BB's webABC Archive
The Bulmer-Sharpley MUSIC FROM IRELAND Project

updated: 14 June 2016


The Bulmer & Sharpley Music from Ireland tunebooks were published in the early 1970s and quickly established themselves alongside the O'Neill volumes as the tune books for traditional musicians to have.

The four volumes were all dated 1974. Apparently a fifth volume was rumored to be in preparation but did not materialize. As best I can determine, Volume 4 was the last of any published tune collecting efforts by B & S.

Of the four volumes only 1, 2 and 3 seem to have achieved "mass" circulation (in ITM terms). Evidently Volume 1 was so successful that it was reissued in an expanded and more professional-appearing format, with what appears to be professional engraving replacing the crude handwritten entries in the earlier edition. (No music engraving software of the Finale / Sibelius breed existed in the day.) Six tunes of the "miscellaneous" variety were added to the dance tunes in the first edition. Some relocation and renumbering of tunes in that volume also took place, quite possibly required by the classier look of the new edition.

The professional engraving format was used in volumes 3 and 4, but apparently volume 2 was never re-done this way.

Volume 4 - although to all intents and purposes the same as its predecessors with regards to quantity and quality of content - did not seem to reach the same number of musicians as Volumes 1, 2 and 3 did. In fact most people - myself included - were surprised when the existence of "BSMI4" was revealed (possibly I had known of it years back and just forgotten it because I never had a copy). In any event, a copy of it has been made available to me and its contents are included in this project.

From a musical notation standpoint, the content of the Music from Ireland volumes is excellent. Whoever did the drafting was aware of the significance of such musical fine points as pickup notes and multiple endings. Ornamentation is at a minimum and as a result the settings are uncluttered, very easy to read and to transcribe into ABC.

Regarding the tunes:
In the process of transcribing this material, I have been amazed by the realization that so many of the tunes and settings in these volumes have remained the "session standard" for (dare I say it?) the past forty years. As anyone who has spent time learning tunes from the two O'Neill's volumes will attest, not all of the Chief's settings are quite what are heard today - for example, the Chief's sharps have become flats and vice-versa, or a five-part setting of a particular tune will now be played as an ordinary two-part tune, etc. The same is as true or truer for the lesser-known 19th century and early 20th century collectors like O'Farrell, Ryan, Roche, Darley & McCall, Levey, Petrie, and others.

This is no way is meant to disparage the tremendous work of these early collectors, who did what they did without benefit of modern recording devices or the computer assistance that we tend to take for granted. Those of us engaged in tune collecting today realize that we indeed stand on the shoulder of giants (which must of course include Breandan Breathnach and his great Ceol Rince na hEireann volumes). What it does mean is that traditional music is a living entity that is as subject to change as any other living entity. B & S seem to have been in the right place(s) at the right time(s) to accomplish two important tasks: (1) to make a written record of the way the music was being played at the beginning of the ITM renaissance in the 1970s (2) to circulate their research in such a way as to ensure - unwittingly perhaps - that their material would be as familiar to a traditional musician in Tokyo 2013 as it was to a player in Boston in 2003, Chicago in 1993,  or London in 1973.

The Music from Ireland volumes became part of a "virtuous circle" in which they were both an effect (of a revival of interest in traditional music in the pubs of Ireland and the UK) and a cause (of an ordering of a growing interest in the music, an interest that may not have been present before). By "ordering" I mean the establishment of a canon of tunes that could be shared across geographic or cultural boundaries, so that musicians in city A would have the same basic vocabulary of tunes as those in cities B, C, and D, or that novice musicians in a junior ceili band would be playing the same tunes as their grandparents.

I would argue that such standardization as the B&S volumes provided was necessary to the growth and survival of the ITM movement in those prehistoric days before CDs or the internet. They certainly were a godsend to musicians who were more comfortable learning via "the dots" than by ear; those who could do both were - then as now - doubly blessed. And since the material in the Music from Ireland volumes was gathered from live sources, there was an excellent opportunity to relate their contents to such recordings of ITM as were beginning to make themselves manifest, starting with Seán O Riada and the Chieftains through De Danann, the Bothy Band, and others.

One of the goals of any tune collector is to assemble his material in such a way as to establish not so much a historical record as a medium of continuity. Such continuity seems to be required by the very definition of "traditional". I like to believe that none of the 19th century collectors mentioned above would be scandalized in any way by hearing a current version of some tune they had gathered. Traditional musicians - players, collectors, even composers - understand that change will be a part of the process. But the beginning of the process is to capture the way the music is being played at one point in time. No fermentation can take place until the grape juice is put into the vats; no musical fermentation can take place before the establishment of a single point of reference. It is this establishment of a reference point that seems to me to make the Music from Ireland volumes so valuable, and so worth the labor of transcribing and archiving.

My thanks to all who stepped up to help with offers of missing pages, background material, etc. And as always a special shout-out to Phil Taylor, without whose BarFly ABC program none of this would have happened.

Note: as of June 2016 the table files include (1) links to MP3 files (2) incipits

Volume 1 (83 tunes)
tunes (text)
Volume 2 (87 tunes)
tunes (text)
Volume 3 (85 tunes)
tunes (text)
Volume 4 (90 tunes)
tunes (text)

Background material from Bob Taylor
Background material from Nigel Gatherer
Thanks to Chuck Boody for his help!