Killala Bay, Kilcummin, Co. Mayo before c.1890s NLI L_ROY_06091 No known copyright restrictions

Rose Mooney

Rose Mooney was a traditional Irish harper in the second half of the 18th century. She was still alive after 1792 which means that, as part of my Long 19th Century project, I have to try and say something useful about what she was doing from then onwards.

As usual for these 18th century harpers, we have very little hard information about Rose Mooney’s life. Almost 15 years ago I tried to gather this information on my old archived website, but there’s no harm in trying to have another go here as part of my Long 19th Century project, trying to say something about every traditional Irish harper who was working between 1792 and 1909.

Her life before 1792

The only information we have about Rose Mooney’s age or date of birth is that she was aged 52 in July 1792; this would mean that she had been born in the second half of 1739 or the first half of 1740. The information comes from Edward Bunting’s Ancient Music of Ireland (1840) intro p.64, however, Bunting does not say where he got this age from, and so I don’t know how reliable it is. The whole passage is obviously copied out from two newspaper reports, and consists of a list of names and ages from the Belfast News Letter Fri 13 Jul 1792 p3, and a list of tunes from The Northern Star Wed 18 Jul 1792. But Rose Mooney’s age is not in the original news report; Bunting has silently added it.

Our main source for Rose Mooney’s life before 1792 comes from anecdotes in the autobiography of the harper and tradition-bearer Arthur O’Neil, written c.1808. The Memoirs of Arthur O’Neil, which is kept in manuscript at Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.46 (the initial rough draft) and MS4.14 (a corrected extended neat version).

Arthur O’Neil does not mention Rose Mooney’s age or date of birth. He tells us that Rose Mooney was born in County Meath, that she was blind, and that she was taught to play the harp by Thady Elliott. He also gives us information that Rose Mooney travelled with her maid, Mary, who also acted as her guide. (Memoirs neat p89-91). We are also told that Arthur O’Neil “never heard much about her” which does not give us any confidence about the accuracy of his information.

Arthur O’Neil in his Memoirs also tells us about how Rose Mooney went to the three Granard Harp Balls in the 1780s, and she won the third prize at each of the three balls. He tells us that at the first ball she played the tune of Planxty Burke. I think we can trust this information more since Arthur O’Neil was there and is describing the general progress of the balls. On the other hand he has misremembered the years; he says the three Granard balls were in 1781, 1782 and 1783 whereas they were actually in 1784, 1785 and 1786. He also adds an anecdote about her pawning her harp, petticoat and cloak before the 3rd ball, blaming the episode on her maid Mary’s alcoholism. We will discuss Mary more below.

But I don’t want to dwell on the Granard balls, since they are from before our Long 19th Century study period begins in 1792. I only mention them to show that Rose Mooney was obviously a good player, and to give some background as to where she was in her life and career at the start of our study period.

Going to Belfast in 1792

We first actually meet Rose Mooney in the primary sources in 1792, when she is listed in a newspaper report of the harpers who attended the famous meeting in Belfast, which ran from Wednesday 11th to Saturday 14th July 1792.

ROSE MOONEY (blind) from the co. Meath.
Played – Sir Charles Coote
             Mrs. Judge,
             Mrs French, or Miss Fanny Power.

Belfast Newsletter, Friday 13th July 1792 p3

I think this is the earliest source we have that names her. We will discuss the tunes later.

Every other harper named in this newspaper report is given with their age, but not Rose Mooney. I imagine this is because she was a woman, and that it would seem indecent to print her age. But I don’t know.

The harper and tradition-bearer William Carr was also at the 1792 meeting in Belfast, so he would have met Rose Mooney then. He later reminisced (in 1807) about the meeting, and mentioned her:

Rose Moony from West Meath (a woman played very well and better than some

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

I really value these opinions from “insiders” whether they are right or not. Carr’s statement that she played very well is consistent from her placing in the Granard competitions.

Also in 1808, Arthur O’Neil included her name in his list of the people who were at the Belfast meeting in July 1792 (Memoirs neat version p.69), but he does not add any more information there.

