Honoria Tomkins Galwey (1829-1925)

By Don McGinley

February 27, 2018


Honoria Galwey was the fourth child of Rev. Charles Galwey and Honoria Tomkins Knox and was born 31st May 1830 at Waterloo Place in Derry. The family moved to Gortgowan, Moville, on the appointment of Charles Galwey as a Church of Ireland Rector to Moville (1830-1852). The  move was welcomed by the family, having lived previously in William St., Derry and also for a spell (18 months) in a small house in Moville. Gortgowan was newly constructed (according to Bishop Montgomery, by Jack Malone in 1834) and  “Mr Galwey the rector lived there” in 1835, again according to Bishop Montgomery. Gortgowan was “a rustic classical cottage on the shore , with a columned porch and a Diocletian window in a gable above” (Alistair Rowan). While at Gortgowan further children were born  and the family employed a nurse, Mary McGarvey (1807-1882) from Rathmullan “to run after William” (b.1828) and they also employed a governess, Mary Mortimer. Jemmy (James) Cooke was hired as a gardener and “general factotum”. George was the ploughman and Biddy was the cook.


The family were now living in one of the principal residences in Moville with the prospect of tithes of £553.17 due per annum (Samuel Lewis). However the tithe war ensued, and outrages and a general anxiety over money is mentioned in family letters. £20 was lodged by a family member in the Northern Bank in Derry for draw-down in case of emergency. However the tithes were collected and relief was expressed, “I am delighted to hear of your success in recovering your tithes, which I could not have hoped would have been so great, from the late period at which you took pro­ceedings.  It only shows the clergy have been in a great measure to blame themselves, for not having individually enforced their rights as any other class of men would have done, instead of losing time putting their heads together in vain deliberations and consultations.” (The Galweys of Lota 1834).


Miss Mortimer, the governess, left Gortgowan in 1836 due probably to illness (?Tb) but gratitude was expressed in letters that Mary McGarvey remained. She would marry James Cooke in 1840 and both would reside in the Gate Lodge at Gortgowan.


Music prevailed in the household and was encouraged. A letter to Mary Galwey, then aged 20, Honoria’s oldest sister, expresses the writer’s appreciation of Mary’s efforts in teaching Honoria. “Your father’s account of your instructing Honoria in music delighted me” (January 1843).  Her father’s singing, Mary McGarvey’s lilting and Jemmy Cooke’s whistling was the norm.


Following Ms. Mortimer’s departure, the eldest daughter, Mary Galwey, had taken over the duties as governess to her sibling sisters, and another daughter, Lydia, became “an indefatigable nurse to the little ones “. By 1845, Honoria, then aged 15, was showing an interest in gathering tunes and transcribing them. She collected tunes from a blind fiddler in Moville called Paddy the Slithers in 1845 and 1849. “This I learnt from a blind young man. He called it the ‘Liverpool Hornpipe’. He played the fiddle. I only knew his by-name of Paddy the Slithers. As I played the piano he joined in, this in the summer of 1849”. Hudy Macan (?McCann) and another Donegal fiddler provided tunes which are prominent in the traditional music repertoire and later published by Honoria. A ‘sailors daughter’s song’ (1846), Mary Cooke’s lilting, and Moville country girls singing, all provided source material for her and added to her expanding repertoire of music. The “Pigeon on the Gate”, the “Well in the Garden”, “Granuaile’s Daughter”and “Easter Snow” are but a few that she captured. The “Bunagee Air” and “Sweet Innishowen”  reflect the abundance of a local repertoire at that time.


The Great Famine intervened when Honoria was a teenager. The private letters at Gortgowan acknowledged the desperate state of the country, especially 1847. Sean Beattie refers to the letters sent by Rev. Charles Galway seeking aid for Donegal during the Famine, (Donegal annual 1980). Her eldest brother William entered Trinity 1846, and her other brothers, Charles and Andrew, went to Foyle College in 1848. In 1852 her older sister Mary married Thomas Dysart, from a prominent Derry family.

In 1853 however, Rev. Galwey was transferred to Co Tyrone. “Leaving Gortgowan was a great grief, and the change was very great, from a lovely home by the sea-side to a small house at the end of a little village called Gortin.  There were few neighbours, and they chiefly lived at a great distance.”


