Derek Bell's Receipt: Discovering the Composer behind the Mystic Harp

Hi everybody/Dia Dhaoibh! My name is Gwendoline Lemaitre, I am currently doing an internship at ITMA, working mainly on the Irish music manuscripts in the Derek Bell Collection.

Derek Bell blog 10 copy
Derek Bell / unidentified photographer ; The Chieftains

First for some background. I am a student in Paris, studying both history (early medieval ages) and archival science in the École Nationale des Chartes. This internship is part of my studies, students must spend two months abroad during the first semester of their 4th year. How did I find myself in ITMA? Above all, I wanted to do my internship in Ireland as I am writing a thesis on early medieval Ireland. Secondly, I have chosen Dublin because I wanted to meet one of my teachers in TCD (and because I really needed the library for the first reason). And thirdly, I have played the harp for 10 years as an amateur musician. In France we do not have a dedicated institution where music is solely archived. For a while now I have wanted to link my passion of history, archives, and music. So, if you mix all these reasons together, the result could only be ITMA. And I am really happy to have landed here!

Gwendoline’s ITMA office

So what do I do in this gorgeous Georgian building every day? My main task is to describe, catalogue and organise the Irish music manuscripts in the Derek Bell Collection. During my first week in ITMA, I familiarised myself with this eccentric genius. I delved into the archives which had already been processed, listened to interviews given by him and to his music. I also catalogued and scanned the photographs in his collection. It was really nice to put a face to the name, and to really get a sense of his character, how he spoke and how he performed… everything that makes a simple name come alive. As I usually work with early medieval materials, it is a nice change to be able to see and hear the person you are researching.

Digitised material from the Derek Bell Collection

Once I had got a sense of who Derek Bell was, I was able to move on to processing the actual manuscripts. This work is a continuation of work done by Orla Dillon, a student from Maynooth University. (Read Orla’s blog here for more information on Derek Bell and his collection.) Orla was dealing exclusively with Derek Bell’s classical compositions. My work concentrates on the traditional music manuscripts in Bell’s collection. Firstly, I had to separate music manuscripts relating to Derek Bell’s solo career and music relating to his time with The Chieftains. Sometimes it wasn’t clear how items should be categorised but help from ITMA head archivist Maeve Gebruers was always on hand. The sorting of scores meant that I needed to occupy two large tables in the ITMA Library and during this sorting process it was often hard for ITMA Assistant librarian Róisín Conlon to find me as I was hidden behind piles of music manuscripts!

Derek Bell’s traditional music manuscripts

After this first step, I began to describe and sort manuscripts relating to The Chieftains. What I love about this work is that you never quite know what you are going to find from one day to the next. Sometimes it’s film scores, other times it is untitled fragments of tunes which I can’t identify (in these cases I get help from Seán Potts on the third floor, he identifies the tune by playing it on his tin whistle – yes, this is the first time I’ve seen the tin whistle considered an essential piece of office equipment, and I completely love that!). When working on the Derek Bell Collection, everyday has its surprises: one day you find a score called “The dance of the little stout hippopotamus (in pink pyjamas)”, another day it is “The pig’s journey into a potato”, or you find stamps or drawings of animals… If any of you have an idea as to the origins of these titles, or who “Micky the muc” is, please let us know!

Various manuscripts from the Derek Bell Collection

Today, I am happy to announce that The Chieftains’ section of the music manuscripts in the Derek Bell Collection is sorted and catalogued: 621 excel lines and 2,390+ pages! This also means that approximately half of Bell’s traditional music manuscripts have been organised. I hope the second half of this collection will be sorted and catalogued in the last month (time goes so quickly!) of my internship here.

I would like to thank my new colleagues, especially my office companion Róisín Conlon for her invaluable help in deciphering Derek Bell’s sometimes illegible scrawls!

The Chieftains’ manuscripts in the Derek Bell Collection

by Gwendoline Lemaitre, October 2022

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