Examples of Irish Melody

In my book Progressive Lessons, I included a full size full colour facsimile of Edward Bunting’s loose sheet titled “Examples of Irish Melody”. These settings of the three beginners’ tunes are interestingly different from the ones we have from Denis O’Hampsey and Patrick Quin, and I have been using them more and more in my teaching.

It is very interesting to work through these settings with complete beginners in my classes, as well as discussing the implications with my established students. It really feels like a proper system for playing the Irish harp in the old Gaelic tradition is starting to emerge.

Today I did Youtube demonstrations and transcriptions of two of them, Mailí Bhán and Burns’s March.

Burns’s March is given “with the original bass (& treble) &ce as played by the harpers”. The bass uses a familiar chord shape, the stacked 5th-4th-3rd G-d-g-b, in a way that clearly requires the kind of spread hand shape I have been talking about for a while. Expression marks in the treble point to how the fingering and movement of the hand give different effects, more legato in the refrain and more abrupt in the variation.


And here is my transcription, showing the fingering and damping choices I am making in this version:

It’s clear from the manuscript that this is not complete, and so I have not indicated the end with a double bar. I would instinctively continue by repeating the refrain, and then perhaps adding more variations.

The version of Mailí Bhán on this Examples sheet is really a different tune from what we have from Patrick Quin. Bunting must have collected this Examples sheet version of “Molly Bhan / White Molly” from a different harper. It is frustrating not having a clue who this might have been!

I am choosing to play the four-note phrases with the four fingers of my left hand, and I am looking for opportunities to incorporate gestures. The little 1-2 movement here is brisidh, and to return to the lower position at the end of line 3 I use leagadh anuas, sliding the thumb down. I am thinking about gestures as I intend to re-do my Gestures book, along the lines of Progressive Lessons – large format, full colour, focussing on the sources from the last of the Irish tradition-bearers.

Anyway, here’s where I am with Mailí:


And here’s my transcription with fingering and damping:

I was intending to carry right on and do the third tune from the Examples sheet, Féileacán, but by 2pm the light was already fading as the winter sun dipped low over the burn. So that will have to wait for another day!

To do these videos I used the Rose Mooney harp that is here on loan from the Historical Harp Society of Ireland. One of a pair that the Society commissioned from harpmaker Natalie Surina in Oughterard, in Connemara in the West of Ireland, this harp is giving me real insights into the mainstream of the Gaelic harp traditions before it all went pear-shaped in the 19th century. I recently tweaked the stringing to make it slightly simpler and slacker, following my research into Patrick Byrne’s setup, and it now sings very well when played with the tips of the fingers. These settings that Bunting wrote on the Examples sheet just fit perfectly onto a harp like this and fall under the fingers very nicely.

Thanks to the HHSI for the loan of the harp, and to Queens University, Belfast, for supplying the facsimile of the Examples sheet and giving me permission to reproduce it full-size and full-colour in my Progressive Lessons book. It is such an inspiration and privilege to sit with the book open at the double-spread facsimile.

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