Keening Laments: Some Vocal Evidence

Analyzing MacIntosh’s Lament (PS 200), Allan MacDonald identified this pibroch as quite possibly “one of those few keens that have survived in the pibroch tradition.” (See his thesis.) He has also recorded his stunning interpretation of another example, a nameless keening “Lament” transcribed in 1820 from the chanting of Angus MacArthur (track 9 on the Dastirum CD).

Of course, from its earliest documented appearance in Gaelic society (16th century), the pipe was associated with funeral observances, in addition to its martial role. In 1580 Vincenzo Galilei, in a Gaelic Irish context, wrote that “With it also they accompany their dead to the grave, making such sorrowful sounds as to invite, nay, compel the bystanders to weep.” The vocal music of lament is the oldest music to have survived in Gaelic tradition, and there is evidence of interplay between pipers and professional keening women during funeral observances up until the time the pipe supplanted the vocal keen. Allan’s position that indications of pibroch performance style may be sought in the corresponding song tradition is perhaps on no firmer ground than in the case of keening laments.

In 1689, Sir Richard Cox wrote bagpipes “are much used at Irish Burials to increase the noise and encourage the Women to Cry and follow the Corpse.” Likewise, in the Highlands the Rev. James Kirkwood (A Collection of Highland Rites and Customs, circa 1690), writes: “The women make a crying while the corpse is carried and when they have done, the Piper plays after the corpse with his great pipe. When they come to the churchyard all the women (who always go along to the Burial place) make a hideous Lamentation together…” Burt, (Letters From the North of Scotland, circa 1720) continues the linkage between piper and keening women in funerals.

Clerical objection to the pagan keen led to its disappearance in the Highlands and Isles during the early 20th century. The Irish R.C. clergy were marginally less severe on this point than their reformed Scottish counterparts, so it survived in Ireland long enough to be recorded. We must look there for samples, but indications are that the form was pretty much the same in both traditions.

A round of keening was in three parts, beginning with a short murmuring salutation, repeated over a few times (ex. mo ghrá is mo dhíth thú!) Then the verse or dirge was recited in a “plaintive recitative,” reminiscent of Latin plainsong. Each verse was concluded with the “Cry” or Gol, the whole assembly repeating throughout “Och-ochone” or similar vocables (much like the “Och nan och” in the vocal version of Macintosh’s Lament).

We have two recordings made in the Aran Islands in the 1930’s (?), and while these are “confused linguistically and blurred in musical outline” due to the decline of the tradition, they are both essentially the Gol or “Cry” portion. Beginning on the higher notes, the Cry sobs its way down to the bottom of the scale—an effect reproduced by Angus MacArthur’s nameless Lament as recorded by Allan MacDonald on Dastirum. These two recordings are notable documentation that the keening tradition, often criticized for its professional abuse, could in fact serve as a vehicle for genuine emotional release.

A perhaps more informative version is offered by Professor Breandán Ó Madagáin, the leading scholar of the Gaelic vocal music of lament. In this recording from a conference in Wales, he demonstrates a verse followed by the Cry:

The example Professor Ó Madagáin gives is the Caoineadh Art Ó Laoghaire (Keen for Art O’Leary), the finest example of the genre from the standpoint of verse. It was composed largely extempore by his bereaved wife, Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill (Eileen O’Connel), as opposed to a professional keener. Was her shaping of formulaic elements to create an original composition for the occasion mirrored in pibroch performance at one time?

For further reading see the book and CD Keening and other Old Irish Musics (Ó Madagáin, 2005) and an article by the same author Irish Vocal Music of Lament and Syllabic Verse, appearing in The Celtic Consciousness (ed. O’Driscoll, 1981).


7 thoughts on “Keening Laments: Some Vocal Evidence

  1. Thanks for an admirably specific description, with examples, of the Keen and its echoes in pibroch.

    A further example might be considered: the already published remarks on ‘Lament for Dunyvaig Castle’ (PS 146) March 24, 2015 at 1:01 pm
    “The Campbell version of this tune contains a striking variation, descending repeatedly from high A, which has a parallel in a gaelic song recorded by James Ross for The School of Scottish Studies from Kirsty Eachainn Munro, of Bornaskitag, Skye. Bornaskitag is in Trotternish, near Uig, and thus in MacDonald territory (the Castle was theirs until taken by the Campbells). James was of the opinion that it was a pibroch originally, and came to her via the MacArthurs. Here is Joan MacKenzie singing it:;jsessionid=1BFBDF42CAF2D7CE5957B594CAB8A1E8

    This air, as well as the pibroch variation in Campbell’s setting, conforms to the description “Beginning with the high note, the ‘Cry’ sobs its way down ro the bottom of the scale”.

