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O'Neill Henebry Wax Cylinders Online!

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Author Profile: Patrick Egan
This Outreach member has published 17 articles.

The O'Neill/Henebry wax cylinders are digitised, and they are online! 

Launched this week at the Boole Library, UCC, the Henebry/O'Neill wax cylinder collection has been digitised and transferred to the digital format. I was present to help out with the display on bigscreen TV and walk through of the material, which I have to say is presented a very nicely designed website. 

The O'Neill/Henebry collection are 114 wax cylinders which have been in UCC since 1911. Some were recorded by Sergeant Francis O'Neill (of 1001 gems fame!), and sent as a gift to the Reverend Dr Richard Henebry, the latter also recorded some of his own in Ireland, and later deposited them at the university. In recent years they were digitised by one very unique man - Henri Chamoux, who has invented a machine called the "Archeophone". The archeophone was used for this collection in such a way that it preserves as much of the original wax cylinders as possible - by placing the minimum amount of pressure on the cylinders. More about the process here:

It's a great experience to browse through a collection of very old Irish traditional music recordings - in fact they are said to be the earliest field recordings of Irish music in existence (maybe the Irish Traditional Music Archive might confirm that)! In the library a glass case now sits with a wax cylinder player and some of the cylinder casings. There is a short description of Henebry - it claims that he was possibly the first Irish ethnomusicologist! More on him here.

On the day, we demonstrated the sound recording "Green's" hornpipe, and this was later followed up with performances by Niall Vallely, Martin Hayes, and the "UCC Traditional Music Ensemble". The musicians played some of the same tunes that were recorded, a great nod to those who ensured the passing on of the music at the beginning of the previous century. The ensemble played "the great" Shaskeen reel, a mighty tune played by the piper Patsy Tuohey, which was given the height of praise by Henebry. From O'Neill's book about "The Book":

“[Touhey’s performance] has the life of a reel and the terrible pathos of a caoine. It represents to me human man climbing the empyrean heights, and when he had almost succeeded, then tumbling, tumbling down to hell, and expressing his sense of eternal failure on the way. The Homeric ballads and the new Brooklyn Bridge are great, but Patsy Touhey’s rendering of ‘The Shaskeen Reel’ is a far bigger achievement.”

I was involved in some of the website editing, and identifying a couple of the tunes too! Take a listen to "Speed The Plough" on page four of the site. It is a version of that tune that I had never heard apart from when my concertina teacher, Larry Kinsella (RIP) used to play it. The second I heard it I was struck by the sound, here it was, a recording that Larry got from his uncle Mylie in Wexford, and it was as rare as they come. What amazement hear it played back by Tomás Ó Huigín!

Dr. Micheál Ó Súilleabháin gave a speech, where he talked about the significance of the project being launched in the same institution that Boole carried out his great work on algebra! He drew on some other significant comparisons that recorded sounds have with radio, and quoted some of Séamus Heaney's poem "A Sofa in the Forties"..

We entered history and ignorance
Under the wireless shelf. Yippee-i-ay,
Sang "The Riders of the Range." HERE IS THE NEWS,

Said the absolute speaker. Between him and us
A great gulf was fixed where pronunciation
Reigned tyrannically. The aerial wire

Swept from a treetop down in through a hole
Bored in the window frame. When it moved in wind,
The sway of language and its furtherings

Swept and swayed in us like nets in water
Or the abstract, lonely curve of distant trains
As we entered history and ignorance.

We occupied our seats with all our might,
Fit for the uncomfortableness.
Constancy was its own reward already.

Out in front, on the big upholstered arm,
Somebody craned to the side, driver or
Fireman, wiping his dry brow with the air

Of one who had run the gauntlet. We were
The last thing on his mind, it seemed; we sensed
A tunnel coming up where we'd pour through

Like unlit carriages through fields at night,
Our only job to sit, eyes straight ahead,
And be transported and make engine noise.

Séamus Heaney b.1939

Engine noise is clear to be heard - playing back the cylinders on the site you can hear the wax cylinder engine in it's raw form, the digital files unmastered as it were. There is something important about remembering the machine in all of these recordings too... 

Visit the O'Neill/Henebry website at www.music.ucc.ie/henebry

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Guest Friday, 20 May 2022