In Mayo, 1798

We have one anecdote from Arthur O’Neil which would refer to events in 1798, though it seems wildly fantastical and made up. I think the only part of this story that is at all based in fact is the first sentence:

… I never heard much about her only as an Itinerant Harper until I was informed that she and her maid Mary were in Killala at the time the French landed there.

Memoirs neat p90-91 (QUB SC MS4.14)

A small number of French soldiers landed near Killala, County Mayo, in August 1798; I assume this is the episode Arthur O’Neil is thinking of. My header photo shows a 19th century photo of Kilcummin, where the French landed, on the north side of Killala Bay about 9km north of Killala town. (Photo: NLI via Flickr)

Death, some time after 1798?

In about 1805 – 1806, the novelist Sidney Owenson was writing to various people asking them questions about Irish harps and harpers. Arthur O’Neil replied, giving information, and Owenson included an extract from his letter in her novel The Wild Irish Girl which was published in 1806. This passage starts by referring to fifteen (apparently amateur) female harpers:

…all are now dead; so is Rose Moony (a professional bardess), who was likewise celebrated…

letter from Mr. O’Neil, quoted in Owenson, The Wild Irish Girl, 1806 (3rd edition, v1 p220-1)

This seems very matter-of-fact and so I think we can cautiously suggest that Rose Mooney died some time between 1798 and 1806. Carr in his 1807 information lists some of the harpers as “dead already”; he doesn’t say that about Rose Mooney. But I don’t think we can take that as evidence that she was still alive in 1807. Carr may just not have known.

A few years later, in about 1808, Arthur O’Neil gave a lurid imaginary account of Rose Mooney’s death, but we will discuss that later along with other dubious or unreliable information.


We can summarise what we know about Rose Mooney from 1792 onwards very simply; that she travelled as an itinerant harper with her maid Mary; that she went to the Belfast meeting in July 1792; and that she was said to have been in Mayo in August 1798. But we don’t really know anything more about what she was doing apart from those two brief snapshots.

The reference to her travelling suggests to me that she was going from one patron to another, and so it is possible that one day we might find a reference to her at the house of a patron. I also would like to find a death notice, or some other straightforward contemporary record of her activities.

But for the 18th century harpers, straightforward contemporary records seem to be in shockingly short supply. What we get instead is excessive amounts of retrospective rumours, speculations, and ambiguous mentions of the harpers’ names in unlikely or ill-defined contexts. These mentions then get repeated and re-interpreted by other writers down to the present day. The rest of this post will deal with a variety of unsatisfactory references which mention Rose Mooney.

Edward Bunting’s attribution tags

Rose Mooney’s name is written beside a number of Bunting’s classical piano arrangements. The intent of these tags is to intimate that the new piano arrangement was based on a tune originally sourced from a live traditional performance by Rose Mooney. However I think these attribution tags are extremely unreliable; while some appear to be consistent with what we know about how Bunting collected and then arranged the material, others seem to be quite wrong, and I think that in the absence of any corroborating information, we have to be very suspicious of these attribution tags.

I think that in general we can divide these attribution tags into two main periods. Some attribution tags were written in to Bunting’s unpublished Ancient and Modern piano manuscript (Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections, Ms4.33.3 & 4.33.2). This 2-volume set was clearly intended for publication but was never actually published; it was compiled around 1798. The tunes had been initially collected apparently in 1792 and 1796, some from printed and manuscript books and others from live performance of tradition-bearers; then the tunes had been de-traditionalised and transformed into classical piano arrangements. But because the collecting sessions had only been a few years previously, I think we can take these attribution tags seriously, though we have to keep in mind the possibility that the attribution tags may have been retrospectively written in to the earlier book at a later date.

