Simon Chadwick and Ann Heymann outside the Market House, Granard

Kate Martin

Kate Martin was a traditional Irish harper in the 18th century. We have only a few references to her, and they are all retrospective. Some of them imply or state that she was still alive at the beginning of our Long 19th Century study period, but I think this is not reliable information. This post is to discuss the information we have to see if we can say anything useful about Kate Martin from 1792 onwards.

Reliable information

Actually, because Kate Martin was alive in the 18th century, we don’t have truly reliable information about her – we have no primary sources about her life. I have not found a death record or any contemporary description of her.

What we do have is brief statements from two different traditional harpers, retrospectively telling us snippets of information about her.

The most complete account of her life comes from the harper and tradition bearer Arthur O’Neil. He mentions Kate Martin a few times in his Memoirs, his autobiography which he dictated c.1808. Most of them are just mentions of her name, in lists of other harpers. But in the neater revised version of his Memoirs, Arthur O’Neil gives us a very nice potted biography of Kate Martin.

Kate Martin, this female performer was born in the parish of Lurgan in the County of Cavan. Her parents I am informed were but poor. I do not know how she became nearly blind, as she could walk without a Guide. She was taught the Harp by a man named Owen Corr, with whom I had no acquaintance. Kate played very handsomely, but had a strong partiality for playing the tunes composed by Parson Sterling, the Rector of that parish of Lurgan, who was celebrated for his performance on the Bag pipes This Minister compos’d a celebrated tune called the “Priest of Lurgan” which tune Kate played uncommon well. She seldom or ever travelled out of the bounds of the County Cavan.

Arthur O’Neil, Memoirs (neat version), QUB SC MS4.14 p.89

I think this tells us almost all we know about her. Lurgan parish in County Cavan includes the town of Virginia. It seems that Arthur O’Neil did not know Kate Martin well, since a lot of these statements seem a bit tentative. But he obviously had met her; he says he “had no acquantance” with her teacher Owen Corr, which implies he had not met Owen Corr but presumably had met Kate Martin. He also says that Kate Martin “played very handsomely” which I think is high praise indeed, since Arthur O’Neil could be quite critical of the playing ability of his peers.

Arthur O’Neil also mentions Kate Martin’s name a few times elsewhere in his Memoirs. He names her in the rough version of his Memoirs (QUB SC MS4.46 p13), in a list of harpers he had met in County Cavan when he was young. Another name in this list is Ned MacCormack who may be the Edward McCormick who died in the autumn of 1757, so the list may describe Arthur O’Neil’s travels in County Cavan in the 1750s.

The Market House, Granard, venue for the three “Balls” or gatherings of harpers in 1784, 1785 and 1786.

Arthur O’Neil also names Kate Martin in his descriptions of who attended the second and third “Balls” at Granard in County Longford. Unfortunately, Arthur O’Neil got the years of the balls wrong, because he was guessing; he says the three balls were “to the best of my Recollection in 1781, 1782, & 1783”. In fact we have newspaper reports that show the three balls were in 1784, 1785 and 1786. See Diarmaid Ó Catháin, ‘Féilte Cláirseoireachta Ghránaird, John Dungan, Cóbanhávan, agus an Rómánsachas Luath’, Eighteenth-Century Ireland / Iris an dá chultúr vol 22, 2007, p106 for more on the Granard balls. My header photo shows me with Ann Heymann outside the Market House in Granard.

Arthur O’Neil’s information tells us that Kate Martin was present at the second Granard ball (Memoirs rough p32) which was on Monday 1st August 1785 (Dublin Evening Post Sat 2 Jul 1785 p1), and at the third ball (Memoirs rough p39) which was on Tuesday 1st August 1786 (Dublin Evening Post Thu 27 Jul 1786, cited in Seán Donnelly ‘An Eighteenth century harp medley’, Ceol na hÉireann / Irish Music 1, 1993). But Kate Martin did not win any of the prizes and we have no other information about her being there.

Also, the Granard balls in the 1780s are before the beginning of my Long 19th Century study period, which runs from 1792 to 1909, so I am not wanting to pay too much attention to them.

Snippets of the information from Arthur O’Neil were published in garbled form by Edward Bunting in his 1840 book (intro p62 and 81) which I think might be the only published references to her until the 20th century.

