An tSí Bheag agus an tSí Mhór
The Gaelic title for the piece, 'Bean rígh na Síbhrach' in Bunting (1796) and 'Bainrion na
siothbhraca' in Mulholland (1810), offers an enigma. Due to the age of this composition and the
dialects in which the title appears, it is not possible to be confident of Carolan's original Irish title.
In connection with the lyric an tSí Bheag is an tSí Mhór (the small fairy dwelling and the great fairy
dwelling), there are grounds for suspecting the Bunting's Irish title is merely an idiomatic
translation of the English title (Banríon na Síofracha = Queen of the Fairies) and not Carolan's
original Irish title for the piece.
The form 'bean rígh' (queen) is obsolete in modern Ireland and was probably not used by Carolan.
'Sí' refers to a fairy dwelling and brú is a large dwelling. 'Sí-bhrú' is a large fairy dwelling and
'sí-bhrughach' would be an inhabitant of such a large fairy dwelling. The last word in the title could
have once been 'sí-bhrugha' which means 'fairy palace/palaces' so an alternative title in modern
standard Irish would be 'Banríon na Sí-bhrugha' (queen of the fairy palace/palaces) which would
connect very directly with the title of the lyric of Carolan's first song, an tSí Bheag is an tSí Mhór
(the little fairy hill and the big fairy hill). All surviving versions of Carolan's first lyric show only one
regal personification of the fairy palaces speaking but she does not appear to be queen of more
than one fairy mansion.
Hardiman knew the song an tSí Bheag is an tSí Mhór by the title Fairy Queens. This plural makes
more sense than the singular. The most direct translation of 'the fairy queens' into modern
standard Irish would be 'na banríonacha sí'. However, Hardiman's testimony makes it extremely
likely that the original Irish title was in fact an tSí Bheag is an tSí Mhór.
This version of Fairy Queen comes from a printed book of Carolan tunes no longer wholly extant,
some folios of which are preserved in the Joly collection in the National Library of Ireland. Its bass
and treble arrangements are ostensibly for keyboard. The bass parts show a number of elements
of a harmonic style which relate it to Gaelic harp harmony.
Other elements are unlike the harmonic style of the fragments of harp bass collected by Edward
Bunting from harpers at the turn of the 18th century: there is a high count of intervals such as a
compound second or compound seventh between treble and bass, and bass parts do not cater for
the téad leagaidh feature of the Irish harp; the melody of the Carolan song Doctor Hart within the
book is never shared between treble and bass, unlike the notation of the same piece from the
harper Hugh Higgins in Bunting MS29. It therefore cannot be assumed that the basses in this
document were taken from the Gaelic harp.