Breandán Breathnach

’Between the Jigs and the Reels’

CEOL V, 2 (March 1982)

pp. 43-48

A description of a thematic index to over 5,000 traditional Irish dance tunes. The final version of this index, compiled between 1977 and 1985, is available for consultation in the Irish Traditional Music Archive. If the opening section of a tune is known, it should be possible by using the index to discover the tune’s titles, and printed, manuscript and sound-recorded versions of it.


Breandán Breathnach

When I was editing the collection of Irish dance music published by the Department of Education in 1963 under the title Ceol Rince na hÉireann I early discovered that tunes which had already appeared in O’Neill’s Dance Music of Ireland (Chicago 1907) could quite easily slip into my own collection without my realising it. O’Neill’s collection was the player’s bible and the taunt by practitioners that tunes in a new collection were already to be found in the "book" would suffice to damn it from the start.

I knew what every other traditional player knew that one had only to hear the beginning of a tune in order to recognise it. That gave me an idea. I procured a very stiff manuscript paper, copied the first two bars of each tune in O’Neill’s volume, the 1,001 of them, numbering them as I went along. I then cut out the entries and sorted the pieces in alphabetical order by reference to the music notes. I had invented a system of indexing, crude and one full of pitfalls as I was to discover afterwards. However it served its purpose, throwing up Duplicates in my Own and in O’Neill’s collection.

While awaiting the publication of my own collection I continued with the indexing. Having completed O’Neill’s other volumes 1 began to examine the older collections and soon became fascinated by the information these volumes were yielding. The history of the music began to unfold itself before my eyes. Some of this history is revealed in the notes to Ceol Rince na hÉireann, more is given in Folk Music and Dances of Ireland. Defects in the method of indexing were coming to light, improvements were suggesting themselves and all the while I was educating myself and the index continued to grow.

A remark of a librarian who learnt what I was doing put the thought of publication into my head but on consideration compiling a collection of complete tunes seemed a more attractive objective than merely listing incipits. The Department of Education was approached to see if it would sponsor such a work, which, it seemed at the time, could be effected expeditiously because of the existence of the index and the help one could expect from Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann which had branches organised throughout the country. By now Ceol Rince na hÉireann had appeared. It was well received and an awakening of interest in Irish music was noticeable among the public. The Department accepted the proposal and towards the end of 1964 I sat down dutifully in that Department to compile a complete collection of Irish dance music for publication, single-handed. The plan was simple, firstly to collect and transcribe music from traditional players and then to copy tunes from manuscripts. Occurrences in printed collections were noted only on the index cards. Tunes notated from musicians and extracted from manuscripts were copied on to music cards which were sorted in a numerical series derived from an alphabetical index of the titles appearing on the index cards. When the material from these two sources had been treated tunes shown by the index to be found only in print would then be copied, thus completing the collection. An account of how the idea of a national archive of sound developed out of this work, how that archive was formed and how it received its quietus has been given in a previous issue of this journal (Ceol I V (4) ).

Over the years improvements which suggested themselves were incorporated in the system but always from a current date. It was never possible to apply any change introduced to the thousands of cards already in the system. The result was that the cards reflected all the various methods which had previously been in use as well as the current one. On my retiral I returned the collection of dance music, now consisting of over 5,000 pieces, to the Department of Education. Before doing so I inscribed the music code in its latest stage of development on each music card which hitherto had borne only an alphabetical index number. Having finished with transcribing and copying I began once more on indexing, deciding to recreate the index de novo to achieve uniformity and clarity. A description of the system may be appropriately introduced here.

The system is based on the fact that tunes can commonly be identified from the first halfphrase (i.e. the first two bars) and that the accented notes usually suffice for that identification. Such notes are visually obvious but the code adopted to order these incipits is based on the final of the tune, a note which occasionally presents problems of identification.

The code is obtained by numbering the accented notes in a numerical series based on ascribing the figure ‘1’ to the final and continuing the series downwards and upwards as illustrated below. ‘G’ in this illustration is assumed to be the final.

A fresh card is used for a tune being treated for the first time. On it the title (1), the first two bars (4), final (5), and source (6) as well as the appropriate code number (3) are entered as shown hereunder:

An alternative title or other note furnished by the collector would precede the ‘source’ and if nothing was being added by the editor the entry would be closed with a colon(:). An entry consisting only of a source indicates that the relevant item has the same name as the headtitle. A semi-colon (;) is used if editorial comment is made (7), after which the entry is then closed with a colon. Alterations in the collector’s material suggested by the editor (e.g. rectification of key signature) are indicated by brackets, round brackets to indicate deletions, square brackets to indicate additions. Material from a fresh source for a tune already indexed is noted on the existing card. Contractions are used to indicate sources, e.g. B i for Edward Bunting’s General Collection of the Ancient Irish Music (London 1796), DMI for Francis O’Neill’s Dance Music of Ireland (Chicago 1907), OTFT One thousand Fiddle Tunes, MM Cole (Chicago 1940). An asterisk preceding a source indicates that the reference relates to a sound recording (gramophone or tape). For example, the entry at (8) indicates that ‘The Swallow’s Tail’ under that name and played by Seamus Ennis (on the pipes) occurs on Radio Éireannn tape 115/1, Eng. no. 6169 (11th item).

