Music in Irish tradition has always held a special place, as did those who could perform it. There are many tales of the instruments and their use, but in the time before the guitar’s dominance of the world of string instruments, special honour was given to the harp.
Yet though playing a harp was possible for anyone, and skill with the harp was achievable by many, mastery of this instrument was not readily achievable, but for those who could perform to the highest degrees of artistry.
That mastery, as well as the societal recognition and privileges which went with it, was judged by the performance of three very specific and powerful forms of music.
The three strains by which a harper is known.
Geantraí – The Joyful Strain
The geantraí which translates as the joyful strain is said to so invigorate any who hear it that they will be moved to arise and revel. To leap and dance for the joy that the music brings to them. There is no room for anything else as those caught by this tune are filled to the fullest heights of happiness.
Goiltraí – The Wailing Strain
If the geantraí brings a person to joy, then the goiltraí or the wailing strain is its opposite. This music reaches down into the very heart of any who experience it and brings forth from them such sadness that they will have no option but to wail, to weep for their deepest sorrows.
Suantraí – The Sleeping Strain
Where the geantraí brings a person up, and the goiltraí brings them down, the Suantraí is the music of peace and rest. It is said that any who experience it will find themselves drawn into its melody and moved to a rest filled and peaceful slumber.
Music for Men and Gods Alike.
In the ancient tales of Ireland’s mythical past there are two examples of the power of the three strains of music, and both are found in the tale of the Second Battle of Moytura.
The first comes when Lugh comes to Tara to seek recognition from his father’s people, the Tuatha Dé Dannan. He is stopped at the door and challenged, for none can enter the hall of the king, but for declaring what skill they have upon them. Eventually Lugh is admitted by professing to be the one person who has many interlinked skills, of the Ildanach.
As Nuada the king tests Lugh’s worth the new arrival is handed a harp and told to play for the champion and heroes of the Tuatha Dé Danann. Lugh proves himself a harper by performing the three strains and moving his allies through the various emotions and bringing them a peaceful rest at the end. With this feat and many others, Lugh earns his place in the seat of the King for the forthcoming invasion of his mothers people, the Fomorians.
The Second time we see these three strains performed comes after the grand battle upon the plain of Moytura. In the aftermath of that conflict the Fomorian hosts is sundered yet still presents a threat as the warbands raid and pillage the island.
The Dagda comes in pursuit of such a warband accompanied by his brother Oghma and the young king, Lugh. In a hall filled with Fomorian foes, led by the deposed king Bres and his father Elotha, The Dagda finds that his own home and property had been stolen. There hanging upon the wall is ‘Daur Da Bla’ or ‘ the oak of two meadows’, the Dagda’s own harp. None had been able to play it for it was said that the Dagda had bound the music inside it so that none but he could call it forth.
With a gesture the Dagda calls the hard to his hand from across the hall and begins the play. As the music moves from his fingers, drawn out of the harp by his will, it is again the three strains that are performed. The Dagda moves his foes through the heights of joy, the depths of sorrow and finally the peace of restful sleep. With his foes incapacitated by the music the Dagda and his companions take their leave of the raiders and return safely to their own people.
A Society of Structure and Merit.
The ancient laws of Ireland show that the old tribes adhered to a strict caste system and for most, though there were many ways to lose one’s position in the tribe, there was little which could elevate them above the place where they were born. One of the ways a person could not just elevate themself, but could in the rarest cases achieve an honour price fit for a chieftain was through music.
The law tracts list for us the many prices which would need to be paid for harm done against a tribe, and also the specific abilities which need to be displayed by everything from a blacksmith to a poet, to a musician to justify their merit in society. A harper, by virtue of skill alone could move beyond their birth caste and find themselves seated at table with champions and chieftains, as valuable to the tribe as its leader and heroes.
A harper that is, who could perform the three strains.
Music as the Key to Emotion
Each of us today have some connection to music. Right now you are probably thinking of some song that influences you every time you hear it. From that tune that gets your toes tapping to the one that moistens your eyes, we are still moved through our feelings by music. You may not even realise how much music has control of us, even as we watch our favourite movie or tv show, we are still subject to the flows of melody, informing us, even if on a subconscious level, how to feel at any given moment.
Yet when we take time to be conscious of music and its power, we can choose to use its ability to alter our emotional state so that we take control. Thanks to technology, many of us live our lives to a personal soundtrack.
From the playlist that gets your heart going in the gym or out walking, to the ones which form the backing track to a peaceful meditation, or indeed a powerful ritual working, the power of music is not one to be ignored.
So what then of the emotion? If the upbeat gym work out is our ‘geantraí’ or joyful strain, and the meditation music is out ‘suantraí’ or sleeping strain, how many of us have a playlist that we intentionally connect to in order to use the power that comes with ‘goiltraí’ of the wailing strain?
In exploring the stories above and experiencing an active awareness of music and its connection to the Dagda for me, I have to come to embrace grief. It’s as natural to each of us as joy and peace, and like the others it is also temporary. Emotions come and go through the varied moments of our lives. They are experiences to connect to, yet they do not need to define us.
In the Irish language when we talk about experiencing emotion the verb we use is ‘orm’ which translates as ‘on me’. We say ‘Tá bron orm’ when we are sad, ‘Tá áthas orm’ when we are happy and ‘tá tuirse orm’ when we are tired. All of these expressions could be more accurately translated as ‘the happiness/sadness/tiredness is upon me.’ We do not define ourselves as being of sadness by saying ‘I am sad’ instead we say ‘ the sadness is on me’. This of course further implies that though the feeling is ‘on you’ it also acknowledges the fact that it can also be ‘off you’, or some other feeling can be upon you.
For me, learning about the three strains of music by which a harper is known, has allowed me to experience emotion in a completely new way. To acknowledge that all feelings, good, bad or any other feeling is natural, and indeed wonderful. They are all part of adding layers of experience to our existence so that any given moment we can enrich our lives. The joyful, the sorrowful and also the peaceful. There are no invalid feelings. Every emotion can inform our reason and carry us to a different perspective of the many moments that make up our lives.
What do you think? Does music move you? Do you choose to actively influence your emotional self with music?
Where To Now?
If you think that this is interesting, and might even be something you’d like to explore further, you can always: