The Preface
Ceol Rince na hÉireann, Vol 1



I had the great pleasure of meeting Breandán Breathnach in Dublin in 1974, and discussing with him, over a pint, his work in collecting, classifying and publishing Ireland's traditional music.  He was at the time working out of a condemned outbuilding at the back of a school or some other public building.  It suited us both to relocate to a nearby pub for the discussion - less chance of being on-site if the building chose this very moment to give up its continuing struggle with gravity.  And it enabled us to "keep our fluids up" in the arduous work in which we were involved.

The preface and notes on ornamentation in Ceol Rince na hÉireann (Vol. 1) are printed in Irish.  Breandán explained to me that this was because the only funding he could find for the work required this. He provided me with his own translation which he wanted well circulated. The hand-typed original is rather faded, so I have re-keyed it, being careful not make any changes or corrections which might obscure something I might not fully understand. I have however replaced the expressions C sharp and F sharp with C# and F# to make for clearer reading. Any other changes, such as headings that were not in the original, I've put in [square brackets].

The translation will make the best sense to someone with access to the book, but will still be invaluable to any player.  This is a conduit to a lost past, when giants, like Breandán, freely roamed the land.  It would have been nice to really get to know him - fate permitted us a glancing blow - we'll make the best of it.   Breandán!


This collection contains some of the dance music which I gathered over the years in Dublin. I included in it only tunes which I myself heard played; I took no tune from any of the old MSS or music books which came my way in that time. This collection is for the traditional player, but the person with an academic interest in this music will also find in it matter for study. It contains a great deal of tunes not previously published - the remainder are different settings of tunes already found in the books; but whether any tune has been already printed or not, the reader may be assured that the settings in this collection are authoritative; they were taken down only from traditional players, and each one is written exactly as played by the musician.

[Key to ornaments]

I thought first to put down every note played by the musician, but I changed my mind about that; for the piper, boxplayer, fiddler and flautist do not, for example, make the same grace notes when rolling. So it seemed to me better to invent a sign for the ornament for which the various musicians would not have the same notes, rather than write out notes which in any tune would suit only the instrument of the musician from whom I had it. Where such an ornament occurs, I put a loop under or over the note, and a table is appended in which are set out the grace notes used on the different instruments (pp xii, xiii). I also thought it better to set out the treble used by the fiddler to avoid using another sign. The table shows what ornament another player would use.

[Grace notes]

When a single grace note occurred in the music, I wrote the next higher note to that being graced, even though it was not the one being used by the musician; this note changes from instrument to instrument, and the musician should regard it (as I have) as a sign only, and play that note used by pipers or flautists merely to separate two notes of equal pitch.

[Piping triplets]

I also interfered with the pipers' music in another manner: pipers usually play the decorative triplets A-C#-A and E-G-E where others would have A-B-A or E-F#-E. These triplets come more easily on the pipes, and as their middle notes are short and choked on that instrument the combination is not regarded as being strange in any way. I've written the triplets A-B-A and E-F#-E as they suit the music best on other instruments, and the change would not put out the piper since he is already accustomed to that lay-out on the music.


There is another practice in setting out the music to which the readers attention must be drawn: although it is at the front of a part that the preface or leading-in notes are written, so far as the time is concerned they belong to the last bar of the part; if the part is repeated it is the time value of the lead-in note to the next part that is taken from that bar. Often on such occasions only one note is played as an introduction, although two notes would have been played the first time.

The tunes are all written in the keys played by the musicians: none was transposed. Greater variety could of course been achieved by extending the range of keys, but that would have greatly upset the traditional player as they only use two sharps, usually C and F. The trained musician will have no difficulty in transposing the tunes at will.


As is the case with English folk music and church music the folk music of this country is based on the modal system: all Gaelic tunes - airs and dance music - have been composed in one of four modes. There's nothing mysterious about this system, since the modes are based on the first, second, fifth and sixth notes of the diatonic scale. Whoever has a piano at hand can get a good illustration by playing scales on eight white notes beginning with C, D, G, and A. The four modes could have been called by these letters, but since they would suggest the pitch of the music it is better to name them according to the solfa system, calling them Do, Re, So and La.

[For some reason, Breandán has avoided using the mediaeval names we usually associate with the modes.  I'll add them in square brackets in the tables below.]

The small intervals occur as follows in these scales:

I.   Do mode - between notes 3 & 4 and 7 & 8   [Ionian, or major]

II.  Re mode - between notes 2 & 3 and 6 & 7   [Dorian]

III. So mode - between notes 3 & 4 and 6 & 7   [Mixolydian]

IV. La mode - between notes 2 & 3 and 5 & 6.  [Aeolian or "natural minor"]

[Keys used]

Although the airs usually start on some note of the common chord, it is on the tonic or bottom note of the scale that they all end. There are some tunes - mostly reels - which do not have a proper ending: their last bar proceeds into the first bar of the tune when it's being repeated; but such tunes can of course be formally ended on the tonic.

