Princess Royal

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The story of a tune

The Princess Royal is one of the most ubiquitous of traditional tunes. Irish scholars say it was written by the great harper and composer O’Carolan around about 1725, who called it Miss MacDermott after the daughter of one of his many patrons. It’s a bit surprising then that its first publication by Walsh in 1730 named it after the then English King’s eldest daughter, still a child, who had been given the title only three years earlier. People are still arguing about the tune’s origin, but it went on to have a most fascinating life. Three 18th century English collections included it, and the celebrated Scots fiddler and composer Neil Gow published it in the 1790s. He’d modified it in interesting ways since Walsh’s version, and even today, when somebody starts it up, you wonder which version they’re going to use.

Owen Roe O’Sullivan, a poet and adventurer from the Sliabh Luachra region of County Kerry, having already served as a soldier in the British army, was by 1782 in the Royal Navy, serving with Admiral Rodney’s fleet in the West Indies when he defeated the French fleet in the Battle of the Saintes, a victory that saved Britain’s Caribbean colonies, even though they were losing their American ones. There is a story that O’Sullivan was to be hanged for a misdemeanour, and wrote a song about the glorious defeat of the French by the wonderful Rodney (actually a bit of a rogue, who had only been recalled by the admiralty to take on the West Indies Station because he was so good a commander and they hadn’t anybody better for the job!). The legend is that the Admiral was so pleased by this paeon of praise that he pardoned the sailor poet. Whatever the details, he did write the song, and used a version of Princess Royal. We should note that after O’Sullivan’s death two years after the sea battle, a tune was composed called Lament for the death of Owen Roe O’Sullivan which is one of the grandest and most moving of all Irish airs. O’Sullivan’s song was called Rodney’s Glory, a title that is well known to Irish dancers as a long dance, and to musicians as a popular tune used for the dance. Many of the best Irish musicians of the 20th century have recorded it, including Willie Clancy, Martyn Byrnes, and Paddy Glackin. What is intriguing here is why the tune should catch on with this title, named after an Admiral of the oppressive English occupation, if it was already known in Ireland as Miss MacDermott. Does this suggest that it was not, after all, an O’Carolan composition, but a tune written for an English princess?

In the 1790s, two events helped keep the pot boiling, in terms of the song’s “nationality”. In July 1792, there was a festival in Belfast where “the last of the blind Irish harpers” assembled for three days of music and competition. The organiser was Edward Bunting, an eminent musicologist who was convinced, like Walter Scott with Scots ballads a little later, and Sharp with English folk song at the end of the nineteenth century, that a vital piece of culture was about to disappear. In a sense he was right, for within twenty years most of them were dead, and nobody was following in their footsteps. Bunting noted the tunes they played during these three days, and what the musicians had to say. The harpers told him, without any doubt, that The Princess Royal was composed by O’Carolan, and was really Miss MacDermott. So, definitely Irish then. At about this time, a musical impressario William Shield, from Durham, had come across a poem about a sea battle some years earlier where the the French ship La belle poule had been well beaten by the British frigate Arethusa. Shield put the Princess Royal tune to the poem and included it in his musical play Lock and Key produced in London in 1796. Whatever the fate of the show, or origin of the tune, the song The Arethusa was a big hit, and both song and tune entered the 19th century Englishman’s mind as thoroughly patriotic.

As Pax Britannica established itself after Waterloo in 1815, few in England were aware of Bunting and O’Carolan. The tune was seen as English, and expressed itself in that most quintessential aspect of Englishness, morris dancing. Most of the Cotswold sides had a dance called The Princess Royal to the tune of that name, and though most morris sides ceased in the late nineteenth century, the revival sides we now enjoy have carried on the old tradition as closely as possible. It is interesting that six sides use the tune in a minor key, more or less as Walsh’s 1730 print, and five play the tune in major, and although we are familiar with the latter through its’ being used on the seminal recording Morris On, which version is largely based on Abingdon, the major key seems unique to the morris.

During the current folk revival, if you’d asked for a song about Nelson, the victor at Trafalgar, the response would have probably have been Bold Nelson’s Praise. The reason for this song’s popularity is not likely to be the overblown jingoism of its words so much as the fact that the tradition was found to have very few songs about Nelson, a hero revered by seaman and public alike on an unprecedented scale. As with The Arethusa, he was well represented in the broadsides of the early 19th century, but most of these were so poor that they never entered the oral tradition. The other reason for its popularity is undoubtedly that it uses the tune The Princess Royal. Intriguingly, the song was collected only once, by Cecil Sharp in Warwickshire in 1909. It is hardly conceivable that the song was not more widespread, unless, noting the date of Sharp’s hearing it, it had been written for the centenary of Trafalgar four years earlier. Perhaps the singer himself, or somebody else from the West Midlands, had seen fit to write a new song for the occasion, and had used what by then was viewed as a very patriotic English tune.

To return to the matter of who wrote the tune: Bunting heard from the Arthur O'Neill, one of the harpers at the 1792 Belfast festival that O'Carolan had composed it; in 1810 Farrell quoted this in print for the first time; in 1910 Grattan Flood insisted after diligent musical analysis that nobody but O'Carolan could have written it; and in the 1950s Donal O'Sullivan "confirmed" that in the light of all this evidence it was an O'Carolan tune, written about 1725 in honour of one of the Roscommon MacDermott's daughters (despite there having apparently been no daughters recorded in the previous two generations). The only person arguing against this seems to be Kidson, who asserted in 1894 and again in 1910 in response to Grattan Flood, that it was "English, early 18th century", and written for the King's daughter.

Neither party has substantial evidence, it would seem. Particularly puzzling, if it was Irish, is why would Walsh, the first person to print the tune, take an O'Carolan tune, written five years previously, and rename it after Princess Anne, who had been made up to Princess Royal just three years previously? If he needed to present a tune of that title, in order to please King George II, surely he could have written one? The other puzzling thing, but which may contain the answer, is why Walsh called it "The Princess Royal, The New Way", and why Wright in 1735 called it "The New Princess Royal". Was it in fact a dance they were referring to? There is a reference to La Princess Royalein later editions of Playford, using a tune called Ianthe.

Further Reading:

For full detail in concise form:

For discussion, see the following:

  • Francis O'Neill Irish Folk Music, 1910, 1973
  • Donal O'Sullivan, Carolan, 1958
  • Daniel Corkery, The Hidden Ireland 1924,1967 Chapter 10 on Owen Roe O’Sullivan
  • Roly Brown, The Arethusa: a peculiarly English Glory, As well as the subject of the title, covers many other Princess Royal aspects.