The other (and bigger) group of attribution tags was written between the late 1830s and the beginning of the 1840s, between 40 and 50 years after the actual collecting sessions. Many of them were written not by Bunting himself, but by his anonymous editor(s) or assistant(s). I am much less happy to believe these late attribution tags, unless there is earlier corroborating evidence. These tags are found in the late 1830s piano manuscripts (QUB SC MS4.13 and MS4.27), and in the index of the 1840 printed book, and in early 1840s annotations in Bunting’s personal copies of his 1797 and 1809 printed books (BL Add Ms 41508).

I think we should just summarise the tunes and attribution tags in each source. We can discuss Rose Mooney’s repertory based on these and other evidence later on.

Attribution tags from the 1790s

Attribution tags which I think date from the 1790s can be found in Edward Bunting’s two-volume unpublished piano manuscript, titled Ancient and Modern and compiled in 1798. The two volumes are now kept at Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.33.3 (vol 1) and MS4.33.2 (vol 2).

Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.33.3 p2 (detail)

Lady Blaney, “From Rose Mooney D[???????] (QUB SC MS4.33.3 p2). I can’t read the deleted word starting with D.
Charles Coote, “from Rose Mooney” (QUB SC MS4.33.3 p50)
Pléaráca na Ruarcach, “From Rose Mooney” (QUB SC MS4.33.2 p13)

Attribution tags from the late 1830s

Attribution tags which I think date from the late 1830s can be found in two large format piano manuscripts written by editors or secretaries for Edward Bunting as part of the preparation of piano arrangements for his 1840 book. These two volumes mostly duplicate one another but there are differences in the order of tunes, in the arrangements, and in the metadata (titles, attributions and other text). The two volumes are now kept at Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.13 and MS4.27.

In MS4.13:
Charles Coote, “from Rose Mooney in 1799” (p80)
Plangsty Miss Burke, “from Rose Mooney the harper in 1799 (also p.80)

In MS4.27:
Charles Coote, “from Rose Mooney in 1799” (p51)

Attribution tags in the 1840 printed book

Pages vii, viii-ix, and x-xi of the index to the 1840 printed book The Ancient Music of Ireland lists each tune title, and then states “where and from whom procured”, and also a date.

On page ix:
Charles Coote, “Rose Mooney, harper, 1800″

Attribution tags from the early 1840s

Karen Loomis discovered Edward Bunting’s later annotations in the British Library, London (Add MS 41508). This bound volume contains printed copies of both the 1797 printed book and the 1809 printed book, and Edward Bunting has gone through each book writing an attribution beside each piano arrangement. There are also other handwritten comments written beside some tunes.

I think these annotations were done in the early 1840s, after the 1840 book had been published. I assume they were done as part of a plan to update and re-issue these older collections.

Planxty Connor: “Harp Rose Mooney / …and set as played on the harp” (1809, p. 13)
Carolan’s Cap: “Harp Mooney” (1809, p. 24)
Planxty Maguire: “Harp Mooney” (1809, p. 34)
Planxty Thomas McJudge: “Mooney Harp / In this tune the harp was tuned in C the bass EE raised a semitone to F natural or high bass key” (1809, p. 47)
Letitia Burke: “Mooney Harp” / Carolan certainly” (1809, p. 55)
Madam Birmingham: “Harp Mooney” (1809, p. 70)
Morgan Magan: “Harp Mooney” (1809, p. 71)
The twisting of the rope: “Harp Mooney” (1796, p. 10)
Nanny MacDermott Roe: “Harp Mooney” (1796, p. 29)
Thomas O’Burke: “Harp Mooney” (1796, p. 34)
Planxty Maguire: “Harp Mooney” (1796 p.35)

I think that the 1798 attribution tags may be more reliable than the late 1830s and early 1840s tags, since they would have been written closer to the times of the collecting trips in the 1790s. But even some of the 1798 attribution tags seem spurious. Without careful analysis I would not take any of them at face value.

