Ceis is an ancient gaelic word specifically to do with the harp. I came across this word Ceis a few years ago in O’Curry’s ‘Manners & Customs of the Ancient Irish’ and knew I would like to re-use this word if I ever got around to recording another harp album. It’s meaning has varied over the centuries. I take it to mean the magic or draíocht or enchantment or Spirit of the Harp.
It is sometimes spelt Céis, like in Dineen’s foclóir, but I decided to use what is in the Annals of the Four Masters, the compiled history of Ireland, 1632, which is Ceis.
The Annals of the Four Masters give an account of a story from 400 B.C. of ‘When King Scoriath – father of Moriath – threatened the poet Ferceirtne with the loss of his head, the poet’s words were these :
‘I conceal not that it was the Ceis, of Craiftine’s Cruit (harp),
that put upon the hosts a death sleep
Until Labraid and Moriath of Morca were united;-
Beyond all price did she prize Labraid,
Sweeter than all the music was the Cruit,
Which was played for Labraid, Loingsiuch Lorc;
Though the prince was before that dumb,
Craiftine’s Ceis was not concealed’.
Ceis occurs again when the poet Dallan Forgaill composed on the death of Colum Cille A.D.592 :
‘Like a cure of a physician without light,
like the separation of marrow from the bone,
Like a song to a harp with the ceis,
are we after being deprived of our noble.’
O’Curry refers to the same poem :
‘A Cruit without a Ceis, a church without an abbot’.
In an ancient poem of general instructions to the new king, probably Cormac Mac Cuileannain in the ninth century :
‘This world is every man’s world in his turn,
There is no prophet but the true God;
Like a company without a chief, like a harp without a Ceis,
Are the people after their king.’
Commentary found in the Leabhar na h-Uidhre 1106, says :
‘Ceis, that is, a means of fastening; or a path to the knowledge of the music; or Ceis is the name of a small Cruit which accompanies a large Cruit in co-playing; or, it is the name of the little pin (or key) which retains the string in the wood of the Cruit; or it is the name of the heavy string [or bass].’
The Yellow Book of Lecan 1391, has
‘A Cruit without a Ceis, or a Cruit without a string of knowledge. Or, it was a Cruit without any one of the three tunings (Glésa) which served to Craiftine the harper, namely Suantraigh, and Goltraigh, and Gentraigh, for the sleeping, the crying, and the laughing modes’.
O’Curry ends the discussion on Ceis declaring
‘I cannot speak with authority as to what exactly the Ceis was, yet there is good reason to think that it was no material part of the harp after all, but that the word signifies simply the harmonized tones or tune of the instrument.’
If any bright spark out there knows more on this subject, please let us know : )