Vernam Hull Lecture: 8th February 1975

Vernam Hull Lecture: 8th February 1975

We’re grateful to the Department of Celtic Languages and Literatures at Harvard University for permission to include this material in Cartlanna Sheosaimh Uí Éanaí.

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  • Teideal (Title): Vernam Hull Lecture: 8th February 1975.
  • Uimhir Chatalóige Ollscoil Washington (University of Washington Catalogue Number): none.
  • Uimhir Chnuasach Bhéaloideas Éireann (National Folklore of Ireland Number): none.
  • Uimhir Roud (Roud Number): none.
  • Uimhir Laws (Laws Number): none.
  • Uimhir Child (Child Number): none.
  • Cnuasach (Collection): Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
  • Teanga na Croímhíre (Core-Item Language): Irish and English.
  • Catagóir (Category): song and speech.
  • Ainm an té a thug (Name of Informant): Joe Heaney.
  • Ainm an té a thóg (Name of Collector): Harvard University.
  • Dáta an taifeadta (Recording Date): 08/02/1975.
  • Suíomh an taifeadta (Recording Location): Quincy Common Room, Harvard University.
  • Ocáid an taifeadta (Recording Occasion): The 1975 Vernam Hull Lecture.
  • Daoine eile a bhí i láthair (Others present): Ken Nilsen.
  • Stádas chóipcheart an taifeadta (Recording copyright status): Harvard University.


This is a rather unusual entry to the Cartlanna; unique in some ways:

  • As with the Tradition Club recording of 1973, we’re listening to a voice that’s a few years younger than the one predominating here in the Cartlanna.
  • Joe’s giving a performance on stage — essentially, a concert — but he’s actually been invited to do so by Harvard University at a yearly event that’s normally a formal academic lecture. (See the notes, below.)
  • Although he’s in front of a (mostly?) English-speaking audience, most of the songs are in Irish. One consequence of this is the need to give more time explaining what the songs are about.

Play recordings: Vernam Hull Lecture: 8th February 1975

Introduction by Ken Nilsen

1. Introduction by Ken Nilsen. (spoken word)

Ken (link to biography in Irish) introduces Joe and says that he specifically asked him to sing three-quarters of the songs in Irish; something Joe wouldn’t have normally with an English-speaking audience.

Bean Pháidín ⁊ Cailleach an Airgid

2. Bean Pháidín ⁊ Cailleach an Airgid.

There’s an apparent contradiction in Joe’s discussion of Cailleach an Airgid: that a cailleach is an old woman who never bore a son or daughter but that this particular cailleach was his own great-great-grandmother. But this just stagecraft; Joe happily embellishing the facts when he knows it’ll increase an audience’s enjoyment. Cailleach can indeed be used literarily to mean ‘a celibate woman’ or ‘a nun’ — derived from caille, a veil / a nun’s veil — so yes, there is an undertone of ‘without offspring’ that a good speaker of Irish would pick up on. But in common usage it simply means ‘an old hag’. Un-complementary at best, it can be said literally of any unpleasant lady of advanced years, whether she’s had children or not, and can also be used figuratively in phrases. Or as an insult! See the entry for cailleach in Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla for examples.

Joe does, however, mis-translate the final line: ‘Chaithfeadh sí feol Dé hAoine ’s Dé Sathairn’ means ‘she’d eat meat on Fridays and Saturdays’. Some readers may find this line interesting for another reason however. The literal translation of ‘she would eat’ is ‘d’íosfadh sí’, and that’s what’s often sung: ‘d’íosfadh sí feol Dé hAoine ’s Dé Sathairn’, or indeed ‘d’íosfadh sí feol on Fridays and Saturdays’. The word ‘caith’, which Joe uses here, has a number of meanings, all related. One of these, used in relation to food, drink and tobacco, is ‘consume’. Lón a chaitheamh (to consume — that is, eat — lunch), siúcra a chaitheamh (to consume — that is, take — sugar) and toitíní a chaitheamh (to consume — smoke — cigarettes) are common forms. Again, see the dictionary (definition 2) for examples.

