Interior of an 18th century house originally from Magilligan, now in the Ulster Folk Museum

Uilleacán Dubh O

In the 1790s, Edward Bunting wrote what looks to me like a live transcription notation of the tune of Uilleacán Dubh O into one of his wee collecting pamphlets. In this post we are going to look at the manuscript page, and try to work out what it is and what we can find out about it by collating against other information.

The live transcription notation

The live transcription notation is on Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.29 page 44/40/049/f19v. Bunting has written the tune on two lines, and then has written various different information above and below.

In the top left is a cartouche with the words “Letty Burke”, which looks like it refers to the notation on the next page 45. Underneath the notation is another title, “Callena (Girls did you see George)” which similarly refers to notation on the page after, page 46. Underneath that is a smudged out word I can’t read, perhaps “Sanha[???]”. This might be part of Bunting’s mad doodling that we find all over the transcription pages – he often writes “Samson” in this kind of super-neat script. I have no idea what this refers to.

I think the other writing refers to our tune. At the top is a title, “Ouly gan do wo – Magillan”. In the middle of our tune he writes “bass first”. Further down the page he writes “the best set I ever got / by far of Ouly Can do wo”. And then at the bottom, in pencil (perhaps added later?) he has written “Dennis a Hempson / in 179[?] + 1796”.

Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.29 page 44/40/049/f19v
Download PDF typeset version or mp3 machine audio

I think we can understand this notation as having at least two sequential layers of writing one on top of the other. I assume the first layer was the live transcription dots, where Edward Bunting dotted along live at speed as Denis O’Hampsey played the harp. We can see the remains of this most clearly in bar 11 where the dots just sit there exposed on the page. However most of the dots have either been deleted by having a strong diagonal line drawn through them, or have been turned into proper notes by the addition of stems and beams, and also quite possibly by the dots themselves being inlarged into note heads. Then perhaps in a third level of notation, some of the dots that have been turned into notes have themselves been deleted or crossed out. And some of the beams have been scribbled on to make them illegible.

What is going on here? I think we have to understand Bunting as making the dots live from the playing of his informant. But when did he do the rest? It could have been immediate; it could have been much later. It could have been a combination. And why did he delete or change some notes? He could have deleted his own mistakes, to bring his notation closer to what O’Hampsey played, or he could have been “improving” the notation, moving it away from what O’Hampsey played to make it more suitable for arranging as a classical piano piece.

In my machine audio I try to play everything I can see, but it is hard to do that when there are these thick layers of writing.

Bunting’s piano developments

In 1798, Bunting made a classical piano arrangement of this tune, in his unpublished 2-volume Ancient and Modern collection. His title there is “Uillegan Dubh Ó or County Leitrim”, and he writes at the bottom “From Dennis a Hempson of Maggilligan”, except he seems to have mis-spelled Magilligan and has over-written the (almost) correct spelling on top of somethign like “Malig…”

Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.33.3 p.22

I’m not going to typeset and mp3 this for you because I don’t think it will help us. The main importance is confirming the F naturals, and the attribution tags, and of course also the alternative title. I would say that it does seem to be based on the live transcription notation in MS4.29.

There is a piano arrangement in QUB SC MS4.20 f15r titled “Uelligan Dubh O! or County Leitrim”. I haven’t seen this manuscript; I don’t know what the date of it might be. Colette Moloney (Introduction & Catalogue p. 22) suggests that this book was assembled from disparate fragments and that the rear endpaper is made from paper dated 1795, but I suspect the notations in this manuscript might be more recent than that. Moloney gives a transcription of the first line of our tune; it seems to be a more developed version of the 1798 piano arrangement. Perhaps it might have been done between 1798 and 1809?

Bunting published a piano arrangement as no.5 in his 1809 General Collection. Bunting’s tune here seems to incorporate some readings from the MS4.29 transcription version, and some readings from earlier printed editions (see below). This is one of those amazing Romantic classical song settings, with lush piano harmonies and sentimental words: “Adieu my native wilds, adieu, in spring’s green robes arrayed, where days of bliss like moments flew, beneath the woodland shade…” Bunting tells us that these lyrics by Miss Balfour are “from a literal translation of the original Irish” but I think we can take that with a wee pinch of salt. I think this kind of thing is fascinating and very important for a study of the development of Anglo-Colonial exploitation and transformation of traditional Irish music into commercial middle class classical music, but it tells us exactly zero about the music and traditions of the old Irish harpers.

In the early 1840s Bunting went back through his personal copies of the printed books, and against this tune he wrote “Harp Hempson”.

