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On the Druidical Chants preserved in the choruses of popular songs in England, Scotland, Ireland, and France. (Part 1)



I came across this outstanding article featured for the first time by Charles Mackay, LL.D., F.S.A. (Author of the Gaelic Etymology of the English and Lowland Scotch, and the Languages of Western Europe) on The Celtic Magazine, Vol. 1, No. 2, December 1875.

 This Monthly Periodical issues were devoted to the Literature, History,  Antiquities, Folk Lore, Traditions, and the Social and  Material Interests of the Celt at the Highlands and Abroad. I now share with you some revealing excerpts of this large review in two separate posts… (Part 1 & Part 2) Enjoy!

Julius Cæsar, the conqueror of Gaul and Britain, has left a description of the Druids and their religion, which is of the highest historical interest. That system and religion came originally from Assyria, Egypt, and Phœnicia, and spread over all Europe at a period long anterior to the building of Rome, or the existence of the Roman people. 


The Druids were known by name, but scarcely more than by name, to the Greeks, who derived the appellation erroneously from drus, an oak, under the supposition that the Druids preferred to perform their religious rites under the shadows of oaken groves. The Greeks also called the Druids Saronides, from two Celtic words sar and dhuine, signifying "excellent or superior men." The Celtic meaning of the word "Druid" is to enclose within a circle, and a Druid meant a prophet, a divine, a bard, a magician; one who was admitted to the mysteries of the inner circle.

The Druidic religion was astronomical, and purely deistical, and rendered reverence to the sun, moon, and stars as the visible representatives of the otherwise unseen Divinity who created man and nature. "The Druids used no images," says the Reverend Doctor Alexander in his excellent little volume on the Island of Iona, published by the Religious Tract Society, "to represent the object of their worship, nor did they meet in temples or buildings of any kind for the performance of their sacred rites” .

“A circle of stones, generally of vast size, and surrounding an area of from twenty feet to thirty yards in diameter, constituted their sacred place; and in the centre of this stood the cromlech (crooked stone), or altar, which was an obelisk of immense size, or a large oblong flat stone, supported by pillars. These sacred circles were usually situated beside a river or stream, and under the shadow of a grove, an arrangement which was probably designed to inspire reverence and awe in the minds of the worshippers, or of those who looked from afar on their rites”. 

Like others of the Gentile nations also, they had their 'high places,' which were large stones, or piles of stones, on the summits of hills; these were called carns (cairns), and were used in the worship of the deity under the symbol of the sun. In this repudiation of images and worshipping of God in the open air they resembled their neighbours the Germans, of whom Tacitus says that from the greatness of the heavenly bodies, they inferred that the gods could neither be inclosed within walls, nor assimilated to any human form; and he adds, that 'they consecrated groves and forests, and called by the names of the gods that mysterious object which they behold by mental adoration alone.' 

"In what manner and with what rites the Druids worshipped their deity, there is now no means of ascertaining with minute accuracy. There is reason to believe that they attached importance to the ceremony of going thrice round their sacred circle, from east to west, following the course of the sun, by which it is supposed they intended to express their entire conformity to the will and order of the Supreme Being, and their desire that all might go well with them according to that order”. 

“It may be noticed, as an illustration of the tenacity of popular usages and religious rites, how they abide with a people, generation after generation, in spite of changes of the most important kind, nay, after the very opinions out of which they have risen have been repudiated; that even to the present day certain movements are considered of good omen when they follow the course of the sun, and that in some of the remote parts of the country the practice is still retained of seeking good fortune by going thrice round some supposed sacred object from east to best”.

But still more remarkable than the fact which Doctor Alexander has stated, is the vitality of the ancient Druidic chants, which still survive on the popular tongue for nearly two thousand years after their worship has disappeared, and after the meaning of these strange snatches and fragments of song has been all but irretrievably lost, and almost wholly unsuspected. 

Stonehenge, or the Coir-mhor, on Salisbury Plain, is the grandest remaining monument of the Druids in the British Isles. Everybody has heard of this mysterious relic, though few know that many other Druidical circles of minor importance are scattered over various parts of England, Scotland, and Ireland. In Scotland they are especially numerous. One but little known, and not mentioned by the Duke of Argyll in his book on the remarkable island of which he is the proprietor, is situated between the ruins of the cathedral of Iona and the sea shore, and is well worthy of a visit from the thousands of tourists who annually make the voyage round the noble Isle of Mull, on purpose to visit Iona and Staffa. 

There is another Druidic circle on the mainland of Mull, and a large and more remarkable one at Lochnell, near Oban, in Argyllshire, which promises to become as celebrated as Stonehenge itself, combining as it does not only the mystic circle, but a representation, clearly defined, of the mysterious serpent, the worship of which entered so largely into all the Oriental religions of remote antiquity. 

There are other circles in Lewis and the various islands of the Hebrides, and as far north as Orkney and Shetland. It was, as we learn from various authorities, the practice of the Druidical priests and bards to march in procession round the inner circle of their rude temples, chanting religious hymns in honour of the sunrise, the noon, or the sunset; hymns which have not been wholly lost to posterity, though posterity has failed to understand them, or imagined that their burdens—their sole relics—are but unmeaning words, invented for musical purposes alone, and divested of all intellectual signification.