All that said, the specific words for ‘eat’ and ‘drink’ are in more general use. But given the expansion of the word ‘consume’ in English in recent years — consume content, consume programming, consume data, consume news and so on — maybe it’s time to re-invigorate this usage of caith in Irish?

Currachaí na Trá Báine

3. Currachaí na Trá Báine.

A true story. An Trá Bháin is a townland on the eastern side of Garmna, in Ceantar na nOileán (the islands).

Why I Sing These Songs

4. Why I Sing These Songs. (spoken word)

Joe takes a moment to explain to the audience why he sings traditional Irish songs. Essentially, because they’re a valuable aspect of a cultural continuum that spans generations. They matter. He also hints at his destain for ‘popularised’ interpretations of the genre: “like you put a teabag into a bad cup of water”.

Spurred, possibly, by mention of the erosion of Irish culture, or perhaps actually giving a second explicit reason, Joe then speaks briefly about his grandmother’s experience of the tally stick.

Called an bata scóir in Irish, also the signum (Ní Mhóráin, 1997) and undoubtedly many other nouns and adjectives by those subjected to it, this was a length of wood that was tied to the necks of children whilst at school. It was used in Irish and Scottish schools to encourage native Irish- and Gaelic-speakers to abandon their language in favour of English. The bata scóir was part of a formalised system of continual humiliation and punishment, frequently corporal, designed to stigmatise the language and expedite its eradication.

There were variations on a theme but at its most basic, if a child was heard speaking Irish or Gaelic the bata scóir would be tied to their necks and a notch scored on it. Each subsequent time they spoke that language, another notch would be added. At the end of the day, the child would receive as many strokes of the cane as there were notches.

One rather perverse aspect of this pedagogical technique was that you could spare yourself the caning by eavesdropping and informing on classmates who’d committed the same offence.

See Ó Súilleabháin (1995, pp.551–566) for a scholarly investigation into the practice. The bata scóir was used well into the twentieth century in some places; possibly as recently as the nineteen sixties. It was also deployed in Wales, where it was known as the cwstom, the Welsh Not, the Welsh Mark and so on (Welsh Not, n.d.). Nor was it a purely Anglophone phenomenon. Similar techniques have been used internationally: the symbole / ar vuoc’h in French regions (Symbole, n.d.), the dialect card / hōgen fuda in Japan (Dialect Card, n.d.) and so on…

The Rocks of Bawn

5. The Rocks of Bawn.

Joe moves on to the tradition of singing English language songs in the Gaeltacht and sings this one, which he describes as “the daddy of all Irish folk songs sung in English”, as an example.

Eileanóir a Rún ⁊ Seachrán Chearbhaill

6. Eileanóir a Rún ⁊ Seachrán Chearbhaill.

An epic. Always to be listened to in one sitting!

Joe may have been ‘paraphrasing’ Handel when he said he’d have given his right arm to have composed Eileanóir a Rún but he seems to have been near enough the mark. Kuntz (n.d.; citing Flood, 1906) states that “The melody was… admired by the German composer Handel during his stay in Ireland, according to Charles O’Connor of Belanagame.” Other online sources suggest this admiration was, shall we say, considerable. But let’s be honest: any admiration by the composer of Zadok the Priest is considerable.

See the notes under the entry Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh: Seachrán Chearbhaill (1) for detailed discussion of this piece.

John, the Priest and the Better Man

7. John, the Priest and the Better Man. (spoken word)

A short folk tale with a good punch line and a nice subtext. And Joe’s wrong: it stands up well enough in translation!

Róisín Dubh

8. Róisín Dubh.

Joe explains that ‘Róisín Dubh’ isn’t a woman at all but a metaphor for Ireland. He then sings the song, using the Munster air that provided the basis for Seán Ó Riada’s score to the 1959 film Mise Éire.


9. Skibbereen.

Skibbereen is a village in the west of County Cork and this powerful folk song is a dialogue between a father, who had to flee Ireland with his infant son following his eviction during the Great Famine, and the same son, now grown. (The child’s mother died from the trauma of the experience.)

Joe considered it ‘the daddy of all emigration songs’ and indeed, folklorist and musician, the late Mick Moloney, called it ‘the granddaddy of all Irish famine songs’. See this entry for Skibbereen in the Cartlanna for a fuller discussion.

