Robin Adair

Last week I was working with Karen Loomis, for the Historical Harp Society of Ireland, in the National Museum of Ireland, studying the Hollybrook harp (NMI DF:1986.2). The harp was purchased by the Museum at Sotheby’s in 1986. The auction catalogues and museum archives do not have any more information about the provenance before it was sent to auction.

The Hollybrook harp was described and illustrated by Robert Bruce Armstrong in 1904. He says it belonged to Robin Adair at Hollybrook. I am trying to unpick the rather confused information about these people and places. I am sure there is a lot more fine detail to uncover about the life of Robin Adair and the places he lived and visited, and his friends and associates, but this will do for a start.


Robin or Robert Adair of Hollybrook is said by family tradition to have been the owner of the harp. I am not a genealogist and I am not finding a lot of clear information, but I have found some sources of information about his family. I am sure there is a lot more that could be done by a genealogist.

I don’t know when Robin was born; perhaps in the 1660s or 1670s, but his will (and therefore death) is dated 1737. He was the son of Charles Adair of Cloonbrony, co. Longford (died 1688), and Elenor Cooke of Moygallen, co. Westmeath.

Robin Adair married Jane Forster (or Foster) in 1702. Jane’s brother Nicholas Forster was Bishop of Raphoe.

Robert and Jane had at least 7 children. Their (I think first) son John or Johnny Adair of Kiltiernan features in the mid-18th century song-poem The Kilruddery Hunt; he did not marry, and died 1760.

I have read that the social circles in upper-class county Wicklow were a bit incestuous, and we have two lines of descent from Robert and Jane that show this. Their daughter Eleanor Adair married William Hodson (d. 1768), and their second son and heir, Forster Adair (d.1786), married Anne Ribton.

Eleanor and William had a son Robert Hodson (1768-1809) who was made a Baronet in 1787 or 1789. Forster and Anne had a daughter, Ann Adair (1757-?), and she inherited Hollybrook house.

These two grandchildren of Robin Adair, the cousins Robert Hodson and Ann Adair, married each other on 11th April 1774. They had no surviving children, and when Ann died, Robert Hodson kept Hollybrook house. He re-married, to Jane Neville, and their children and descendents were the Baronets Hodson who had Hollybrook House.

In 1904, Robert Bruce Armstrong saw the harp at Hollybrook. The owner then of both the house and the harp was “Sir Robert Adair Hodson, Bart., of Hollybrook, County Wicklow” (p.100), who was the 4th Baronet.


The house is just beside the N11 dual carriageway, on the southern edge of Bray. The current house, called Hollybrook Hall, was apparently built on the site of the previous house in 1835. The architect was William Vitruvius Morrison, who had previously worked on the Earl of Meath’s house at Killruddery. There was a fire at Hollybrook in 1969 which destroyed part of the house, but the main section is still there, and is converted into five separate dwellings.

The image above shows the newly-completed house, with a detailed description, in the Irish Penny Journal.

The photograph below, of the harp “hanging in the hall” of Hollybrook, is from a brief article in The Sphere, 26th April 1919, which was reprinted with extra information on 7th June.

Traditionary information

J. Kynaston Edwards sent two letters to Notes & Queries (14th May 1864, and 9th July 1864) with information about Robin which he copies from his grandfather’s notes. He says that his grandfather (born 1751) had been a friend of Foster Adair, Robin’s second son and heir; and that his great-grandfather (1708-1780) had been a friend of Robin. In the grandfather’s notes, Robin is described as “a plain, manly, jolly fellow, the delight of the numerous and respectable friends with whom he associated, on account of his extraordinary convivial qualities, of general hospitality, friendship and good humour”.

Later accounts give us second-hand reminiscences of Robin and his drinking and his harp, from visitors to Hollybrook. The French tourist, M. De Latocnaye, visited Hollybrook on his tour in 1796-1797, and published his account in 1797. “C’est dans cette maison que vivait, ce Robert Adair, si fameux dans nombre de chansons en Ecosse et en Irlande. J’ai vu son portrait, il est l’aieul de … Sir Robert Hodson à qui Olly Brook appartient, On m’a conté son histoire de cette maniere….” (translated in 1917 by John Stevenson: “It was here [i.e. Hollybrook] that there lived Robert Adair, so famous in Scotch and Irish song. I have seen his portrait; he is the ancestor of … Sir Robert Hodson, to whom Hollybrook belongs. They told me a curious story about him…”) The story, related at length in De Latocnaye’s account, is about a drinking challenge from a visting Scottish drinker, which Robin Adair won, and which led to the jibe “Ken ye one Robin Adair?” (do you know a person called Robin Adair?)

