Planxty (Form)

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PLANXTY [FORM]. A term used by Turlough O'Carolan (1670-1738), the last of the great itinerant Irish harper-composers, “Planxty” is a word that Carolan prefixed to the surname of a lively melody for one of his patrons. Although its exact meaning is of some debate, it appears to some to be a form of salute. The most respected Carolan authority, Donal O’Sullivan, suggested that ‘Planxty’ was based on the Latin plangere (in its supine form, planxtum) on the model of the existing Irish word planncaim, which means to strike (as ‘strike the harp’). There have been several other thoughts about the origins of Planxty. The academic and concertina player Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin (1998) writes that the word was derived from the Gaelic plearácha, or praise pieces (see below). Seán Ó Riada proposed that since many of Carolan’s songs begin with the Irish word sláinte (health), perhaps Planxty was derived from it—a corruption of sorts. Guitarist and researcher Paul de Grae believes it is simply a nonsense word employed by Carolan in a snippet of English verse in the otherwise Irish song called “Planxty George Brabazon.” However, In a review of several arguments, Donal O’Sullivan concludes that each explanation for the derivation of the word planxty has too many exceptions, and therefor there was no useful definition that could be promulgated.

Regardless of its origin, O’Sullivan points out that Carolan seldom actually used the word, and that it was later publishers who applied the term to his tunes—for example, his “John Drury” became known as “Planxty Drury.” "It seems probable that the early editors used the term 'Planxty' in the title only when they did not know the name, or at any rate the full name, of the subject of the tune, says O’Sullivan. The title planxty appears twice in Neals' Collection of the Most Celebrated Irish Tunes (Dublin 1724, spelled "Planksty". Paul de Grae finds that John Lee published a Carolan collection c. 1780, “possibly a revised re-issue of another collection he published in 1748 (ten years after Carolan's death) of which no copy survives; out of 68 tunes, only three are titled "planxties" - "Plangsty Bourk", "Plangsty Connor" and "Planksty by Carolan", the latter being a version of the "Madam Cole" in the same book.”

A contemporaneous Irish term used for a planxty-type air was "Pléaráca" (spelled "Plea Rarkeh" in one title of the Neal collections), meaning ‘merriment’. In modern times, says de Grae, Brendan Breathnach used the term "Pléaráca" as the Irish equivalent of “Humours,” as in "The Humours of Drinagh" = "Pléaráca Dhraighní".

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