney, Twelve Original Hibernian Melodies (1805)
  • Scott, Walter, Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802-3) – initially, poetry collection
  • Spirit of the Nation (1845)
  • The Nation (1842- ) – newspaper
  • Fitzpatrick, Siobhan, My Gentle Harp: Moore’s Irish Melodies, 1808-2008 (2008)
  • National Archive of Irish Composers – Digital Library  Explore late 18th and 19th century music - try a search on 'Strains of other days' to find more minstrel/harp images. (My deepest thanks to Irish pianist Una Hunt for alerting me to this website)
  • Also, read Una's article on 19th century Irish piano music, 'The Harper's Legacy: Irish National Airs and Pianoforte Composers' - online in the 2011 Journal of the Society for Musicology in Ireland

Cultivated rose, urban environment -
in reality, perhaps not so different
from the songs I've been looking at?!