Dublin is a musical city, a storm of sounds. I grew up on the edge of this storm system, in Walkinstown’s Musical Estate, also known as the Melodies. Here, the roads commemorate eighteen musicians and composers, either Irish or connected to Ireland, including: John McCormack, Thomas Moore, Michael Balfe, John Field, Percy French, Edward Bunting and John Dowland.
Those names came from the perspective of 1940s planners, imagining the songs new residents would sing, gathered in kitchens and living rooms with a bottle of stout or two, and a Woodbine twixt finger and thumb. I can still hear those serenades with their echoes of John McCormack and the recordings of Brendan O’Dowda, Bridie Gallagher and Joe Locke blaring from Radio Eireann on the wireless.
Ireland’s musical tradition is something we like to flaunt. It was not always so. Myles na Gopaleen (Brian O’Nolan) complained mid century of “this nation of befuddled paddies, whose sole musical tradition is bound up with blind harpers, tramps with home made fiddles, Handel in Fish-handel street, John McCormack praising our airport and no street in the whole capital named after John Field.” There is in fact, since Walkinstown obliged in the later forties. Field Avenue is a small cul de sac terminating around a green at the northwestern edge of the estate where Walkinstown touches Drimnagh.
Field was born in Dublin in 1782 and made his concert debut at the age of nine. Moving to London in 1793 he became one of the renowned concert pianists of his day. Field travelled to St Petersburg, the ultra modern metropolis of its time, the pinnacle of the cultural world. His fame allowed him live the lavish lifestyle of the Rock Star, as we might put it today. He took up residence in Moscow where he died in 1837.
As a composer Field is remembered for developing the Nocturne. The Nocturne marks a specific shift in composition where the artist explores the light within the darkness. Characteristically meditative, with a moody melody overlaid on a distinctive arpeggio, it takes the listener into a spiritual landscape. Frederic Chopin was a master of the form, becoming its most famous exponent. Like all art, it developed over time into quite different things. James MacNell Whistler’s painted Nocturnes caused outrage at the Fin de Siecle. Now it would seem absurd for any artist in any field not to dally with the Muse after sunset. One imagines Field’s nocturnal inspirations were rather seasonal. St Petersburg’s summers are the White Nights, the sun barely setting and the sky a permanent bell of startling northern hues. Throughout winter, the world’s northernmost great city is clad in a different whiteness, veils of snow and ice turning everything into a winter wonderland.
I was raised on Bunting Road, the bisecting avenue of Walkinstown’s Musical Estate. Originally the road didn’t reach Crumlin. From near Walkinstown Cross it runs north, but stopped dead at the ditch bordering Mooney’s Field. As kids, we’d haunt the hedges there, sending up a regular coyote like refrain of the farmer’s name. Moo-oo-ney! Moo-oo-ney! The poor man died at last, leaving the field free for development as playing pitches, while the road pushed through to Crumlin around 1970.
Edward Bunting may seem obscure these days. Yet, as the estate itself flows from Bunting, so does our rich repertoire of Irish music. Born in Belfast in 1773, he was a classically trained organist. By chance he was given the task of recording the music of Belfast’s Harp Festival in 1792. He collected songs directly from the harpists, leading to the publication in three volumes of his book: The Ancient Music of Ireland. This became the definitive repository of Irish music, music which might well have been lost. Bunting helped arrest the decline of the harp as instrument and symbol, and it waxed once more as an icon for the country, synonymous with the very concept of Irishness. Thomas Moore’s The Harp That Once Through Tara’s Halls is prefigured here.
Before the short cul de sac leading to Mooney’s field, Bunting passes Harty Avenue, named for composer Hamilton Harty (1879 – 1941). Born in Ulster, he came to live in Bray, his mother’s hometown, where he was church organist. Taking advantage of the excellent rail service to visit Dublin, he came under the influence of Michele Esposito at the Royal Irish Academy. In 1901 he moved to England and became a successful conductor, ultimately with the London Symphony Orchestra in the 1930s. His last composition was the symphonic poem, the Children of Lir.
Harty Avenue is a short road leading west to Thomas Moore Road. It was Moore who made flesh of Bunting’s bones, and came to be seen as the Bard of Ireland.He was born in Dublin in 1779, in Aungier Street, that edgy thoroughfare flowing south of Temple Bar from George’s Street to Camden Street. Today it blossoms with music venues and Moore’s birthplace is now occupied byJJ Smyth’s Blues Bar.
Though a Catholic, Moore studied at Trinity College before going to London to study law. As an undergraduate he became friends with Robert Emmett although he remained remote from Emmett’s revolutionary group, The United Irishmen. At times he was moved to rabble-rousing polemic in prose and ballad, to the extent that Emmett was forced to tell him to dial it down, such stances garnering unwelcome attention. For the most part, and increasingly in later life, he was more disposed towards constitutional nationalism than armed revolt.
At Trinity, he was introduced to the work of Edward Bunting who had recently released his first volume of Ancient Music of Ireland. Moore was inspired to write lyrics to a series of traditional Irish tunes. The Irish Melodies made his reputation, today they are generally referred to as Moore’s Melodies.
These songs provided the soundtrack for my childhood with my father’s robust baritone, and my mothers gentle crooning – whether in pram or bed, or of an evening by the fire, on family walks in the neighbouring countryside or drives further afield in an old Morris Minor. Sometimes lingering as the adults limbered up at nightfall, the lyrics and tunes seeped into my memory: Oft in the Stilly Night, The Harp That Once Through Tara’s Halls, Believe Me if all those Endearing Young Charms and, most memorably, The Meeting of the Waters
There is not in this wide world a valley so sweet
As the vale in whose bosom the bright waters meet,
Oh, the last rays of feeling and life must depart,
Ere the bloom of that valley shall fade from my heart.
it is not merely a rambling on the wonders of Irish scenery, but that friends, “the beloved of my bosom”, were near.
Sweet Vale of Avoca how calm could I rest,
In thy bosom of shade with the friends I love best,
Where the storms that we feel in this cold world should cease,
And our hearts, like thy waters, be mingled in peace.
Moore travelled In America in 1803, two decades after the United States had gained independence from Britain. Returning via Canada he wrote The Canadian Boat Song, grafting his lyrics to the stem of a French language song, a haunting evocation of piety and the pioneer life in ancient Acadian days.
He expressed low regard for America, and railed particularly against slavery. Outrage at his stance followed him back to London and culminated in an abortive duel with a literary critic. Lord Byron heaped scorn on him, but later they became close friends. He stayed for a while with Byron in Venice and the poet appointed him literary executor. However, Moore was persuaded to burn the memoirs on Byron’s death, as his family considered them scandalous.
Moore is often considered Ireland’s national bard, capturing the nascent Irish nationalist ethos in poetry and song. There were contradictions in his long life. Though an advocate of Catholic Emancipation, he considered O”Connell a demagogue. His path may have been less heroic than that of his friend Emmett, but its quiet luminosity can’t be doubted. He died in 1852