The “Cup of Tea” reel was once called “The Unfortunate Cup of Tea,” which is pretty mysterious. Speculatively, I would suggest that it refers to a well-prepared, and sweetly anticipated cup of tea that has been subsequently squandered in transportation. That name was used by the early Irish rock band Horslips for the name of their fourth album (1975), as well as the sixth track of that album. It has acquired the shortened name over the last four decades, and in Irish is simply called “An Cupán Tae,” which is not mysterious at all, comparatively speaking.
Now, tea is one of the world’s oldest beverages, dating back at least 5,000 years. According to legend the Chinese emperor, Shen Nung, the “divine Healer,” was the first to discover the beverage when some tea leaves blew into his pot of boiling water. He is also held to be the first to note the medicinal qualities of cannabis, and is sometimes depicted with horns — though in Chinese folklore horns are associated with dragons, which are in turn a symbol of power, strength, and good luck. Things are a bit different in the West, of course.
The “Cup of Tea” is tune #792 in O’Neill’s 1001 (i.e., O’Neill’s Dance Music of Ireland, 1907), so-called because it has 1001 tunes in it. Around the KC area this reel is played AABBCC, but O’Neill lists it as ABCABC, and there are some who will play it ABBCC, others who play it AABC, while Andrew Kuntz notes that it’s played AABBC in northern Ireland (Traditional Tune Archive). Just keep your ears on their toes when you’re at an unfamiliar session.
For some added fun, here’s a great arrangement of this tune by Frankie Gavin and Alec Finn. Pay attention to the pulse of the tune when listening to it, and keep the one beat very evident when playing it! When this tune is done well in a session it’s all fierce rattling, nothing breaking. Oh, and just so you know, the tale of just why the title cup of tea was once unfortunate will vary with the teller, most specifically with regard to how it was prepared, as well as the state of the particular transporter.
If you want this tune in ABC, click Cup of Tea
Cup of Tea, slow tempo, flute
Cup of Tea, med tempo, flute
Cup of Tea, med tempo (fiddle)
Cup of Tea, 3/4 tempo, whistle