Bunting’s collecting trips

As part of my Old Irish Harp Tunes Transcriptions Project, I have been looking at where and when Bunting collected tunes. My interactive map shows the dates and places he tells us he was collecting.

See full screen. You can toggle the different years on and off. Click on a dot for commentary.

Belfast Harpers Meeting 11-13 July 1792

The gentlemen of the Linen Hall Library organised the meeting of the harpers in July 1792. They organised to have a “Skilful Musician to transcribe and arrange” the music of the harpers (advertisement, Dec 1791, Linen Hall Library Beath Collection). Edward Bunting attended, and he does seem to have written down music from listening to the harpers, later describing “the Irish Airs, the notes of which I took at the late performances of Harpers… Ed Bunting Belfast March 29th 1793″ (cited in Downey p57). I have not yet identified any of these July 1792 transcriptions in Bunting’s manuscripts at Queen’s University, Belfast.

However, the focus of the organisers was not particularly on transcribing the music played, so much as getting hold of written copies of tunes, from whatever source. In the introduction to Bunting’s 1797 printed collection, it describes the purpose of the meeting “to procure, while yet attainable, the most approved copies of tunes already in the hands of practicioners, as well as to revive and perpetuate a variety of others extremely ancient, of which there were not copies extant, and which were therefore likely soon to become extinct.”.

I think we can read this as meaning to get hold of sheet music (printed or manuscript) already in the hands of “practicioners” i.e. classical musicians on piano etc; and then to transcribe from tradition-bearers the tunes “of which there were not copies extant”. The fashionable and wealthy Belfast people who came to listen to the meetingmay well have brought along music-books from their private libraries, to share with the meeting organisers. The social and cultural gulf between the Anglo middle-class Belfast attendees, and the Irish-speaking country harpers, must not be under-estimated.

1st tour in 1792

The introduction to Bunting’s 1840 printed book (p4) tells us about his collecting activity in the summer of 1792: Bunting “travelled into Derry and Tyrone, visiting Hempson, after his return to Magilligan … and spending a good part of the summer about Ballinascreen and other mountainous districts in [Tyrone], where he obtained a great number of … airs from the country people. His principal acquisitions were, however, made in the province of Connaught, whither he was invited by the celebrated Richard Kirwan of Cregg, … obtaining tunes from both high and low.”

The introduction to Bunting’s 1797 printed collection, gives fresher detail. We are told that he “made a tour through a principal portion of the kingdom, for the purpose of comparing the music already procured, with that in possession of harpers in other parts, and of making such additions as would render the work complete.”. This is interesting, in that the first aim given is to compare written copies of tunes, with what he heard on tour. It seems that his live field notating was only done to fill in gaps.

What were the written tunes that Bunting took with him on his 1792 tour? Some may have been live transcriptions from harpers at the Belfast meeting in July, but I suspect many were copied from printed books. Bunting’s pocket notebooks (now bound together as Queens University Belfast Special Collections MS4/29) contain a significant number of tunes copied from written exemplars. I have identified tunes copied from printed books by Walker, Neal, and Carolan; others of these neat copies may be copied from manuscripts now lost.

Bunting only mentions seeing Denis O’Hampsey in the summer of 1792, though I think he must have met other harpers on his travels. I think that parts of QUBSC ms4/29 parts 1 and 3 were carried by Bunting on this trip.

There does seem to have been a focus on collecting songs from country singers. The 1797 introduction says “several of the airs in the following collection were not taken from the Irish harp, but from songsters, and therefore as they now stand, are not always adapted to that instrument.”

As far as I can tell at the moment, parts 2 and 4 of QUBSC ms4/29 (pages 111-143 & 237-258 (B numbering)) represent songs collected with Kirwan in Mayo in the summer of 1792. We have a nice description of Kirwan and Bunting touring together from Donegal to Galway, in Annals of the Irish Harpers (1911) p217.

I count approx. 50 tunes tagged “1792” in later piano arrangements

I count 5 tunes tagged “1793” in later piano arrangements
I count only 1 tune tagged “1794” in later piano arrangements
I count only 1 tune tagged “1795” in later piano arrangements

How reliable are the dates given in these later piano arrangements? Some of them seem to be scribal or typographic errors, giving the wrong date. But I also wonder if Bunting occasionally collected a tune from an informant, or a correspondent, or a printed book, at home in Belfast.