We also have traditionary information that apparently comes from Arthur O’Neil’s pupil, Patrick Byrne, in 1849:

Cate Martin a woman <a native of> Co Cavan near Virginia was an older person than Arthur O Nial & played better than ever he did.

John Bell’s notebook, Glasgow University Library MS Farmer 332 f2r, published in H.G. Farmer, ‘Some notes on the Irish harp’, Music & Letters 24, 1943 p103

I think this corroborates Arthur O’Neil’s account, since O’Neil was generally quite critical of the other harpers and so when he says that she “played very handsomely” I think this is a high praise indeed. This also helps us to guess when Kate Martin might have been born; Arthur O’Neil was born in the 1730s so we could tentatively suggest that Kate Martin may have been born in the 1720s. This would make her very roughly in her 60s or 70s when our study period begins in 1792.

I’m curious as to why Patrick Byrne mentioned Kate Martin to John Bell. Patrick Byrne was born some time between 1794 and 1798; I think it is unlikely that he would have met Kate Martin and got this information direct from her. But the passage in question comes from a short list of 18th century harpers: Alexander Victory, Charles McCabe; Cate Martin; Dennis Hempson; and Charles Fanning) and so this information about them might all have been learned by Patrick Byrne from the anecdotes of Arthur O’Neil.

Unreliable information

The other collection of references to Kate Martin come in attribution tags that Edward Bunting or his editors have written in beside classical piano arrangements of tunes in music manuscripts or printed books in the late 1830s or early 1840s. I have written before about the huge problems with these late attributions; I strongly suspect that some at least of Bunting’s attributions are either mistaken or invented.

Kate Martin’s name appears beside a number of piano arrangements in Edward Bunting’s books and papers.

It is easy to be naive and take Bunting’s writing at face value but I think we have to see his work as a long multi-stage process. I have written elsewhere about Bunting’s collecting trips, and I did a talk about his process of collecting. I think there were various stages to his work. First he would collect a rough outline version of a tune; often he would simply copy it out from an earlier book (this was the normal way that tune collectors worked in the late 18th century; for more on this see Alice Little’s 2018 DPhil thesis). But Bunting also went out to visit traditional musicians and wrote sketchy fragmentary notations direct from their playing. He then re-worked what he had collected, and transformed it into classical piano arrangements, ready for publication. What makes Bunting unique is that he was so disorganised that he did not throw away his working papers, but preserved them in a disorganised pile, so that (with a lot of analysis and digging) we can see a lot more of his process than of any of his contemporaries.

Bunting’s final published work, The Ancient Music of Ireland (1840) includes attribution listings in the index stating that certain tunes were collected from Kate Martin. Her name appears three times in the index. On page ix, against the title Maguire’s Lamentation, under “where and from whom procured”, it says “C. Martin, Harper, Virginia, County Cavan, 1796”. And on page xi, there are two entries; against The woodhill or Lady Maisterton it says “C. Martin, harper at Virginia, 1800” and against The jolly merchant it says “C. Martin, harper, County Cavan, 1802”.

Before we try to analyse these fragments of information we can try to trace earlier sources of this information. The main source, I think, for these 1840 attributions, is a pair of big piano manuscripts which were written by Bunting’s editors or assistants probably in the late 1830s, and which contain the developed classical piano arrangements which were being prepared for printing in 1840. Many of these piano arrangements have attribution tags written underneath them. The two piano manuscripts are now in Bunting’s papers at Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.13 and MS4.27.

Maguire’s Lamentation is found in MS4.13 p17. It is titled “The Maguire’s Lamentation or Cooach” and underneath is written “From Kate Martin the Harper / at Virginia in the Co Cavan / in 1796″. However the tune also appears in MS4.27 with a different attribution tag, “from Byrne the Harper in 1802”. To me these conflicting attributions are a red flag; this information is being written 40 years after the supposed collecting activity, beside classical piano arrangements that bear little relationship to the traditional performances of the harpers; and I don’t think Bunting was recording this kind of source metadata when he was out collecting in the 1790s and early 1800s. I suspect he is either trying to reconstruct from his messy disorganised early papers, or just assigning attributions based on his faulty memory or even inventing them from whole cloth to lend gravitas to his piano publication project. We do have an early transcription of this tune from a traditional informant, but it is in QUB SC MS4.33.1, which was used by Bunting to collect song airs in Mayo in 1802, and so seems extremely unlikely to have been collected from either Kate Martin or Charles Byrne.

