The Joy of Lullabies
Ancient Irish harpers believed that certain melodies could induce powerful states of sleep. They called these melodies "suantraí" or "songs of sleep." On my album, "Close Your Eyes, Love," I have attempted to revive this ageless artform to create and compile a present-day collection of soothing Celtic songs and lullabies to assist with relaxation and sleep for the youngest and oldest alike among my dedicated and devoted listeners.
It was the duty of the harpers of old to induce a state of sleep using the "suantrai" or "songs of sleep." This did not just apply to children but to all assembled. Even lullabies directed to children often have quite a few adult-like allusions and contain a "darkish" language that we think of as more adult-like. Welcome to the world of the Irish Lullaby!
When the term Irish Lullaby comes up, many people think of "Toora Loora Loora," a poetic and sweet lullaby written by Tin Pan Alley composers to meet a need for music by a growing immigrant Irish population. Other ethnicities were seeing similar surges and in the early 19th century, recording began in New York. But long before “Toora Loora” was penned, the tradition of the Irish lullaby had long been going strong.
The harpers weren’t just expected to put you to sleep. (Sauntrai - lullaby). They also used "goltrai" - songs of crying - to bring people to tears and "geantrai" to bring people to laughter. So, the function of the musician was that of heightening one's emotion, mostly in communal settings.
Today, when we have difficulty sleeping, and counting sheep and/or drinking warm milk have failed to help, we look to medicine. It’s hard to think there might have been a time when people viewed music as being far more powerful than anything else available to them relax or sleep.
So, lullabies were never just for children. In fact, while the melodies are often sweet, calming and surprisingly devoid of the complexity that some often associate with Irish music, the lyrics with which they were matched often provided tremendous relief to mothers after giving birth and during the early years of childhood.
Lullabies and the Irish / Scottish Harp Revivals
The Irish and Scottish harp revivals of the mid-20th century greatly favored lullabies. These lullabies showcased pretty voices very nicely and were not too difficult to play. In fact, they were ideal for self-accompaniment. Revivalists, most of them women, were drawn to the beauty of the melodies and their ideal difficulty level for a harp culture that was just beginning to re-ignite after having been silenced for centuries. When it became high fashion in places like Dublin to play the pipes, and the ladies followed suit with the harp, no parlor evening was likely to take place without its share of Irish/Gaelic lullabies.
Teaching using Irish Lullabies
While I was learning to play the harp at a young age, my good teacher, Sr. Eileen, made sure that lullabies were learned and perfected early on because of their simplicity. One of my first harp tunes was "Seothin a Linibh." The Scottish players often had “teaching tunes,” i.e. songs that were composed specifically for teaching purposes or with a teaching objective in mind. On the Irish side, lullabies often served the purpose of teaching young harpers to use both hands or play and sing at the same time.
People who listen to traditional Irish music rarely hear a lullaby today, but those of us who started playing the harp, especially at an early age, had plenty of them in their repertoire.
Function of Lullabies
This is where it gets interesting. When I visited Auckland in New Zealand a while back and went to the university to check out the Mauri music, I asked to first listen to lullabies. For me, lullabies of any culture are the gateway to understanding what that culture is all about. Lullabies are sung primarily by women, especially those who aren’t always out front with respect to other musical aspects of the music and culture. That often falls to the men. Yet, women often clearly reflect through the lullaby the true under currents of that group's central compass and, above all, its fears.
We tend to think of the primary function of lullabies as being the means to calm children, soothing their anxiety and getting them to fall asleep. Upon examining the lyrics of Irish lullabies, however, people are often surprised at how dark they sometimes can be. For me, they are a perfect pathway into the psyche.
Aside from obviously calming the child, there’s the question of the mother. In rural societies, women often found themselves separate from their husbands for extended periods of time and even isolated. This goes against our traditional view of an idyllic community with constant support. However, the practicalities of hard living, especially on land that was poorer, demanded that men often leave for weeks at a time to work the land or fish the sea. Not only were mothers worried about their children in an age of high infant mortality rates, they were worried for the safety of their husbands in an age when travel was often perilous. In coastal areas where fishing was central, the shared wisdom of communities understood the changing tides.
We often hear of mothers telling their children what their fathers would bring to them if they were well-behaved and went to sleep. It’s clear that the father was absent and working, but would return.
In addition, there frequently is a sense of a mother integrating and transforming her reasonable and even unreasonable fears into a childhood world that she’s painting in her mind for her baby. In the well-known Irish lullaby "Dun Do Shuile" (featured on my album "Close Your Eyes, Love"), the mother promises all of the riches that the father will bring home from the sea. The mother also promises a gift from the father if the child closes his/her eyes and goes to sleep.
The mother in “Gartan Mother’s Lullaby” (see article and verses below) weaves an especially beautiful tapestry as “Sheevra sails his boat ‘till morn across the starry bog.” She sends the child into a beautiful place. She’s setting up a type of altered world and ultimately creating a "state" for him that’s in direct opposition to her fears and anxieties. These types of songs tend to resonate deeply. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is a modern-day example. There’s a poignancy to creating a vivid contrast between words and melody or melody and words. In “Somewhere over The Rainbow,” the words are happy but the melody is at its core, quite sad. Most Irish lullabies have beautiful melodies such as "Castle of Dromore/Take Time To Thrive," yet the words can express fears that are surprisingly dark. (The Castle of Dromore is a well-known and loved lullaby in Ireland and I’ve written more about it in Articles below.)
There is an another aspect of Irish lullabies, as well. It further contrasts the world against the innocent and newborn beauty of the child itself. There’s a gap between the world the mother wishes for her child and what the reality actually is. And there’s an even bigger gap between the innocent nature of the child and the true nature of the world. The expression of this gap in song, in many ways, serves to intensify the mother's love and her desire to protect.
It is believed that women have warded off middle-of-night fears by singing as much for themselves as for their children. These lullabies can often beseech blessings of protection from Mother Mary or guardian angels while admonishing and bidding harm to that which lurks in the shadows.
As can be readily seen, this juxtaposition of light and dark themes that runs through lullabies is what often makes them so oddly riveting. For me, they’re a more realistic reflection of what mothers actually experience, a deep intense love for their child and a desire to keep them safe contrasting with a world that has become darker for the mother since she now has an innocent child to protect.
The "suantrai" or lullabies of harpers of old are, for the most part, lost or unfamiliar to us. Yet, there’s an entire group of slow "airs" (i.e., song-like vocal or instrumental compositions) that can unintentionally to put any insomniac to sleep.
Still, few doubt the power of music to take us to another place.
To experience the joy of lullabies, and all of their emotions, I invite you to listen to a sampling of tracks from my album "Close your Eyes, Love" and, perhaps, let them help you to relax and go to sleep.