Mount Nephin from the south

Dominic O’Donnell

Dominic O’Donnell was a traditional Irish harper who was alive and active towards the end of the 18th century and apparently into the beginning of the 19th century. We have very little information about him. This post is to gather together the different references to see if we can say anything useful about what he was doing during our Long 19th Century study period (1792 onwards).

I made a page on my old (archived) website about Dominic O’Donnell; a lot of this information and commentary already appeared there. But I wanted to draw it together here as part of my Long 19th Century project.

I think everything I have so far comes via Edward Bunting, who is actually rather unreliable in his information, and who does not give much contextual information and who often omits key details, instead talking generally or impressionistically from his own Anglo – Classical colonial point of view. But we have to try and use his information since it is all we have really.

Earliest reference

As far as I can see the first reference to Dominic O’Donnell probably comes from the summer of 1792 (though it could date from 1796). It is in one of Edward Bunting’s early collecting pamphlets, which is now bound up as part of QUB SC MS4.29.

Dominick O’Donnell beside Bellaghy
Near Mr. O Conners of Ballynagar
Ned McDermotroe harpers both
Hugh Frene all Harpers ——
Billy Barclay hear of him at Mr Charles
O Conners at Mount Allen …
[… info about tunes composed by Scott brothers]

Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.29 p232/230/239/f114v

To me this reads like a list of harpers that Bunting was writing down, from the dictation or conversation of a tradition-bearer informant, describing harpers who either were already dead, or who Bunting had not yet met or heard of.

Mr O’Connor of Bellanagare is obviously Charles O’Connor (1710-1791), the famous 18th century scholar, who played the traditional wire-strung Irish harp. He was already dead when this information was written down. Charles O’Conor of Mount Allen (1736–1808) was his son, but didn’t play the harp as far as I know. Arthur O’Neil’s Memoirs lists “Ned Mc Dermott Rowe” as one of the harpers who had attended the 2nd and 3rd Granard Balls in 1785 and 1786; he also may have been dead already by 1792. We have a romanticised description of Freney in The Dublin Penny Journal Vol. 1 No. 17, Oct. 20, 1832, p. 130. The dating of this episode is extremely vague, saying only that Freney was over 90 years old “something more than thirty years since” in 1832, i.e. around the 1790s. I don’t know who Billy Barclay was.

If we check my MS4.29 collation PDF and my Tune List Spreadsheet we can see that this page appears to be part of a miscellaneous 14 page pamphlet (from 219/217/226/f108r to 232/230/239/114v) which includes tunes elsewhere attributed to Arthur O’Neil and Hugh Higgins, and likely dates from the 1790s. So it is possible that this list of information about people comes from Arthur O’Neil’s dictation or conversation.

Anyway this is the earliest mention I have found so far of Dominic O’Donnell. All we are told is that he was a harper (i.e. a traditional player of the wire-strung Irish harp), and that he lived “beside” Bellaghy, near Bellanagare. I think that this is most likely Bellahy near Charlestown on the Mayo-Sligo county border. There are other townlands called Bellaghy or similar, but this is the nearest to Bellanagare.

Mr W. Sloan Esq. of Armagh

In Edward Bunting’s papers there is a loose sheet of paper which I think has been written by someone else and sent to Edward Bunting. The sheet is Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.12.2.29. Colette Moloney in her Introduction and Catalogue (ITMA 2000 p.225,246) lists it as “hand B” (Edward Bunting) but don’t think Bunting wrote this sheet; I think it is someone else’s handwriting.

The sheet contains two tunes, titled “Mr Sloan’s Tune” and “Rambling Boy / Mr Sloan”. I discussed the notation in my post about the Rambling Boy. Underneath the two tunes is a kind of cartouche which contains the text:

A Harper
Dominick O Donnell
[?] Bellaghy County Mayo
a good Player by O Neil’s account

Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.12.2.29

Here we have the same information, that O’Donnell is “near” Bellahy; but we also have two new fragments to add to our understanding of him: that he was “a good player”, and that this opinion of his playing apparently comes from the harper and tradition-bearer Arthur O’Neil.