Macaronic Songs ⁊ One Morning in June

10. Macaronic Songs ⁊ One Morning in June.

Joe explains that a macaronic song is one that contains sections in different languages; Irish and English in the case of traditional Irish singing. He goes on to explain that the form arose from the rise of English among the Irish population and the need to cater for listeners who could not understand Irish lyrics.

He mentions the phenomenon of “native speaker[s] talking in Irish, they always put an English word in because they want to emphasise something”. (This is something some speakers still do to-day, although sometimes it’s to make sure they’ll be understood. Others, it’s because some English word or phrase has got in and become calcified, either in the vernacular or in their own vocabularies.)

Joe then points out that this isn’t a song where each Irish verse is followed by an English translation but one where the story being told flips between the two languages with each line. Listeners with only one of these can follow it — but you need both to understand it fully.

Caoineadh na Páise / Caoineadh na dTrí Muire

11. Caoineadh na Páise / Caoineadh na dTrí Muire.

This item is a powerful and spiritual lament and should never be thought of simply as a ‘song’ to be ‘performed’.

It takes the form of a conversation between a number of people present at the crucifixion of Christ, including Jesus Himself, Peter, the Blessed Virgin and the Roman soldiers.

Known as Caoineadh na Páise (the lament of the passion) in Joe’s native Carna, in other parts of Ireland it’s called Caoineadh na dTrí Muire (the lament of the three Marys). Joe tells the audience that it was transmitted generationally through his family and that he got it from his grandmother.

Peigín is Peadar ⁊ Seven Drunken Nights

12. Peigín is Peadar ⁊ Seven Drunken Nights.

Joe says here that Seven Drunken Nights is the English version of Peigín is Peadar but this is stagecraft. They share textual similarities, certainly, but they’re each their own thing.

See the entries for Peigín is Peadar and Seven Drunken Nights for more detailed discussion.

Raiftearaí ⁊ Anach Cuain

13. Raiftearaí ⁊ Anach Cuain.

The famous Irish poet Antoine Raiftearaí was the son of a weaver who worked for the Taaffe family in Cill Liadáin, Coillte Mach, County Mayo (Ó Coigligh, 2009). Cill Liadáin was also known by the name Baile an Tí Mhóir (Ó Coigligh, 1987:1); literally, the dwelling place of the big house. There are a number of ‘big house’ place names in Ireland, referring to the homes of local landlords; in this case, the Taaffes. In Raiftearaí’s time, the head of that family was Frank Taaffe.

According to Ó Coigligh (1987:1), while extant historical records leave room for some uncertainty it’s most likely that Raiftearaí was born on 30th March 1779.

When Raiftearaí was a child there was an outbreak of smallpox in the area and the disease killed all of his eight siblings. Although he himself survived it left him blind. Again, there’s some uncertainty as to exactly when this happened. Ó Coigligh (1987:2) suggests that he was either five or nine years old at the time, James Hardiman (n.d.; cited in Ó Coigligh, 1987:1) says he was five and Lady Gregory (Gregory, 1974; cited in Ó Coigligh, 1987:36) says he was six. Ó Coigligh (1987:36) considers it impossible to say for sure.

Raiftearaí spent the following years of his youth under the patronage of the Taaffes; storytelling, reciting poetry and playing music for guests to their home. However, he later moved away from Cill Liadáin and spent the rest of his life as an itinerant musician and poet in the Eachréidh region to the east of Galway City (Breathnach and Ní Mhurchú, n.d. 1).

According to folklore, Raiftearaí had to flee Mayo because he’d killed Frank Taaffe’s best and/or favourite horse in a riding accident. Ó Coigligh (2009) states that they “fell out” over this incident, bringing his role as Taaffe’s “household entertainer” to an end. De hÍde (1933; cited in Ó Coigligh, 1987:2) has a slightly different interpretation, saying Raiftearaí left because he feared the consequences of the incident as opposed to any actual falling out. But Ó Coigligh (1987:2) suggests that, possible as these explanations are, the more likely reason was, in fact, economic necessity. Whatever about Taaffe’s patronage during his youth, as a grown man he’d have to make his own way in the world and as a blind one he’d have to do so using such skills he possessed: poetry and music.