Rose Mooney’s repertory

We have some definitive statements about tunes that Rose Mooney played. Arthur O’Neil says she played the tune of Planxty Burke at the first Granard ball (Memoirs neat version p.43), which was held on 30th August 1784 (Dublin Evening Post Sat 17 Jul 1784 p1). And at the meeting of harpers in Belfast from Wednesday 11th to Saturday 14th July 1792, she is said to have played three tunes, Charles Coote, Mrs. Judge, and Miss Fanny Power (Belfast Newsletter, Friday 13th July 1792 p3).

I think this is very interesting to see these four titles securely assigned to Rose Mooney.

Edward Bunting had access to both these sources (the Memoirs and the Belfast Newsletter), and so he could easily have used these sources to assign Rose Mooney’s name to these tunes when he came to make piano arrangements of them, no matter if he had originally collected the tune from a harper, a singer or from a printed book or someone else’s manuscript.

But we can try to say something useful about these four tunes at least.

Miss Burke

Arthur O’Neil tells us that Rose Mooney played Planxty Burke at the first Granard Ball (i.e. 1784), when she won third prize. This tune is said to have been composed by Carolan; it is no.72 in Donal O’Sullivan’s Carolan (1958).

In the late 1830s piano manuscripts, a piano arrangement of Plangsty Miss Burke is tagged “from Rose Mooney the harper in 1799” (QUB SC MS4.13 p80). But I have no information where Bunting got this tune for before the late 1830s, and he may well have copied it from a printed book, and just added the “Rose Mooney” tag and an invented date, based on the mention in Arthur O’Neil’s Memoirs. I don’t know any way of telling at this stage. In both big piano books (MS4.13 and MS4.27), Miss Burke is on the same page as Charles Coote; Charles Coote is tagged as being from Rose Mooney both times, but Miss Burke is tagged as being from Arthur O’Neil in MS4.27, and that Arthur O’Neil tag is carried forward and used in the 1840 Ancient Music of Ireland where the tune is no.58 on p.43. This is the kind of tag inconsistency that makes me doubt the attribution tags.

There are other “Burke” tunes, so we can’t be sure that it was DOSC 72 that Rose Mooney played in Belfast in 1792; it could have been DOSC 10 (Letty Burke), or 12 (Isabella Burke), or 14 (Planxty Burke). I don’t think there is any sensible way to tell. Bunting tagged DOSC 10 Letty Burke as being collected from Rose Mooney in the early 1840s, but I think at best this is more likely Bunting getting confused between different Burke tunes.

Charles Coote

The newspaper report says that Rose Mooney played Sir Charles Coote at the Belfast meeting in July 1792. This tune is said to have been composed by Carolan; it is tune no.18 in Donal O’Sullivan’s Carolan.

Edward Bunting made a rough sketch notation of the tune of Charles Coote in one of Bunting’s collecting pamphlets from the 1790s, in QUB SC MS4.29 p.202/200/209/f99v. But in my PDF index of MS4.29 I have tentatively suggested that this looks like it has been copied into the collecting pamphlet from somewhere else, and not made as a live transcription notation from the playing of a tradition-bearer. So at present my guess is that Bunting’s initial sketch probably doesn’t reflect Rose Mooney’s playing. I could of course be wrong.

Bunting published his piano arrangement in 1840, and I think everyone who has played the tune since then has got it via Bunting.

Mrs. Judge

The Belfast Newsletter, Friday 13th July 1792 p3 says that Rose Mooney played Mrs. Judge at the meeting of harpers in Belfast. This tune is said to have been composed by Carolan; it is an interesting tune consisting of an air followed by a jig variation. It is no.68 in Donal O’Sullivan’s Carolan.

I think our only source for this tune is Edward Bunting’s piano arrangements; every later version seems to be derived from Bunting’s work. Bunting does not tag any of his piano arrangements with Rose Mooney’s name; if we check my transcriptions project tune list spreadsheet we can see that the air and the jig are variously tagged with the names of Black, O’Neil and Higgins.

Fanny Power

The Belfast Newsletter, Friday 13th July 1792 p3 says that Rose Mooney played Mrs French, or Miss Fanny Power at the meeting of harpers in Belfast. This well know tune is a song air composed by Carolan, in praise of Fanny Power who later married Richard Trench, hence the two titles (the newspaper has an unfortunate typo). The tune is no. 155 in Donal O’Sullivan’s Carolan.

