Something Borrowed – Frank McNally on the IOU notes of music

Name that tune

Further to the possible origins of Amhrán na bhFiann in a Protestant hymn (Diary, May 6th), the Rev Robin Bantry-White from Co Kilkenny writes to say that he too has long been aware of a similarity between the tunes.

On a point of information, he notes, the “hymn” I referred to is in fact a “chant” (a nuance that was not lost on my original correspondent, David O’Shea).

But he attaches the score from a 1938 book of Church of Ireland music, with the relevant segment underlined and notated.

And sure enough, as played on that underrated musical instrument – a virtual piano keyboard, downloaded to laptop – it includes a phrase (with the notes CDECG) identical to the national anthem’s “Sinne Fianna Fáil”.


The Rev Robin backs up what might be mere coincidence with family lore. “My mother always said that they had stolen the tune from one of our chants,” he writes.

“She was the daughter of Walter Marchant, who was an organist and choirmaster and had been a St Patrick’s Cathedral] Choirboy in the 1870s. Of his brothers, Dr Charles Marchant was subsequently organist there and Thomas was for many years a Vicar Choral.”

He has read elsewhere that Peadar Kearney (who wrote the anthem’s lyrics in 1907 but may also have contributed to Patrick Heeney’s score) was for also for a time a choirboy in St Patrick’s Cathedral.

None of which proves that the anthem derived from the chant, he admits: both may have been inspired by a pre-existing tune.

“But it seems likely” that Sir Robert Stewart’s chant came first: “My one doubt is that using a little step note in the first bar of a chant is highly unusual and makes the singing of a psalm like this one a bit harder.” In fact, Rev Bantry-White adds, he has never heard this chant sung in a service.

It’s well known that Protestants have all the best hymns. Chants too, no doubt. But perhaps the difficulties of performing this one also explain the notorious shyness Irish people seem to have about singing the anthem which, at GAA matches and elsewhere, often fails to rise above a murmur.


I have been to many Martin Hayes concerts over the years, none of them less than brilliant. But at a packed Patrick Kavanagh Centre in Inniskeen last weekend, it was the first time I’d seen him perform without his long-time playing partner Dennis Cahill, who died just under a year ago.

As I wrote here some time back, the beauty of Cahill’s accompaniment of the great fiddle master was its understatement: “Especially on the slow airs, when Hayes’s violin is at its most desolate, Cahill’s guitar is like the touch of a friendly hand, or a sincere, familiar voice telling the fiddle ‘Sorry for your troubles’.”

It was sad that he was no longer around to provide such sympathy in Inniskeen. But Hayes soldiered on bravely, and before a well-earned encore, congratulated the audience for their courage in attending such a “masochistic” exercise as a solo fiddle recital.

Then he asked if anyone had a closing request. And when this was met by silence, I nearly suggested “Lament for Limerick”. But I didn’t, partly from fear that, unaccompanied, it might be just too lonesome a note on which to end the concert.

The maestro was not completely without backing musicians, as it happens. The usual mobile went off at one point, playing the old classic Nokia ringtone: another five-note phrase, which was borrowed from a 1902 waltz by the Spanish classical guitarist Francisco Tárrega.

Hayes was discussing the origins of one his tunes at the time. Then he hummed the ringtone and joked that they were similar, “except that one made a lot more money”.


At a jazz session in a Dublin pub recently, the pianist Jim Doherty and his trio went one further than Hayes by playing a tune inspired by the same ringtone.

This a tradition of the genre, of course. At the start of the biggest selling solo album in jazz history, Keith Jarrett’s The Koln Concert, you can hear the audience laughing. The joke is that is that Jarrett had opened his famously improvised show by imitating the opera house’s five-note signal bell (GDCGA).

Inspiration is everywhere if you’re a jazz musician. Doherty told me afterwards about a recent gig in the National Concert Hall in which, as is often the case, he was playing the music of Duke Ellington.

As billed, this somehow became the music of the “Duke of Wellington”. Which is certainly an interesting idea. With improvisations of “Waterloo,” “Bonaparte’s Retreat”, “These Boots Are Made for Walking”, etc, there could be a whole album in it yet.