Lady Maisterton appears in QUB SC MS4.13 p56 as a developed classical piano arrangement; it is titled “Cnoc na Coille, The Woodhill, or Lady Maisterton” and underneath is written “From Kate Martin the Harper at Virginia / Co Cavan in 1800″. We also find a developed classical piano arrangement in MS4.27 with the same title and the same attribution. We can also find earlier notations of this tune; there is a piano arrangement in Bunting’s Ancient and Modern manuscript piano collection which appears to date from c.1798; this book contains a piano arrangement of our tune (QUB SC MS4.33.3 p62, where the piano arrangement is titled “Lady Maisterton” and underneath is written “From ______ Martin a Harp’ress in County Cavan”. Now of course we don’t know when this attribution tag was written in; it could have been in 1798, but it could alternatively have been inserted at any time later. If we assume it is contemporary with the compilation of this book in 1798 then it gives us useful and interesting information, that at that date Edward Bunting did not know Kate Martin’s first name. He uses the word “harperess” to indicate a female harper.

We do have what looks like it might be a live transcription notation from a traditional player, in QUB SC MS4.29 page 206/204/213/f101v. I have already written up this page of notation in my post on Lady Maisterton as part of my transcription Project. But as usual, Bunting did not write any source metadata on this initial notation, so we have no real way of telling if it may have been sourced from Kate Martin or not; we also don’t know when it was written, but it may have been in 1796.

The tune of Ceannaí súgach appears in the two big piano manuscripts from the late 1830s. In MS4.13 p53, the piano arrangement is titled “The Cannae Sugah, or The Merchant’s Daughter” and the attribution underneath says “From Kate Martin the Harper / Co. Cavan / in 1802″. The tune also appears in MS4.27 p57 titled “Cannae Sugah. The Merchant’s Daughter”, but with a different attribution written at the bottom: “From W. Sloan, Esqr. at Armagh in 1799″. This English title mentioning the daughter seems just wrong; the published 1840 title “The Jolly Merchant” seems better. Súgach means something like merry or happy; ceannaí is a buyer, a dealer or merchant. I already discussed the initial sketchy notation of this tune and its possible connection to W. Sloan of Armagh, in my recent post on the harper Dominic O’Donnell. In any case, the association with Kate Martin seems spurious.

After his 1840 book was published, Edward Bunting seems to have gone back through his earlier published books (1797 and 1809), and he wrote into his own personal copies of the two printed books, attribution information against the tunes (see Karen Loomis, Edward Bunting’s Annotated Volumes). Against the tune of Molly McAlpin in the 1797 book (tune no.44) Bunting has written “Harp Kate Martin”. However we can be pretty sure that Bunting actually collected this tune not from a traditional musician, but from a printed book; he copied the tune of Molly McAlpin into his little field collecting pamphlets before 1794. You can see Bunting’s hand copy of the tune in QUB SC MS4.29 p70/66/75/f32v. The title there is “Molly Halfpenny”and Bunting has written in a cartouche “Printed B__” to show that he has copied the tune from a printed book. We can recognise that it has been copied from John and William Neal, A Colection of the Most Celebrated Irish Tunes… (1724). Bunting got his own copy of the Neal book on 3rd October 1794 according to the date he wrote into it, so the hand copy in MS4.29 must pre-date that. So I don’t believe the early 1840s annotation at all for this tune.

A few pages later in MS4.29 we have another tune copied from the Neal book, on MS4.29 p73/69/78/f34r. This tune is Radaire Mínchosach; at the bottom of the page Bunting has written in pencil “Kate Martin”. I presume this name was added later and I don’t know why he has written it. There does not seem to be any context for her name to appear here.

We have one more place where Kate Martin’s name appears, in the late 1830s, in a list of harpers written into one of the big piano manuscripts, on M4.13 p45. Towards the bottom of the list it says “Kate Martin Cavan” but I don’t think this tells us anything useful.


So what can we say about the harper Kate Martin?

All our sources call her Kate, or Cate, or C. Martin. Nowadays she is often assumed to have been called Catherine Martin but I don’t know if she would have used that form of the name.

We know she was from “near” Virginia, County Cavan. She did not travel much; we have information that she went to Granard for two of the Balls, in the summers of 1785 and 1786, but she did not win a prize. I think she was likely aged in her 60s by this time.