2nd tour in 1796

In May 1796, Bunting went to London and entered some proof sheets of his printed piano arrangements at Stationers Hall, to claim copyright. These are detailed in Downey’s book.

In the summer of 1796, Bunting was out collecting in the North of Ireland. He went to Magilligan and collected tunes from Denis O’Hampsey. In the 1840 introduction p6 he says he was “frequently” there but it is not clear whether this means he went back every day for a week, or every year for a few years (I suspect the former).

Bunting also went to Glendaragh House near Crumlin, the seat of harper Daniel Black’s patron, Mr. Heyland. Bunting took down tunes and songs from Black. Bunting tells us that Black “sung to the harp very sweetly” (1840 intro p78).

There are a few other hints that he might have also been to Coleraine and other places in North Antrim on this trip.

In October 1797, Bunting was again in London to enter the complete published 1797 book into Stationers Hall for copyright protection. I think that the summer 1796 tour must have provided some of the material incorporated into the 1797 book.

I count about 20 tunes tagged “1796” in later piano arrangements

I count 7 tunes tagged “1797” in later piano arrangements
I count 1 tune tagged “1798” in the mss
I count 6 tunes tagged “1799” in later piano arrangements

Newry in 1800

In his later piano arrangements, Bunting tags 3 tunes as coming from Arthur O Neill in Newry in 1800. Arthur himself describes meeting Bunting on the road, and being taken to Bunting’s lodgings in Newry, where he stayed a couple of weeks. Arthur O’Neill says, “he took some tunes from me” (QUBSC MS4/14 p71, also Annals p197)

I count 22 tunes tagged “1800” in later piano arrangements

I count no tunes tagged “1801” in later piano arrangements

Westport with Lynch in 1802

In 1802, Bunting’s interest seems to have shifted decisively, and he became very interested in the Irish language texts of songs. This may be connected to a wider interest in Irish language matters amongst the Belfast literary and cultural set who Buning mixed with.

Bunting engaged the scribe, Patrick Lynch, and paid him to go West in the summer of 1802, to collect song words in Mayo. Lynch kept a journal describing his travels and difficulties (QUBSC ms4/24). Lynch eventually ran out of money and had difficulty communicating back to Belfast, so Bunting set off and eventually they met together in Westport. They spent Tue 6th July to Thur 22nd July 1802 together in Westport, and it seems that Lynch took Bunting to meet the singers who had given him song texts, so that Bunting could transcribe the song airs from their singing. QUB SC MS4/33.1 appears to be Bunting’s notebook which he used to transcribe the song airs live from the informants’ performances.

I count 41 tunes tagged “1802” in later piano arrangements, most of them from singers and musicians Westport.

Quin, perhaps 1802×1806

Upside-down at the back of the Westport 1802 notebook, are tunes apparently notated live from the playing of harper Patrick Quin. These are perhaps the clearest and most important group of transcriptions, but they are not dated or localised. They may have been done in 1802, on the way back from Westport, or at some subsequent date. One of the tunes transcribed in this group is tagged as being collected from Quin in 1806 (1840 tune index).

I count 21 tunes tagged “1803” in later piano arrangements
I count 2 tunes tagged “1804” in later piano arrangements
I count no tunes tagged “1805” in later piano arrangements
I count 8 tunes tagged “1806” in later piano arrangements
I count 2 tunes tagged “1807” in later piano arrangements

The completion of ms29, 1802×5

According to Colette Moloney’s index and catalogue, the loose pamphlets and pages of ms29 were bound into a completed book in or after 1802. It looks like Bunting may have continued to write transcriptions and copy notations into the completed book after it was bound; he also numbered the pages almost consecutively and wrote in some cross-references using these page numbers.

On the new end-paper he writes “This volume was began in the year 1792 and finished in 1805 by EB”.

2nd or 3rd tour in 1808

A notisce in the Dublin Evening Post, 12 Sep 1808, p.3 (Downey p50) says “We understand that Mr Bunting is at present on his second or third visit through different parts of this kingdom, in order to give the last finish to his important work on the ancient music of Ireland”. Charlotte Milligan Fox, in Annals of the Irish Harpers (1911) p.218-223 prints some correspondence from Bunting describing his work in 1808. He was in Dungannon, and then Sligo, and finally Dublin. He seems to be looking for tunes in manuscripts, and trying to meet collectors or scholars who would help with the completion of his 1809 published book.

