Tumuli O’ Counichan (Gesto)

From our Club Member, Bob Gresh.


This is my draft score for Tumilin O’ Counichan, based on Gesto’s version.

Taom-boileinn Gesto’s version 1

The tune is a variant of Brian Boru’s March, and Piobaireachd Society Editor Archie Kenneth noted the resemblance is “too strikingly similar for coincidence.”  The Society has never published it. Irish traditional music collections often list Brian Boru’s March as “the oldest known pipe tune.” While clearly an old tune, no one believes it reaches back to Brian Boru’s time, any more than does the harp that bears his name. Back in 1992 George Balderose, a noted piper in the USA, included Brian Boru’s March in his program as an “ancient march” related to pibroch, but Balderose added that while marches are metered, pibroch is measured by strong, medium or weak pulses. Tumilin O’ Counichan also featured in a 2006 presentation by Barnaby Brown at the Armagh Piper’s Club, in which he taught  the Campbell Cann. Ms. version, by voice.

Regrettably, I missed Barnaby’s presentation, but Balderose’s reference to pibroch pulsing raises the question of how to perform this tune. The only authoritative audio I have had access to is the discussion by George Moss, who plays Gesto’s version starting at 4:23 in this recording (from Tobar an Dualchais). He had it out of Gesto’s collection and calls it ‘Dòmhnall Ó Cuineachain’.

Listen here.

My analysis was based on side by side comparison of the Campbell Canntaireachd (C.C.), Gesto, Mackay (in both Manuscripts), David Glen and Thomason. I have not had access to the setting of Simon Fraser, which is said to be a good one. If anyone has a copy and thinks posting it would not violate copyright, I’d be grateful to see it.

_Analysis of CC MS

_Analysis of MacKay MS


_comparison of settings

The C.C. is the most elaborate setting, with 9 parts, including a doubling of the Urlar, a Dithis, and doublings of the T and C variations. The C.C. includes inconsistencies that the more experienced might find delightful, but as a piper of moderate ability, I gravitated to the Gesto verson. His Canntaireachd is more natural, and the 6 part version he preserves is fairly straight forward. Both MacKay’s versions parallel Gesto, as does David Glen’s. Glen’s version came from MacDougal Gilles, and he notes where MacDougal Gilles departs from Gesto in places. Glen includes an a Mach, as does MacKay.

My Urlar (based on Glen’s very precise notation) accords with Joseph MacDonald’s “Antient Rule” whereby “they counted on their four fingers [and] computed about 16 Bars, 4 in each Quarter.”: it is organized as four measures of four bars. Barnaby Brown has identified this as a “woven geometrical design” in which alternate measures are the inverse of each other. Woven designs often begin on the more dissonant B, as here.

Focusing on the Gesto version, some interesting things emerge. The first variation I call A’ Cheud Suibhal (first movement), not knowing what else to call it.  The second variation is clearly Ludh Sleamhuinn. What I find most interesting is the presence of what Joseph MacDonald called Creanludh and Tuludh agus Creanludh. This sort of Creanludh is identified in Iain MacInnes’ M. Litt Dissertation, “The Highland Bagpipe: The Impact of the Highland Societies” on page 287, where in reference to Donald MacDonald’s 1820 collection, he notes “a glimpse of another movement which did not survive Angus MacKay’s standardisation. It was a Crunluath movement for the tune A Ghals Mheur marked ‘very quick’, and it commenced with two bars of Crunluaths on B. It was neither a Fosgailte nor an a Mach variation, yet the Crunluaths were played in the open style, with the bottom hand held open on B. This example is unique in staff notation, although Buisman has discovered possible specimens of the same movement in the Campbell and Gesto Canntaireachd collections.” I believe we have here one of those specimens. MacInnes concludes:  “Its existence, however, was symptomatic of a variety which pervaded pibroch playing prior to MacKay’s collection, and prior to the dissemination of a uniform style of playing throughout the piping world.”

The tune’s alternate title is “Brian O’ Duff’s Lament” and Simon Fraser styled it “a lament for King Brian of old,” but I wonder whether it is simply a lament. (The addition of a Machs by MacKay and Glen indicates they did not view it as a typical lament either.) Is it too much to turn to the performance of Charles Byrne, a harper who began learning around 1794 or 1796 in the traditional technique from Arthur O’Neill? Byrne was famously photographed by Hill and Adamson at Edinburgh in 1843-44. His rendition of Brian Boru’s March was verbosely described in 1860:

