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An Rud Is Annamh Is Iontach - Revisiting Speed The Plough

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

Unusual Settings of Tunes In the Henebry-O'Neill Wax Cylinder Collection

A couple of weeks back, I posted an announcement here regarding the Henebry-O'Neill wax cylinder recordings and the collection of tunes that was added to the UCC music website (O'Neill Henebry Wax Cylinders Online). Since then, I have been working with several other musician-academics on identifying the rest of the tunes and we are nearly there (a job and a half it was too)!

There is one track in the Henebry-O’Neill collection that stood out for me the most - in it is a version, or setting, of the popular tune “Speed The Plough” or “Speed the Plow”. It is one of those tunes which is played in both the Irish and English traditions. I've had the pleasure of playing it in a session in Adderbury, northern Oxfordshire during a morris dancing festival years ago. Present were some of the finest English concertina players that I have heard while living over in England. Between the two traditions there are some great tunes that cross over. But there are a few other things that have cropped up about this tune over the years. A string of mysteries have built on top of themselves relating to settings of this tune since I started playing it way back when...

Multiple Tags / Multiple Tune Settings

I first heard Speed The Plough being played way back when I started going to Irish music sessions in county Wicklow around the late 1980's/ early 90's. The version I learned for it then was fairly standard… I thought in my early days of learning traditional Irish music that every tune had its own name and one name alone. Of course, like others, later on I found out like a lot of Irish tunes in circulation, there could be anything up to 10 different titles for a tune. Depending on who or where in the country/world it is played determines its name. As Ciaran Carson puts it in Last Nights Fun, tune names are " tags, referents, snippets of speech which find themselves attached to musical encounters". Try this link for instance on thesession.org - Speed the Plough is listed and it has a few transcriptions. There's a bunch of names for this given version. Of course Speed the Plough has many names as it has been passed on in an oral tradition and there's plenty of people out there who talk about how that process happens. But not only does Speed the Plough have many names, it actually is also a name that is used for many different tunes! Now luckily for academics struggling with the concept of 'correct' tune names in Irish music, the former occurrence is more widespread than the latter! Notwithstanding that the popular name given to any particular tune can change over time, and on top of this, there can be a hazy area between what constitutes a version or a setting.

The Traits of a Setting

So anyway, things were grand between myself and Speed The Plough for about 15 years. This was up until around 2007. One day my concertina teacher Larry Kinsella (RIP) brought up a setting I hadn't heard before. He called it a version, not a setting, but anyway it had these traits

1) The tune starts and ends the same as the version on thesession.org in the key of G, but with a "hanging D" at the beginning of the second time around
2) Then there is a hanging high D in the middle of the first half
3) Specific to Larry’s setting is that it goes down to the low D during the middle of the first half.

Have a listen to it on Larry's recording (see Larry Kinsella, The Barley Grain, tune set "The Speed the Plough Selection"). So careful he was of this particular setting. I remember once, when on my way to Dublin I called him on the mobile and he was out cutting a hedge at his house in Wexford. I asked, "hey Larry, how does that tune go again, you know the one that goes...(lilts a bit)?"... then there was a long pause... and he answers back, "you know I forget it now" (laughs)! It was a precious setting to him, one that was private to his family, handed down carefully through the household like an heirloom.

b2ap3_thumbnail_larry-kinsella-concertina-speed-the-plough.jpg At the time, he said he got it from his uncle Mylie, a fiddle player who was at the height of his operating back in the early-mid 1950's and also lived in Larry's home county of Wexford. Later on he was to reveal all of this on his CD. But before the story was officially released, these passing comments made me all the more curious about Speed The Plough! I wanted to find out more.

(left - section of the sleeve notes to Larry Kinsella's album, "The Barley Grain" © 2007)

So in the summer of 2007 I naturally went online and started to look around to see if there is another recording or notation of this setting somewhere in the ether of cyberspace. Sure enough I found a tonne of information about the tune on this site: https://www.ibiblio.org/fiddlers/speed.htm. A web page dedicated to the tune itself - sure wouldn’t the composer be very proud if he were around to see it! I also consulted the ibiblio.org tune listings to find out where any similar settings to Larry's might reside. I eventually found one which is very like the English setting, close to Larry and Mylie's, and of course it was listed as from - Kentucky! The first half rings out the exact same as the English version, and very close to the Kinsella setting (save for not going down to the low D in the middle of the first half). Here is an American version of the English version...