I count 3 tunes tagged “1808” in later piano arrangements, as well as 3 named in the letters.

Dates after this in the piano arrangement tags seem to refer to tunes that were sent to him by other collectors or antiquarians. In 1815 he moved to Dublin; in 1819 he married and started a family. It does not seem to have been until 1838 that Bunting took up his work on the old Irish music again, and started preparing for the publication of his 1840 volume. After that he seems to have been working on trying to re-edit the 1797 and 1809 volumes, but he died in 1843.


Creating a detailed chronology like this helps to understand the transcriptions that I am looking at in the manuscripts. I think more and more that Bunting was not in our world, he was not concerned to accurately report what the tradition-bearers were doing. He was concerned to get the “best sets” of tunes. That may well have involved copying the tune out of a printed book, and then taking that copy out to meet a harper, and listening to see if the harper’s version was “better”.

His lack of metadata in the transcriptions is consistent with this. We have to assume that the names and dates in the piano arrangement tags are a kind of nostalgic antiquarianism, perhaps created from memory. And we know his memory is wayward, because of the way he consistently mis-represented the publication date of the 1797 volume.


Queen’s University, Belfast, Special Collections MS4
Peter Downey, Edward Bunting and the ancient Irish music: the publication history of ‘a general collection of the ancient Irish music… adapted for the piano-forte’ (London: Preston and son). Downey Editions, 2017
Charlotte Milligan Fox, Annals of the Irish Harpers, Smith, Elder & Co, London 1911
Colette Moloney, The Irish Music Manuscripts of Edward Bunting (1773-1843): An Introduction and Catalogue. Irish Traditional Music Archive, 2000
My Old Irish Harp Transcription Project Tune List is a work in progress, but you may find the raw data useful.

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.

The Best harp

The Best harp is probably the worst of the surviving old Irish harps. It has been almost completely ignored in the literature. Joan Rimmer does not mention it; R.B. Armstrong does mention it but he failed to understand what it was, and he mis-identified it.

The Best harp was given to the Royal Irish Academy by the Rev. Berkeley Baxter, in 1882. The Wakeman catalogue of the RIA lists the harp as No. 369, and says that the harp was transferred to the Arts & Industry division of the National Museum of Ireland on 19th July 1958, under the reg. no. 93-1946. The harp is now at the National Museum with the accession number NMI DF:1946-93.

In the Freemans Journal of December 1882 there is an account of the provenance of the harp:

All that is known of it is, that a very old minstrel, some generations back, was frequently the guest of a clergyman of the name of Best, in the county Sligo, and that at his death the venerable minstrel bequeathed his harp to his worthy host, stating that it was an heirloom which had descended to him from his ancestors. Mr. Barter acquired the harp in 1879… from a lady, the descendent of the Rev. Mr. Best, and who is herself a distinguished harper.

Who was Rev. Best? At Michael Billinge’s index of old harps, it is suggested that he was the Rev. Best of Tandragee, County Armagh, mentioned by Andrew Craig in 1787, but this seems unlikely, since we know our Rev. Best was in County Sligo. I have not yet been able to find any more information about “Rev. Mr. Best of Sligo”. We might suppose that Rev. Best was dead by 1879 at the latest, so that his daughter, perhaps, had inherited the harp. Or he could have died decades before, and passed the harp down for many generations. So the “venerable minstrel” could have died any time before 1879. Not very helpful…

The account does, however, suggest that the harp may have been a genuine working instrument of a harper in the old tradition, and so I considered that it was worth studying, even though it is the worst of the old harps and is basically a horrible thing.


The frame of the Best harp is pretty horrible. The neck is perhaps the nicest part, carved fairly competently from a piece of very dark wood (the Freemans Journal says “ebony”, though I doubt this. Wakeman says it is “stained black” which I also doubt). But even then, there are two things about it that set it apart from the mainstream of old Irish harp norms. One is that it does not have the metal cheek-bands, which the tuning pins pass through; they seem never to have been a part of this harp. The other is that the curve of the tuning pins turns down in the treble, making the treble string lengths very badly scaled.

