Dinogad’s Smock, an Ancient Celtic Cradle Song

Thank you all for staying with me through a few weeks of writer-related posts. I promised you something special, so here it is.

When I was researching for my third Guinevere book, I came across an interesting nugget in Tim Clarkson’s book, The Men of the North. He mentions that written in the margin of one copy of the 7th century Welsh heroic poem Y Gododdin were the first four lines to an ancient Celtic nursery song called Pais Dinogad or Dinogad’s Smock. At more than 1,400 years old, it is believed to be one of the oldest extant songs of its kind from a Celtic culture.

There are many translations, but since I don’t read any of the languages, I can’t say which is best. Here’s one sung and one written (which likely vary from one another):

Dinogad’s smock, speckled, speckled,
I made from the skins of martens.
Whistle, whistle, whistly
we sing, the eight slaves sing

When your father used to go to hunt,
with his shaft on his shoulder and his club
 in his hand,
he would call his speedy dogs,
‘Giff, Gaff, catch, catch, fetch, fetch!’,
he would kill a fish in a coracle,
as a lion kills an animal.

When your father used to go to the mountain,
he would bring back a roebuck, a wild pig, a stag,
a speckled grouse from the mountain,
a fish from the waterfall of Derwennyd

Whatever your father would hit with his spit,
whether wild pig or lynx or fox,
nothing that was without wings would escape.

Dinogad’s smock, pied, pied,
It was from marten’s skins that I made it.
‘Wheed, wheed, a whistling!’
I would sing, eight slaves sang.
When thy father went a-hunting,
A spear on his shoulder, a club in his hand,
He would call the nimble hounds,
‘Giff, Gaff; catch, catch, fetch, fetch!’
He would kill a fish in his coracle
As a lion kills its prey.
When thy father went to the mountain
He would bring back a roe-buck, a wild boar, a stag,
A speckled grouse from the mountain,
A fish from Rhaeadr Derwennydd.
Of all those that thy father reached with his lance,
Wild boar and lynx and fox,
None escaped which was not winged.

Esmerelda’s Cumbrian History gives a better account of the history of the song than I ever could, so please visit her site for all the details. I’ll just give a short summary here. As mentioned, it was found recorded in the margins of Y Gododdin, so it was originally thought to be from the of the Gododdin (today’s southern Scotland) culture, but has since been dated to 6th century Cumbria. However, it could have been sung by mothers for centuries before. Another source identifies the original language as Cumbric, the ancient language of the British Celts, and notes that “the wild cat [in the song] is thought to be the lynx, which became extinct in about 500 AD, so the poem is dated to that time.”

What interests me about this is the intimate nature of this song. Most finds from the time period are military in nature. This is very different; it gives us a glimpse into a very personal moment between mother and child. The lyrics tell us what likely was on the minds of the people who created it. This mother was singing to her child about his father’s heroism, both in feats of strength and providing for his family. We also learn about his weapons and the food the family ate.  Her son’s smock was made from the pelt of a weasel-like animal (you’ll die of cuteness if you Google them) and the family owned slaves (which wasn’t unusual for the Celts, and is to me a possible indication of an earlier time period than the dates above suggest). Her words convey obvious pride in her husband. I can picture her including wild gestures and maybe even funny voices to amuse her child, just as we do with bedtime stories today.

I can’t help but notice that, at least in this translation, the father is referred to in past tense. It makes me wonder what happened to him. Is he dead? Did he die in battle? Was he killed during the hunt? Did he abandon is wife and child? Or is he alive and well, still sharing a happy home with his family? Maybe he is just too old for hunting. And what made the woman compose this song? Or had she grown up with it?

How did the person who wrote the first four lines in the book know the song? How widespread was it? (It could have been commonly known like Rockabye Baby is now, as Esmerelda suggests, or it could have been passed down through generations of a family.) Why was it written down in the margins of Y Gododdin? Was this perhaps a tune stuck in someone’s head or (gasp!) could the writer have been a woman who had recently been singing it to her child?

Little nuggets like this are why I love writing historical fiction. Were I (or anyone else) to novelize these musings, it would be one less bit of ancient lore lost to the amnesia of history. I have no plans to tell this particular story, but Dinogad’s Smock does make a brief appearance in book 3 (I’ve taken some liberties as to why Guinevere would have known it). I hope you’ve enjoyed this little surprise from history as much as I did.

Have you ever heard of Dinogad’s Smock before? Do you know of any other ancient (or even near historical) lullabies? Which ones do you recall from your own childhood? Mine were pretty standard, Itsy-Bitsy Spider and the like.

PS – I’ve found that many times when I embed YouTube videos into posts, they are slammed with spam. If at any point you read this and comments are closed, that’s why. 

Enda Glacken: An Introduction to Celtic Music

Celtic Fiddle – Angela Anderson-Cobb

Today we have a special post by Enda Glacken, a native of Ireland and founder of thecelticjeweller.com.

