It is impossible to accurately date the composition of traditional tunes. Many were written down for the first time in the 18th century. But given how long 'traditional' tunes stay in vogue, itís reasonable to assume that some of them were in existence a long time before then. The first substantial collection of tunes was John and William Nealeís A Collection of the Most Celebrated Irish Tunes, published in Dublin in 1724. This anthology contained material by the harper Carolan and popular tunes of the time such as T·imse ëmo Chodladh, Thugamar FÈin an Samhradh Linn and Limerickís Lamentation.

Other significant 18th century publications include Wrightís Aria di Camera (c.1730) and the Burke Thumoth Collection (c.1740). Limerick piper Walker Jacksonís compositions appeared in 1780 as did John Leeís publications of Carolanís music. Joseph Cooper Walkerís Historical Memoirs of the Irish Bards (c.1786) contains many important and popular tunes including Gol na mBan san ¡r (The Lament of the Women in the Battle).

One of the most pivotal collectors of the time was Edward Bunting. His Ancient Irish Music first appeared in 1796 and was the first of three very important volumes that bridged the old world of the Gaelic harper with the new. The last meeting of these Gaelic harpers took place in Belfast in 1792 and Bunting wrote down the music they played, providing a vital link with a dying order. Without this bridge, many tunes would have been lost and Irish music would be much the poorer for it.

The impact of Buntingís work can be traced to today. The poet and songwriter Thomas Moore relied heavily on Buntingís airs for the melodies to his songs. Writer and novelist James Joyce (himself a fine tenor) makes much reference to Moore in his work. Count John McCormack, Irelandís first globally-popular tenor, sang many of Mooreís songs. And composer and arranger Se·n ” Riada drew heavily on Bunting with his group CeoltÛirÌ Chualann, the forerunners to The Chieftans ñ the first internationally successful traditional group.

In regard to his song collecting, Bunting can also be credited with realising the importance of marrying Irish words with traditional melodies. Speaking no Irish himself, he collaborated with Patrick Lynch, a native Irish speaker from Loughinisland in Co. Down, to try to preserve both music and words. Buntingís further volumes appeared in 1809 and 1840.

Round the turn of the 19th century, OíFarrellís collections were published and provided insightful discussions on ornamentation. Some of the techniques and ornamentation he discussed 200 years ago are still used today ñ a sign of the continuity present in the tradition. Other significant collections came from Canon James Goodman of Ventry, County Kerry, a very competent piper who compiled four volumes of tunes between 1860 and 1866.

Petrieís Ancient Music of Ireland was published in 1855. A scholarly and detailed work, he collected airs such as Ar …ireann NÌ Neosfainn CÈ HÌ and The Lament for Eoghan Rua. He is also distinguished for being the first to publish an air known as The Londonderry Air. Years later, Fred Weatherly would pair words with this air to create the ever-popular Danny Boy. The posthumously-published, three-volume Complete Petrie Collection (1902-5) contains more than 1500 tunes.

The highly significant collections of PW Joyce were first published in 1875. Joyce was personally integrated with the players themselves and their musical communities and his choice of tunes reflects this. He can be thought of as a link between the perhaps more 'hands-off' collectors of the 18th and 19th century and the modern approach. His publications continued for more than 30 years, overlapping with the inestimable work in America of Captain Francis OíNeill.

Based in Chicago, the volume of material OíNeill gathered from Irish musicians gives an indication of the huge wealth of music that, through emigration, left Ireland during the 19th century. OíNeillís Music of Ireland contains 1850 tunes, and The Dance Music of Ireland has 1001 tunes divided into jigs, reels, hornpipes, etc.

There are also a number of notable collections from recent decades. We must acknowledge the important work of piper SÈamus Ennis for the Irish Folklore Commission, BBC and RTE, who collected and preserved music from some of Irelandís most remote musical communities. Breand·n Breathnachís Ceol Rince na h…ireann has proved an invaluable series of publications, reflecting a lifetimeís devotion to collecting and providing us with rare notes on tune sources and historical contexts. Within RT… Ciar·n MacMath˙na, Se·n Mac ReamÛinn and Proinsias ” Conluain made significant contributions to field recordings, radio and television from the late 1940s on, and for the BBC, Sean O Boyle, Davey Hammond and Tony McAuley did much to broadcast traditional music to a wider audience. Other significant mid-20th century collectors include Peter Kennedy and Jean Ritchie.


  • From Neale’s collection

    Taimse ‘mo Chodladh (I’m Asleep) by Neil martin on the tin whistle

  • From Neale’s collection

    Limericks Lamentation performed by Ceoltoiri Chualann

  • From Proinsias o Conluain

    Bean an Fhir Rua (The red haired man’s wife) by Roise na nAmhran

  • From Petrie’s collection

    To Mary Dear (The Londonderry Air) performed by John McCormack

  • A Turlough o’carolan tune

    Lady Dillon performed on the harp by Maire Ni Chathasaigh

  • From Petrie’s collection

    Ar Eireann Ni Neosfainn Ce Hi (for Ireland I’d not tell her by name) by Neil Martin on the tin whistle