The best known of these choruses is "Down, down, derry down," which may either be derived from the words dun, a hill; and darag or darach, an oak tree; or from duine, a man; and doire, a wood; and may either signify an invitation to proceed to the hill of the oak trees for the purposes of worship, or an invocation to the men of the woods to join in the Druidical march and chant, as the priests walked in procession from the interior of the stone circle to some neighbouring grove upon a down or hill. 

This chorus survives in many hundreds of English popular songs, but notably in the beautiful ballad "The Three Ravens," preserved in Melismata (1611):—

There were three ravens sat on a tree,
Down-a-down! hey down, hey down.
They were as black as black might be,
With a down!
Then one of them said to his mate,
Where shall we now our breakfast take,
With a down, down, derry, derry, down!

A second well-known and vulgarised chorus is "Tooral looral," of which the most recent appearance is in a song which the world owes to the bad taste of the comic muse—that thinks it cannot be a muse until it blackens its face to look like a negro:—

Once a maiden fair,
She had ginger hair,
With her tooral looral lá, di, oh!
And she fell in love
Did this turtle dove
And her name was Dooral,
Hoopty Dooral! Tooral looral, oh my!

This vile trash contains two Celtic or Gaelic words, which are susceptible of two separate interpretations. Tooral may be derived from the Celtic turail—slow, sagacious, wary; and Looral from luathrail (pronounced laurail)—quick, signifying a variation in the time of some musical composition to which the Druidical priests accommodated their footsteps in a religious procession, either to the grove of worship, or around the inner stone circle of the temple. It is also possible that the words are derived from Tuath-reul and Luath-reul (t silent in both instances), the first signifying "North star," and the second "Swift star;" appropriate invocations in the mouths of a priesthood that studied all the motions of the heavenly bodies, and were the astrologers as well as the astronomers of the people.

A third chorus, which, thanks to the Elizabethan writers, has not been vulgarised, is that which occurs in John Chalkhill's "Praise of a Countryman's Life," quoted by Izaak Walton:—

Oh the sweet contentment
    The countryman doth find.
High trolollie, lollie, lol: High trolollie, lee,

These words are easily resolvable into the Celtic; Ai! or Aibhe! Hail! or All Hail! Trath—pronounced trah, early, and la, day! or "Ai, tră, là, là, là"—"Hail, early day! day," a chorus which Moses and Aaron may have heard in the temples of Egypt, as the priests of Baal saluted the rising sun as he beamed upon the grateful world, and which was repeated by the Druids on the remote shores of Western Europe, in now desolate Stonehenge, and a thousand other circles, where the sun was worshipped as the emblem of the Divinity. The second portion of the chorus, "High trolollie lee," is in Celtic, Ai tra la, la, li, which signifies, "Hail early day! Hail bright day!" The repetition of the word la as often as it was required for the exigencies of the music, accounts for the chorus, in the form in which it has descended to modern times.

"Fal, lal, là," a chorus even more familiar to the readers of old songs, is from the same source. Lord Bathurst, afterwards Earl of Dorset, wrote, in 1665, the well-known ballad, commencing:—
To all you ladies now on land,
We men at sea indite,
But first would have you understand
How hard it is to write.
With a fal, lal, là, and a fal lal, là,
And a fal, lal, lal, lal, là.

Fal is an abbreviation of Failte! welcome! and as already noted signifies a day. The words should be properly written Failte! la! la! The chorus appears in the "Invitation to May," by Thomas Morley, 1595:—
Now is the month of Maying,
When merry lads are playing,
Fal, la, là!
Each with his bonnie lass,
Upon the greeny grass,
Fal, la, là!

The Celtic or Druidical interpretation of these syllables is, "Welcome the day."

"Fal, lero, loo," appears as a chorus in a song by George Wither (1588-1667):—
There was a lass—a fair one
As fair as e'er was seen,
She was indeed a rare one,
Another Sheba queen.
But fool, as I then was,
I thought she loved me true,
But now alas! she's left me,
Fal, lero, lero, loo.

Here Failte, as in the previous instance, means welcome; lear (corrupted into lero), the sea; and luaidh (the d silent), praise; the chorus of a song of praise to the sun when seen rising above the ocean.

The song of Sir Eglamour, in Mr Chappell's collection, has another variety of the Failte or Fal, la, of a much more composite character:—

Sir Eglamour that valiant knight,
Fal, la, lanky down dilly!
He took his sword and went to fight,
Fal, la, lanky down dilly!

In another song, called "The Friar in the Well," this chorus appears in a slightly different form:—
Listen awhile and I will tell
Of a Friar that loved a bonnie lass well,
Fal la! lál, lal, lal, lá! Fal la, langtre down dilly!

Lan is the Gaelic for full, and dile for rain. The one version has lanky, the other langtre, both of which are corruptions of the Celtic. The true reading is Failte la, lan, ri, dun, dile, which signifies "Welcome to the full or complete day! let us go to the hill of rain."
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