Other versions

On his live transcription page, Bunting wrote “the best set I ever got / by far of Ouly Can do wo”, implying he had “got” other versions of the tune before he noted this one from O’Hampsey apparently in 1796.

Donal O’Sullivan gives a useful list of other versions of the tune in his Bunting part 4, 1932, p.5-12. Especially relevant for us are two printed versions that Bunting probably had access to, both published in 1786, before Bunting started collecting.

Thompson published our tune in his Hibernian Muse in 1786. His title there is “Ailleacan Dubh O! / In the Poor Soldier”. John O’Keefe wrote a lyric “sleep on my Kathleen dear” which was set to this tune in the opera The Poor Soldier by William Shield in 1782.

Thompson Hibernian Muse (1786) p.6
Download PDF typeset version or mp3 machine audio

In bar 10, Thompson writes G sharp, but actually I think this is a mistake, and it should be G natural. This would set the tune in A major, but with a flat 7th, the same as Bunting’s live transcription but one note higher.

Walker published our tune as no.IX in his Historical Memoirs of the Irish Bards (1786). His title is “Ailleacan Dubh O!”

Walker, Historical Memoirs of the Irish Bards (1786) no.IX
Download PDF typeset version or mp3 machine audio

It looks to me like this is basically the same tune as Thompson. Did they both get their tune from Shield’s 1782 opera, or did all three get their tune from an earlier lost source? Walker even has the same “typo” in bar 10 where the G is not marked natural but I think it should be.

After 1809, of course Bunting’s piano arrangement had been added to the mix and so versions we find after that could always be influenced by him. But there do seem to be other independent versions around still. Forde collected two independent versions of our tune, I think in 1846, in Strokestown, County Roscommon. He got what may be a song version from “Mr Joseph Caddy” under the title “County Leitrim” in about the 1840s (The Forde Collection, ITMA 2021, no.866, p.318), and on 29th October, he got a version under the title “Uaillecan Dubh O, or County Leitrim, or Leitrim’s Green Fields” from a piper Michael Walsh (no.861 p.315).

Song words

I think there are a load of different song texts composed to this air which use the phrase “Uilleacán Dubh O” as a kind of refrain. Donal O’Sullivan prints an Irish text and his own translation which he sourced from one of Patrick Lynch’s 1802-3 manuscripts, now QUB SC MS4.17 but I haven’t seen this. The text begins “Mo mhile slan don Chountaigh Liatruim…” and is a kind of pastoral idyll with the singer asking his sweetheart to come with him to County Leitrim.

Someone else (I don’t know who) sent Bunting a letter with an English verse translation of one verse on a similar theme, but a bit different; you can see this letter at QUB SC MS4.26.11.

Another related text that O’Sullivan doesn’t seem to have known about about is in Douglas Hyde, Amhráin Chúige Chonnacht / The Songs of Connacht I-III (Irish Academic Press 1985) p.46-8. Hyde tells the story of “a gentleman of the name of St George” who took Carolan and Duigenan with him to Dublin. He plied them “with strong liquor throughout the night”, until they fell asleep, and then he had them carried down to a ship in Dublin port, which sailed to England with them on board. They didn’t wake up until they were landed in England. “When Carolan woke up they said to him, ‘Do you know where you are now?’ and he answered: ‘It’s not on Irish land I am'” (“Ní ar talamh Éireannach atá mé”). And it is said that this was the occasion of Carolan composing a song, “Go mba mhíle slán do Chontae Liathdroim / Agus Ullachán Dubh Ó”. This song seems close to the others mentioned above, with praise of natural beauty, but also mentions the O’Reillys in Cavan, the Lord of Bréifne, and MacMurray.

O’Sullivan also gives text and translation of a second totally different song lyric, which is attributed to the 18th century South Ulster poet, Peadar Ó Doirnín. Lynch wrote a neat copy of this song into QUB SC MS4.10.109-110, beginning “Sa ndun a chois choilleamh aig imioll na trágha…” and he also made an English translation which I have not seen; according to Colette Moloney it is in QUB SC MS36.6 titled “Uilliogan Dubh O” and beginning “On a hill at the verge of a wood…”

Another 18th century song to this tune that is still alive in the tradition today is Bánchnoic Éireann Óighe, composed by Donnchadh Rua Mac Conmara, quite possibly when he was living in Newfoundland, Canada. Here’s a very nice recording of Séamus Begley singing the song, with Oisín Mac Diarmada playing a fiddle version.