Our only source for the tune is Edward Bunting’s books; we find the tune of Fanny Power written into his rough collecting pamphlets, in MS4.29 p.22/22/31/f10v. However this is obviously not a live transcription from a tradition bearer; it seems clear to me that it has been copied from an older manuscript or printed book. Bunting developed it into a piano arrangement and tagged it with Charles Byrne’s name and then later with Arthur O’Neil.

There seems no doubt that it was a version of this tune that Rose Mooney played in Belfast; but I would not like to guess what her version was like, or how close it was to the version Bunting lifted from an older book and worked up into a classical piano arrangement.

Other tunes

Lady Blayney is described in the 1798 piano arrangement as “from Rose Mooney” but irritatingly I can’t read the next word(s). The tune of Lady Blaney is no.5 in Donal O’Sullivan’s Carolan. We can follow the attribution tags through; in 1798 it is tagged Rose Mooney, but in the late 1830s it has conflicting tags, for Rose Mooney (MS4.27) and for Charles Fanning (MS4.13). In Bunting’s 1840 index, it is listed as being from Charles Fanning. Bunting’s source that he used for his piano arrangements is a neat copy of the tune which he wrote into his collecting pamphlets in the 1790s, which you can see online at QUB SC MS4.29 page 43/39/048/f19r. The previous leaf in this pamphlet (Bunting’s original pages 41-42) is missing and I have suggested in my MS4.29 index that this neat copy of the tune of Lady Blayney on page 43 might have been developed directly from a live transcription sketch on the lost facing page 42. Maybe this could have represented the live field transcription from the playing of Rose Mooney? Or from a different harper? I think it is impossible to tell.

The other tunes Rose Mooney is said to have played are only associated with her from Bunting’s late attribution tags, so I am not sure there is much point dwelling too much on them. I wrote up Pléaráca na Ruarcach, Madam Maxwell, Madge Malone, Casadh an tSúgáin, and Nanny McDermotroe, as part of my Transcriptions project, and I discussed their possible provevances there already. It is possible that some of the live transcription notations discussed on those pages were written during collecting sessions with Rose Mooney in the 1790s, or they could all be spurious.

You can check my Transcriptions Project Tune List Spreadsheet where all these attribution tags for all the harpers are collated against the live transcription notations in MS4.29 and elsewhere.

Summary of Rose Mooney’s repertory

I’m sure Rose Mooney had a big repertory, like any professional traditional musician. We know that in the 1820s, traditional Irish harpers would learn over 60 tunes before they would be considered finished and set off to make their living. These tunes that are tagged with her name or listed as being played by her must be just a fragment of her complete repertory, a snapshot of a part of her repertory. Perhaps the four tunes she is said to have played at the meetings were favourites. We don’t know.

It is notable that all the tunes associated with her are said to have been composed by Carolan. Perhaps she had a thing for Carolan tunes, or perhaps it is pure co-incidence.

We have no information at all about her singing. Perhaps she didn’t sing, and was just an instrumentalist. Though on the other hand I’m sure in the 18th century everyone knew a lot of these songs anyway. I do notice that many of these tunes listed seem to be pure instrumental tunes.

Rose Mooney’s maid, Mary

Arthur O’Neil tells us in salacious detail about the maid Mary’s drinking. I am putting these stories here and not as part of Rose Mooney’s life, because I am not entirely convinced that they are reliable.

…the faults or Ludicrous remarks I made use of her respecting her own Conduct. should be entirely attributed to her maid Mary – Whose uncommon desire for drinking was unlimitted and taking advantage of her mistress’s Blindness she always when money was wanting, pawned any article on which she could rise ½ a pint…

Memoirs, rough version p.40

We get more of the same after where he told us she was in Killala in 1798. This section seems entirely fantasy:

How she and her maid, & the Devil’s own Maid she was, finished their career, is not well known, but it is generally imagined, that when the Rebels forced open the Loyalist’s spirit stores, Rose and her maid went into some of them, where the impression Thady Elliott gave Rose in her early Days had such an effect, that it is generally imagined she Kicked the Bucket as her tutor did. Rose was at one time much respected, But it is certain that her maid was the principal cause of her falling into dis–esteem, as she would, and did sacrifice her mistress’s reputation for a Glass of Whiskey.

