HONORIA GALWEY (1830-1925)

Honoria Tompkins Galwey was born in Derry on the 7th June 1830 to the Reverend Charles Galwey and his wife Honoria Tompkins Knox, who was from Prehen House in the city. Six months later Charles became the Rector of the Church of Ireland Parish of Lower Moville. They lived in a small house in Moville for 18 months before moving to “Gortgowan” which was a villa residence on the shores of Lough Foyle. It was here that the young Honoria grew up and spent 20 happy years with her 7 siblings, 5 of whom were born in Gortgowan House.

Gortgowan was a house filled with music while the Galweys resided there. As noted by Sam Henry, when a baby, Honoria was often sung to sleep by her father, the tune in question thought to be the air of Danny Boy. The origin of this tune is still much in dispute. Music was evidently of great importance in the house and, with both an upright and a baby grand piano available, it is no wonder that Honoria taught herself to play. She later also got tuition from her older sister Mary.

Gortgowan House Moville, Inishowen

While still a young child, Honoria attended the fairs in Moville and around Inishowen and often followed the musicians. She would sit and listen to the tunes that the pipers and the fiddlers would play and on returning home, she would hum them to her father. Mary McGarvey, who was the nurse at Gortgowan, married Jamie Cooke (the groundsman) and they lived in one of the Gortgowan Cottages at the top of the lane. Both Mary (lilter) and Jamie (whistler) were musical and passed tunes to Honoria. Mary McGarvey was quoted as saying “Young Miss Galwey sang before she talked”.

As a young teenager, Honoria began in earnest to gather tunes from the locality and transcribe them in notation. She has noted in her publications the origins of each tune eg The Reel- “The Pigeon on the Gate”- was learnt in Moville in 1849 from a blind fiddler called ‘Paddy the Slithers’”- firm evidence indeed that reels were in fact being played in Inishowen in the 1800s. She also credits the aforementioned Mary Cooke (nee McGarvey), Jamie Cooke, the ploughman George’s whistling, Hudy MaCan the fiddler, Tom Gordon the Irish piper and many others that are unnamed eg – Moville country girls / tunes learnt from an old Inishowen lady in the 1840s. It appears that Tom Gordon was her favourite source of tunes. Tom was a Moville man who, although younger than herself, she often referred to as being “old”. It is said that he would often whistle or play the melody of a tune to her accompaniment.



Examples of these tunes and songs she collected locally in Inishowen are

  • “Dark-Haired Girl”- Lilted by Mary Cooke.
  • “Hudy MaCan’s Galoppe” – a jig written by fiddler Hudy McCan.
  • “Shan Mac-a-Vicar” – a reel learnt from Mary Cooke.
  • “Rokeby” – a lively jig learnt as a child in Moville.
  • “The Dark-Eyed Sailor” – a slow mournful song learnt from a sailor’s daughter in Inishowen in 1846.
  • “The Blackbird” – a beautiful air learnt from a fiddler in Donegal.
  • “Easter Snow” –An air again learnt from a Donegal fiddler- “When the flowers of the blackthorn are falling down then the country people call it “Easter Snow”.”
  • “I’m a Stranger in this Country”- learnt in Inishowen.
  • “Little Sir Hugh”- learnt from a servant in Gortgowan, Inishowen.
  • “A Lullaby”- learnt from the whistling of Gortgowan ploughman “George”.
  • “Rocking the Cradle”- learnt from the playing of piper Tom Gordon.
  • “Bonaghee” – a song from Inishowen
  • “Life of a Soldier”- A spirited old song. Honoria writes that she learnt both the tune and words from a young boy who sang it more than a hundred years earlier!
  • “Pull up the Blind” – “I got this from my Irish Piper Tom Gordon”.
  • “Sweet Innishowen”

This is a wonderful testimony to the varied and abundant repertoire of tunes being played in Inishowen in the 1800s.

She also collected music from other parts of Donegal and Derry- eg

  • “The Tin-Ware Lass”- “I got this from a friend who found and noted it in its present form at Ramelton in 1846”
  • “Granuaile’s Daughter” – “Granuaile’s daughter, that beautiful Queen, She mourns for her nation’s decay” – collected from Derry in 1860.
  • “The Blackbird and Thrush” – learnt from a servant from Derry.