Attribution of our live transcription notation to Denis O’Hampsey

Anyway, to return to our live transcription notation on QUB SC MS4.29 page 44. The writing right there on the live transcription page, saying “Dennis a Hempson / in 179[?] + 1796” looks pretty clear cut, though it may well have been added later. But if we check my Old Irish Harp Transcriptions Project Tune List Spreadsheet, we can easily see that the group of pages from page 43 through to 58 form two gatherings or pamphlets which contain mostly material that Edward Bunting collected from the playing of Denis O’Hampsey. These two groups of pages might perhaps have originally been a single collecting pamphlet that Bunting took with him on his trip to Magilligan in the summer of 1796 (though I note that one or two of the items in it seem to date from 1792). We can see that the leaf before page 43 is missing, and so too is the leaf after page 58. There is a neat copy of an O’Hampsey tune written on pages 59-61, the start of the next gathering, but these are a later neat copy and I have speculated before that they may be copied from a now lost live transcription dots notation that might have been on the missing leaf between Bunting’s pages 58 and 59. These missing pages were obviously removed before Bunting went though and put his big pencil numbers onto the pages of the manuscript.

Do we think it is possible that Patrick Lynch might have also got a song text from O’Hampsey? I don’t know how likely this is. I haven’t studied Lynch’s song collecting. Lynch seems to have only been active collecting song lyrics for Bunting from 1802 to 1803.

The page 44 transcription notation is in a sensible harp key. And we have also the very enigmatic note on the transcription page: “bass first”. That sounds like a comment on harp performance practice, but I don’t know what it might refer to.

In The Ancient Music of Ireland (1840), introduction p.63, Bunting says that at the famous meeting of the harpers in Belfast, on 11th-13th July 1792, Denis O’Hampsey played “Ull a condo wo or the County of Leitrim”. It looks like Bunting was quoting from The News-Letter 13th July, 1792, which carried a detailed description of the events of Wednesday 11th including a list of which harper played which tunes on that day. See Robert Young’s summary of the newspaper reports (UJA 1/2, 1895) for more.


Our title appears in a very interesting context, in the pages where Bunting has taken down information about tuning the harp. On the live transcription page MS4.29 page 150, Bunting has written “Fairy Queen in G♯: Alleccan cean Dubh O [?] / Miss D: Miss B: Nancy C: Grace Nugent / in high Bass”. There is something written after “Allecan cean Dubh O” that I can’t make out. I need to go to Belfast to check this page. Anyway he expands this idea out on page 157, and he writes “frequently this f♯ made naturall in Alligan dubh O &ce all the other notes tuned as in the first scale” though there are heavy over-writings and deletions. The “first scale” is where all the Fs on the harp are tuned to f♯, except for the lowest F which is dropped to E.

So he seems to be saying that for Uilleacán Dubh O “etc”, the harp is tuned to the normal G major scale with sharp Fs, and then just the f♯ at the top of the treble clef, two octaves above na comhluighe G, is dropped to F natural.

What does “etc” mean? There are certainly other strongly G major tunes in the repertory which nonetheless have prominent out-of-mode F naturals high in the range. An example that springs to mind is Taim i mo chodladh.

We should definitely try this if we want to try to make a harp setting of this tune, and others with similar high f naturals. It would mean that we would not have the option of playing that prominent out-of-mode F as a bass note, or in a different octave level to what Bunting has written on the transcription page.

This tuning information was not taken from Denis O’Hampsey; the harp used to demonstrate the tuning sequence had two more bass strings that Denis O’Hampsey had on the Downhill harp. On my write-up of the tuning information, I suggest Arthur O’Neill as a possible source for this information. But I would assume that the norms for matching tunes to tunings would be fairly consistent and shared between all the harpers.

My header photo shows the interior of an 18th century house which used to be in Duncrun, Magilligan, but which has been moved and is now in the Ulster Folk Museum at Cultra. I think this is likely very similar to the house where Denis O’Hampsey lived.

Many thanks to Queen’s University Belfast Special Collections for the digitised pages from MS4 (the Bunting Collection), and for letting me use them here.

Many thanks to the Arts Council of Northern Ireland for helping to provide the equipment used for these posts, and also for supporting the writing of these blog posts.

2 thoughts on “Uilleacán Dubh O”

  1. Thank you, Simon.
    Your forensic analyses and informed conclusions are so cool, and really add a lot to my own playing. It seems your harp has seasoned into a new voicing, and Jeannie and I so enjoy your playing.
    My folks got up to a Celtic fair up in Newfoundland twenty years ago,
    and it’s wonderful how you made this connection with what I think is my Mother’s favorite memory.

    God bless you and yours this Holy Week.

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