The bass end of the neck fits, as is usual, into the back of the forepillar. But the treble end of the neck, very unusually, fits into the front face of the soundbox. The only other old Irish harp I know of that does this is the Malahide / Kearney 2 harp, whose current location is unknown.

Right side of the neck, showing tuning pin drives 20 to 27
Rough outline of the left side of the neck, with tuning pins numbered

The neck has 35 tuning pins in it, Nos. 2, 4, 5, 9, 11, 12 and 34 are iron, and all the others are brass. Every pin except no.13 has the end of its string wound around it, though the free sounding part of each string has been removed. The pins are plain and undecorated and are not all identical, though they are nicely made of type 1a or 1b.


The soundbox of the Best harp is pretty crude, compared to the elegantly shaped and hollowed one-piece soundboxes of the other old Irish harps. Wakeman says it is “red sally” (i.e. willow). The soundbox of the Best harp is assembled from eight separate pieces of wood, having a five-sided cross-section. This is the same construction seen in the Malahide / Kearney 1 harp, where the front is formed from three planks, having a flat front and angled flanks. The soundbox of the Best harp is parallel in depth all the way along, though it appears to taper a little in width.

There are two sets of brass fittings on the Best harp soundbox. There are thin brass strips on the front: a long strip runs down the centre-line and has 36 string holes which line up with the holes in the wood. There are also three lateral strips which wrap across the front and are fixed onto the sides. The other fitting is the heavier brass plate with engraved lines at the top of the back of the soundbox.

Brass plate at the top centre of the back

There is an inscription on the bass end of the back, which seems to read IWI.

bottom centre of the back, with the letters I W I

There is no projecting foot on the soundbox; this is unusual on the old harps, with only the Clonalis Carolan harp similarly lacking a foot. The lower rear edge of the Best harp’s soundbox is very worn away, as if it had been played resting on that edge a lot.

Inside the soundbox, there are the ends of some of the strings. There are 10 strings and toggles still there. 8 of them are just the stubs, jammed into the string holes. Two are longer lengths, attached to the stringholes but with their toggles dangling inside the soundbox.

There are three different kinds of toggles. Strings 17, 19, 26 and 31 have wooden toggles. Strings 6 and 18 have iron screws attached as toggles. And strings 1, 2, 3 and 5 are toggled onto what look like toggle-knots that have broken from their strings and removed from their toggles.

Strings 17, 18 and 19 inside the soundbox. Note the scars around hole 16 where a wood-screw has been used on a string under tension.
Strings 1, 2 and 3 inside the soundbox. The strings appear to be toggled onto broken toggle windings. Could these even have sustained the string tension if brought up to pitch? There are toggle-marks from previous use of wooden toggles in these positions.


The forepillar is the worst part of the Best harp. It looks like a broom handle painted black. It is straight, slender, and cylindrical all the way down, except for the ends where it squares off. It does not look strong enough to resist string tension, and it is so straight and slender that it looks ridiculous compared to the rest of the harp (even though the neck and pillar are hardly objects of great beauty and elegance). I wonder if it is a replacement for one that was broken or damaged.


The Freemans Journal article says that the harp “has 35 strings made of brass wire”; Wakeman says that “portions of wire strings remaining”. Now, the harp is basically unstrung, but the strings have been cut from the harp, leaving the coils wound around the tuning pins, and leaving some toggled ends inside the soundboard. Was this done after the Freemans Journal article? Or did the article interpolate from the fragments?

Were these string fragments the remnants of the last working stringing and setup of the harp? I think it is likely that all of the other old harps in the Museum that have strings on, have been restrung for display purposes since the harps became non-working collectables. So if we had a harp retaining its old stringing that would be very valuable.

I went to the Museum and I measured as much as I could manage by hand of the old strings. I think a lot more data could be extracted from this harp by using more high-tech methods, but this will do for a start.

All but one of the pins retains a winding of brass wire on it. Two of the pins have two windings, no. 18 perhaps being merely a single coil that has broken, but no.28 being very clearly a thinner coil that was a complete string, and a thicker bit of wire looped around the pin beneath it. All of the wires were wound clockwise around the pin end, to drop the string from the back of the pin. All of the windings were neat and close, not crossing, with the end inserted neatly into the drilled hole .

