Chieftain of Tyrconnell
was one of numerous arrangements Stanford made of Irish folk melodies. The song was published as part of Irish Songs and Ballads
in 1893 in collaboration with his Dublin boyhood friend, Alfred Perceval Graves, who provided the words. The song was scored for Harry Plunket Greene as a New Year’s gift on 31 December 1892, and first performed along with two other Irish airs, Sweet Isle
and Patrick Sarsfield
(also from Irish Songs and Ballads) at an orchestral concert of the Cambridge University Musical Society on 25 October 1893. The melody arranged by Stanford is the air ‘A Woman’s Lament’ which most likely refers to the symbolism of Ireland as a woman bewailing her fate. To this Graves added the tale of Hugh Rua O’Donnell (known as Hugh the Red), born in 1572 and son of Sir Hugh O’Donnell, chief of Tyrconnell, County Donegal. At an early age O’Donnell became renowned as a future great chieftain and consequently was the source of much concern to the ruling authorities. After being kidnapped by Sir John Perrott, Irish Lord Deputy, and imprisoned in Dublin Castle in 1587, O’Donnell made two attempts at escape, the second of which succeeded in 1591. In 1598 he fought with O’Neill at the Battle of Yellow Ford near Armagh where the English were heavily defeated. Much dismayed, Elizabeth I sent Robert Deveraux, Earl of Essex, and Sir Conyers Clifford to Ireland to put down the rebellion. Acting on information from the traitorous Brian McMahon, O’Neill and his Spanish allies were severely beaten at the Battle of Kinsale on 3 January 1602, after which it was decided by the Irish chiefs that O’Donnell should travel immediately to Spain to seek help from King Philip. While in Spain, O’Donnell learned of the fate of the O’Sullivans at Dunboy Castle and other disasters but could do nothing to assist his homeland. More tragic still, he fell ill in the Spanish town of Simancas and died on 10 September 1602, aged twenty-nine. Meanwhile Philip II, learning of O’Donnell’s death and the fate of his countrymen, cast aside any thought of sending a Spanish army to Ireland.
from notes by Jeremy Dibble © 1999