Now a few questions have come to mind over the years of how Speed The Plough made it over to the States, or if there could be any connection with the tune that is played in Kentucky at all. There is of course that Irish/English influence, emigration and all the more usual questions. What is interesting though is that the famous American collector Captain Francis O'Neill had left it out of his "Dance Music of Ireland" which is otherwise known as 'the bible' for Irish musicians, regretting that it was associated too much with the English stage (see here). But Andrew Kuntz's narrative only gives so much information about the various movements that particular tune has made over the years throughout its history.

Enter the Henebry-O’Neill wax cylinder collection, and then the penny drops! Seven years after Larry introduced me to his rare Wexford setting, that same melody turns up again and this time in the Henebry-O'Neill collection here at UCC. Going on Kuntz's story above, maybe around the time O'Neill was preparing his tunebook and heard this brilliant version from Henebry's cylinders - it might shed light on why O'Neill was troubled about not being able to include it! As noted on the Henebry-O'Neill website, Dr. Henebry was a Waterford-based collector who had a close correspondence with Captain O’Neill. He recorded a fiddler by the name of Tomás Ó Huigín, way back at the turn of the century.

I find out that Ó Huigín was from Kilkenny or Waterford, somewhere in the south east of Ireland. The mystery widens because now we're talking about an area where this different setting turns up twice AND the Ó Huigín / Kinsella renditions are remarkably similar to each other. In fact, on close listening, the traits I listed above align precisely between Ó Huigín’s version and Mylie's. In their playing, the melody of Speed the Plough goes down to the low D during the first half (unlike the English version), and on repeating it both fiddlers hold the first low D for the upbeat, which to my mind is an uncommon thing to do in Irish music. Then the high D in the middle is a right good hanger, and so the pieces fit in the puzzle. Maybe Mylie knew Ó Huigín? Or maybe he knew another musician who shared this version/setting?

As it goes for me with tunes and history of who played tunes with whom, I'm not sure if I want to be told what the real story is about these things. In most cases, the mystery feels better and makes for a better story than the fact. But somehow I want to explore further, because Ó Huigín's Kilkenny / Waterford is not very far from where Mylie Kinsella would have hailed from, across the border in Wexford! So I come back to it again for a moment. On recent evidence I have heard that there is a family in Kilkenny who have been doing a lot of research into Ó Huigín's life and music. Who knows, their insight might reveal even more stories about the tune.

There are many tunes that can do this to you if you look too closely at them! A wonderful feeling. As a player within the Irish tradition, I can tell you that there is no better feeling than to start up a setting of a tune that you think is rare only to find out that some other musician you meet by chance has the exact same one - and sometimes that they have their own story for it! Then again, knowing these little details - or making these connections - is not worth a lot to some people. For myself, I might find out tomorrow or in thirty years time what was going on way back then, or if that tune was very popular all over the South East of Ireland then. Part of me cares about it, part of me doesn't care to care too much. But as the Irish saying goes - "An Rud is Annamh Is Iontach" ('that which is rare is wonderful'), and as the English saying goes, "Wonders Never Cease"!

P.S. One last thing, for anyone with Tunepal, the second tune in the set below is currently one of the only tunes in the Henebry Collection which remains a mystery in itself - As so far it has NO NAME!

Blog posted from Cork, Ireland View larger map
  • Dermot Carroll
    Dermot Carroll Saturday, 24 January 2015

    Was it Van Morrison who sang "let go in to the mystery - let yourself go" Funny how a tune like a piece of thread in a complex tapestry weaves in and out of your life.

    Reply Cancel
  • Patrick Egan
    Patrick Egan Saturday, 24 January 2015

    Yes Dermot! And I found it here on Youtube, perfect way to expound on those thoughts... ;)


  • George Staines
    George Staines Sunday, 25 January 2015

    Excellent article Paddy, as usual whetting the appetite. Great wee tune.

    Reply Cancel
  • Patrick Egan
    Patrick Egan Wednesday, 28 January 2015

    Thanks George, it's a great tune alright. Will have to play that one next time I am over in London ;)

  • Guest
    Kevin Rietmann Sunday, 08 February 2015

    The day I found out about the cylinders I put the titles in the comments on the Soundcloud files. The Cloone hornpipe was about the only one that baffled me to any degree, and there are two I'm still puzzled by, the rest I spotted pretty much instantly. That is great music on those old tubes. Kevin Rietmann

    Reply Cancel
  • Patrick Egan
    Patrick Egan Thursday, 12 February 2015

    Hi Kevin,

    There is great music on them indeed, thanks for the comments on Soundcloud. You got nearly all of them alright - and I remember nearly all of the chosen names were in the "currently in use" category if that should exist!


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