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Updated 03/28/2019


The Snowy Breasted Pearl

The Snowy Brested Pearl was published by Edward Bunting in his collection of Irish music in 1797. Bunting’s A General Collection of the Ancient Irish Music has occupied a highly influential position in the history of Irish traditional music. Although it is by no means the earliest such collection, its focus on the then disappearing centuries-old music of the Irish professional harpers resonated with the romantic sensibilities of its time, and in the years since its publication it has been extensively mined by arrangers, publishers and performers. Its influence continues in print, on sound recordings and on the Internet.

As is well known, the collection had its origins in a commission given to a young Armagh-born classical organist and pianist Edward Bunting (1773–1843), by the organizers of the Belfast Harp Festival of 1792, to notate and preserve the instrumental and vocal music of the Irish harpers. Bunting made this task his lifework and published two further similar volumes: A General Collection of the Ancient Music of Ireland (1809) and The Ancient Music of Ireland (1840). More of the music and song that he gathered remains unpublished in his surviving manuscripts. At the time of his death Bunting was working on a revised edition of the volume, but this was never completed.

The melody is by Carolan. Turlough O'Carolan (1670 – 25 March 1738) was a blind Celtic harper, composer and singer in Ireland whose great fame is due to his gift for melodic composition. Although not a composer in the classical sense, Carolan is considered by many to be Ireland's national composer. For almost fifty years, Carolan journeyed from one end of Ireland to the other, composing and performing his tunes. The annual O'Carolan Harp Festival and Summer School commemorates his life and work in Keadue, County Roscommon.

John McCormack sang The Snowy Breasted Pearl to carry off the Gold Medal at the Feis Ceoil of 1904. This was the famous performance said to have convinced a fellow contestant, James Joyce, that his future was not as a singer but as a writer.


There's a colleen fair as May
For a year and for a day I have sought by every way
Her heart to gain There's no art of tongue or eye
Fond youths with maidens try
But I've tried with ceaseless sigh
And tried in vain.

If to France or far off Spain
She crossed the watery main
To see her face again T
he seas I'd brave
And if it's heaven's decree
That mine she'll never be
May the Son of Mary Me in mercy save.

But a kiss with welcome bland
And the touch of thy fair hand
Are all that I demand
Wouldst thou not spurn
For if not mine dear girl
My snowy breasted pearl
May I never from the fair
With life return.