Gaelic epic poems telling the exploits of heroes from the Fenian cycle and the Ulster cycle were performed as song from medieval times onwards. The long and conservative persistence of these songs can give us some important insights into old Gaelic musical performance practice.

The texts of the songs, and of related prose narrative tales, seem to have been composed by literate authors in the high middle ages, and there was a manuscript tradition of copying and disseminating them in writing. However the poems also entered the oral tradition where they were passed down as songs.

These sung versions of fenian lays or ossianic ballads were recorded in writing from at least as early as the 16th century. Their tunes were written in musical notation from the 18th century, and text and score combined from the 19th century.

Because this tradition persisted in Ireland and in Scotland into the twentieth century, examples were recorded on tape from the last of the tradition bearers.

A number of scholars have discussed the textual evidence; these pages compile and discuss the musical evidence and sources.


Simon Chadwick