Then his fingers would wander over the upper range of strings with so delicate a touch that you might fancy it was fairy music heard from a distance. Anything more fine, more soft and delicate than this performance, it is impossible to conceive. “They are coming nearer!” And the sound increased in volume. “Now here they are!” And the music rolled loud and full. Thus the march went on; the fingers of the minstrel’s right hand wandering farther down the bass range. You find it hard to keep your feet quiet, and feel inclined to take part in the march as the music assumes a merry, lightsome character, as if it were played for dancers. “Rejoicing for the victory!” But this abruptly ceases; there is another shriek and dischord, jangling and confusion in the upper bass stings. The harper explains as usual, “They have found the old King murdered in his tent.” Then the air becomes much slower and singularly plaintive. “Mourning for Brian’s death.” There is a firmer and louder touch now, with occasional plaintive effects with the left hand. “They are marching now with the brave old King’s body to Drogheda.” The music now assumes a slow and steady tone, the tone is lowered, and grows momentarily louder and louder, till finally it dies away”

It sounds a bit like the return to the Urlar at the end. A harp performance of this tune as heard by a German named Kohl at Drogheda in1843 and was described similarly by him: “The music of this march is wildly powerful and at the same time melancholy. It is at once the music of victory and of mourning.”


4 thoughts on “Tumuli O’ Counichan (Gesto)

  1. I am afraid you have the wrong ‘Byrne’, the man you mean was Patrick Byrne of the early calotype portrait and while he might just have caught the tail end of Arthur O’Neill’s school the one he attended started in 1821 under Edward McBride and when he got his ‘leaving recommendation’ in 1822 was then under the direction of Valentine Rainey, the latter a relation of the poet Robert Burns.

    There are photocopies of the Simon Fraser papers along with the material based on them but published by Barrie Orme in the National Library of Scotland. It was an odd situation in that Orme had made regular deposits of material in the NLS over the years but he only allowed access to be granted after his death which occurred just a few years back. There is a lot of material including tapes and discs, Ormes own works and the Fraser photocopies. I did an initial look over on behalf of Roddy Cannon and bounced a request to catalogue it over to Roddy. As far as I recollect the tune is in there but the easiest approach is to be patience for a few months more until Roddy’s edited Gesto comes out and see if he has referenced it.

    1. Thanks for the notice about the impending publication of and edited Gesto, Keith. And for the correct teacher for Patrick Byrne. (Keith’s excellent biography of Byrne is available on the Wire Strung Harp site.)

  2. Thanks for a most commendable and thorough rendition of this fascinating tune. It is especially good to see the ‘four finger’ rule being used as a guide in setting it down, and to have the various versions in one place.

    I wonder if the Nether Lorne setting might correspond more closely to the MacKay – MacDougall setting you have shown? The vocable ‘Hio em to’ resembles the ‘1st var’ in the Mackay setting, which is also three notes per motif, with the emphasis on the first (HIO emto). I have heard this same vocable played elsewhere with emphasis on the last of the three notes (‘The Prince’s Salute’ – Malcolm MacPherson) and think it possible Campbell’s could also be pointed this way (‘hioemTO’).

    My reading of Gesto’s variation, which is labelled ‘A’cheud Shiubhal’ here, is that there are only two notes in each motif; thus ‘Hiochin’ has only a B and and A, the third note (B) not being in his notation and superfluous. Likewise, ‘Hiendun’ does not seem to contain a low G but is probably two low A’s – the ‘Hi’ probably being a strong G cutting (although it could be seen as an E, giving E A A – but changing the rhythm).

    The next variation, ‘Ludh Sleamhuinn’, follows the same rhythm, which is a usual progression, supporting this interpretation.

    In the ‘Cruinnludh’, the 2nd Bar ‘Hieninin’ is probably A A A, as there is no throw indicated in Gesto’s notation, as appears in the previous bar, and elsewhere. (Again, this ‘Hi’ could be read as an E, making this a ‘Hiharin’ with a ‘drumming’ effect.) One could easily play a doubling in which this vocable ‘Hieninin’ would be replaced by the throw, as you have written.

    The parallel with ‘A’ Ghlas Mheur’ is very apt, this open crunludh being a striking effect in both tunes.

  3. Thank you Ronald for your very insightful comments on my draft setting. Your are quite right: the three-note motif I have here in my “A’cheud Shiubhal” should in fact be a two-note falling motif according to the Gesto vocables, and should be renamed “Shiubhal Dithis”. In the Campbell Canntaireachd version, both are inlcuded: the Urlar and Urlar Doubling being followed by the three-note motif variation I give here, then a falling two-note Dithis, and then the Ludh Sleamhuinn. This does indeed make a nice progression, and I will be setting the Campbell version in a similar manner. The is valuable feed-back on the pointing of the three-note motif.

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