Lady Morgan visited Hollybrook in 1832, and described “The old tottering mansion full of the tippling memory of Robin Adair. His glass, half a yard high and half a yard round, was shown to me, and his drinking bout with a Scotchman related.” In 1854, The Tourist’s Illustrated Handbook for Ireland says of Hollybrook, “An old Irish harp and two drinking vessels belonging to the gentle ‘Robin’ are here”. In his 1864 correspondence, J. Kynaston Edwards gives more information: “two gigantic claret glasses of his, of quart capacity, are to this day preserved in the family… An old Irish wire-strung harp of Robin’s, also preserved in [this] family…”

in the Sphere article of 26th April 1919 there is information from Captain Edward Yeats about “his wineglasses, two of which are still preserved, held a quart of wine each. It is related that Robin delighted in proposing a glass of wine with a guest, and laughingly insisted on the glass being emptied at one draught”. Yeats also talks about Robin’s ancestry, though I am not convinced that any of that genealogical information is true, though it may come from Hodson family tradition. The 7th June article reprints Yeats’s text and photo of the harp, along with a note from W. H. Grattan Flood. This note gives a lot of new information about Robin Adair. He starts on the wrong foot by talking about “Robert, son and heir of William Adair, deceased” in 1661 – this is not our man. Flood continues “Robert Adair, the hero of the song ‘Robin Adair’, was a successful wine merchant in Dublin, and was one of a bacchinalian set in the first quarter of the eighteenth century”. But Grattan Flood was very unreliable, often confusing names and dates, and inventing connections to complete his story.

The song

The problem here is that while we have one song and its tune, securely connected to Robin Adair of Hollybrook, we also have a second, later song, to the same air, about a different Robin Adair. Unless we are specifically told, we can not be sure which song, or which person, people are referring to. This means there is also plenty of scope for confusion and for inventing connections and traditions.

The tune is called Robin Adair, and is usually considered to be a version of the tune Aileen Aroon. Juergen Kloss’s online article pulls together all the sources he can find relating to the different versions and settings of the tunes and songs.

According to Kloss’s list, the first appearance of the tune “Robin Adair” was in Elizabeth Young’s manuscript, dated 1739, only two years after Robin Adair died. She only gives us the first half of the tune.

The first appearance of the song-words about Robin Adair of Hollybrook, was in William Hunter, The Black Bird, Edinburgh, 1764, p. 155. This song begins, “You’re welcome to Paxton, Robin Adair”. Perhaps because the song was much more popular in Scotland, the county Dublin place-name Puckstown was changed to refer to the town of Paxton in Berwickshire.

The song welcomes Robin Adair to a drinking party at Puckstown, and names other drinkers who were not present. J. Kynaston Edwards’s grandfather’s notes say that the song was composed by Mr. St. Leger of Puckstown, Co. Dublin. He says that the other absent drinkers mentioned in the song were Alderman Macarrel (d.1757?), Lord Mayor of Dublin and Luke Gardiner (d. 1753), “ancestor of the late Earl of Blessington”. He also says that later, other names were sometimes swapped into the song, such as William Aldridge (d.1746/7?), also Lord Mayor of Dublin. Though the notes were only published in 1864, the four verses given there may be the most authoritative text of the song.

The tune and words first appeared together in the Edinburgh Musical Miscellany, 1793.

In 1811, the popular singer John Brabham introduced a new song, sung to the same tune. Brabham’s song starts “What’s this dull town to me, Robin’s not near”. It was a wild commercial success. According to much later tradition, Brabham’s song was written by Lady Carolina Keppel (1737 – 1769) in the 1750s, addressed to a Robin Adair who she wished to marry. Kloss dismisses this story as later myth-making, and suggests the new song may have been composed by Brabham, but in any case it is clear that Brabham’s song is much younger than the “welcome to Puckstown” song, and that the Robin Adair of Brabham’s song is not the same person as Robin Adair of Hollybrook.


Robin Adair (pre 1688 – 1737) was a contemporary of Turlough Carolan (1670-1738). Both come from a similar part of Ireland – Carolan was born in co. Westmeath, and Adair’s parents were in co. Longford and co. Westmeath. But Carolan was an ordinary blacksmith’s son, was trained to become a professional musician in the old Gaelic traditions, and made his living by touring from one big house to another, singing songs in Irish addressed to his aristocratic patrons. His associates were other Irish-language poets and musicians.

Adair, by contrast, was a wealthy aristocrat and landowner, making a good living from the rentals on his ancestral lands in Longford. He lived in co. Wicklow as part of a fashionable cosmopolitan set there, in the same millieu as Brabazon, earl of Meath at Kilruddery, and slightly more distantly the LaTouche bankers who built the house at Luggala. All of these had Dublin houses and were closely involved in the life of the city. Adair’s associates were the Lord Mayors of Dublin named in the English-language song addressed to him.

