The Peculiar Case of Gerald of Wales Liking and Disliking Irish Music

From the Lecture Series: The Celtic World

By Jennifer Paxton, Ph.D., The Catholic University of America

Gerald of Wales did not praise the Irish music unconditionally. It came with a sting in its tail. He conceded that music was invented by the Irish, but he immediately claimed that the Scottish and the Welsh had outstripped them in this regard. It is engrossing because it shows what Gerald thought about the relationship of the Irish with the other people of the Celtic fringe.

An image of crwth from a set of eight extra-illustrated volumes of 'A Tour in Wales' by Thomas Pennant (1726-1798).
The crwth or crowd is a type of lyre that is played with a bow. It was once popular in England as well as Wales. (Image: Thomas Pennant/Public domain)

Gerald of Wales and His Prejudice

Gerald of Wales has given an account of the Celtic music in his book titled, History and Topography of Ireland. In this book, he has shown his admiration for the Irish music. However, we can still read his prejudice against Ireland in some of the passages. For example, he says, “One should note that both Scotland and Wales, the former because of her affinity and intercourse, and the latter as it were by grafting, trying to imitate Ireland in music and strive in emulation.”

Here, Gerald is saying that Scotland is very closely related to Ireland, and it is a well-known fact that there was a connection between Ireland and Scotland in the Middle Ages. But from Gerald’s point of view, no Celtic connection exists between Ireland and Wales and he does not see any close relationship between the two.

Depiction of two harps.
Harp was one of the two instruments that the Irish used in their music in the Middle Ages. (Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

A partial reason for this could be that since he himself is a Welshman in part, he wants to draw a bright line between the Welsh and the Irish, whom he looks at with such contempt. But it would be good to remember here that the Celtic relation between Wales and Ireland was not clear to anyone in the Middle Ages.

Gerald finds the Irish inferior because they use only two instruments whereas the Scots and the Welsh use three instruments. According to him, the Irish use only the harp and the tympanum or the hand drum. Three instruments are used by the Scots which are the harp, the tympanum, and crwth or crowd, a type of lyre that is played with a bow. And he says the Welsh also play three instruments namely the harp, the pipes, and the crowd. This looks really weird because, in today’s world, the Scots are known more for playing the pipes than the Welsh, and the crwth is now considered a Welsh instrument.

This is a transcript from the video series The Celtic World. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Description of Musical Instruments by Gerald

In his writings, Gerald of Wales has mentioned the tympanum, a type of hand drum. The Irish bodhrán, one of the most peculiar musical instruments in any of the Celtic musical traditions, may have or may not have the tympanum as its direct ancestor.

The reason we’re not sure is that the name “bodhrán” dates back only to the 17th century, so this instrument in its current form may have come into use only in the early modern period. The bodhrán is played either with the bare-hand , or with a beater called a cipín, and that varies the sound in subtle ways.

The crwth or crowd is a type of lyre that is played with a bow. There was a time when it was popular in both England as well as Wales. The name of the instrument could indicate that it has a very ancient Celtic pedigree indeed—lyres were depicted on Gaulish coins. The name “crwth” comes from a Celtic root word that means a swelling or bulging, and that could be a reference to the more rounded shape of the medieval instrument, as opposed to the rather rectangular shape known today.

The pipes came to the Celtic world from elsewhere and then developed into something distinctive. There are many different kinds of pipes, but most of them have several things in common. First is, they use enclosed reeds that are fed from a reservoir of air in a bag. The air can be provided by blowing through a blowpipe or by squeezing the bag with a bellows tucked under the upper arm. Most pipes also have a drone, which is a pipe that produces a single constant note that underlies the melody. The drone gives the bagpipes a very distinctive sound.  

It’s possible that the first bagpipes came to the island of Britain with the occupying Roman army, but there is surprisingly little solid evidence for pipes in Britain before the Middle Ages. The bagpipes really took off in Scotland during the 16th century, when the large pipes that we know of today as the Highland bagpipes were used as a battlefield instrument. Already by the 16th century, the bagpipes had spread to Ireland, and there is even a contemporary illustration of the bagpipe used in a military context in Ireland dating to 1581.

Learn more about the origins of Ireland and its people.

Gerald’s Observations about Welsh Singing

Gerald has found a very peculiar thing about singing by the Welsh. He says, “When they come together to make music, the Welsh sing their traditional songs, not in unison, as is done elsewhere, but in parts, in many modes and modulations. When a choir gathers to sing, which happens often in this country, you will hear as many different parts and voices as there are performers.” The tradition of vocal harmonizing, which is not characteristic of the traditions of Ireland or Scotland, was thus present in Wales from a very early date.

The observations of Gerald of Wales bring out some very important points. Firstly, about the character of music in the Celtic countries, secondly, about the instrumentation used in Celtic music, and, lastly, about the connection between the music of different countries of the Celtic world.

There is something about the character of Celtic music that seems to persist over long periods of time even though the musical instruments used to play it, and even the languages used to sing it, have changed over time.

Learn more about the diverse genres of Irish literature.

Common Questions about the Peculiar Case of Gerald of Wales Liking and Disliking Irish Music

Q: Who wrote the History and Topography of Ireland?

Gerald of Wales wrote the History and Topography of Ireland.

Q: Why did Gerald of Wales consider the Irish music inferior?

Gerald of Wales found the Irish music inferior because the Irish used only two instruments whereas the Scots and the Welsh used three instruments.

Q: What did Gerald of Wales say about Welsh singing?

Gerald of Wales found a peculiar thing about singing by Welsh. He said while singing a chorus, all of them do not sing at the same time or in unison. They sing at different times and in different modes and modulations.

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