Memoirs neat p90-91 (QUB SC MS4.14)

We can see here that Arthur O’Neil is in his full stride as a raconteur and storyteller, and he is liberally and freely slandering his colleague and fantasising about what might have happened to them. I think the entire episode about Rose and Mary breaking into the liquor stores and dying of alcohol poisoning looks entirely made up in his own imagination, and tells us more about Arthur O’Neil than it does about Rose Mooney.

Other rumours about Rose Mooney

Mike Parker mentions Rose Mooney in his brief descriptions of material he says come from Mary Whepple’s manuscripts (Mike Parker, New strung and shall be heard, Lulu 2021 p.12). As well as a passing comment about “the smell of strong drink that hovered about Rósin Maonaigh” (p.12), he prints a partial facsimile and edition of a tune “Taken down from Róisin Maonaigh /Rose Mooney” (p.86-7). However, no-one else seems to know anything at all about Mary Whepple or her papers, and so it is very difficult to know what to make of any of this.

Rose Mooney’s harp

We have a very interesting but tantalising description of Rose Mooney’s harp. The description was written down in a letter in 1839 by Dr. James McDonnell, who was the main organiser of the 1792 Belfast meeting, and who himself had recieved some instruction on the traditional wire-strung Irish harp from Arthur O’Neil when he was a child.

It seems that in 1792, James McDonnell had made notes on some of the harps played by the harpers at Belfast, and also had measurements of them made. But the measurements had been lost, and so it is not clear to me if he had any of his notes or anything left from 1792 about the harps, or if he was relying on his memory of 47 years before. But the letter is all we have, and so we need to look at it.

…Rose Mooney’s had 13 strings below, & 18 above
the sisters – a piece of timber, of a triangular
shape (the angle truncated) was placed
within the belly of the Harp, through which
the strings pass’d, being fixd by tranverse pegs
of wood, like quills (the Welsh Harp differd
in this respect & therefore there was <of consequence> a greater
facility in replacing a string) – The Belly
of Mooney’s Harp was split & cracked upon
one side, which <where it> was coverd with canvas, or
Pasteboard beneath, yet it was light, & sonorous, &
much superior to Quinn’s harp – its <the body of it> was
composed of 3 pieces of Timber – there were 4 strips
<of copper> placed tranversely, & one strip longitudinally, to
strengthen the timber, the transverse strips were
closer as you ascended to the treble, where the
tension of the strings, or purchase, is greatest –
The obliquity of the short strings <is> greatest and the
management of this is a principal difficulty in
the mechanical [con]structureion of the instrument –

Queens University Belfast, Special Collections MS4/35/16

As you can see the prose is very ambiguous and there is a lot of crossing out and inserting words. Let’s pull it apart and take it line by line to see if we can get any sense out of it.

…Rose Mooney’s had 13 strings below, & 18 above
the sisters

If we assume the count “above the sisters” and “below” don’t include the two sister strings, then the harp apparently had 33 strings. We can use what we know about the normal setup and tuning of traditional wire-strung Irish harps, to draw up a speculative tuning chart for Rose Mooney’s harp:

This has the same top note as Dennis Hampson’s “Downhill” harp, but it has three extra bass notes.

a piece of timber, of a triangular
shape (the angle truncated) was placed
within the belly of the Harp,

I don’t really understand this. it could be an insert into the soundboard, or it could be a brace or rib within the soundbox. It could even be a strangely garbled description of the press-fit back panel of a carved one-piece soundbox.

through which
the strings pass’d

This could be read as the strings passing through the triangular shaped piece of timber, or he could simply be describing the strings passing through the belly of the harp.

being fixd by tranverse pegs
of wood, like quills

Toggles inside a late 18th century traditional wire-strung Irish harp. See my post ursnaidhm ceangal for more.

