The Cuckoo is a lovely old Irish tune. However it has become entangled in a confusing mesh of tunes, titles and lyrics. It is nowadays best known under the title “an tSí Bheag is an tSí Mhór” (Sheebeg sheemore) and attributed to Turlough Carolan (1670-1738). However I am very dubious about this title and attribution.
This page deals with the tune “Cuckoo” and its close variants. I have prepared another page to cover the other tune in the stramash, the “Fairy Queen”; and I am also preparing a page on the Carolan song “Imreas mór”
There is a simpler and a more developed Cuckoo tune. The simpler version is found only in Edward Bunting’s piano arrangements, and in later sources copying him. It has English lyrics which appear to be an early 19th century translation from a lost Irish original. Though it is possible that the lyrics and the simpler tune are a simplified confection produced by Belfast learned musicians, it is also possible that they represent a genuine traditional original from which the more developed tune is a baroque elaboration.
The more developed tune is usually titled ‘Cuckoo’ in earlier sources. The first attestation of the “sheebeg sheemore” title is in Edward Bunting’s piano arrangement of 1796. He indicates that he got the tune “from an old ms” i.e. not from the playing of the old Irish harpers. Indeed, the only potential connection of this tune with the harp repertory I can see is its inclusion in the collection of tunes in the MacLean-Clephane manuscript of 1816, “taken from the playing of O Kane”, where it is (quite possibly falsely) attributed to Carolan. It is usually assumed that O Kane is the harper Echlin O’Kane, but this is not certain.
It seems to me that this tune is not really a harp tune; it seems much more like a fiddle tune to me; it has a lot of cadences which imply a more baroque harmonisation rather than the kind of Gaelic harp harmony of paralle octaves and fifths we expect to see in tunes from the Gaelic harp repertory. I suspect that Neal got the tune from one of his baroque violin contributors, and that all subsequent authorities have it from Neal.
I am struggling to understand the sequence of events in Bunting’s hands. Some time in the 1790s, he copied the 1724 Neal printed version of “Cuckoo” into his field notebook, and then (later?) pencilled in the note connecting it to “sheebeg sheemore”. He published his piano arrangement in 1796, not mentioning the “Cuckoo” title, but calling the tune “Sig Bag & Sig Mor - The little & great mountain” (it looks like his piano arrangement derived directly from the Neal print). Later his notes indicate that he considered the four tunes - Sheebeg..., the Bonny Cuckoo, the Fairy Queen, and Ciste no Stór, all related, and he considered only the Fairy Queen to be a Carolan tune
Bunting’s printed books were very influential on later collectors, publishers, and traditional musicians. The “sheebeg” title eventually entirely replaced the “Cuckoo” title. In his 1920s edition of tunes from Bunting’s unpublished manuscripts, Donal O’Sullivan made an explicit connection between our tune under the “sheebeg” title, and the Carolan lyric poem beginning “Imreas mór a harla eidir na righthibh...” (A great contention arose between the Queens...), which is often titled Si beag & si mor, the great & little fairy, or the Fairy Queen(s) in 18th and 19th century manuscript copies. Alasdair Codona argues that this is not a very plausible match, suggesting that the “Imreas mór” lyric fits the Fairy Queen tune instead.
In summary, I am very cautious about accepting our tune as a genuine Carolan tune, or as the tune for the Carolan song “Imreas mór a harla eidir na righthibh”, or as a harp tune at all.
Here are the source notations for the tune I have found so far, starting with the more developed version:
J&W Neal, A Collection of the most Celebrated Irish Tunes proper for the violin, German Flute or Hautboy 1724, p.14:
Edward Bunting copied tunes from the Neal publication into his field notebook. His hand copy of this tune is titled ‘Cuckoo’ and has a pencilled note above it: “She Beg She More the old way”. (ms29 p74)
Edward Bunting, The Ancient Music of Ireland 1796, p.35:
“ sig bag & sig mor The Little and Great Mountain”
On the annotated copy in the British Library (BL Add ms 41508) he has written “From an old M.S. / ‘Sith beg’ the air from which Carolan [adapted] his ‘Fairy Qu[een’] / also from ‘Kiste na Stor’ which last mentioned air seems to have b[een] / the original of both”
Bunting also noted a piano arrangement of a different but related tune in ms34(6) f19v:
“The Little & Great Mountain”
Transcription from Donal O’Sullivan, Bunting, part 3, 1930, p.64-5
Mulholland includes our tune in A Collection of Ancient Irish Airs 1810, p.59:
“An Cuach - The Cuckoo”
The MacLean-Clephane sisters in Mull in 1816 included our tune in their manuscript of tunes taken “from the playing of O Kane”. Many of these tunes are attributed to Carolan solely in this manuscript, often in the face of solid alternative attributions elsewhere. The tunes are often arranged for piano or pedal-harp; this one is delightfully set as a kind of duet with the ‘cuckoo’ phrases echoing from one voice to the other.
“The Irish Cuckow by Carolan”
My hand copy from the MacLean-Clephane manuscript
The English-language song “The Bonny Cuckoo” appears in Bunting’s piano arrangement in manuscript and in print:
Edward Bunting, ms33(5) f9v, p.18:
“ The Bonny Cuckoo”
My hand copy from the Bunting manuscript
Edward Bunting, The Ancient Music of Ireland 1840, p.96 no.125:
“ The Bonny Cuckoo” (Very Ancient, Author and date unknown)
Bunting also puts the tune on p.13 of the introduction to his 1840 volume, with a simpler harmonisation:
“an chuaich in mhaiseach Bonny Cuckoo”
In the introduction to his 1840 volume, on p.95, Bunting says: “An Chuaich in mhaiseach ‘The Bonny Cuckoo’... From this ancient melody, procured by the Editor in the poetical district of Ballinascreen, another tune, ‘The little and great Mountain,’ seems to have been arranged with some slight variations.”