The two tunes of The Rambling Boy and Mr Sloan’s Tune are both associated through later attribution tags with Mr. W. Sloan Esq. who is usually associated with Armagh but sometimes with Belfast. Unfortunately the later attribution tags are not consistent in the date they give, but I don’t believe the dates for attributions written in the 1830s and 40s anyway so this is not a problem.

At the moment I am wondering if this sheet (QUB SC MS4.12.2.29) may have been written by Mr. W. Sloan Esq., and sent to Edward Bunting. We know that Bunting collected tunes from many different sources, including printed books, earlier manuscripts, traditional informants (harpers, singers, and other musicians), and from correspondents sending him tunes written in letters or on scraps of paper like this, and so the idea of Mr. W. Sloan Esq. writing these tunes and sending them in to Bunting, who then added them to his “Collection” fits with what we know about Bunting’s collecting process, and to the general way that music collectors operated in the late 18th and early 19th century.

Copying the information

You can see how desperately short of information we are about Dominic O’Donnell, when we get into the minutae of the transmission history of such a tiny fragment of information!

QUB SC MS4.5 is a manuscript music book that was started by the piper James Cody, but after about one third of the way through, Cody stopped entering tunes, and Edward Bunting continued to write tunes into it. The book is titled “Edward Bunting’s Irish Airs Collected in 1805 to 1810”.

On page 83, Edward Bunting has copied the two tunes from the loose sheet of paper, “Mr Sloan’s Tune” and “Rambling Boy from ditto”. He has scribbled out the titles and crossed through the entire sheet, and added a note “set two pages back”, and we see neat versions of the two tunes back on pages 78 and 79. But most interesting from our point of view, is that it seems that when he was originally copying the two tunes onto p.83, he continued into a free space at the bottom of p82 by copying the text:

Dominick O Donnell near Bellaghy
County Mayo a good Harper by O
Neil’s account

Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.5 p82

Now this helps us to date the piece of paper MS4.12.2.29, because I assume the two tunes and the information about O’Donnell was copied into the book between 1805 and 1810. So the piece of paper must have been sent to him before 1810.

This also strongly implies that Bunting and O’Donnell had not met by 1805-10.

For clues about who may have written the piece of paper and sent it to Bunting, we can look at later attribution tags for the two tunes, the Rambling Boy and Mr Sloan’s Tune.

In c.1839, Mr Sloan’s tune was attributed “From W. Sloan Esqr. in 1810″ (QUB SC MS27 p47); in 1840 it was attributed to “W. Sloane, esq, Armagh, 1800” (1840 index p.x). The Rambling Boy is similarly attributed, in c.1839 to “W. Sloan Esqr in 1799 at Armagh” (QUB SC MS27 p.73) and in 1840 to “W. Sloane, esq Belfast 1799” (1840 index p.viii).

So we are clear that both these tunes were thought by the late 1830s to have come from Mr. W. Sloan Esq., but the dates and places seem a bit garbled.

Should we understand that the piece of paper with the two tunes and the information about Dominic O’Donnell was written by Sloan, perhaps in Armagh, perhaps between 1800 and 1810, and sent or given to Edward Bunting?

And if so, then it would appear that Sloan may have met Arthur O’Neil the harper in the 1790s or early 1800s, and got the useful information about Dominick O’Donnell from him, and included it as a snippet that he thought Bunting would find useful.

Arthur O’Neil mentions in his Memoirs visiting patrons in Armagh: “Mrs Alford, Mr Jenning, Dr Hamilton, and others, whom I now forget…” but he doesn’t mention Mr. Sloan.