Later again the family moved to Derry when Rev. Galwey was appointed Arch Deacon of Derry, 1860-1873.  The youngest daughter Caroline Benjamina Jane (b. 1838) married Reverend Richard Bennett, the Dean of Raphoe in 1875. She was the author of the book “The Galweys of Lota” published 1909, which contains not only genealogical information but which contains letters and descriptions of life at Gortgowan, which are quoted above. Surprisingly, there is scarcely a mention of Honoria in these transcripts.  Indeed records are so far absent in relation to her, until Honoria published “Irish Folk Songs” in 1897, and “Old Irish Croonauns” 1910.


Honoria did travel on the Continent and it was reported that on her return “she was enthused to make music collection the central theme of her life”. Honoria wrote, ‘Fiddles, pipes, concertinas, Jews’ harps (or trumps), lasses lilting, lads whistling, to each and all I am indebted’. It was stated that “no matter what part of the Country she was, on hearing an air played by a strolling musician at a local fair or in the street, she made a practice of introducing herself to the itinerant musician and getting him to go over the airs which had attracted her attention.”  Honoria refers to “Tom the Piper” an “old” Moville man (though he was younger than herself), as one of her favourite sources of information. She often got Tom to whistle the various melodies in her repertoire. Tom Gordon was born c.1846 and predeceased her. In another note referring to a melody called “Pull up the Blind” she wrote, “I got this from my Irish piper Tom Gordon a couple of years ago. He died last summer. This tune would do well on the pipes.”


Honoria outlived most of her siblings except for younger sister Caroline Bennett, who died in 1934. Her brother William died in 1876 in India from cholera.  Her mother, who lingered for 6 years following a stroke, had died in 1881. Her brother Charles Richard died 1894, followed by Andrew Knox Galwey, 39 Ailesbury Road, Dublin, a retired inspector Irish Lights, who died 20 March 1903. Lydia died 1905, Isabella Frances died 1910 and Mary Dysart died in West Hampstead in 1916. In addition, her brother in law Thomas Dysart died 1897 at St Columbs, Moville and Reverend Richard Bennett died 1900, also in Moville.


The Galwey family nurse Mary (McGarvey) Cooke had died a widow in 1882. The gravestone at St Finian’s, Greencastle contains the inscription “In grateful memory of Mary Cooke upwards of fifty years faithful nurse and valued friend in the family of the late Archdeacon Galwey died March 23, 1882”.  This is followed by quotes, “With good will doing service to the Lord & not to men” Eph V:7 and “Mary who bestowed much labour on us ” Rom xvi.6. A Celtic cross surrounded by shamrock adorns the headstone.


As can be seen the extended family maintained their links with Moville. Honoria is listed in the census 1901 at Carnagarve, (possibly attached to Carnagarve House) and a 1907 directory for Moville lists Miss Galwey at Church Row. Isabella and Honoria gave an address of formerly resident at Cosh-na-Clena, Moville when reciting their last will and testaments. However, Honoria’s final residence is at 6, St Columbs Court, Londonderry, in 1911. “An elderly lady living in the Cathedral Precincts” is how Henry Coleman, Cathedral organist at St Columbs Derry (1914-21) described Miss Galwey, in correspondence when he had momentarily forgotten her name. She died at that address age 95 years in 1925.


The Irish Times (February 3rd 1925)  recounted under the heading  ” A Great Lover of Folk Songs; Miss Galwey’s work as Collector,”  the passing of “a great authority on Irish folk songs and as probably the compiler of probably the best collection of Irish melodies extant…She had reached the great age of 95 years, yet such was her vitality that until a little more than a month ago , she was able to sit at the piano and play some of the haunting melodies in her collection…Miss Galwey’s old nurse once said of her that she sung before she talked. She developed to a remarkable degree the hobby of collecting the tunes of the fiddles and the pipers who passed from time to time around Ireland…Thus gradually she collected the folk songs of Ireland, many of which, but for her, would have been lost on the death of the old players.” The article then lists those whom she collaborated with, Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, Mr R Arthur Oulton, her personal friend Miss May Tomlinson, Canon Armstrong, the singer Mr Plunket Green and the poetess Moira O’Neill. It mentions that Barbara F Stuart, after a casual conversation with Miss Galwey some years previous at Moville, inspired the song “The Rock on the Shore”.