There were a few strings out of sequence, but the majority of the strings seem to be in the right place, and to increase from 0.7mm in the treble to 1.1mm in the bass.

I would summarise these measurements as saying the harp seems to be intended to have 0.75mm brass wire for the top 5 strings, 0.7mm for strings 6 to 16, about 0.9mm for 17 to 29, and 1.2mm for 30 to 35, with a few strings being the “wrong” size.

I also measured the string lengths. Because there are 35 tuning pins but 36 string holes, there are two possible configurations, 1-1 and 1-2. I measured both, but I think 1-1 is much more plausible. It is possible there was originally a 36th pin mounted on the forepillar, supposing the current stick is not original. The string lengths are a bit odd, with a few far-too-long strings in the treble (where the line of pins on the neck bends up then down), and with the mid-range and bass a lot shorter than an ideal (pythagorean) scaling.

This combination of having string lengths, and having wire gauges, allows us to plot a possible tuning regime for this harp. Unfortunately, the current stringing and setup of the Best harp seems to be as horrible as its design and construction. The use of 0.7mm brass wire in the treble means the treble strings are far too thick and far too high tension; the bizarre scaling of the harp means that the mid-range and bass strings are far too short and tubby.

The harp would speak with its lowest note at G (2 octaves below na comhluighe) and its highest note as e”’ one note higher than the top of the Downhill harp, at a slightly lower pitch than modern (perhaps a’=415). It wouldn’t go higher than that without snapping strings 4 and 5. At this tuning the total tension on the harp would be around 475kg which seems rather high for the slender neck and ridiculously slender forepillar.

Here are all my measurements, with estimated accuracy, and a calculated stringing chart: Rev Best string measurements pdf

If I were stringing and tuning a replica of this harp I think I would disregard the top five strings. Because of their bizarre toggles, I think they could be considered later cosmetic additions. Perhaps those top five should be thinner (the thinnest wire on the harp is no. 20, obviously out of place, measuring about 0.55mm). These top five could even be iron allowing a slightly higher pitch standard for the harp. And strings 5-6 is a good place to change gauge, being g-a on my suggested tuning.

So how do we regard the Best harp? Was it really strung and played in its current state by the “venerable minstrel” who visited the Rev. Mr. Best at his house in Sligo? If so, did this old harper know that he had the worst harp in Ireland?

How are we to assess the quality of an old harp? We are not in the tradition, we do not know what aspects of a harp are more or less important. It is easy to take a modern attitude, and to expect certain types of sound, touch, aesthetic and engineering criteria when we look at a harp. Perhaps the old harper who set up and played the Best harp thought it was fine, perhaps he was able to play it well to good effect. Perhaps he used the over-heavy treble and twangly bass for a specific traditional style of harp playing.

Or, was the harp a failed experiment by an incompetent harper trying to get a harp on the cheap from a local carpenter? Were the strings put on it after the harper died and bequeathed it, just using whatever wire was left over in his string-bag, to try and make it look presentable for display in the entrance hall of the Best residence? What did Rev. Best’s descendent, the “distinguished harper”, who passed it on to Berkley Baxter, think of it? Did she try to play it? Was she glad to get rid of it?

There is a story behind every artefact, a sequence of human interactions that layer upon layer shape and affect the material object. Every aspect of the Best harp has been done by Human agency. Someone has wound those strings on, someone has snipped them off. Someone has wound string 28 with a fat bit of wire jangling round the tuning pin shaft. Someone has wound the toggles and the wood screws and the strange loops in the treble. Who? Why? What were they even thinking? We cannot know, but we can analyse the stuff they left behind to try and work some of it out.

Thanks to Sarah Nolan and to the National Museum of Ireland for facilitating my visit.

Carolan’s original harp bass

Carolan’s tunes had no base to them originally, as we have been informed by the late Keane Fitzgerald, a native of Ireland, and a good judge of music, who had often seen and heard old Carolan perform. It was only after his decease, in 1738, that his tunes were collected and set for the harpsichord, violin, and German flute, with a base, Dublin, folio, by his son, who published them in London by subscription, in 1747.