This seems to me to be describing the wooden toggles which the strings are tied to. The toggles are “transverse” in that they lie across the inside of the soundboard. I don’t think that these could be pegs running through the soundboard from front to back, because the next section describes how traditional Welsh harps are setup, with through soundboard pegs, to contrast with these transverse pegs on Rose Mooney’s Irish harp:

(the Welsh Harp differd
in this respect & therefore there was <of consequence> a greater
facility in replacing a string)

Through soundboard pegs on an 18th century traditional Welsh harp (Photo: Met Museum)

Dr James McDonnell seems to be digressing away from Rose Mooney’s harp, to explain that the through soundboard pegs on a traditional Welsh harp were different from the “transverse pegs” on Rose Mooney’s Irish harp, and therefore made changing a string easier. The through soundboard pegs do indeed make fitting a string easier since the peg is pulled out by its little round head, and the string is inserted from the front, rather than knotted through the back. It is not clear to me why James McDonnell is describing how a Welsh harp is strung; did he inspect one in 1792 or did he become familiar with them later, in the 1830s?

The Belly
of Mooney’s Harp was split & cracked upon
one side, which <where it> was coverd with canvas, or
Pasteboard beneath,

Here Dr James McDonnell tells us that the “belly” was cracked, and had been repaired by glueing canvas or cardboard over the crack. “Beneath” might mean in the bass, or on the inside; it is not clear. The “belly” could refer to only the front of the soundbox (the soundboard), or it could refer to the entire soundbox. This is also not clear. This is a problem in general with understanding this letter, that the technical terms for the parts of the harp are ill-defined or ambiguous.

yet it was light, & sonorous, &
much superior to Quinn’s harp

It seems fairly likely that Quin’s harp refers to the Castle Otway harp, now kept in Trinity College Dublin, which we know was played by Patrick Quin in 1809, and may have belonged to him for some time before then. From my experience of working with reproductions of the Castle Otway harp, it is not a particularly sonorous or ergonomic design. I find it interesting that Dr James McDonnell singles out Quin’s harp to make this comparison. It is also interesting that Rose Mooney’s harp is said to be “light”; though this is a bit vague without knowing actual weights and sizes.

its <the body of it> was
composed of 3 pieces of Timber

Now this is where I lose all faith, because from this point onwards it is not clear to me whether we are continuing to describe Rose Mooney’s harp, or whether we have switched our attention and are starting to describe Quin’s harp. I genuinely can’t tell from the way the letter is written.

Because we don’t really know how James McDonnell is using his technical terms, we can’t be sure whether the “body” refers to the soundbox being glued up from three planks, or if the “body” of the harp refers to the entire frame, made of one-piece soundbox, neck, and pillar.

there were 4 strips
<of copper> placed tranversely, & one strip longitudinally, to
strengthen the timber, the transverse strips were
closer as you ascended to the treble,

Again we don’t know if these “strips of copper” are on the soundbox, or on the frame (neck and pillar) of the harp. It could be describing the central stringband as one longitudinal copper strip, and the four transverse strips could be braces around the soundbox, or they could be on the neck. It is very unclear.

The obliquity of the short strings <is> greatest…

This final passage turns into comments on the general design of harps and are very difficult to understand. James McDonnell could be describing how the treble strings are splayed out; on the Castle Otway harp the high treble fans out quite a lot so that the strings are at a more obtuse angle to the soundbox. But on many of the 18th century harps, the neck is centred so that the strings fan out to the left in the high treble. Perhaps this is what he means by “obliquity”.

Anyway in summary we can’t really tell very much about Rose Mooney’s harp; it seems to be a fairly normal 18th-century style traditional wire-strung Irish harp; it apparently had 33 strings, and it was relatively light and sonorous, and it had at some point been broken and repaired, but that is about it.