This raises a significant point about Antoine Raiftearaí. Although he’s often remembered as a poet, he was as much a musician and composer. Indeed, an account of him given by James Hardiman comes very close to describing what we now call a singer-songwriter:

He was a minstrel by profession; and played the violin tolerably; and was accustomed to recite his own poems, as well as other old Irish compositions. He sang his own songs accompanied by the music of his violin. I knew him. He was an honest man.

Hardiman (n.d.; cited in Ó Coigligh, 1987:1)

As with the date of his birth, historical records are contradictory concerning the date of Raiftearaí’s death. Hardiman (n.d.; cited in Ó Coigligh, 1987:1) states that he died on Christmas Day 1835 (near Loughrea in County Galway) but Ó Ceallaigh (1967; cited in Ó Coigligh, 1987:2,36) states that it was on Christmas Eve (in Craughwell; also in County Galway and not too far from Loughrea). Royal Irish Academy (n.d.; cited in Ó Coigligh, 1987:1,36) says it was in October of that year. According to Ó Coigligh (2009), “[a]n exact date of death is not known”. He is buried in Killeeneen near Craughwell.

Joe’s telling of Raiftearaí’s story differs from the above in one imortant matter: that he had been riding Taaffe’s pony (not horse) and was blinded when the pony fell and broke its leg. We can only speculate but it’s possible that Joe made this adjustment to avoid mentioning smallpox for fear it might spoil the mood of the evening. This disease is, after all, an extremely unpleasant one and it still existed in the wild in 1975.

On the other hand, Joe’s assertion that Raiftearaí could only play one tune on the fiddle smacks of stagecraft, as does the apparently throw away comment “although he was blind he could see” and the reference to “Raftery’s Pub”.

However, Joe’s account of the Anach Cuain drowning tragedy — the sinking of a boat, the Caisleán Nua, on Loch Corrib on Thursday 4 September 1828 — is, as you’d expect, respectful and without embellishment.

From a piece published by An Curadh Connachtach (the Connacht Tribune) in 1978:

“[A]n old row boat”, in a rotten and leaky condition, started from Annaghdown early on Thursday morning, September 4, a distance from Galway up Lough Corrib, of about eight miles, having, it is calculated, about thirty one persons on board, who were coming to the fair of Fairhill.

(An Curadh Connachtach, 1978; cited in Galway Library, n.d.)

According to a contemporary newspaper report:

The boat and passengers proceeded without obstruction until they arrived opposite Bushypark, within two miles of the town, when she suddenly went down and all on board perished except twelve persons who were fortunately rescued from their perilous situation by another boat.

(Galway Advertiser, 1828; cited in An Curadh Connachtach, 1978; cited in Galway Library, n.d.)

NB: An Curadh Connachtach (1978) attributes this passage to the Galway Advertiser but it’s possible that this should in fact be the Galway Weekly Advertiser. Other sources attribute it to the Connaught Journal. Judging by the language, the previous passage probably comes from the same original article.

Bushypark is very close to a district called NewcastleAn Caisleán Nua; the same name as the boat.

Since the tragedy it has never been established just what caused the boat to sink, although the most popular theory has been that one of the sheep being brought to the fair put his hoof through a plank, somebody tried to plug the hole with a coat but only succeeded in knocking out the plank.

(An Curadh Connachtach, 1978; cited in Galway Library, n.d.)

See the entry Anach Cuain for the words to this song; also for an English transcription.

Casadh an tSúgáin

14. Casadh an tSúgáin.

Joe gives the first hint that he’s winding the evening down.

A man was coming home from the pub half drunk and he walked into a house. And there was an old lady in one corner and her not so old daughter in the other corner.

The man fancied the daughter and the mother fancied the man. She plied him with strong tea and a drop of the quare stuff but to no avail. When she saw the lie of the land she decided to get rid of him. She told him the roof was falling in and asked him to twist a rope for her (súgán a chasadh) so that she could fasten the it the next day.

So he started twisting the rope, going through the door and of the house as it lengthened, and as soon as he was outside the mother cut the rope and shut him out. The song is his reply to this eviction.

See Casadh an tSúgáin (1) for a rather different telling of this story — one with a much more plausible reason for the man to go into the house.


