Almost all of the music credited to Ruaidhrí Dall Ó Catháin, the Irish Rory Dall, is instrumental tunes.
Perhaps he did compose songs, but none survived; perhaps he performed other peoples’s songs; perhaps he worked with a professional singer; perhaps he was an unusual innovator performing only instrumental music.
The 18th century Irish harpers did attribute one song to him; that is Bacach Buidhe na Léimne, the lame yellow beggar. However, the air is a common Gaelic song air, and the words are set in Ireland, especially the South, which is a big difference from the tunes he composed for Scottish patrons, and many people have doubted this attribution.
Ruaidhri Dall Mac Mhuirich, the Scottish Rory Dall, composed seven songs which survive today. These are grand Gaelic ‘oran mòr’, big songs. They use traditional complex poetic meters and song airs. All of the song texts have been published with English translations and detailed commentary: William Matheson, The Blind Harper, SGTS 1970.
Rory Dall was a kind of singer-songwriter, composing new songs, singing them, and accompanying himself on the harp. We don’t know very much about how he would have accompanied his singing; perhaps simply by playing the same melody as the song text. He possibly also improvised or worked out long, complex variation-sets similar to those played by pipers, perhaps as instrumental interludes between verses.
Perhaps his most famous song is the humourous Féill nan Crann, about a harper who loses his harp key. We don’t know the original tune for this song, though in modern times a pibroch tune has been used for it.
Listen to the first two verses of Oran do MhacLeòid Dhùn Bheagain sung by William Matheson. From his double CD Gaelic Bards and Minstrels, Scottish Tradition 16, Greentrax CDTRAX 9016D, 1993. Used with permission. Click here to order.