We are also told that she had some connection to Parson Stirling, a piper at Lurgan parish, Virginia, and that she played his tunes. Seán Donnelly has written an article about Parson Stirling which discusses this: Seán Donnelly, ‘An eighteenth-century minister and piper’, Ulster Folklife 46, 2000. Seán also discusses the tune “The Priest of Lurgan” which Kate Martin is said to have played.

We are told that she came from a poor family, and that she learned the harp from Owen Corr. But I don’t know anything more about him.

When did she die? Was she still alive in 1792 or had she already died by then? I don’t know. It disturbs me a bit that Arthur O’Neil was in Virginia in 1793 setting up a harp school (Dublin Evening Post Thurs 8, 15, & 22 Aug 1793); if Kate Martin was still alive would this not be a bit of treading on her territory? To me this suggests she was no longer on the scene in 1793.

It also kind of depends on if we can trust Edward Bunting’s information. At this stage I am minded to not believe him at all. I think most of his attribution information he gives about her is spurious or invented. The only vaguely plausible attribution he gives us is for Lady Maisterton, though even that is not certain. I think that it is possible that Bunting met Kate Martin in 1792 in County Cavan, and took down the live transcription notation of Lady Maisterton (QUB SC MS4.29 page 206) from her playing. If so, it must have been a brief meeting since he apparently did not get her first name. But we have no other evidence that Bunting was in County Cavan then; his collecting in 1792 seems to have been restricted to West Ulster and Connacht. It is quite possible that Bunting never met her. Perhaps someone else got the tune from her and passed it on to Bunting. Or perhaps it is all spurious and invented.

At the moment we can’t say much more than that about her. We can only hope that some new primary source might turn up – perhaps a newspaper death notice, or a diary entry in the private papers of one of her patrons.

Total confusion

Unfortunately, there has been a massive amount of confusion caused by a song air which is sometimes titled “Kate Martin”. This is of course not our Kate Martin; both forename and surname are pretty common and so there are any number of women in Ireland, both real and fictional, called Kate Martin.

Our tune is is a whole family of related lyrics and melodies; the tune is known in Irish as “Giolla na Sgriob”, and in English it first appears as “Kate Martin” but it is best known by a slightly later title “Kate Kearney”. These are all the titles of songs that have been sung to the tune. I think this tune and the songs were quite popular in the 19th century, but they seem to have pretty much disappeared from the living tradition in the 20th century. This recording is the song of Kate Kearney:

The Irish title, Giolla na Sgríob, is the first line of the Irish language song beginning “a ghiolla na sgriob i n-antráth”. We have a text of this song which was collected by Patrick Lynch in Mayo in 1802; you can see his neat presentation copy of the lyric online, in Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections MS4.7.180, and you can also see Lynch’s English translation in QUB SC MS 4.32.041. The song of Giolla na Sgríob is fairly explicit; I am finding references that sgríob is an obsolete spelling of scríob (scrape, scratch, itch), and of course giolla is a boy or youth . Donal O’Sullivan prints a censored text and translation in his Bunting part 1 p.26-7 (1926).

I think the earliest version of the English language song is the Kate Martin version. In the summer of 1792. Edward Bunting was in Mayo touring with Richard Kirwan, collecting song airs; Bunting’s collecting pamphlets from this trip form parts 2 and 4 of QUB SC MS4.29 (see my PDF collation). The tune is on QUB SC MS4.29 page 113/109/118/f54r. It is clearly titled “and didn’t you hear of Kate Martin”, which I would asume is the first line of the song sung to it. Underneath the notation is a second title written in pencil, which appears to read “Galean a Schribean Antra”.

A version of the tune was published, apparently in 1809, by the Irish piper John Murphy, “piper on the Union pipes at Eglinton Castle”, in his Collection of Irish Airs and Jiggs with variations, p12. The title in Murphy’s book is “Kate Martin.”

Unfortunately I have not managed to track down any other versions of the lyric beginning “And didn’t you hear of Kate Martin”. Presumably the name “Kate Martin” was used as part of a rhyme scheme; the tune has a Limerick meter and so invites different Limerick lyrics to be sung to it.

At some point the lyric was changed, or updated, or modernised; many later commentators say this was done by Sydney Owenson, Lady Morgan (c.1781-1859). The new lyric changed the girl’s name from Martin to Kearney, presumably to give a nice rhyme with Killarney in the second line.

