“The Butterfly” slip jig is very popular among (some) musicians and dancers, and shows up in John Sayles’s much-loved film The Secret of Roan Inish (1994). It is a three-part tune and is played AABBCC. Though commonly called “The Butterfly,” it is claimed to also be called “Bill Grogan’s Goat” or “Barney’s Goat.” As the version of “Barney’s Goat” I looked at in Ryan’s Mammoth Collection of Fiddle Tunes (1883) is pretty similar in some ways to second and third part of “The Butterfly,” I decided to keep looking. There is a two-part slip jig entitled “Skin the Peeler” that IS essentially just the second and third part of “The Butterfly.” After thinking about this for a bit, I surmised that the reason these tunes have different names is due to the obvious similarity between a butterfly and a goat — which becomes more evident when you carefully inspect the pics here — but that “Skin the Peeler” is an aberrant name given during a bout of astynomiaphobia. After thinking about it a bit more, I decided that more research might be in order.
So, here’s the skinny. The tune, in its current session version(s) is traced, and often attributed to the fiddler Tommy Potts (1912-1988). Some people only attribute the A part to him, and have claimed that there are versions of the tune older than Tommy Potts’ own. The truth is that the last two parts of the tune can be found in Ryan’s so Potts didn’t compose those parts. As for the first part, according to Caoimhin Mac Aoidh, Potts noticed the erratic flight of a butterfly in his garden one day, and then mimicked its rhythm on the fiddle. He came up with one part, the A part, and altered the two existing parts of a tune he already knew. The result is now one of the most common slip-jigs played at sessions. (See also the Shut Up and Play entry, and the Tunearch entry.)
There are some other debates about this tune: (1) in the first measures of the second part, the debate is about whether it should be a C natural or a D. The Bothy Band (1975) plays the C natural (as I have it in the dots below). We’ll really have to wait on a ruling by the Cúirt Uachtarach of Irish trad for this, however. (2) There are also some who argue that the standard backing is just plain wrong, and that Bm chords should replace Em chords in some undisclosed but evident places — places as evident as the similarity between a goat and a butterfly (at least to some). This point too will have to await adjudication by the high court. (3) Another controversy is about whether anyone should bother to get caught up in these controversies. Personally, I prefer to ignore all of this and just play the tune. (4) Lastly, it is a fact that some people love this tune, and that some people are not impressed by the popularity of the tune in sessions. The latter regard it as seriously daggy. That’s not my view. I’m just sayin’ so you know.
If you want this tune in ABC, then click Butterfly
Butterfly, slow tempo (Turlach Boylan, whistle)
Butterfly, slow tempo (flute)
Butterfly, med tempo (whistle)