Abraham Rees, The Cyclopaedia; or, universal dictionary of arts, sciences and literature. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme & Brown, 1819. Volume 17, (unpaginated, under ‘Harp’)

Charles Byrne

Charles Byrne is listed as one of the harpers who went to Belfast for the harpers’ meeting in July 1792. The collector, Edward Bunting, says:

Charles Byrne, from the county of Leitrim, aged 80, played “The old Trugha,” author and date unknown; “Oganioge,” very ancient; author and date unknown.”…

…Charles Byrne, another Leitrim man, born about 1712, was one of those who attended the Belfast meeting. Although not distinguished as a performer, he possessed an extraordinary fund of songs and anecdotes, of which the Editor has availed himself to a considerable extent

Edward Bunting, The Ancient Music of Ireland, Dublin 1840, introduction p.63 & 77

Harper and tradition-bearer, Arthur O’Neill, tells us:

Chas. Byrne – worse than tol lol

comments dictated by Arthur O’Neill to Thomas Hughes, Belfast Central Library, F.J. Biggar archive, envelope V6

I met a Charles Byrne who was taught by his uncle to be a Harper /
(I may be taugt thought too be severe when I made use of the word “Tol: Lol” /
in my account of the Irish Harpers. others may Say the same of myself). But /
the fellow not being blind, had many advantages over those who had not that first /
of Gifts, (Sight,) and as he had a tolerable memory, He could recount all /
that happened to him during the time he led his blind uncle thro’ the Kingdom. & /
I must conclude my Biography of him. &Set him down a _____ Tol: Lol: /
I Know myself besides what I am Credibly informed that he could and can Sing a good variety /
of real Irish Songs in a pleasing Stile with a pleasing Voice.

Arthur O ‘Neill, Memoirs first version, Queens University Belfast Special Collections MS4/46 p.15

I met a Chas. /
Byrne who was taught by his uncle on the Harp, this /
man had many advantages not being blind, he was a good /
player. He had an excellent memory and could recount /
all the little incidents that happened to him during the /
time he led his blind uncle thro’ the Kingdom. I heard /
him sing a good many Irish songs in an agreeable stile /
and pleasing voice.

Arthur O ‘Neill, Memoirs second version, Queens University Belfast Special Collections MS4/14 p.19

The two different versions of the Memoirs do not agree on the quality of Byrne’s playing!

William Carr, listing all the harpers who went to Belfast in 1792, tells us

Charlie O Byrn from Leitrim (played worst) He was originally but the servant to a harper and always carried his Masters Harp but he and he only took a fancy to learning as well as he cd, never well Educated for it

A Scientific, antiquarian and picturesque tour – John (Fiott) Lee in Ireland, England and Wales, 1806-7 ed. Angela Byrne, Routlege 2018, p. 303

Edward Bunting collected tunes from Charles Byrne. As well as telling us the two tunes Byrne played in Belfast in 1792, Bunting tags a number of tunes in his manuscript and printed books with Byrne’s name, as well as in his annotated copies of his 1809 and 1797 publications.

In Edward Bunting’s papers there is a letter to Bunting from Reilly of Scarva:

To Edward Bunting Eqr

Scarvagh 16 Apr ’40
Doctor M’Donnell expressed
a wish that I should let you
see the enclosed slight sketch
of Charles Byrn a native I believe
of Connaught who for many years
visited this house & the neighbourhood
about Xmas & was the “last Minstrel”
I can remember regularly
visiting this country – he could
speak Irish & sing in that
language, & my sister who made
this sketch used frequently to
adapt English words to some of
his tunes, & altho’ I may have

some of his tunes amongst
my papers I have not at
this moment any idea of
where to look for them else
I should be most happy to
send you any thing of the
kind in my p[…] according
to Doctor M’Donnel’s wish
– the sketch I send tho’ very
slight is very like & brings
the old man strongly to my
view – should it be of any use
to you in your proposed work
I should be glad but hope

you will have the goodness
to return it when you have
done with it.
I remain with great
respect your obt
JM Reilly
since I wrote the above Mrs
Reilly has found one of the
songs I alluded to, & which
I hope you will also return

(Queens University Belfast Special Collections MS4/35/31)

This letter raises all kinds of questions, and seems to have been the starting point of a lot of guesswork and speculation about Byrne that I am starting to doubt. If we assume there was only one Charles Byrne harper around at the end of the 18th century, it seems likely that it was the same person.

