Music of the Celts (Dalriada)

Anything that comes to mind. Members should use the TdB Member forums for official or private business. Forums in this area are readable by anonymous visitors, and registered users can post here.
Forum rules
Use this forum to discuss topics of history or craft as related to our hobby.
As this is a PUBLIC forum, be discrete! Private matters should be discussed in the TdB Member forums!
Any post which is deemed too sensitive for public consumption may be moved to the Private Discussions forum by Moderators.
User avatar
Posts: 959
Joined: Mon Jan 02, 2017 9:22 am
Class: Aurrad (Member)

Music of the Celts (Dalriada)

Post by Comyn »

Before the Dalriada Celtic Heritage Trust website went offline sometime in late 2006, I managed to save copies of several pages from their site which were of interest to me. This is one of those pages. If you dig, you can find more of the collection of writings that were once online at in the Wayback machine at

Dalriada Celtic Heritage Trust: Music of the Celts

The Fonnsheen

Music has always meant alot to the Celts, and throughout time musicians,
especially harpers, were honoured members of Celtic society. Both Wales
and Ireland have harps as one of their national symbols. Wales is called
"The Land of Song", Ireland is called "The Harper's Land". As with alot
of customs and attitudes in Celtic countries, the Christian viewpoint
is often a pale reflection of a stronger, older belief, lying not too
far beneath the surface. The Celtic attitude to music is no exception.

To understand how the ancient Celts saw music, one first has to wipe
completely from one's mind any present day ideas of either the strict,
theoretical, classical world, or indeed its easy going, natural, folk
opposite. That is not to say that the Celts had no "music of the folk",
indeed minstrels, or "crossain", held a definite, albeit low, place in
society. But what we are concerned with here is the music played by both
the bards of the priesthood and by some other harpers - the only
musicians to enjoy Freeman status. This music was kept entirely separate
from the wine halls and feast and was called by the Gaels "Fonn" - a
word which means both melody; music and land; Earth. Its poetic meaning
is "True Music". It is also sometimes called "Fonnsheen" - the music of
the Sidhe or Faerie Folk.

True music, in its undistilled form, is all around us. When poets speak
of the music of the wind, or "Ceol na mara", the song of the sea, they
are remembering with their words an ancient truth, that the music of the
Otherworld lives in every sound that fills this Greenworld, from the
breeze that sighs down from the wooded hills to the wild rush of aimless
force and emotion that flies up from the stormy sea. Each part of the
day, each season of the year carries on its breath an unborn song,
waiting to be plucked from the Otherworld and given its first form by
the human ear that perceives its internal rhythm and rhyme.

As with all of the arts, music has its Gods and Goddesses, who were the
first to perform these functions. One of the oldest Gaelic Gods, The
Dagda, plays each of the seasons into being with his harp. The name of
his harp, or in some legends, his harper, is Uaithne, which means pillar
or post, but again it has a poetic meaning - internal rhyme. He is the
Green Man whose ecstatic dance is the bard's intoxication and madness -
the lust of the heart and mind that culminates in the birth of song.
When the Dagda's wife Boann was in labour he played three magical
strains on Uaithne to help her in her birthing. He played Goltraighe,
the weeping strain, for the pain she was suffering. He played
Geantraighe, the laughter strain, for the joy of the new life she
brought forth. Then he played the exhausted mother to sleep with
Suantraighe, the sleeping strain.

Here, do we not have the "internal rhyme" of the cycle of seasons at
play? For as the green and grey months rotate, their axis is constant -
the eternal pain and joy of the Mother continually bringing forth new
life and resting in the darkness of winter.

For the Gael, it is impossible to think about True Music without
remembering the "True World" - the Greenworld, for each one is an
expression of the other. The Goddess Brighid is the patroness of music,
for Brighid of the Mantle of Green is also Brighid of the Harp. The
Goddess who is in charge of music in the Land of Promise, one of the
Otherworldly realms, is called Uaine, which literally means Green. Many
harpers in legend have been taught their art by the Green Harper,
another name for the Dagda. Brighid is his daughter - the Eternal Muse.
His son is Oengus, the epitome of Desire and Longing...together, they
are creation.

The very word inspiration means "to breathe in". And it is on the green
wind of the world that inspiration is carried. It is the breath of the
Goddess in all her moods - and how differently from day to day that
breeze can stir and sound the strings of a harp...How many secrets She
whispers to open hearts.

The Celts have always been aware of the marriage between words and
music. To a bard, his harp continues to speak when his words fail him.
When accompanying a poem or legend, the harp expresses worlds beyond
human comprehension, but not beyond human feeling. Words create images,
bring ideas into being. Music leaves things unsaid, like a human gesture
that can enhance, or belie, what speech implies. Words require both
feeling and intellect. Music in its true definition is the pure
expression of emotion, answering to that of which it is sensitive.

In the Gaelic system, words belong primarily to the intellect. Music
belongs to the realms of "naturalness", of instinctive awareness that
need not be explained. This idea is reflected in ancient cultures all
over the world. In India, words and chant are equated with Earth and
Heaven respectively. In China, "Music is of the order of Heaven. Li
(right behaviour) is of the order of Earth. Music was made manifest in
the genesis of all things and Li has its abode in their
understand music is to be at the secret source of Li."

Thus all native cultures have the same belief. Words have the power to
create and symbolize the manifest world. Music brings us into harmony
with the non-manifest. The harp, a sacred instrument all over the world
has always been called "the bridge between Heaven and Earth."

If one views this idea in terms of a Christian philosophy, placing
Heaven above Earth, it may seem that I am placing music above words in
importance. But that would be akin to saying that the soul is superior
to flesh, whereas the fundamental belief of every native religion is
that flesh is spirit made manifest.

In almost all the legends the approach of a being from the Otherworld is
heralded by beautiful music - for when the veil between the worlds is
lifted all natural sights and sounds are revealed in their true form. It
is always people whose hearts are true enough to pass through the veil
who are invited by the Faerie Queen to enter into her pure world of
Truth. Musicians are often counted in this number, for if they can hear
the Fonnsheen in the song of the Earth, then they are but one step away
from the land that is sometimes called "Cridhe na Ceol" - the heart of

To the Gael, the music of the city is not "True Music". Nor is the music
borne out of the exchange of ideas between musicians - unless they
experience together the same flow from the Otherworld, which must be
rare, for it is usually a solitary experience as each man hears with the
same ear, but understands with a different heart.

The "Music of the Folk" is important - for it expresses the hopes and
dreams of a people sharing the same space on Earth and in time. But the
music of the Otherworld sings a different song - for it expresses the
harmony of the Cosmos and the cyclic pulse from the great heart of the
Mother of Eternity.

[© Dalriada Celtic Heritage Trust]
[Author: F. Tullis DALRIADA MAGAZINE 1987]
Dalriada Celtic Heritage Trust, Isle of Arran