REMARKS BY PRESIDENT McALEESE AT THE OFFICAL LAUNCH OF THE ARCHIVE: THE IRISH MUSIC MANUSCRIPTS
REMARKS BY PRESIDENT McALEESE AT THE OFFICAL LAUNCH OF THE ARCHIVE: THE IRISH MUSIC MANUSCRIPTS OF EDWARD BUNTING (1773-1843)
Ladies and Gentlemen,
My sincere thanks to Nicholas Carolan, Director of the Irish Traditional Music Archive for the kind invitation which allows me the honour of launching Dr. Colette Moloney’s hugely important new publication on The Irish Music Manuscripts of Edward Bunting (1773-1843). Modestly described as an introduction and a catalogue, this is in fact a work of monumental proportions which provides for the first time in one single volume, clear and easy access to Bunting’s lavish musical legacy. In some ways you could say that this is less a catalogue of Bunting’s work and more of a completion of it for this volume makes sense at last of Bunting’s life’s work.
It is hard to credit that Bunting was a mere nineteen-year-old when he was asked to record the music of the harpers at the famous Belfast Harp Festival in 1792. That experience of notating the music of the last of the oral-traditional Irish harpers was to shape his entire life and indeed to consume it, for the collection, arrangement and publication of traditional music became his passion and his career.
And yet he published only about a quarter of the music information he collected or was given, published none of the traditional song texts, most of them in the Irish language, and in his very successful published arrangements, Bunting often altered the original melodies to suit the tastes of his public.
Locked inside Bunting’s enormous collection was and is an unrivalled view of the culture of traditional instrumental music and song across Ulster and Connacht in the years around 1800. It is of course more, much more than a mere view, it is a unique and invaluable cultural treasury which, but for chance, might have been lost to us. Incredibly, after his death these manuscripts were lost sight of, but were accidentally rediscovered in 1907 through a chance encounter in London between the Belfast musician Charlotte Milligan Fox and Bunting’s grandson. Thankfully they are now mainly held in this very Library. But of course their rediscovery did not necessarily guarantee their easy dissemination to a new generation of musicians or ethnomusicologists. It was only when Dr. Colette Moloney was choosing a manuscript on which to base an MA thesis that it became obvious there was a serious job of work to be done in indexing and contextualising what was a very disorganised collection.
The context is fascinating. Belfast of the 1790’s, radical, intellectually vibrant and among the eighty-five scribes who contributed to the collection we find the names of the history makers; the McCrackens, Thomas Russell and of course the great medical pioneer well known to this University, James McDonnell. We find the colour, texture and drama of Gaelic society, the legendary harping tradition, the role of the solo performer and we find too the story of the social and political changes which impacted so profoundly on that landscape - a landscape we inherited but today know only very imperfectly.
Thanks to this publication we have a chance to know it better. Edward Bunting painstakingly built a causeway to our shared musical legacy. It became overgrown and neglected. This volume has cleared the way back and in doing so has also charted a pathway to the future for musicians and music lovers whether in Ireland or across the world. It couldn’t have come at a better time, when Irish music is enjoying enormous global success and there is a thirst for the sources which freshen and refreshen.
As the poet Cathal O’Searcaigh says in his poem An Tobar,
Is doiligh tobar a aimsiu faoi lathair…..
Ta said folaithe i bheagacha agus i bhfear
Tachtaithe ag caileannogach agus cuiscreach
Ach in ainneoin na neamhairde go leir
Nior chaill said a dhath den tseanmhianach……
Caithfear pilleadh aris ar na foinsi
“Tis hard to find a well nowadays…….
They’re hidden in rushes and grass,
Choked by green scum and ferns,
But despite the neglect
They’ve lost none of their true mettle……
There will have to be a going back to sources.
(translated by Gabriel Rosenstock)
The book is of course much more than a music resource and with its beautiful design and attractive presentation, it will be of interest to a wide readership, from historians and Irish language scholars to the general reader, curious about the sounds that moved our ancestors and the stories that moved them to music.
Given that Colette hails from Charleville in Co. Cork, we can presume a healthy run in bookshops considerably further south than Belfast. She surely deserves great credit and thanks for vindicating the work of Edward Bunting and through him the magnificent music of an era now revealed to us anew.
I congratulate everyone involved with this project – Nicholas Carolan, Director of The Irish Traditional Music Archive and general editor of this volume; the Irish-language editor, Dr. Antain Mac Lochlainn, and editorial assistants Maeve Gebruers and Joan McDermott who deserve great credit for what is a truly glorious and proud achievement in Irish publishing and scholarship.
I would also take this opportunity to thank those organisations that provided financial support for this project, among them the Heritage Council, The Arts Council and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. Between you, you have perfected and restored an old, priceless heirloom, given it back to us not as a museum piece but as a living, working, tool, a gift from the music lovers of the 18th Century to the children of the 21st century.
Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.