(See A Hidden Ulster pp. 228-46; 348-50 for full references and further information)
Peadar Ó Doirnín was a poet, a teacher, a scribe and most likely played the harp to his singing of his own songs. His songs have stood the test of time and are still sung in the oral song tradition.
His place of birth, dated around 1700, is uncertain, but he is associated with the north Louth and south Armagh district of Forkhill, where he spent most of his life. Ó Doirnín married a local woman called Rose Toner, and he taught in Forkhill, where he died. These are the only facts we have about Ó Doirnín and that he was acquainted with his fellow local poets Séamus Dall Mac Cuarta, Pádraig Mac Giolla Fhiondain and Art Mac Cumhaigh.
He was essentially a love poet and we know that some of his poems were sung including Úrchnoc Chéin mhic Cáinte (A Phlúr na Maighdion) and M’Uilleagáin Dubh Ó which were published in A Hidden Ulster (pp. 228-240). These songs had survived in the songs of the people, while Irish was the vernacular of the people, in the area. Edward Bunting also collected versions of the airs of these two songs and also another called Máire Ní Cheallaigh. Rose McWard, which was collected by Edward Bunting from Oriel harper Patrick Byrne, might also have been an Ó Doirnín composition. They are all most likely to have been composed as well as written by Peadar Ó Doirnín as a creative unit of lyrics and air together, and sung to his own accompaniment.
Finding his songs in the Bunting collection would suggest that his songs were played (and sung) by harpers. Although not generally known as a harper, he most likely accompanied his own songs on harp. His songs are peppered with references to harp music and they are set to song metres and airs that are a much more elegant song-type than other song types in oral tradition of the locality. His compositions are regarded a sensual and mellifluous love songs, regarded as harp airs. His love poems are songs which reveal a rich lyrical beauty and musicality. His poems were written for the people rather than for patrons, and, most likely, were written with the intention of being sung to harp accompaniment. It is the musicality of Ó Doirnín’s love poems that distinguishes him as a poet; his is a form of poetry, described by Douglas Hyde, as ‘probably the most sensuous attempt to convey music in words. It is regarded as not strictly poetry but ‘an art between literature and music’. (AHU p.348)
There is also a reference by Douglas Hyde to a contention between Ó Doirnín and the Oriel harper Molaí Nic Giolla Fhiondáin – sister of the Patrick Linden who met with Arthur O’Neill on his way to the Harpers’ Assembly in Belfast 1792. He tells of a poet called Ó Doirnín who called in on the home of Pádraig Mac Giolla Fhiondáin, a ‘biadhtach’, one who kept an open house for visitors giving food and shelter to travellers. After supper a harp was placed before Ó Doirnín so that he would play. Much to the surprise of those present, he played and sang ‘an ceol ba bhinne ar bith do tharraingt ón gcláirsigh’ (the sweetest music ever drawn from a harp). Mac a’ Liondan’s sister (daughter) was jealous as she was a righ-chláirseoir (a superior harper). She challenged him to play with her, face to face, in the presence of the household. He began to compose and sing ex tempore and she followed likewise’ (AHU p.347).
Some of Ó Doirnín’s songs have gained a renewed popularity having been set to new music. His poem Mná na hÉireann (Women of Ireland) was set to music by the composer Seán Ó Riada in 1969 for the bicenntennial celebrations of Ó Doirnín’s death.
Úr Chnoc Chéin Mhic Cáinte air composed for an traditional tune by Peadar Ó Dubhda 1907 handwritten by collector Seán O’Boyle from Armagh
Úrchnoc Chéin mhic Cáinte was given a new setting in 1907 by Peadar Ó Dubhda, which is now the popular version of the song sung here by Máire Ní Choilm. Although, the air is not an Ó Doirnín composition it is now firmly established in the oral song tradition.
He reputedly died in his schoolhouse in Forkhill on 5 April in 1769. It was a fellow poet Art Mac Cumhaigh who wrote his grave-lay, Ar Mhullach an Átha Buidhe (On Top of Athboy), which was popular in the songs of the people and which is also listed in the manuscripts of Edward Bunting.
Peadar Ó Doirnín is buried in the ancient burial ground of Urney near Forkhill, where Art Mac Cumhaigh is said to have sung the elegy he had written for him (AHU p. 350)