Dr. Annie Patterson, in a previous Irish Times article, April 14th, 1900 entitled “The Native Music of Ireland”, refers to Honoria’s work with A.P. Graves and Dr Charles Wood, and their publication (Irish Folk Songs). Dr. Patterson notes that there were provided “several very interesting tunes from the private collection of Miss Honoria Galwey, a patriotic Irish lady resident in Ulster”.


A.P. Graves was also the son of a clergyman, and was a major figure in literary life, but also in promoting ancient Irish Airs by adding lyrics to them and giving them a new platform for exposure. His lectures paved the way for the foundation of the Feis Ceoil so as to preserve unpublished airs and to further musical education in the country.


The Derry People February 7th, 1925 refers to Miss Galwey’s enthusiasm as a collector of Donegal folk tunes and on being an authority on traditional music and old Irish melodies. “She travelled throughout Donegal taking down the words and music as lilted, whistled or played”.


The Irish traditional Music Archive (ITMA) 2014, refers to Miss Galwey’s association with Douglas Hyde, folklorist and later first President of Ireland. The ITMA has in its possession a post card which A.P.Graves wrote to Miss Galwey in 1908 and also correspondence with Rev. Leslie Creery Stevenson (1878–1961), a hymn-writer and a Church of Ireland curate, at the time, on Rathlin Island, Co Antrim. The copy of Old Irish Croonauns and Other Tunes published by Boosey (1910) is available to view on line with the comment that the collection was deservedly well regarded in its own time.


Hopefully more material will emerge of this interesting pioneer and with analysis of her work. She was described as energetic, enthusiastic and patriotic. Her endeavours bore fruit and by communicating with many like minded people, composers, lyricists and poets, many of whom were from her own Church, helped to preserve that, which would have been lost, and provided much substance to the musical corpus, at the advent of the Irish Revival.


She left £90 in her will, but she left the people of Ireland a far greater legacy.


Honoria Galwey declared that the “Londonderry Air” was as much to do with Donegal as it had with County Derry. This assertion was relayed in a 1918 article in the Musical Times by Henry Coleman, the organist at St Columbs Cathedral in Derry 1914-1921, stating that Ms. Galwey “who has done so much towards collecting the national airs of Ireland” stated that the original version of ‘Londonderry Air’ was a version of a song called ‘Oh shrive me father’.  He further stated that Dr. Annie Patterson (one of the founding members of the Feis Ceoil, organiser of the t-Oireachtas and the first woman in Ireland to get a music doctorate from the Royal University of Ireland) remembers the tune in the West of Donegal in her childhood and says that it was common over the whole North West of Ireland. “Aisling an Oigfhir” is purported to be a precursor melody ascribed to Denis O Hampsey d.1807 the pre -eminent Harper from Magilligan, Co Derry. Brian Audley in his authoritative article published in 2000, reports that in November 1934, the collector Sam Henry (1878-1952) notated a version of the “Londonderry Air” entitled “The Riverside” from Simon O’ Doherty, an itinerant tin-whistle player in Bushmills, Co Antrim. O’Doherty’s grandfather was a piper from Letterkenny who reportedly played the “rale oul” Donegal airs. The narrative of the song is of a man lying on a river bank musing, and is compatible with Aisling an Ogfhir, the Young-man’s dream. Brian Audley also reports that in a BBC programme broadcast in 1941, Sam Henry claimed that “Honoria Galwey claimed that when she was a baby, her father used to sing her to sleep to an air now known as the “Londonderry Air”. This would have been in the pre famine period, possibly 1830’s at Gortgowan.


The accepted history for the collection of the “Londonderry Air”, later to be “Danny Boy” (words by Fred Weatherly 1912) is ascribed to Miss Ross in Limavady, who passed it on to the music collector, George Petrie, and it was published 1855.  There is conjecture who the blind fiddler was, variously McCurry or McCormick. By coincidence Miss Galwey and Miss Ross were distantly related through the Knox family at Prehen.


A letter written by a man called John Riky in 1928 relating to “the Londonderry Air” stated that “the melody was rescued from oblivion by the late Miss Honoria Galwey, a lady skilled in music who had heard it being played by an itinerant musician on the street and written it down. She later presented it to her friend the Reverend Canon Armstrong, who was a well-known musician, organist and composer”.  This statement is controversial. Certainly, she knew Canon Armstrong but this claim is not supported elsewhere.


Brian Audley article entitled The Provenance of the Londonderry Air which was published in the Journal of the Royal Musical Association [125 (2): autumn 2000. Oxford University Press. pp.205-247]