The notated tunes

The very next (previous) piece of paper in Queen’s University Belfast is QUB SC MS12.2.28. Nowadays the pieces of paper are kept loose in plastic sleeves, numbered and stored in boxes, but the various loose sheets used to be bound together into mismatched miscellaneous volumes. I don’t know when the volumes were bound up, but it is possible these two sheets have been kept together since Bunting’s time.

MS4.12.2.28 is folded into four, as if it was folded up into a letter and posted to Edward Bunting. As with MS4.12.2.29, Colette Moloney labels the handwriting as “hand B” (Edward Bunting) but I think that both sheet 28 and sheet 29 are in the same handwriting, and I think it is not Edward Bunting’s handwriting. Could sheet 28 possibly have been written by Mr. W. Sloan Esq.?

The piece of paper (28) is written on both sides and contains three tunes on each side. At the bottom of the second side is an attribution tag:

May 17th 1811 From Dominick O Donnell, Harper. from Mayo

Queen’s University, Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.12.2.28

Its my opinion that the three tunes on the first side of sheet 28 are not from the playing of O’Donnell, but were written by the person (Mr. Sloan?) just as interesting tunes that they thought Bunting would like. However it looks to me like the three tunes on the second side of sheet 28 may have been written down as live transcriptions form the playing of Dominic O’Donnell’s performance on the harp.

We can make machine audio realisations of the notations so we can listen, and try to say something useful about each tune. On the first side is written the notation of three tunes, “Molly Ban na Lavery”, “Cannae Sugagh”, and “Button Hole”. There is no other information written on this side of the piece of paper.

Queen’s University, Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.12.2.28a/b/c
Download the PDF typeset version or the mp3 machine audio
Download the PDF typeset version or the mp3 machine audio
Download the PDF typeset version or the mp3 machine audio

I have already discussed this first tune, Mailí Bhán na Lavery, as part of my write up of different versions of Mailí Bhán.

The second tune, Ceannaí Súgach, was published by Edward Bunting in 1840 p4 as the Merchant’s Daughter, but his printed attribution assigns it to the harper Kate Martin. Another attribution in QUB SC MS4.27 says he got it from W Sloan Esq. of Armagh, which may be significant for us if we think it was Sloane who wrote this notation and posted it to Bunting. Its key signature of three flats looks a bit muddled.

The third tune, the Buttonhole, is written with two flats but the Es are mostly made natural; I assume the E flats remaining in the score should also be marked natural. I learned this tune decades ago from Ann Heymann’s book Secrets of the Gaelic Harp (1988 p.114); she says there that no other versions are known apart from this piece of paper.

On the second side of this sheet, we have three tunes, “Cooee an Devenish the Lamentation of Youths”, “Vurneen O hear [O] Dubh Collad de Hoigh dearly beloved sleep enough”, and “Bradogg the [Rogue]”. At the bottom of the page is the attribution text: “May 17th 1811 From Dominick O Donnell, Harper. from Mayo”.

Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.12.2.28def
Download PDF typeset version or mp3 machine audio
Download PDF typeset version or mp3 machine audio
Download PDF typeset version or mp3 machine audio

The first tune, Cumha an Devenish, is perhaps the most important; at some point I hope to deal with it fully in a post of its own as part of my Old Irish Harp Transcriptions Project. It is very different in form and structure from the classical piano arrangement that Edward Bunting published in 1840 (p.92), so much so that I would hesitate to say that the 1840 piano arrangement is derived from the MS4.12.2.28 sketch.

I don’t know what the second tune is. I am tentatively normalising the phonetic title as “Mhuirnín oigfear dubh codladh do sháith”, which would match the English translation of the title – “dearly beloved” dark youth “sleep enough”. I might have the grammar a bit wrong! Perhaps someone will recognise the tune and we can fit it into the wider tradition.

I have already written up the third tune as part of a post looking at different versions of the tune Bradóg.