I found a version of the tune in Pádraig Ó Néill’s manuscript (NLI MS 44806 vol 3 p232) under the title “Kate Karney”. However I am not certain of the dating or structure of this manuscript, so I don’t know what the date of this is. It could be 1790s or it could be early 1800s.

In 1807 we have a wonderful printed sheet of this new lyric. The song is attributed here to “O’Corolan (the Irish bard)”, and we have a lovely drawing of Kate casting her evil eye at an innocent young man. The first line is “Oh did you not hear of Kate Kearney”.

BM 1861,0518.1163 © The Trustees of the British Museum, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license

The lyric was printed in The Shamrock, or the Hibernian Songster, 1810, p3 and after that it was reprinted many times. It also spawned other variants; the popular poet and songwriter Samuel Lover composed a kind of pastiche, about the Blarney stone, “Oh, did you ne’er hear of the Blarney” (see Poetical works 5th ed, p31, 1868). By the end of the 19th century the name “Kate Kearney” had become an important enough part of Irish consciousness to be used by James Joyce (see Mary Power, The Naming of Kathleen Kearney, in the Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 5, No. 3, Sep 1976.

The tune was printed in O’Farrell’s Pocket Companion for the Irish or Union Pipes, vol 4 p132, under the title Kate Kearney. Unfortunately the date of this book is not known securely; it may be as early as 1795 but it is more likely after 1800. The 2nd edition was published before 1809.

Edward Bunting printed piano arrangements of the tune, apparently derived from his 1792 vocal transcription titled “And didn’t you hear of Kate Martin”. Bunting made a piano arrangement of this tune in his 1797 collection (no.9) titled “A ghilla na sgriub anantrat / The Beardless Boy”, and he also made a piano arrangement of the tune in his 1809 Collection (p12) titled “A ghiolladh na sgriobe / The dissipated youth”. I think we understand these two English titles as being not very good translations of the original Irish title “a ghiolla na sgriob i n-antráth”.

So far so good. Where it all begins to go pear shaped is when Edward Bunting was writing tune annotations into his 1797 and 1809 printed books, apparently in the early 1840s. When he got to tune no.9 in his 1797 collection titled “A ghilla na sgriub anantrat / The Beardless Boy”, Bunting wrote in the margin “Harp Kate Martin”; and then when he got to the same tune on p.12 of his 1809 Collection titled “A ghiolladh na sgriobe / The dissipated youth”, he again wrote “Harp / Kate Martin”.

Why did Bunting choose to attribute this tune to the harper Kate Martin? My guess is that he misremembered, or he misunderstood his own manuscript song title that he had written 50 years previously.

Where it goes completely pear shaped is In the 1920s, when Donal O’Sullivan was working on his editions of Bunting’s tunes in the Journal of the Irish Folk Song Society. Donal O’Sullivan did not have access to these British Library annotated volumes (no-one knew about them until Karen Loomis discovered them there), but he did have access to a transcription of the annotations in the 1797 volume only, which I think had been made in London by Charlotte Milligan Fox and which is now in Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections 4.41. So based on this transcript of the annotated book, Donal O’Sullivan confidently stated that the “Air” of Giolla na Sgriob was “obtained from Kate Martin, a woman harper who is said by Arthur O’Neil to have been born in the parish of Lurgan, County Cavan” (Donal O’Sullivan, ‘The Bunting Collection of Irish Folk Music and Songs Part 1, in Journal of the Irish Folk Song Society, London, vols XXII-XXIII, December 1926, p28). Since then, everyone has repeated this claim, and so the tune of Giolla na Sgríob has spuriously become associated with the harper Kate Martin.

As a final aside, there is a Carolan song in praise of a woman called Kate (Cait, Caitriona, Catherine) Martin. It is tune no.99 in Donal O’Sullivan’s Carolan.

James Cody copied both the tune and the words into his notebooks in c.1805-1810. You can see his tune in Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections, MS 4.5.012 and his words in MS4.6.074 . His title there is Caitriona Mairtin.

Patrick Lynch wrote down the words in Mayo in the summer of 1802. You can see three different manuscript copies of the words, in QUB SC MS4_26_25g, and MS4_26_17a + 17b and MS4.10.043; Lynch also made an English translation which you can see in MS4.14.1 273, 274

One thought on “Kate Martin”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.