Much is known about Honoria’s happy family life growing up in Gortgowan as a publication in 1909 by her younger sister Caroline (The Galwey’s of Lota) contains letters detailing and describing their daily life. When Rev Galwey was reassigned to another parish in Co Tyrone they wrote that “Leaving Gortgowan was a great grief”. Their 21 year ‘holiday’ was over.

Honoria evidently continued on her musical journey, absorbing the tunes and songs that she heard and notating them. Her enthusiasm for collecting was legendary – The Derry People paper stated -“She travelled throughout Donegal taking down words and music as lilted, whistled or played”.

Honoria herself wrote –“Fiddles, pipes, concertinas, Jews’ Harps, lasses lilting, lads whistling, to each and all I am indebted”. It is said that no matter what part of the country she was in, she made a practice of introducing herself to any itinerant musician playing, and asked them to play over the airs in their repertoire.

Her association with the leading poets of the day lead to new words being written for old tunes thereby injecting new life into ancient airs that may otherwise have been long since forgotten. She collaborated with the poet, songwriter and folklorist Alfred Perceval Graves who was a leading revivalist of Irish Literature in the late 19th Century. (It was he that laid the foundation stone for the Feis Ceoil movement). Honoria had the leading Irish /Canadian poet Moira O’Neill write haunting words for many of her collected airs. She had her tunes arranged by composers Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, Dr Charles Wood and Mr R. Arthur Oulton ( the well- known Dublin organist) and these arrangements were performed by many sought after musicians and singers of the day including Plunket Green.

Songs collected and arranged in publications include

  • For I had a Spirit above my Degree
  • The Blackbird and the Thrush
  • Hey Ho, The Morning Dew
  • Over Here
  • The Young Doctor

She was a fluent Irish speaker and a close personal friend of Douglas Hyde, the 1st President of Ireland and a leading figure in the Gaelic revival.

Thankfully, later in her life she did publish her works with Boosey & Co, London & New York, firstly “Irish Folk Songs” in 1897 and subsequently “Old Irish Croonauns and Other Tunes“ in 1910. She also made her collections available to the Irish Folk Song Society, founded in London by Graves. What greatly adds to the publications are the copious notes that she recorded about the sources of her tunes. Thankfully both of these publications are available to view online at The Irish Traditional Music Archive (ITMA).

She travelled through the continent and to America but it appears that her heart never left her beloved Moville. We can trace her back to the area in the 1901 census where she was living with her sister Isabella in Carnagarve, a mere stone’s throw from “Gortgowan”. In 1907, a directory for the Moville parishes, noted that Honoria Galwey was now a resident in Church Row.

Honoria published other items, including studies on sea shells on the banks of the Foyle and was subsequently admitted into the Society of Malacologists in Ireland.  She also wrote “A Book of Remembrance of our Dear Ones at Rest”. This is a beautiful hand written diary of the dates of death of notable inhabitants from the city of Derry. It is inscribed with poetry, prose, scripture verses and the words of hymns. One poignant entry reads- “Tom Gordon – My old Irish Piper”. She was also a contributor the 1st Irish/ English Dictionary.

This wonderful lady died on 25th January 1925 at her then residence, 6 St Columb’s Court, Derry. She was in her 95th year.  Her obituary was widely printed in the national papers with the consensus that she was a great authority on Irish folk songs and a collector of national importance. They also mentioned that her last house session was 3 weeks before her death and she sat at the piano and played some of her beloved tunes. She now lies in an unmarked grave in the City Cemetery, Derry.

It is of no surprise to me that despite her travels and the numerous musical genres that she experienced in her life that she still chose to write a book of melodies collected from Inishowen. In its introduction she quotes “The collection of old Irish Melodies brought together in this form, I have known since my childhood. I learnt them from the country people in Inishowen, Co. Donegal, who sang, whistled and played them on the Fiddle and Jew’s harp or Trump”.

The house “Gortgowan” is still present in Moville and sits along the shore walk from Moville to Greencastle.  Honoria’s brother, Andrew was born in Gortgowan in 1835. He grew up to become an Inspector of the Irish Lights. He subsequently married and lived in Aylesbury road in Dublin. He named his house there “Gortgowan”. A descendent of his who recently came to stay in Moville, Gillian Galwey, spoke of her childhood memories in their Dublin “Gortgowan”.

Honoria was an amazing lady who has left behind a great legacy that we are only starting to appreciate.

Clodagh Warnock, Gortgowan, Moville

February 2021

Clodagh’s mother resides in the house that the Galwey family lived in, at Gortgown, Moville