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Celtic music shows an exceptional and happy combination of strong melodies and interesting rhythms. No wonder that this type of music has inspired many wonderful modern compositions and music groups.

I wanted to reach back into the roots of Celtic music. In the second half of the 19th century, P.W. Joyce collected a precious set of 100 melodies from Irish harp players and other local musicians. Harmonics to these tunes were provided by Professor Glover according to known Irish patterns.

One can find this collection online: P.W. Joyce. 1873. Ancient Irish Music: One Hundred Airs Hitherto Unpublished, Many of the Old Popular Songs, and Several New Songs. Edited and collected. Dublin. McGlashan and Gill.

The Fairy King's Courtship

The collection opens with a ballad with nine stanzas (reproduced below), where a young man in a handsome greFairyKing2.jpgen velvet suit, ornamented with gold lace, woos a young lady. He tells her that he will make her his princess and that many lands and seas will be at her command, if she just goes along with him. She will even have ladies attending her.

But the young lady shows prudence. She says that she doesn't even know the young man's name, nor does she know where he comes from.

He answers that his name is John Macananty and that he lives at Scraba. The audience knows this as the name of a legendary fairy king, and they may have heard of his palace at Scraba, some 8 miles from Belfast. Suspicions are aroused. Fairies were reputed to take away mortals at times, so the young lady shows some well-warranted prudence.


She argues that FairyPrincess.jpgher parents and friends would not permit her to leave. If she left, it would be a great shame on the family, and they would have to go out to bring her back. So definitely, she could not leave with him.

But the young man is not discouraged. He tells her that they would sail to France and Spain – and be back in “one short night”! (Just one night? Now we definitely understand Macananty's nature. We know that this is not just any courtship scene.) They would dance and sing merrily, and she would have total command over “the lads of Queen Anne” (hmm... another suspicious point: why would she want that much power?)

The ballad leaves us uncertain as to how the story ends. Will the young lady accept the miraculous invitation, or will she flee this unreal scene? We are left wondering, while the ballad tune still resonates in our heads.

The original is here

Music sheet

And here is an arrangement I made of this simple tune. We first hear the tune in high tones – which suggests the voice of the fair lady – and then in a lower, transposed tune where we hear the voice of the fairy king Macananty. At the end, there is a slight crescendo, and you may fill in yourself whether this means that the young lady accepts the invitation, or that she flees the scene in great agitation.


Eric Keller's arrangement

MIDI file
Music score

And now the big question to all the young women in the audience: Would you have eloped with the Fairy King?*


The Stanzas:

1. On the first day of May at the close of the day,

As I stood in the shade of a green-spreading tree,

A young lover a courting a maiden I spied;

I drew very nigh them to hear and see.

2. The dress that he wore was a velvet so green,

All trimmed with gold lace, and as bright as the sea;

And he said, “Love, I’ll make you my own fairy queen,

“If you are but willing to go with me.

3. Lisses and forts shall be at your command,

“Mountains and valleys, the land and the sea,

And the billows that roar along the sea shore,

“If you are but willing to go with me."

4. “To make me a queen my birth is too mean,

“And you will get ladies of higher degree;

“I know not your name nor from whence you came,

"So I am not willing to go with thee.”

5. “I will tell you my name and I love you the same

“As if you were a lady of higher degree;

“John Macananty’s my name, and from Scraba I came,

“And the queen of that country my love shall be.”

6. “If I were to go with one I don't know,

“My parents and friends would be angry with me;

“They would bring me back again with shame and disdain,

“So I am not willing to go with thee.”

7. “From your friends we will sail in a ship that won’t fail,

“With silken top-sail and a wonderful flight;

“From this to Coleraine, to France and to Spain,

“And home back again in one short night.

8. “There is not a fort from this to the north

“But we’ll dance around it and sing merrily;

“And the lads of queen Anne shall be at your command,

“And they shall all stand in great dread of thee.

9. “Many a mile I have roamed in my time,

“By sea and by land a-looking for thee,

“And I never could find rest or peace for my mind,

Until fortune proved kind and sent you to me!”


* I've asked this question of a number of charming women -- and I've received answers going either way...