Charlotte Milligan Fox published a transcribed text of the letter in her book Annals of the Irish harpers in 1911. She also published a portrait, which she said was the sketch done by J.M. Reilly’s sister.

Charlotte Milligan Fox, Annals of the Irish Harpers. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1911

When I went to Queens University Belfast to look at the letter (which I have made my own transcription of, above), I also hoped to see the sketch, but as far as I can tell it is not in the Bunting manuscripts (QUB Special Collections MS4). The letter is written on both sides of one piece of paper, about 22 x 18 cm, and has been folded six times to give a small package of about 11.5 x 6.5 cm. If the sketch was indeed included in the letter, it must either have been folded to a similar small size, or have been in total not much larger. It is not clear how big the original might have been from Milligan Fox’s reproduction.

We also might wonder about the rather pressing instruction in the letter, to return both of the enclosures, the sketch of Byrne and the “song” mentioned in the letter. Did Bunting not return the sketch and the song, and keep the letter? If he kept the sketch, did he also not keep the song?

What were the grounds that Charlotte Milligan Fox used to identify the sketch that she published? She says that the sketch was done on 16 Aug 1810, and that Byrne was then 92 years old. Where does that information come from? The age contradicts the information from tradition bearers mentioned above. Where is the published sketch now? Is it in Queen’s, uncatalogued and un-noticed? Or was it separated from the rest of the manuscripts before Fox passed them on to Queen’s? Did Milligan Fox jump too hastily to conclusions, finding the sketch in the box of papers, and finding a letter which refers to “the enclosed slight sketch”, and put two and two together to make twenty?

Milligan Fox points out that there is information from harper and tradition bearer, Patrick Byrne, that “Miss Reilly of Scarvagh is the only person whom he knows now living who was taught to play through the Irish language” (undated letter quoted in Milligan Fox p.136. I have not seen this letter). Is this “Miss Reilly of Scarvagh” the same person as “my sister” of J.M. Reilly who made the sketch of Charles Byrne posted to Bunting?

In 2012, Michael Billinge wrote a long and detailed article about the portrait published by Milligan Fox, saying that this portrait shows Charles Byrne playing the Mulaghmast harp. There is a whole lot more that could be said about similarities and differences between the harp in the sketch, and the Mulaghmast harp, but this post is only about Charles Byrne and so there is no space to go into that here. However, I do think that all these nested layers of assumption and connection need picked apart much more carefully before we can make any firm statements about any of this.

edit 23 July – Leitrim is in Connaught

A typology of tuning pins

There are a number of different styles of taper harp tuning pins. I am trying to categorise them so that it is easier to be specific when talking about the different types. Up to now I have talked about the “old” style with fat drive heads, and the “modern machine-made” style with narrow heads. But I see now that these are rough categories, which can be broken down more subtly.

I think the most distinctive and diagnostic thing is the relationship between the drive and the shaft. The drive is the square- or rectangular-section end of the pin, which is where you put the tuning key on, to turn the pin. The shaft is the conical main part of the pin, which is embedded in the wood of the neck, and also which carries the string at the far end. The shaft is always, and the drive usually, tapered rather than parallel-sided.

Basically I think the first diagnostic is whether the head is wider or narrower than the shaft; in other words whether there is a step up or a step down to the head from the shaft.

I’d suggest Type 1 pins have a step up from the shaft to the head; Type 2 pins have the head about the same size as the shaft, and Type 3 pins have a step down from the shaft to the head.

We could have sub-categories; sub-type a could have a sharp step at about 90°; sub-type b could have a clear transition at about 45°; and sub-type c could have a very smooth flat transition. We could also append R for pins with rectangular (not square) drives.

Suggested typology of harp taper tuning pins

Because both head and shaft taper away from the centre of the pin, and because there is often a gradual transition from shaft to head, it can be hard to state at what point the diameter or width of each part should be measured and compared. So while it is easy to think about comparing the width of the head with the width of the shaft, it is often difficult in practice to choose where to measure. So my idea of looking for the nature of the “step” between shaft and head might prove more useful.

