Wednesday, 4 July 2012


From the beautiful, enchanting music of the fairy harp to the sacred singing of the choirs of angels, Celtic literature, especially that of early medieval Ireland, has many references to a spiritual or supernatural dimension of music. Referrred to as the Celtic Otherworld, music is often featured prominently in this sacred dimension. There are many examples of fairy harpers, the songs of mermaids, the power of the saint's bell, the singing of angels in Heaven, musical trees, and so on.
The enchanting, alluring music of the Celtic Otherworld is portrayed as being heard from a dimension not of this world, that is, as something beyond ordinary reality and one's normal, everyday life experience here on earth. In some cases, beautiful, ethereal music is heard, yet no musicians are seen, for example the haunting, ghostly music heard from an empty monastery at the moment of birth or death of a saint. In others, a mortal may be "abducted" by the fairies (sidhe= pronounced shee) or angels, taken to the Otherworld, or Heaven, and then returned to earth with special musical gifts. There are many descriptions in Celtic literature of music having a powerful, and often highly unusual effect on the listener. These references are widely distributed, being found in early tales, myths, the Saints' Lives, folklore accounts, ballads, poetry, place-lore and proverbs, and even early law tracts, in both Christian and pre-Christian contexts.
One example of a gifted fairy harper, featured in a Christian context in this instance, is from the 15th century Accallam na Senorach (Colloquy of the Ancient Men). Here, the fairy musician Cascorach puts St. Patrick and his clergy to sleep with his sweet, beautiful music. Upon awakening, they engage in a lively debate, St. Patrick discussing the power of this music with his fellow clergymen, Brogan:
    'A good cast.....of art was that....,' said Brogan. 'Good indeed, it were,' said Patrick, `but for a twang of the fairy spell that infests it; barring which nothing could more nearly than it resemble Heaven's harmony.' Then says Brogan: 'if there is music in Heaven, then why shouldn't there be music here on earth? ....as it isn't right to banish minstrelsy.' Patrick answered: 'neither say I any such thing, but merely teach that we must not be inordinately addicted to it.'
St. Patrick seems to be clearly acknowledging the great beauty and power of the bewitching fairy music, yet also cautions the others about it as well, implying that - in his view as a Christian - a possible danger is inherent in the `twang of the fairy spell'. In other words, he is warning his fellow clergymen that this type of music could possibly lead one astray, and not necessarily to the Christian Heaven. The mere fact that this anecdote is included in this literature shows that the powerful effects of the "fairy harp" were taken seriously in earlier Celtic society, and that even clergymen were not immune to it!