15. Cúnnla.

Joe guarantees the audience that this is the last song of the night. Happily, it isn’t!

Joe tells the audience that parts of this song are lilted (portaireacht in Irish) and that lilting had been a common form because most people couldn’t afford musical instruments.

At this, he returns to the subject of bad musicianship and remarks that “everybody who puts a tin whistle in his pocket is a whistle player — not so!”. He freely admits that his own skill on the tin whistle is not of a pocketable standard, and that he’ll stick to lilting.

Úna Bhán

16. Úna Bhán.

Judging by the discussion at the start of this segment, which is slightly obscured by the applause, somebody (probably Ken Nilsen) seems to ask Joe to sing Úna Bhán at this point. Joe comments that it’s a very old song and proceeds to explain the story behind it.

Tomás Láidir Ó Coistealbha (‘Strong Tomás’) was a young man from Mayo. One day, he was at a fair and took part in a wrestling match with a big wrestler from England. At that time, wrestling custom was to make a wide circle on the ground, with the two wrestlers inside it. They wrestled by pulling at each other’s belts. So the referee told them to start wrestling but the Englishman didn’t move. When they went and took off the belts, the Englishman fell down dead; his back broken by the first pull from Tomás.

At the same fair was a young woman called Úna Bhán Nic Dhiarmada and when she saw Tomás she fell in love with him — “whatever that is!” — right away. When Úna Bhán went home she fell ill and went to bed. Úna told her father that she was pining for Tomás Láidir. But the father said she couldn’t marry anyone who was beneath her. Finally, when she was near death, he sent for Tomás and as soon as he arrived Úna started to improve and had recovered after a few days.

But still the father wouldn’t allow the marriage and sent him away again. Tomás replied that he’d go but swore that if he got as far as to cross the Danóg River he’d never come back. Tomás left and when he reached the riverbank he waited for an hour but no word came from the house and so he went across. And just then, they called him back. But Tomás was bound by his word so he couldn’t turn back and Úna died of a broken heart.

Tomás composed this song over her grave. They say that on the third night, while he was composing it, she came up and slapped him on the cheek and told him to go home because his love wasn’t worth having. So he went home and died himself five years after.

Joe says that this version of the song is probably the oldest that exists in Conamara.

The story of Úna Bhán and Tomás Láidir has a number of versions and (not unlike Casadh an tSúgáin) Joe’s own telling could vary. See this entry for Úna Bhán in the Cartlanna for a more detailed telling of the story. Watch out for the differences!

Anyone who enjoys Joe’s rendition of the song would be well advised to track down Máire Áine’s version, which was included on the Deora Aille album. Although very different, it’s absolutely stunning.

Did the Rum do?

17. Did the Rum do?

The big finish. Or “one for the road” as Joe calls it.

First, he recounts the story of how the poet Mícheál Mac Suibhne was accosted by the parish priest of Clifden, County Galway, who asked him why he made so many songs about “women and men drinking and all”. “I don’t make them”, he replied. “The people I talk to make the songs. I only put the words together!” In fairness, he had a point.

Joe then pivots neatly from there to the idea of putting tunes together, launches straight into a tale about three beautiful red-headed daughters and their ailing father, and lilts the delightfully absurd side-effects of medicinal rum.

Joe often sang Did the Rum do?, incorporating What Will you do When the Kettle Boils Over?, to round off a performance.


By Míċeál Ó Loċlainn

Digitisation and presentation

Being made in the mid-1970s, the original recording was an analogue one; almost certainly on magnetic tape. This was subsequently digitised at Harvard (Nilsen, 2000), most likely during the 1990s, and the digital realisation archived on CD following common practice of the time. Unsurprisingly, two CDs were required to store nearly an hour and a half’s worth of material. Realisations of these, sound disc 1 (sound_disc_1…, n.d.) and sound disc 2 (sound_disc_2…, n.d.), are available online on the Harvard Library website under the title Joe Heaney at Harvard 2/8/75 : [field work collection] : Irish songs and stories.