How do we understand this sheet? Working backwards, Edward Bunting had it. It was folded in four – presumably enclosed in a letter sent to him. His anonymous correspondent had written three tunes on the back and dated them 17th May 1811, and tagged them as having come from Dominic O’Donnell. The same anonymous correspondent apparently also wrote the three other tunes on the front of the sheet.

Does the date 17th May 1811 refer to the date when the tunes were collected from Dominic O’Donnell? Or to when the sheet was copied and sent to Bunting?

But I think by 1811 Bunting had basically stopped working on the Irish music; he was involved with the management committee of Arthur O’Neil’s harp school in Pottinger’s Entry, which was being run into the ground by financial mismanagement; and Bunting moved to Dublin in 1815 and did no more work on the Irish music at all until the 1830s.

Meanwhile at some point Dominic O’Donnell died, un-noticed and forgotten. I wonder if O’Donnell was already long dead by 1811, and the person (perhaps Sloan) was writing from memory or copying from an earlier transcription notation. At the moment, in the absence of any other references, we have no way of knowing.

Collating information, 1830s

The inherited harp tradition grew and thrived through the first half of the 19th century, and by 1830 there were probably as many good professional harpers working in the inherited tradition as there had been up to a century before. However Dominic O’Donnell was a previous generation; he was dead and forgotten.

But his name appears in Edward Bunting’s work from the 1830s, so we may as well see what information we can glean from the manuscripts and printed books.

There is a piano manuscript in Queen’s University Library dated 12 June 1833 (QUB MS4.33.5, back end paper), which I think represents the stirrings of Bunting’s return to work on the Irish music. I think this book, which is in Edward Bunting’s hand, was intended for publication (see QUB SC MS4.36.21) though nothing seems to have come of this. The book includes a piano arrangement of Bradóg on p20 which is tagged “From Dominick O Donnell”. However the tag is written in pencil and could well have been added later, in 1839 or the early 1840s when we know there was a flurry of retrospective attribution tags being added to earlier piano arrangements.

In about 1839 Edward Bunting once again returned to his work to try and publish another collection of Irish music. By this stage he was an old man; his collecting activity was decades in the past; he had apparently become very disillusioned or alienated from the thriving scene of playing the traditional wire-strung Irish harp in the living tradition; he ignored the skilled professional young harpers and was framing himself as the preserver and saviour of a long-dead music.

As part of his preparations for publishing the 1840 book, Edward Bunting had assistants, or editors, who helped to prepare piano arrangements. In Queen’s University Belfast are two big manuscript piano books which contain edited preparatory versions of some of the published tunes, presumably from around 1839. As well as containing additions and emendations to the musical scores, these piano manuscripts also contain attribution information which I think was being collated towards generating the indexes which were printed in the 1840 book. However I don’t know where this information was being sourced from; I think Bunting’s memory was poor, and his filing system was atrocious, and his editors would not have had access to other external information. It is possible that this information was being invented or exaggerated for the published book. But we have information that mentions Dominic O’Donnell, so we should consider it here.

QUB SC MS4.13 includes two piano arrangements of tunes that are tagged with Doninic O’Donnell’s name. “The Brad-Oge” is tagged “From Dominick O’Donnell Harper of Freshford Co. Mayo in 1810” (ms4.13 p15). I think “Freshford” is a mistake for “Foxford”, since I don’t know of any place called Freshford in County Mayo. “The Blackbird” is tagged “From Dominick O Donnell the Harper Co. Mayo in 1803” (ms4.13 p76). This is the well-known set-dance tune.

But of course these 1830s attributions are so late that I have no idea if Dominic O’Donnell actually played The Blackbird or not.

Also in MS4.13 there is a list of traditional Irish harpers written on p.45, including “D O Donnell of Mount Nephin Mayo”. My header photo shows a view of Nephin from the south or south-east. I don’t know what exactly this refers to; obviously Dominic O’Donnell did not literally come from the top of the mountain, I don’t think.