There are a very few tunes which the traditional fiddlers play in A Major; some more are to be heard in C Major or A minor, but generally traditional players, as already said, use only one or two sharps. Omitting the tunes played in the keys mentioned (and there are not so many of them) the endings of the tunes as played by traditional musicians can be put into two series:
Mode: Ends in
(if in G)
Ends in
(if in D)
 Do   [Ionian, or major] D
 Re   [Dorian] A E
 So   [Mixolydian] D A
 La   [Aeolian or "natural minor"] E B

Most of the music falls into the first series; most of that in the second series is in the Do mode; very little of the dance music lies in the other parts of this series. It's interesting that most of the music being composed by traditional musicians is in the Do mode of this series, as are a great many of the hornpipes which come to us from England. It could be, therefore, that this series arose from a corruption - or an improvement - of the old system.


In the music as played use is made only of two accidentals, usually F natural and C sharp. The manner of using them is not by any means similar: F natural is always played under accent; C sharp is never accented. This is not to say of course that C is sharp when not accented. C natural is often to be heard without the accent, but there are special combinations in which this note is always sharp, e.g.:

  • in the ornamental triplet B-C#-D;
  • between two D's accented, or
  • in this cadence of reels: A-F#-D-E-C#.

The above about C# doesn't always apply to the C in the tunes of the second series; their C is always sharp.


The two notes C and F are also exceptional in another way: they are somewhat sharper than the corresponding notes on the piano. It's said that directly halfway between B and D on that instrument lies the C natural of traditional music, i.e., pipers and fiddlers would play C a quarter note higher than on the piano. This may be the reason why C# is so often played for C-natural by the box-player. In a slide up from E to F# the traditional fiddler makes F-natural, so that this is not a fixed note. For this reason I didn't use the ordinary sign to indicate it but used instead an asterisk. Generally, it's better to play F# on the piano or box.

[Timing and emphasis]

The triplet is the unit of the double and treble jigs; the quartet is the unit in reels and hornpipes. Although these notes are written in quavers, they are not of equal length. The first note of a triplet in a jig is the longest, and the middle note the shortest. The first and third notes of the quartet are longer than the second and fourth. In the hornpipes, these notes are much longer than in the reels, so that they might be written as dotted quavers. Sometimes the notes in these groups are given of equal length and accent by way of ornament: dots have been placed under these notes to indicate this. The last note of the ornamental quartet in jigs is the longest one. Bowing for the jig and reel (cf. nos. 36 and 171) is given as a guide to the non-traditional.

[Names and alternative sources]

I give in the notes the other names by which the tunes are known to traditional players or in books. I mention also the book in which the tune first appears and in which books variants are easily to be found. If there's no reference to a book or no note at all it's to be inferred that as far as I know the tune was not already published. The reader is reminded that hundreds of collections appeared in print from the mid-17th century onwards, so it would be a bold person who declared that a particular tune had never been published. I hope I'll be forgiven if I've ignored a tune in this manner, and shall be most grateful to the reader who brings it to my notice.


Although I mention the musician from whom I got the tune, that is not to say that he was the only one I noticed having it. There is an odd tune which I heard being played only by the person mentioned, but there are a great deal known to the public which were never before printed. There are also some tunes credited by me to a musician who I know got them from some of the other players mentioned. I am grateful to all these people: they dealt with me patiently and generously while I was engaged in this work, and their interest in it was a source of encouragement to me. It's a pity I couldn't find a place in the book for all the music and information I had from them.

I must also express my thanks to James Gaffney, the Librarian of the Dun Laoghaire Borough Library; and to the staffs of the National Library, the Student's Central Library, and the Trinity College Library, for their kindness. May God recompense them for their labour and obligingness!


([refer to tables on] pages xii and xiii [reproduced below])

In the first bar of each stave is shown the music as written, and in the next four as played on the pipes, the flute (or whistle), the fiddle and the accordion respectively.


Groups at A called a roll: these notes are not the same length, the last one being the shortest. 

If as at B, then it's called a long roll (dotted crotchet). 


Ornamentation on notes D and E on the pipes is called cranning, as at C above. The roll as performed on the flute is often played on E in the first octave instead of cran. The note is rolled in the second octave. 


The tilde (~) indicates that the note itself and that above it are to be played as two grace notes before it, as at D above. A fiddler would play E instead of F in this case; slide for E to make F* (F-asterisk) on the pipes. The fiddler slides from F-natural to F-sharp for this note.

Breandán Breathnach


More of the same

You can find translations of the notes for volumes 1-5 of Ceol Rince and a complete index of tune names at:

and the music from Vols 1 to 4 in ABC format at:


Clearly, the greatest thanks to yer man himself, the late Breandán Breathnach.  Thanks also to the Australia Council which assisted my 1974 research trip. 

Back to McGee-Flutes Home Page

Created: 25 February 2004