    The words of the song are innocuous, being a list of names apparently without purpose. But, given the point made – “Clerical objection to the pagan keen led to its disappearance in the Highlands and Isles…” – it may be that these were added to a melody to disguise its association with a frowned-upon tradition and thus allow the tune to survive.

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  2. I am afraid I did a double take Ronald when reading that ‘the castle was … taken by the Campbells’. What castle? there are the remains of possibly a broch but not a castle and as far as I know from the MacDonald papers Bornaskitag has always been in MacDonald hands. In fact it was MacDonald of Bornaskitag who was instrumental in selling two sets of pipes formerly owned by a deceased ‘Ranald’ (probably Ranald MacAllan Og), to MacLeod for MacCrummen in 1712.

    However the track by late Joan MacKenzie does demonstrate very well the problems of say turning any form of vocal ‘canntaireachd’ into a written one. Those Diriri Diriri Diriri would certainly have to be modified if turned into a purely written form because as it stands without such modification and as with the ‘unknown’ tunes in the CC there would be no indication that the three Diriri’s actually represent different notes. A point I have made before that I very much doubt if the Campbells actually would have ‘sung’ what they wrote.

    1. Keith, I apologize for the ambiguity; I was referring to Castle Dunyvaig, mentioned at the beginning, which was captured and the men within massacred. Bornaskitaig was mentioned to show the song had been preserved in an area not far from the MacArthur pipers; you are quite right to point out that it has no castle nearby.
      But it was a fortuitous ambiguity since it moved you to add some fascinating details!

  3. I think the point I find interesting, and one I would prefer to make: Crahinin are the piper’s attempt at using the bagpipe chanter to mimic keening. Of course, notating this on the staff (or in any other way) would be radically difficult to do, since “literature” “demands” “consistency”.

    But as performers, I’m not sure why we couldn’t look at a score, see where the crahinin are, and choose to interpret them in a way that is more akin to their original intent.

    Hence, play them more free-form, more passionately, and less formulaic-ly.

    I agree with you, Keith: I don’t think the Campbell notation was ever meant to be sung. We do, but that’s both a category error, and an artificial language appropriation. Not 100% certain if it matters, either way, because singing is full of the same potential of interpretation as playing. That’s why notation should not be seen as a “stultifying” or “deadening” system. It should be viewed as a means of (a) capturing what would otherwise have been lost when memory failed, and (b) a potential framework for interpretation.

    1. Yes, interpretation is the thing. Regarding the CC notation, the late Franz Buismann, who contributed so much to our understanding of this MSS, made the same point about it being not intended for singing.
      Nevertheless, it is clear that most of the written vocables were based on oral ones, and it is, I think, likely that the Campbells themselves, when looking over the tunes they had recorded, would have sung them, as silent reading was not universal at that time – but what did they actually articulate?

      1. Insofar as there is any firm evidence to go on and beyond that it is speculation, as I have mentioned in an early post on this site John Campbell the son of the writer is described by the son of his employer Campbell of Islay as ‘fingering his chanter while reading from the manuscript’. There is also a short report of when John Campbell had taken the manuscript to the HSS Competition another piper offered to interpret it and he played a particular example.

        In other words there is evidence the manuscripts were treated as we would treat any sheet music written on a stave. There is actually no evidence that the Campbells turned what was written back into a sung form. They may well have, in fact I suspect they did, but that still has to be speculation.

        1. ‘Day Yesterday and Here yesterday’ – known elsewhere as ‘Queen Anne’s Lament’ (she was the last Stuart monarch) – arises from mistaking the first syllables of the canntaireachd as Gaelic words and translating them into English: ‘Hin DE hin DO hio en DO’ sounds something like ‘Di an De is Seo an De’, which is the Gaelic translation of the English name. Doesn’t this show evidence of articulating the notation, turning what was written into a sung form? It also provides a suggestion of how Campbell pointed or stressed the notes in the opening motif.

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