MS4.27 is the other big piano manuscript from the late 1830s; it duplicates a lot of the content of MS4.13. It includes a piano arrangement of Bradóg tagged “From Dominick O Donnell the Harper in 1809” (p54) and also a piano arrangement of Cumha an Devenish tagged “From Dominick O’Donnell the Harper at Foxford Co. Mayo in 1808” (p40-41).

None of this tells us very much useful!

Bunting’s published references, 1840

In his 1840 book, Edward Bunting published various anecdotes and snippets of information that refer to his collecting activities decades before. He printed a very brief snippet of information about Dominic O’Donnell, which is a fragment of commentary on the tune of “Cumha an Devenish”:

The Editor noted it down from the performance of Dominick O’Donnell, a harper from Foxford, in Mayo, who appeared totally unconscious of the art with which he was playing…

Edward Bunting, The Ancient Music of Ireland, 1840, intro p.91

This does not actually add anything to our understanding of Dominic O’Donnell. We already knew that he was a harper, and we have been told before that he was from Foxford. We have also been told before that he was a good harper, which I think is all that we can take from Bunting’s purple prose.

Bunting also tells us that he “noted it down from the performance of Dominic O’Donnell…”. However I am suspicious of this statement. I have seen no other reference that Edward Bunting actually met Dominic O’Donnell. I wonder if Bunting was confabulating, if he was mixing up the different traditional harpers he had actually met 40 odd years before, if he was confusing his own experiences with stories that other Gentlemen had told him.

O’Donnell is also mentioned in the index of tune titles and claimed sources:


The blackbird – D. O’Donnell, harper, County Mayo, 1803

The cunning young girl – D. O’Donnell, harper, County Mayo, 1810

The lamentation of youths – D. O’Donnell, harper, at Foxford, 1802

Edward Bunting, The Ancient Music of Ireland, 1840, index p.x-xi

The cunning young girl is Bunting’s English title for his classical piano arrangement of the tune of Bradóg. Again, I don’t believe any of these dates.

Final attributions, early 1840s

The final references to Dominic O’Donnell are three later attributions, written by Edward Bunting into his own printed copy of his 1809 General Collection. His annotated copy is preserved in the British Library, London (BL Add ms 41508) and it was discovered there by Karen Loomis (see her 2010 research paper). Three of the tunes in the annotated copy are tagged “Harp O Donnel”; I think these annotations were written in in the early 1840s. I have no idea where this information came from or if Bunting was just spinning plausible-sounding attributions out of his head to make his book look more authoritative. The three tunes are Dá mBeadh Spré Ag An gCat (p33), Féileacán (p46), and Captain Sudley (p68). I don’t believe any of this.

Dominic O’Donnell’s places

I made a map showing the places mentioned above.


As you can see this is all most unsatisfactory. We don’t know when Dominic O’Donnell was born, or when he died. We don’t even know when he was active. I suppose it is possible that he died before 1792 and this is all garbled memories.

We don’t know if Edward Bunting ever met him. We don’t know who wrote down the tunes that are tagged with his name on QUB SC MS4.12.2.28. We don’t know if O’Donnell was alive and playing some or all of those tunes in May 1811, or if he was already dead by then.

We don’t know about anything that he did in his life, his travels, his patrons, his education, his instrument, his family, his house, nothing.

In fact this is a kind of microcosm of the 18th century traditional Irish harpers. People have paid so much attention to them as the “last” harpers based mostly on the work of Edward Bunting, who took their music away from them in order to reinvent it as classical style Irish music played on the piano, and thereby promoting himself as the saviour of Irish Music. He gave us purple prose pen-portraits of these harpers to give gravitas to his classical re-invention of the music.

It is a useful reference point for us to think how thin this knowledge is compared to what we have been discovering about the traditional Irish harpers through the long 19th century, who Bunting suppressed and defunded and wrote out of history, but whose importance in the life of the nation we are only now re-discovering.

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