Confusion about the harp

I think in 2006, Ann Heymann told me that she thought that Dr James McDonnell’s letter was describing a harp now owned by the National Museum of Ireland (The “Carolan harp”, object number NMI DF:1945-122). Michael Billinge argued that the letter did not describe DF:1945-122. I didn’t agree with Billinge’s reading of the letter, and 18 years ago I was paying a lot of attention to things that Ann Heymann said to me, and so I called DF:1945-122 “The Rose Mooney harp” including unfortunately in my peer-reviewed journal article (‘The early Irish harp’ Early Music vol 36 no.4, November 2008). Part of the problem was that we were all working only from the poor edition of the letter printed in 1911 (Fox, Annals p.281), and from visual inspection of the harp in the museum. It wasn’t until I did my technical study of DF:1945-122 and my archive research into its provenance that I understood the various reasons why it appears that Ann Heymann was wrong and Michael Billinge was correct. I wrote up my study of the letter and the harp in a peer-reviewed journal article, ‘Provenance and recording of an eighteenth-century harp’ The Galpin Society Journal LXXIII, March 2020. This was a lesson to me to be cautious and rigourous in making this kind of statements, because it is too easy to be accidentally wrong; it is also a lesson to me that people read this stuff I write on my websites, and I need to take online-self publishing as seriously as submitting scholarly papers to peer-reviewed journals.

I believe more and more that it is easier to be wrong than to be right; that the advance of knowledge does not just mean finding new snippets of information and adding them to the pile, or making confident statements, but requires the constant critical evaluation of accepted narratives, trying to find holes in them or inconsistencies or errors. The best work that we can do is to find a mistake in our own thinking; and then after finding it we should correct it, and admit we had it wrong, rather than doubling down and trying to defend a mistaken idea. I am very happy when I find an error in my work, because it means I have the chance to correct the error and to become less wrong.

For example, my biggest error to date has probably been to state that Rose Mooney, Arthur O’Neil, and their contemporaries in the 1790s were the last generation of harpers in the inherited tradition. I was still saying this two years ago. Now I understand that, far from Rose Mooney being one of the last, after she died there were generations of pupils and teachers who continued the inherited tradition for over 100 years more, right down into the 20th century.

My map shows the places where Rose Mooney is said to have been. Touch or click a marker to see its label.

2 thoughts on “Rose Mooney”

  1. I have always been interested in Rose Mooney as the most well known female harper of the 1790’s Belfast gatherings.

    Thank you so much for the information on her and her harp…. Wherever it ended up!
    Oh, where is that time machine?

  2. Actually there is an earlier mention of her name, from before our study period, in the newspaper reporting on the results of the 2nd (1785) Granard ball:

    On Monday se’ennight the annual prizes for the encouragement of the Harp, the native Irish music, were disposed of at Granard, according to the patriotic intention of their benevolent founder. It were to be wished that he had been present at this meeting, as it must have given him the greatest pleasure to have seen so numerous and fair an audience assembled from several neighbouring counties, to grace and celebrate his institution. – There were six candidates for the four prizes: the highest, which was ten guineas, was won by Charles Fannon; the second, seven guineas, by Airthur O’Brien; the third, five guineas, by a female performer, Rose Mooney; and the fourth, two guineas, by Patrick Carr. – The decision of the judges gave universal satisfaction, and the evening was concluded by an elegant ball and supper. The lower part of the Market-house was fitted up in the style of a bower, with much taste and convenience; and the unremitting attention of the stewards, Mr. Burroughs and Mr. Connell, were repaid by the satisfaction which appeared in every countenance. This is the second year in which these prizes have been distributed: they are to be continued and increased next year, when it is expected that their liberal founder will enjoy in person the success of the encouragement which he has given to the music of his native country.
    Saunderss News Letter Fri 19 Aug 1785 p3

    Two of the names are misspelled or wrong, Charles Fanning and Arthur O’Neil.

    But of course this is from before our study period begins in 1792.

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