References and further reading

Burke’s Peerage: Hodson
Ancestry message boards: Robin Adair
Ancestry message boards: Adair in the Genealogical Office Dublin
Ancestry message boards: John Cooke
Juergen Kloss, “Eileen Aroon” & “Robin Adair” A Chronological List
Eva Ó Cathaoir, The Hodson/Adair Family of Hollybrook (Greystones Archaeological & Historical Society Journal, Volume 3, 2000)
The Parish Registers of Christ Church, Delgany
Michael Billinge, The Hollybrook Harp, December 2019

Old Irish harp transcriptions project

I first got hold of a facsimile of Bunting ms29 (Queens University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4/29) when it was first published online at QUB Library web site, back in 2006, and I have been working from the facsimile ever since.

This manuscript, dating from the late 18th century to the beginning of the 19th century, is the most important single source for old Irish harp repertory. In it, the young collector Edward Bunting wrote his live field transcriptions of the performances of the last of the old Irish harpers. These scratchy incomplete jottings are our most direct connection to the now lost tradition of playing the old Irish harp with brass wire strings. There are many other sources of old Irish and Scottish Gaelic harp repertory, but most are second-hand, re-set for piano, fiddle, or other instruments. The great value of ms29 is the transcriptions live from performance.

Manuscript 29 is not easy to use, because it is written so fast and sketchily. I also started wondering about the lack of metadata in the manuscript – most of the tunes are not tagged with the names of informants, places, or dates, and this information has to be inferred from other sources. Many tunes are written without their title, or with the titles of different tunes written around them. And there are a lot of tunes – I counted 212 different tunes in the manuscript in total, of which about 190 appear to be represented by field transcriptions.

Back in September I started making a transcript of the textual content of Bunting ms29 (Queens University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4/29). This was prompted by a discussion with Siobhán Armstrong, who had started to inspect the binding of the manuscript and had noted where the different gatherings joined together. I started wondering how this structure of gatherings fitted with the content, whether groups of tunes fitted into discrete gatherings, and so I started to compile an index of what was on which page. The project grew and I ended up trying to copy all of the text on every page, and to identify the tune represented in every bit of music notation.

Identifying the tunes has been the hardest part, and is still not complete. My transcript still has many “unidentified tune” tags in it. Hopefully over time we will find identifications for more of these tunes.

You can download my ms29 text transcript and tune identification (PDF or ODT) via my Bunting pages. As I add more information or correct errors, I will update the document.

Making this document is in some ways an end in itself, as it forms a very useful guide to reading and working with the manuscript; it also forms a much more complete index than has been available so far. I have relied heavily on the published work of Donal O’Sullivan and Colette Moloney (both cited fully on the PDF). It is the nature of scholarship to build on and improve the work of previous generations, and I am very grateful for the important work that O’Sullivan and Moloney have done; I would not have got this far without their work.

I think that the value of ms29 was always the transcriptions: the first, quick, instinctive response of the listener to the performance. I have said before that I consider these transcriptions the 18th century equivalent of 20th century field audio-recordings. They are our window into a lost performance tradition.

My ms29 document aims to identify these transcriptions, and to distinguish transcriptions from secondary copies. The manuscript contains a number of tunes copied from printed books, and probably also from older manuscripts. These copied notations naturally don’t give us the direct connection to oral performance traditions that the transcriptions do.

I have become fascinated by the idea of working from transcriptions. To get a replica of an old Irish harp, to string it with brass wire, and tune it following the 18th century tuning schedules, to hold it in the posture and orientation shown in the 18th and early 19th century portraits of old Irish harpers – these methods take us close to the world of the old Irish harpers. And then to play the notes written in the transcription – no more, no less, gives us a sniff of their performance on that day in the 1790s.

My project now, I think, is to identify as many transcriptions as I can, and then to start describing, categorising, and analysing them. There are transcriptions of old Irish harp performances in other manuscripts in the Bunting Collection, especially in QUB MS4/33(1). I wonder if there are any transcriptions like this anywhere else? Was Edward Bunting the only person to do this?

I am thinking that as well as identifying the “normalised” tune titles for them, I can try and find other information about these tunes. Elsewhere in Bunting’s piano manuscripts he tells us who and when he collected tunes from. Can we match versions of tunes in piano arrangements, with the same version in a transcription? Can we group the transcriptions according to this kind of metadata, to understand who the transcriptions were collected from, where and when?

By combining this aggregated metadata with an analysis of the manuscript structure I think we may be able to build up a fine-grained picture of the collecting process and the performing style of different informants.

And we can also use this new insight into the nature and importance of the transcriptions to create new performances on old Irish harp, hoping to get ever closer to a plausible way of returning the old Irish harp to the tradition.

The video below shows me playing Casadh an tSúgáin (DOSB 19), from the transcription and copy on ms29 pages 4/4/13/1v – 5/5/14/2r, on the copy of the NMI Carolan harp.