If you’ve followed Irish-Gaelic-Celtic-folk-New Age (whew!) music for a while, you almost certainly know one thing about the group of brothers and sisters performing as Clannad: best-selling, award-winning solo singer-songwriter Enya began her career with them. Indeed, most of their albums sound (to my untrained ear) like Enya albums, with numerous more layers of complexity: vocal, electronic, and instrumental. Like her albums, Clannad’s have gained notice not just for their sound but for their lyrics, almost entirely in Gaelic.
Magical Ring (1982), their first album after Enya’s departure, became a huge international hit. (U2 played “Theme from Harry’s Game,” the album’s first track, at the end of every concert between 1983 and 1987.) But one song in particular stands out as a straight-ahead instrumental, performed by a gentle (all but invisible) flute and a single stringed instrument: a harp.
The song in question, “The Fairy Queen,” was composed by the “blind harper” of Irish music, Turlough Carolan (sometimes “O’Carolan”) who lived in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. There seems some confusion as to whether he ever wrote lyrics for the song; one source I looked at while putting this together said that he was a much better harpist than lyricist, so the words have long been forgotten while the melody has lived on. Another source says:
“The Fairy Queen” celebrated an imaginary battle fought between the Sidhe Deag and Sidhe Mor.
(“Deag” seems to be a typo for “Beag.” The Sidhe Beag and Sidhe Mor — variously spelled, translated literally as Big Fairy Mound or Hill and Little Fairy Mound/Hill — apparently were, in Irish folklore, two neighboring fairy communities. One person’s attempt to track down the lyrics for a precursor to “The Fairy Queen” appears here.)
All of which certainly seems to imply that it once had lyrics.
Still: lyrics about a battle — even to celebrate or commemorate one? This little winged creature of a tune?
[Below, click Play button to begin The Fairy Queen. While audio is playing, volume control appears at left — a row of little vertical bars. This clip is 2:40 long.]
(By the way, “The Fairy Queen” also appears on Rogha: The Best of Clannad (1996), which is where I first heard it.)