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Donna Fletcher Crow, Novelist of British History, has written more than 50 books specializing in British Christianity. These books include: The Monastery Murders, clerical mysteries; Lord Danvers Investigates, Victorian true-crime; The Elizabeth and Richard series, literary suspense; and Glastonbury, The Novel of Christian England. She loves research and sharing you-are-there experiences with her readers.

www.donnafletchercrow.com

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Donna Fletcher Crow, Novelist of British History

 

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Donna Fletcher Crow, Novelist of British History

A traveling researcher engages people and places from Britain's past and present, drawing comparisons and contrasts between past and present for today's reader.

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The Music of Ireland That Almost Didn’t Survive

By Donna Fletcher Crow ~ March 2, 2023

 

The month of March brings with it the celebration of all things Irish: Saint Patrick, soda bread, green landscapes, and Celtic music—all of them of venerable origin and still enjoyed. But for one event, though, we would have little or no traditional Irish music to celebrate today. 

Venerable Symbol 

The Gaelic harp is nearly as ancient as Ireland itself. It is found on manuscripts and stone crosses dating back to the 8th century. The harp was a high-status instrument in Gaelic society. Chieftains always had a bard and a harper in their entourage. Harpers were so important to Gaelic life that their nails, which were used to pluck the wire strings of their instruments, were protected under early medieval Brehon law.

 

CC BY-SA4.0

The harp has been the heraldic symbol of Ireland since medieval times. Based on the 14-15th century “Brian Boru” harp in Trinity College Dublin, the emblem appears today on Irish coins, ale labels, and passports. In earliest days every Irish chieftain had a bard and a harper as part of his entourage.

Historical Harp Society of Ireland

By the end of the 17th century, however, its music had all but disappeared. The Gaelic leaders had been defeated and Irish society transformed. The few remaining harpers had to rely on wealthy patrons for survival, and their art was rapidly dying out. It is little surprise, then, that when the civic leaders of Belfast sought a means of reviving Gaelic culture in 1792, they turned to the harp.

Belfast Harp Festival

The Belfast Harp Festival was planned as a major event in promoting the Gaelic Revival through restoring interest in the Irish harp which had played so large a part in traditional Irish culture. Festival organizers sought to demonstrate how intimately “The Spirit and Character of a people are connected with their National Poetry and Music,” as they declared on a handbill advertising the event.

Civic leaders had both a social and a political goal motivating their efforts to rejuvenate harp music. Because harp music was a ubiquitous part of the Gaelic past it could be called upon to bridge the social gap. Recognition of that common inheritance was seen as a means of spanning the sectarian divide, which seems always to have plagued Ireland.

A Social Leveler

In this case, the merchant-class Scots Presbyterian leaders of Belfast would work alongside the much poorer Catholic native Irish who brought their music from out-lying rural areas. These two groups rarely had an opportunity to interact or gain much appreciation of one another and the Belfast leaders were committed to winning political rights for the Catholics in the face of opposition from the Anglo Ascendency in Dublin. 

Culturlann

The organizers thoroughly met their goals of bringing the two levels of society together for their “harp ball” as it was sometimes called. The cream of Belfast society attended the four-day event which was known at the time as The Belfast Harpers Assembly and given to benefit the Belfast Charitable Society. It was held in the fashionable Assembly Room in the center of town.

Assembly room (painting at Linen Hall Library)

Harpers came from eight Irish counties and Wales.

Denis Hempson 

Of the eleven harpers who competed in the festival only one was a woman—the blind Rose Mooney. Other than 15-year-old William Caer, all the others were over 45. Eldest was the blind Denis Hempson who was 97. He was the only one to employ the ancient way of playing—using his long, crooked fingernails—which produced a brilliant, ringing sound on the metal wires.

At the end of the four days, three winners were announced: Charles Fanning, Arthur O’Neill, and Rose Mooney, in that order. Each was awarded a yearly annuity of £10. Charles Fanning won first place for his performance of “The Coulin,” or “Cúilfhionn” which is often called one of the most beautiful tunes in the traditional repertoire. Its name has been translated as “The Fair Haired Girl” or “The Fair Lady.”

Preserving the Music

Organizers also wanted to revive an interest in harp music while collecting the music of the harpers and noting their style of playing for future generations. Until now, the traditional music of Ireland had been handed down from teacher to student through the ages. None of it had been written down, nor were there any written instructions on how the instrument should be played. With interest in harp music waning and harpers aging, the music for this unique instrument was in grave danger of being lost.

Edward Bunting (Simon Chadwick)

By far the most important thing that happened at the festival was that 19-year-old Edward Bunting, the organist from St. Anne’s church, who lived with the family of Henry Joy McCracken, an organizer of the festival, was employed to write down the music of the harpers and to make notes on their playing techniques. Bunting became so enthralled with the project that he subsequently undertook to visit each winner, as well as travelling widely through Ireland, to collate all the available contemporary harp music. This was the first time traditional Gaelic harp music had been recorded on paper.

Historical Harp Society of Ireland

Without Bunting’s efforts, the music of ancient Ireland would have been lost. At the time of the Belfast Harp Festival the tradition of Irish harping was dying. The fact that it did not die is, in large part due to the efforts of Edward Bunting who dedicated the rest of his life to collecting and preserving Irish music. He published three volumes of music, collectively known as the Ancient Music of Ireland, which harpers still use today.

Historical Harp Society of Ireland

More Information

The Belfast Harp Festival gave impetus to the formation of several harp societies, including today’s Historical Harp Society of Ireland.  None of this could have been possible without the foundation laid by the Belfast Harp Festival which produced the books and preserved the ancient music Banting recorded for posterity.

You can learn more about The Belfast Harp Festival, it’s organizers, and their social and political goals in my book The Shaping of the Union, Epoch 8 in The Celtic Cross Series where the event plays a key role in the plot.

Much of the information in this post is reprinted by permission from my recent article “Belfast Harp Festival” in Jane Austen’s Regency World Magazine.

       

 

Donna Fletcher Crow, Novelist of British History, has written more than 50 books specializing in British Christianity. These books include: The Monastery Murders, clerical mysteries; Lord Danvers Investigates, Victorian true-crime; The Elizabeth and Richard series, literary suspense; and Glastonbury, The Novel of Christian England. She loves research and sharing you-are-there experiences with her readers.

www.donnafletchercrow.com

Read More: The Celtic Cross Series

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Reader Comments:

Love this--so glad for the preservation of this ancient art.
-Connie, March 17, 2023

Absolutely! It's hard to think of Ireland without its harp music. Thank you so much for commenting!
I hope you had a great St. Patrick's Day!


-Donna, March 27, 2023

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