Left to right:
Type 3a (modern #5×3″ steel pin)
Type 3a (modern #4×3″ steel pin)
Type 3b (steel pin from Arnold Dolmetsch harp no.10, c.1932)
Type 2c (iron pin made by Simon Chadwick for a replica medieval Gothic harp, 2018)
Type 2cR (iron pin made by Simon Chadwick for the replica Queen Mary harp, 2014)
Type 2cR (brass pin made by Simon Chadwick for the replica Queen Mary harp, 2007)
Type 1b (brass pin made by Simon Chadwick for the replica Carolan harp, 2019)
Type 1c (brass pin from county Monaghan, c.17th century)

I think that previous attempts to document tuning pins have not been specific enough about where the measurements have been taken. The scheme below suggests where to measure:

Point A is the extreme end of the pin
B is the smallest diameter of the conical shaft of the pin
C is the largest diameter of the conical shaft of the pin
D is the largest width across the flats of the drive
E is the smallest width across the flats of the drive
F is the extreme end of the pin.

The following measurements can be taken to record a pin:
1. Distance A-B
2. Diameter at B
3. Distance A-C
4. Diameter at C
5. Distance A-D
6. Width across flats at D
7. Depth across flats at D
8. Distance A-E
9. Width across flats at E
10. Depth across flats at E
11. Distance A-F

From these measurements we can calculate the taper of the shaft, the range of sizes of tuning key socket which will fit the head, and the nearest standard taper hole that the pin will fit in. We can also work out the nearest standard taper blank to use for making a copy.

Irish libraries

I’ve been working in a lot of libraries recently. I love seeing inside different library buildings – the ambience and atmosphere and architecture sometimes seem as important as the collections.

Armagh Public Library was set up by an act of parliament which stated that it would always be called the Public Library, but they changed its name recently and it is now called the Robinson library after its founder, Archbishop Robinson. It is a handsome 18th century classical building stuffed full of handsome 18th century leather-bound volumes. This is the most elegant and beautiful library but is the hardest to make practical use of because its collections are so old-fashioned! I did check out their copy of the Memoirs of the Marquis of Clanricarde, to understand more the preface which famously mentions the performance of bardic poetry with harp accompaniment.

I had previously seen a copy of this book at Luggala. I remember somewhere reading an opinion that Garech Browne’s was the finest private library in Ireland, but I never managed to get to see inside – there was always some excuse, or distraction.

In contrast, the Irish and Local Studies library in Armagh is hidden round the back of a council building, entered through a basement door at the back of a car park. It has excellent collections of journals and newspapers – I never even got to go into the rooms with books! I found some very interesting references in very obscure 19th century periodicals here.

The other interesting library in Armagh is the Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich Memorial Library and Archive. I have not done proper research here, only browsed, but it has interesting local studies collections.

In Dublin I have been working at the National Library of Ireland, and also at the Royal Irish Academy. Both have beautiful buildings, and excellent collections; I have mostly been looking at specific unique items there. I have especially been reading the RIA minute books from the 19th century – I have not found what I am looking for in them, but that in itself is kind of interesting. They are really fascinating objects, full of the signatures of the Great Men like Petrie and Wilde. I have more references to follow up especially at the NLI, but it is harder to do because they are not so easy to get to.

In Belfast I have been using the Linen Hall Library and the McClay Library at Queens University Belfast. The Linen Hall library is a lovely old building full of lovely old collections, while the McClay is a really impressive new building with a tower that reminds me a little of Cambridge University library. The McClay holds the Queen’s Special Collections, including the Bunting manuscripts, and so has been extremely useful for me.

A library I have been involved with creating for over a decade now is that of the Historical Harp Society of Ireland; this library unfortunately remains merely a collection of books, since it has no librarian and no building. Maybe in time that will change.

There are other libraries which I would like to get access to. Another private library I have been in, but not used, is that at Clonalis House. There is Marsh’s Library in Dublin. And there is the curious local studies library at Benburb – it was closed when I visited, but I should try again.

I am sure there are others that I have missed…

Otway harp string holes

While working on something else I came across this from last year which I had meant to write up.

Understanding the tuning and stringing of an old harp requires knowledge of string lengths and angles. This basically means measuring between the tuning pin and the little hole in the soundboard where the string goes in. But Ann Heymann pointed out to me years ago that on the Castle Otway harp, you can’t see a lot of those holes, because the metal strap down the middle does not line up with the string holes in the wood.

Continue reading Otway harp string holes