First of two excerpts from Chapter XIII of William Carleton’s Black Baronet (1857) that give detailed accounts of a strolling hammered dulcimer player in early 19th-century Ireland, at a time and place where the instrument was uncommon. For the second, see next post, "Dandy Dulcimer: On the High Road to Dublin."
William Carleton’s Black Baronet is as convoluted as anything in all of Victorian literature, and its literary merit is practically nonexistent, but we don’t have to pay attention to any of that to appreciate what it tells us about traditional Irish music of the early 1800s. Carleton's novels were pot-boilers at best, but he was from County Tyrone, in what now is Northern Ireland, and he wrote a "tapestry of the life of the country people of the north of Ireland before the families of the 1840s altered their pattern of existence forever," according to a local biographer writing for a William Carleton Summer School in Co. Tyrone.On the evening of the same day the stranger desired Paudeen Gair [a servant of the innkeeper in Ballytrain] to take a place for him in the "Fly," which was to return to Dublin on that night. He had been furnished with a letter from [the village priest] Father M'Mahon, to whom he had, in Mr. Birney's [a local attorney’s office], fully disclosed his name and objects. He felt anxious, however, to engage some trustworthy servant or attendant, on whose integrity he could fully rely, knowing, or at least apprehending, that he might be placed in circumstances where he could not himself act openly and freely without incurring suspicion or observation. Paudeen, however, or, as we shall call him in future, Pat Sharpe, had promised to procure a person of the strictest honesty, in whom every confidence could be placed. This man's name, or rather his nickname, was Dandy Dulcimer, an epithet bestowed upon him in consequence of the easy and strolling life he led, supporting himself, as he passed from place to place, by his performances upon that simple but pleasing instrument.
And the two scenes excerpted here and in the next post tell us something we didn't know before about dulcimers. The first is set in Ballytrain, a fictional village in Ulster, where a mysterious stranger hires the musician, named “Dandy Dulcimer,” to accompany him on a mail coach to Dublin on a confidential mission. In this scene, when Dandy meets the stranger at the inn in Ballytrain, he tells how he was inspired by another itinerant musician, also named Dandy Dulcimer, after his family lost their farm and their livelihood.
"Pat," said the stranger in the course of the evening, "have you succeeded in procuring me this cousin of yours?" for in that relation he stood to Pat. "I expect him here every minute, sir," replied Pat; "and there's one thing I'll lay down my life on—you may trust him as you would any one of the twelve apostles—barring that blackguard Judas. Take St. Pettier, or St. Paul, or any of the dacent apostles, and the divil a one of them honester than Dandy. Not that he's a saint like them either, or much overburdened with religion, poor fellow; as for honesty and truth—divil a greater liar ever walked in the mane time; but, by truth, I mane truth to you, and to any one that employs him—augh, by my soul, he's the flower of a boy."
"He won't bring his dulcimer with him, I hope."
"Won't he, indeed? Be me sowl, sir, you might as well separate sowl and body, as take Dandy from his dulcimer. Like the two sides of a scissors, the one's of no use widout the other. They must go together, or Dandy could never cut his way through the world by any chance. Hello! here he is. I hear his voice in the hall below."
"Bring him up, Pat," said the stranger; "I must see and speak to him; because if I feel that he won't suit me, I will have nothing to do with him."
Dandy immediately entered, with his dulcimer slung like a peddler's box at his side, and with a comic movement of respect, which no presence or position could check, he made a bow to the stranger, that forced him to smile in spite of himself.
"You seem a droll fellow," said the stranger. "Are you fond of truth?"
"Hem! Why, yes, sir. I spare it as much as I can. I don't treat it as an everyday concern. We had a neighbor once, a widow M'Cormick, who was rather penurious, and whenever she saw her servants buttering their bread too thickly, she used to whisper to them in a confidential way, 'Ahagur [a personal term of endearment – see Note 1 below], the thinner you spread it the further it will go.' Hem! However, I must confess that once or twice a year I draw on it by way of novelty, that is, on set days or bonfire nights; and I hope, sir, you'll admit that that's treating it with respect." "How did you happen to turn musician?" asked the other.
"Why, sir, I was always fond of a jingle; but, to tell you the truth, I would rather have the same jingle in my purse than in my instrument. Divil such an unmusical purse ever a man was cursed with than I have been doomed to carry during my whole life."
"Then it was a natural love of music that sent you abroad as a performer?"
"Partly only, sir; for there were three causes went to it. There is a certain man named Dandy Dulcimer, that I had a very loving regard for, and I thought it against his aise and comfort to ask him to strain his poor bones by hard work. I accordingly substituted pure idleness for it, which is a delightful thing in its way. There, sir, is two of the causes—love of melody and a strong but virtuous disinclination to work. The third—" but here he paused and his face darkened.
"Well," inquired the stranger, "the third? What about the third?"
Dandy significantly pointed back with his thumb over his shoulder, in the direction of [the baronet’s mansion at] Red Hall. "It was him," he said; "the Black Baronet—or rather the incarnate divil."
"That's truth, at all events," observed Pat corroborating the incomplete assertion.
"It was he, sir," continued Dandy, "that thrust us out of our comfortable farm—he best knows why and wherefore—and like a true friend of liberty, he set us at large from our comfortable place, to enjoy it."
Note 1: “Ahagur” appears to be a personal term of endearment, perhaps a dialect synonym for jewel used in Carleton’s youth. I am unable to find it in Irish-English dictionaries, but a Google keyword search turns up several instances of its use – most of them in Carleton’s fiction, and each in a direct quotation in which one of his characters is addressing a friend or relative. In a sketch titled “The Poor Scholar,” he quotes and translates the following bit of dialogue about a country priest’s sermon:
“Ellish, avourneen, gho dhe dirsha?” – Ellish, my dear, what is he saying?”
“Och, musha niel eshighum, ahagur – ta sha er Purgathor, ta barlhum.” – Och, I dunna that, jewel; I believe he’s on Purgatory.”
Perhaps related is the usage in “The Blind Beggar’s Daughter,” a song in the Inishowen Song Project in County Donegal. In that ballad, as sung by Mary Ann Canny, one of the girl’s wooers calls her “his jewel his joy his machree” [heart]. The tune, incidentally, is the same as “Sweet Betsy from Pike.”