Sixpenny Money

Yehudi Menuhin and Frankie Gavin

Sixpenny Money

A tune that was once an ordeal begins to mesmerise Ciaran Carson again; and what Frankie Gavin couldn’t teach Yehudi Menuhin

‘Sixpenny money’ is the name of a common jig and part of most traditional musicians’ repertoire. Technically it’s not too difficult to play, and is thus immediately attractive to a learner. I played it enthusiastically for a good many years before I developed a dislike for the tune; it seemed to me that its structure was boringly repetitive even by the standards of traditional music, and going into it the second time round always seemed a kind of ordeal. You longed for it to end. But more of that anon.

I don’t know where I heard the plausible story that the title referred to a situation where a musician at a house dance would play ‘Sixpenny Money’ at the end of a night as a nod to the company to fulfil its side of the musical contract – a kind of obverse side of the coin to the expression ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune’. Maybe it was from the piper Trevor Stewart, with whom Deirdre Shannon and I sometimes played, sometimes in unlikely venues such as office parties and last-night-of-conference entertainments, in which case the unspoken hint would be lost on the company.

And I seemed to half-remember that Francis O’Neill had a reference to it in his Irish Folk Music: A Fascinating Hobby, published in 1910, five years after his retirement as Chief of Police at the Chicago police force. My memory had played me false: when I consulted the ‘S’ column in the index of that book, there was no mention of ‘Sixpenny Money’. However, indexes are rarely without interest, and I was reminded again of the sometimes playful or mischievous nature of Irish tune titles, which lead one to speculate on the circumstances behind their making: ‘Saddle the Pony’, ‘Sergeant Early’s Dream’ and ‘She is the Girl Who Can Do It’. And what about ‘Skiver the Quilt’ – is it a derogatory nickname, or a reference to some archaic domestic chore, possibly with sexual connotations? Or is it a tailoring term, since O’Neill gives the alternative title of ‘The Tailor’s Wedding’, reminding us that tailors are renowned in folk song for getting up to no good with the woman of the house? (I discovered this on the internet, from Ryan’s Mammoth Collection: ‘Kerr’s [Collection] attaches this title to a version of a tune now called “The Legacy”. Skiver was leather made from split sheep skin, and to skiver meant to cut something to pieces in that fashion. Possibly, however, this is a misprint for “Shiver the Quilt”, the meaning of which is easier to deduce.’)

At any rate, just below ‘The Snowy-breasted Pearl’ I came across ‘Soaping fiddle strings’, which was not the name of a tune. Here’s the story as recounted by O’Neill:

It not infrequently happens that poor performers are the most insistent in displaying their self-conceived talents in public. One of this class was John McDonald, a detective at police headquarters, who had some rudimentary schooling on the fiddle. One of his pet conceits was that he was quite a musician, but it was not on that account but because of his officious supervision of the dancing platform and his faculty of ‘calling off’ the quadrilles that he was tolerated. 


At a picnic held at Willow Springs I observed him preparing to play during a lull in the orchestra. With an impressive swipe he drew the bow, freshly rosined, across the strings, but only a dull rumble was the response. Repeated effort had no better result, while the circling crowd enjoyed his discomfiture. Inspector Shea, it seems, had covertly contrived to have Mac’s fiddle strings soaped, that being the only practical way to keep him from wasting time that could be used for more agreeable entertainment. 

No doubt this kind of subterfuge still goes on: I remember an anecdote from my days playing around Fermanagh when the offending fiddler’s bow was passed through a head of Brylcreemed hair while he was out at the jacks. 

Back to ‘Sixpenny Money’. My original thought for this piece of writing was to investigate the relative merits of sessions where the musicians are paid as opposed to those where they just play for the fun of it: not that paid musicians necessarily have less fun, but perhaps more pressure is on them to perform, or to be called upon to play, and thus lose out on the conversational lulls that are an integral part of a really good session – at least for the musicians. But my long preamble now prohibits that ramble into musical ethics, and I’m now more interested in ‘Sixpenny Money’ the tune. Boring as it seemed to me, I should have known better. After all, any traditional tune is a matter of repeats and variations on those repeats. It’s up to the musician to renegotiate them and make them new and interesting. So, I was pleasurably surprised when in the course of an internet search I found ‘Sixpenny Money’ being played by Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh on fiddle and Mick O’Brien on flat pipes. 

The venue looks like the small back room of a pub: one of the ideal spaces for traditional music. The small audience – more of a handful of audients than an audience – seems rapt. Brief though the snippet is, fifty seconds, which allows only for the end of the second part and once through the whole tune, I was mesmerized by it. Here was a tune I thought I knew inside out, played as if I had never known it. As if I never thought of it properly before. The sound of flat pipes and fiddle is immediately attractive: but it’s also apparent that the musicians are thinking their way into and around the tune, making constant micro-adjustments of timing and melodic contour: a kind of meditation on the possibilities of the few ostensibly simple bars that is ‘Sixpenny Money’, each listening and responding to the other. It’s a perfect illustration of how something beautiful and visionary can come out of integrity and constraint, from a deep knowledge of how the tune has been played before by others, not to mention the countless occasions on which one has played it oneself. 

The classical music critic Constant Lambert once remarked that ‘the whole trouble with a folk song is that once you have played it through there is nothing much to do than to play it over again and play it rather louder. For ‘folk song’ you can also read ‘tune’; and it might well be trouble when played by a classical musician who does not understand the rules or the spirit of traditional music. Readers of this column might have seen a TV programme called Bringing It All Back Home some years ago in which the traditional fiddler Frankie Gavin met the classical violinist Yehudi Menuhin. Gavin was teaching Menuhin a ‘simple’ hornpipe, ‘The Boys of Blue Hill’. Menuhin would apply the stock-in-trade of violin-playing to the tune – a long full bow, vibrato, ‘expression’ and ‘feeling’. No, no, Gavin would say, like this, and he would play it as it should be played. Menuhin would try it again, and get it all wrong again. After several takes, the camera caught Frankie with a bemused expression on his face. It spoke volumes. The next instalment of this column will explore some of the differences between classical and traditional music practice. It will be called ‘Viol, Fiddle, Violin’.

The video of Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh and Mick O’Brien playing ‘Sixpenny Money’ can be viewed at


Published on 1 October 2009

Ciaran Carson (1948–2019) was a poet, prose writer, translator and flute-player. He was the author of Last Night’s Fun – A Book about Irish Traditional Music, The Pocket Guide to Traditional Irish Music, The Star Factory, and the poetry collections The Irish for No, Belfast Confetti and First Language: Poems. He was Professor of Poetry at Queen’s University Belfast. Between 2008 and 2010 Ciaran wrote a series of linked columns for the Journal of Music, beginning with 'The Bag of Spuds' and ending with 'The Raw Bar'.

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