The only difference between the recording as presented by Harvard and as presented here is one of organisation. In both cases, the material is arranged in its proper sequence but while Harvard has rigorously segmented it into individual items of spoken word and song, our approach has been to treat the songs (or group of related songs) as logical units and to keep them together with their spoken introductions. By the same reasoning, the three purely spoken word items in the recording have been segmented separately.

Vernam Hull and Harvard University, often called na Beathaisnéisí, following the original series of books on which it’s based, is a collection of biographies, in Irish, of deceased people who had some connection to the Irish language. It includes a lengthy entry on Vernam Hull (Breathnach and Ní Mhurchú, n.d. 2). Much of the following brief overview of Hull’s life draws on this and our debt to na Beathaisnéisí is hereby acknowledged.

Vernam Hull was an American academic — though he was actually born in Japan, on 17th December 1895. (His father was a diplomat so it’s possible that Vernam was born whilst he happened to be stationed there.) His parents were well off and he had quite a cosmopolitan upbringing, receiving part of his education in England, at Bedales School.

Having fought in the Great War, he applied himself to scholarship and in 1918 obtained a BA. He registered as a graduate in the Department of English at Harvard University the following year and was awarded an MA in 1921. His interest in the Celtic languages was kindled by Fred Norris Robinson, who supervised his doctoral thesis, The English and Welsh sources of Drayton’s Polyolbion. He was awarded his doctorate in 1926.

As a John Harvard Travelling Fellow, Hull studied Old Irish at the University of Bonn under Rudolf Thurneysen but also visited Ireland on several occasions and developed proficiency in the modern spoken language.

Hull spent most of the 1940s at New York University, where he directed at least one course in Celtic languages. He returned to Harvard in 1950 as Professor of Celtic Languages and as Chair of the Department of Celtic Languages and Literatures. He retired in 1962.

The following year the University of Wales awarded him the degree of D. Litt Honoris Causa at the International Congress of Celtic Studies (Vernam Hull Memorial Prize/Award, n.d.).

In 1969 the Department of Celtic Languages and Literatures at Harvard University established and sponsored the Vernam Hull Lecture in his honour.

Vernam Hull died on the 19th January 1976. He bequeathed over a million dollars to Harvard University (on the strict condition that “The term Celtic is not to be construed to include Anglo-Irish”!), a sum which was used to establish the Ella Hull Fund.

Hull also bequeathed sums to the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies and to the University of Wales ($10,000). To this day, the University of Wales Restricted Endowment Fund uses the income derived from this to fund the Vernam Hull Memorial Prize/Award (Vernam Hull Memorial Prize/Award, n.d.).

The Vernam Hull Lecture

As you’d expect, an annual academic lecture of this kind is usually a traditional scholarly affair. In 1972 for example, “Professor David Greene [had been] Visiting Professor of Linguistics at Harvard University for the fall semester [and had] delivered the Vernham Hull Lecture… in November…” (Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1973). In 1985 the lecture was given by poet and academic Mícheál Ó Siadhail. A little more recently, on the 10th October 2002 it was given by Professor John Wadell of the National University of Ireland, Galway and entitled ‘Rathcroghan: Surveying a Ritual Landscape’. And on the 9th October the following year, ‘Text-styles and Textiles in Medieval Wales’ was delivered by Dr Marged Haycock of the University of Wales, Aberystwyth.

But in 1975, in the Quincy Common Room at Harvard, a different approach was taken and Joe was invited to give, effectively, a concert in place of a lecture — albeit one that stands as a master class.

Twenty-five years later, Ken Nilsen, who introduced Joe to the audience, recalled the lecture and the recording in a conference paper he gave at the University of Limerick.

“There are a [number of] Celtic collections at Harvard… One item I personally had a hand in was the Joe Heaney appearance at Harvard in February, 1975, which served as the Vernam Hull Lecture for that year. I am very happy that I requested at the time that the performance be recorded. We have as a result a recording of about an hour and a half in length. This material has been digitized and is being made available for use in courses at Harvard.”

Nilsen (2000).

Nilsen died in 2012. But it’s he we have to thank for the concert being available to hear now, anywhere in the world.


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Royal Irish Academy. (n.d.). RIA 23 O 9, historical manuscript, title unknown, held in Royal Irish Academy Library, Royal Irish Academy, Dublin.

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