Although the Celtic music of today draws most of its influence from ancient Celtic music traditions that date to prehistory, the term “Celtic music” has only been used to describe this particular musical genre in the last century.  Today, the term can refer to a broad range of music from Northwest Europe, including the styles of Scottish music and traditional Irish music.

At its most basic, Celtic music refers to any of the folk music of the Celtic people, thus referring to the traditionally Gaelic peoples of Ireland, Scotland, Manx, and the traditionally Brythonic peoples of Brittany, Wales, and Cornwall.  Similar to the linguistic distinctions between the languages, musical distinctions divide both groups easily, although many commonalities form the basis of each musical style.   For example, Gaelic Celtic music, common in Scottish music and traditional Irish music, usually strictly adheres to a pentatonic scale, a scale with five notes per octave as opposed the seven note scale identified with the major and minor scales.  Moreover, traditional Gaelic music has a greater octave range than Brythonic music, which is distinctly compacted. Thus, while in common practice Celtic music has become synonymous with Irish music, particularly folk music, the term is technically applied to a much broader population.

Celtic music can also be identified by the distinct musical qualities shared between the traditional music of the culturally Celtic people, and not simply their geographical location.  One of the most distinguishing features of Celtic music is the movement of melodic lines up and down primary chords.  One of the key reasons for this identifiable style is the ease of which Celtic melodies can be varied, or repeated in altered form. In these cases, the melody, or the linearly successive notes that are easily identified as a single “voice” are prone to variations or alterations.  The traditional instruments of the harp and bagpipes commonly lend themselves to this task. Additionally, these melodies are also easier to predict, allowing for a very natural, improvisable harmony to develop underneath the melody, especially given the use of common recognizable cadences.  Finally, Celtic music has identifiably wider tonal intervals that allow for stress accents to adhere to the traditionally Celtic accent in its music.

Uillean Pipes – Wikimedia Commons

Nevertheless, there are still many distinct genres within the classification of Celtic music, often geographically divided amongst the different Celtic nations.  Traditional Irish music, or Irish Folk music, employ traditionally Irish instrumentation such as the fiddle, flute and harp and is further divided into singing and dancing music.  Scottish music, such as the Strathspey, evolved in a similar manner to the Scottish Gaelic music, and has its own distinct musical style, instrumentation, and dance; the Great Highland Bagpipe is a distinguishably Scottish instrument.  The Welsh Cerdd Dant and Canu Penilion respectively refer to their traditional string or vocal improvisational styles.

Today, Celtic music is also apparent in many other modern forms of music under the title of Celtic fusion.  Many traditionally American genres of music lend their roots to Celtic origins, such as bluegrass and country.  Early colonial Americans in the New World came from Celtic countries and greatly influenced the creation of what is now considered classically American music. Other music traditions that have Celtic roots include Atlantic Canadian music and even rock and roll.  More recently, Celtic fusion has also expanded to include explicit fusion from artists that combine many of the different Celtic styles into a pan-Celtic style.  Celtic rock, metal, pop, and countless more sub-genres have begun to experiment in bringing together once entirely separate styles.

Celtic Harp – Ed Gaillard

The great adaptability of Celtic music can be seen in the numerous genres which it has influenced and inspired, and its diverse musical tradition has left an undeniable mark on all it has touched, extending far beyond just Scottish or Traditional Irish music. If you’re looking for a good introduction to traditional Celtic Music, some accessible modern artists include: Planxty, Christy Moore, The Dubliners, and The Clancy Brothers.

Author’s Bio
Enda Glacken is a native of Ireland and writes enthusiastically on all things relating to Ireland and jewelry. He is the founder of thecelticjeweller.com, a modern online Celtic & Irish jewelry site. You can find his thoughts and musings at his blog  or connect on Twitter @celtic_jeweller.

What about you? What types of Celtic music do you enjoy? What did you learn from this article? Do you have any questions for Edna?

Musical Inspiration on Dublin’s Streets

This is a first for me as a crazy writer. My characters actually told me a particular song should go on the Book One playlist. How did this happen?

While I was in Dublin, we went to an area called Temple Bar, hoping to get to hear some authentic Irish music. Ironically, most of the pubs we passed were playing American music, and not particularly good songs, either. We eventually stumbled upon a street jam of Celtic music. This is exactly the kind of stuff I listen to when I write. No words, just pure energy.

The band is called Mutefish. When this particular song (“De La Ferme”) started, two of my characters, Guinevere and Aggrivane, started yelling in my head, “This is what we danced to in the Beltane scene!” (Which will make so much more sense when you can read my book.)

I’ve uploaded two additional videos I shot during the street jam on my YouTube channel, in case you’re interested. I think I have the song titles right, but I’ve only listened to the CD a few times since I got back, so if anyone can confirm or correct me, I’d appreciate it. (Eventually, I’ll update my book trailer and upload it to my channel as well.)

So what do you think? Did you like the music? What music inspires you?