Roger Millington Publishing...

the web home of   Packie Manus Byrne








Review by Larry Sanger

A Dossan of Heather: Irish traditional music from Packie Manus Byrne of Donegal for tin whistle, fiddle or flute

In addition to being a fine singer and an all-around character, Packie Manus Byrne is a great tin whistle player--one of the few Donegal whistle players (the only one I know of) who learned directly from fiddlers of the old house dance tradition of the early twentieth century--a whistler in the fiddlers' den. A Dossan of Heather is, therefore, of considerable interest and value to Donegal fiddle players, containing as it does a rich fund of Packie's settings of many old tunes, as well as a lot of his own very lovely compositions. From a musicological point of view, this seems to be an important contribution to the literature about Donegal music, being very well-conceived, meticulously researched, and well-executed. The book, which retails for U.S. $24.95, comes with a CD--an excellent value.

There are 85 tunes: 27 jigs, 16 highlands, and fewer than ten each of reels, slip jigs, hornpipes, germans (barndances), marches, polkas, slip jigs, mazurkas, and airs and song tunes. It seems there are roughly equal parts Packie's compositions, tunes he's learned from his early days, and tunes he's adapted from songs (not surprising given that he's a great singer). The tunes, or the settings of the tunes, tend to be fairly simple--restricted in key and in range (many are not far beyond an octave), as the book's introduction says--yet in many cases lovely. The tunes are written out with a fair amount of ornamentation and detail: cuts, triplets, slurs, as well as suggested chords are all indicated. (See the Roger Millington website, link above, for a few examples.) In addition, some notes about each tune are provided; when he remembers it, the source is given. The compilers and Packie decided to give names to tunes for which Packie had not had a name (except one, which is left untitled)--and sometimes, the remarks about a tune are actually about the origin of the name provided, and seem to bear little relation to the tune. At least we get a good story out of the deal. For tune hounds and those who care about this stuff, it would have been helpful if the compilers had consistently indicated which tunes were the ones for which a name had been supplied for the book.

There are a lot of tunes sourced from Donegal sources (other than Packie himself, of course) here. The settings of these tunes are unusual and intriguing, and often simple--and in a few cases, not as interesting as some more common Donegal settings. (But then, consider the sources of the more common Donegal settings!) I'd never heard many of these tunes before. For the benefit of the Donegal fiddler, I'll point to the following.

  • Among the jigs (leaving out those that were adapted from song tunes): "The Storm" (a version of "The King of the Pipers"); "Stepping Stones" (a jig version of the pipe march "The Highland Lassie Going to the Fair" which was played by John Doherty; cf. TNF p. 88); "The Byrnes of Gleann Cholm Cille" (a "family" tune, say the notes); "Crossing the Oily River" (a version of "The Sit-In Jig," also known as one of "Con Cassidy's"); "A Dossan of Heather" (like others of these, sourced from Packie's uncle "Big Pat" Byrne); "The Sapper" (another one of Big Pat's); "Showers of Autumn" (from a Manus Gallagher); "Away and Over" (a good version of the tune also called "Bill Harte's"); "An t-ťan sa chrann" (a distant relative of "The Tenpenny Bit," from Big Pat); "The Buckasheen Landy" (also called "Daniel of the Sun" in O'Neill's and "Bottle of Brandy" and "Bully for You" in Ryan's); "Paddy Bhilli na ropai" (so called because Paddy Boyle played it, the notes say); "Humours of Whiskey" (a very nice version of the Donegal slip jig).
  • Among the nicer marches and polkas: "The Belling March" (popular in Donegal, the notes say) and "The Fernden Polka" (often danced to "in the old days").
  • The real gems of the collection are the highlands, which are in particularly lovely settings. Like the other tunes, many of these are very rare (I had heard only a few of them) or in very unusual settings. Among them are a familiar "Gweedore Highland" and a variety of other highlands with ad hoc names for the book, including very unusual versions of "George IV," "Miss Drummond of Perth," "Flora McDonald's" (cf. "The Long Highland"), and "The Merry Sisters" (cf. "An t-altan bui"). I would like to call the reader's attention to "We're Having a Drop," an absolutely exquisite tune that exemplifies the way that these relatively simple tunes can indeed be very beautiful--perhaps in part due to their simplicity. (In the hands of a good musician, of course, these needn't stay "simple" for long.)
  • There's only seven reels here. They all seem solid enough and unusual; the compilers highlight "The Ghost's Welcome," but I would also call attention to "Blow the Bellows," a Packie composition that is very much in the Donegal style. Has definite session potential.
  • The hornpipes and germans are, like the highlands, very tuneful and lovely. A german, "The Bonnie Hop," and two hornpipes, "The Tatty Hokers" and "The Schoolmaster's Sister" win this reviewer's prize for best in category. Too bad there are only six of these here!
  • Selections 71-85 are mazurkas, waltzes, then a generous selection of airs. More lovely stuff, including a few mazurkas I'd never heard before and yet more versions of a few old chestnuts.

The layout of the book, like many Mel Bay books, is professionally done and very nice; among the touches lacking in some other productions are more than a dozen very nice photographs, a simple map of Packie's home area, a table of contents, and index. The introduction is also extremely well done, giving 16 pages of background about Packie, his music (sources, great notes on his style for whistlers, etc.), and the project of collecting his tunes.

The book comes with a CD affixed inside the back cover. Nowhere in the package (that I could find) does it explain who plays on the CD, but I can tell you that the main culprits are Jean Duval on whistle and Stephen Jones on fiddle, with various (generally solid and nice) accompaniment. The main value in the CD is to expose the listener to the tunes: if you aren't so good at sight-reading and you lack that ability to just "hear a tune in your head" as you read it on the page, you'll appreciate being able to hear fairly polished renditions of the tunes. The musicians do pick some of the best tunes in the book to play, too--or maybe the reason I think they're the best is that they have shown what can be done with them! Anyway, the playing on the CD is competent, nice, and listenable, and fairly traditional. There's even a few selections of lilting! See the link to the Roger Millington website, above, to have a listen, and for specific notes about the CD's production.

This book, due to its specialized nature, is probably not of interest to every Irish traditional musician; but it is highly recommended for anyone taking an interest in Packie, in Donegal music, and in the tin whistle. I think it might be of particular interest to whistle players who want to expand their stylistic horizons, because Packie's whistle style is unique, interesting, and lovely, like his tunes. And, for obvious reasons, it will be of considerable interest to Donegal tune hounds.

I wouldn't be surprised to hear a number of these compositions in sessions and on recordings in years to come.