Cards are filed in code number order. The infra- and supra-scripts are noticed only when two or more cards bear like numbers in which case those bearing infrascripts are placed first, these without either in second place, followed by those with suprascripts. This order is illustrated hereunder:

Cards are stored according to time signature, 6/8,9/8,2/4, and 4/4 except that in the case of 4/4 time reels and hornpipes are filed separately.

Irish traditional music is not stereotyped, and the notes accented may vary occasionally; for example, code number 1156 and 1556 might relate to the same tune. To eliminate duplicates arising from that source all code numbers will be computerized when the indexing has been completed and all like numbers and those sharing two or three figures brought together for examination. When the work has reached its final stages the cards will be numbered in a numerical series (as at ‘2’ on index card) and an alphabetical index of titles related to these numbers will be prepared.

It should be stressed that no perfect system for indexing folk music has yet been devised. That described here is simple to operate. It avoids the problems inherent in systems based on modal differences, tonal hierarchies, pitch order. The coding method used in conjunction with the alpha-betical index of titles provides, it is claimed, a system for indexing traditional Irish dance music as near perfect as possible. It will also be found suitable for indexing song airs.

All occurrences of a tune in the classic Irish collections e.g. in those of Bunting, Petrie, O’Neill, in early printed collections and in manuscripts are noted. Occurrences in American and in other firsthand collections are also recorded as well as titles for associated songs, folkloristic and other references. Sources are quoted for all entries. To date almost all published and manuscript collections in Irish public libraries have been examined; numerous manuscripts in private hands and over 500 printed collections of country dances, mostly 18th century, have also been inspected. Cards have already been written for over 4,500 tunes.

The year 1820 has been adopted as a cut-off date for non-Irish collections. Down to that year collections of country dances published in England contained Irish material. From around that year onwards waltzes, quadrilles, lancers, polkas, etc. superseded the country dances and popular collections reflected this change. Irish dance tunes are to be found then onwards only in collections specifically Irish in content. The year 1903 was adopted as a cut-off for noting all occurrences in manuscript collections. That year saw the publication of O’Neill’s Music of Ireland and thereafter the copying of material from that volume and his later Dance Music of Ireland into manuscript collections became widespread. Noting such copyings would lead to confusion about the distribution of tunes. Accordingly only tunes and/or titles not ready noted are extracted from manuscripts compiled after that year. It has been pointed out that the O’Neill collections could not have influenced the national repertoire immediately on publication and so a cutoff later than 1903 should be adopted. This may yet be done or indeed all occurrences in manuscript noted unless the settings obviously derive from printed sources.

Obviously the value of the index would be immensely enhanced by including the third element of sound and an examination of the position shows this to be feasible. A great the dance music has been issued by gramophone companies, here, in Britain and in the United States. Considerable collections on disc and tape are held in public and other institutions as well as by private collectors although little more than handlists of performers and titles exist as a guide to their contents. Adding references to sources for sound would not therefore involve a national collection in the field to catch most tunes current in tradition.

In the case of gramophone recordings entries are being restricted to one performance on each of the instruments in use among traditional players viz. fiddle and pipes flute whistle, accordian and concertina. Records currently available are being indexed in preference to these no longer available and better known performers treated before others less well known or regarded. Entries relating to such and to groups would be made only in respect of tunes and titles not already noticed. Where an institution collaborates in the work each item in its archive is indexed even though a performance on a like instrument or by the same player had already been noted. The creation of an index to an archive as a y-product of the work, will, it is hoped, induce institutions to collaborate.

This enlargement of the work has got off to a good start. The Arts Council has awarded a grant to meet the cost of transcription fees, copying of collections and other expenses arising out of the work. The National Library has offered facilities and RTE, the national broadcasting authority, is collaborating and a start has been made on indexing material from its archive. LP records on hands are being indexed and some valuable manuscript collections have been received on loan for copying.

Publication is intended. Because of its size (some 6,000 cards) the index proper will most likely be reproduced on microfilm or microfiche. The supporting documents, viz. alphabetical index of titles, sources, guide for users and such would be produced separately by conventional printing.

The loan of material, printed and manuscript collections, and records and tapes as well as observations and comments from readers of Ceol would be warmly welcomed. Stipulations regarding the use and return of material received on loan for the purpose of the index would be strictly observed and assistance of any kind gratefully acknowledged in the completed work.