Peter Gallegan’s Collection of Irish Songs and Poems

Posted on March 15, 2024 | in Archive Collections, Celtic and Scottish Studies, Library & University Collections | by

To mark St Patrick’s Day, we thought we’d highlight a remarkable volume of Irish songs and poems that is in the University’s donated collections (ref. Coll-1366). The book was copied and compiled by Peter Gallegan or Peadar Úi Gealcáin (1792-1860) who was a scribe and a hedge school teacher in Moynalty parish, in County Meath.

It comprises about 700 pages, containing some 260 items in Irish, sometimes translated into English, and, as you would expect for a scribe, it is skilfully written. Gallegan always writes Irish in Irish script, English in cursive hand and titles in red ink. Some items are composed or translated by Gallegan himself and others were collected from local bards. In the main, the items are centred around love or patriotism and are often humorous or allude to characters from the classics. As with many collectors of that era, he endeavours to give biographical information on the composers and any background information on the subject matter. The following was composed for a young woman called Bridget.

Song entitled Réult na Maidne [The Morning star] Brighdin Padruic [or] Bridget Fergus. (Coll-1366, p. 355)

‘This is a Mayo song, Bridget lived about
the middle of the 17th Century, and was the
most beautiful female in Connaught. Her
father resided at Rohard, near Ballinrobe,
in Mayo, the song was the Joint Composition
of two contemporary bards, McNally & Fergus,
the latter having composed the 3rd. & 4th. Stanzas.’

The care with which Gallegan copied the material indicates the value he saw in its preservation. On one page (p. 488) he wrote:

Coll-1366, p. 488

‘This large, and comprehensive M.S.
is worth 5 £ Sterling, if ever it be
sold at all, which I think it will not.’

Unfortunately, Gallegan’s employment as a teacher was precarious and he had to move schools quite regularly to maintain an income (see Dictionary of Irish Biography). In the end, his poverty obliged him to sell the books he’d compiled.

Throughout the volume Gallegan regularly wrote notes about himself asserting his position as the scribe of the volume, in some ways indicating a sense of his own mortality in comparison to the book’s own anticipated longevity.

IS truagh sin a leabharain bhig bháin
Tiucfaidh an lá ort go fíor
Go ndearfaihd neach os cionn cláir
Uch! ní mairean an láimh do sgriob!!
How sad it is fair little book,
The day shall sine arrive,
When o’er thy page it shall be said
Thy Writer’s not alive!!
(Coll-1366, inside front cover)

As for its provenance, this volume came from the library of Eugène Guilford Finnerty (d. 1888) (see Calendar of Irish Wills, 1889). Finnerty passed it to the ‘Hon[ora]ble J Abercrombie’, i.e., probably John Abercromby, 5th Baron Abercromby (1841-1924), and, although there is no known record of it, it looks like it was Abercrombie who donated it to the University of Edinburgh. Finnerty wrote on the final page that it was one of sixteen volumes Gallegan gave him in return for ‘some little kindness’. He adds (p. 702):

‘I doubt much if any of our National School=
masters have the talent perseverance or patriotic feeling
that this poor poor fellow possessed. I trust that
I have to a certain extent rendered him independent
and happy in his latter days without his applying
to any society whatever for his support (of which he
had the greatest abhorrence).’

Other similar volumes by Peter Gallegan are now held in repositories like University College Cork, the Royal Irish Academy, University College Dublin and Queens University Belfast, institutions a far cry from hedge school origins, but where they deservedly take their place among the richness of Irish cultural traditions.

Lá Fhéile Pádraig sona daoibh! – Happy St Patrick’s Day! – Là Fhèill Pàdraig sona dhuibh!

Kirsty M Stewart/Ciorstag Stiùbhart, Scottish and University Collections Archivist

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