Bunting Helen Lawlor

Edward Bunting

The harp in Gaelic Ireland was an instrument of great prestige. Harpers were part of the courts of Chieftains, second in status only to the file (poet). Following the decline of the old Gaelic order, harpers still found favour among the aristocratic Anglo-Irish and were received as esteemed guests in the great Irish houses. However, changing musical tastes and precarious socio-political circumstances contributed to a decline in that once glorious tradition. By the end of the eighteenth century, harping in Ireland was at a very low ebb and the ancient tradition on the brink of collapse.

Edward Bunting (1773–1843) – music collector, publisher, editor, organist – is credited with saving the music of the Irish harp for posterity at a time when it in danger of permanent loss. Born in Armagh, he received his early training on organ at the Church of Ireland cathedral, Armagh. By 1784 he was appointed assistant to William Ware, organist at St Anne’s Church Belfast where his musical talent was recognised. During his time in Belfast he interacted with key individuals in Belfast society, including Dr James MacDonnell, Henry Joy, Wolfe Tone and the McCracken family.

The Belfast Harp Festival of 11–14 July, 1792 was organised by the Belfast Society for Promoting Knowledge. They called an assembly of the harpers, considered then to be descendants of the ancient bardic tradition. The festival was timed to coincide with the celebrations of the third anniversary of the Fall of the Bastille in Paris, when many prominent United Irishmen would be in Belfast. Many attended daily, as Wolfe Tone wrote in his diary, ‘all go to the harpers at once’. Only 10 harpers arrived, evincing the drastic decline in the tradition. Bunting, then 19 was hired to transcribe and preserve the ancient music of these harpers.

The music of the harpers so captivated the young Bunting that he set about further collection of what was considered to be a repertoire of the verge of extinction. He travelled around various parts of Ireland collecting from ageing harpers such as Denis Hempson and Arthur O’Neill. In 1796 Bunting published his first collection, A General Collection of the Ancient Irish Music. Some airs were used in Thomas Moore’s subsequent publications and set to his poetry, creating widespread popularity in Ireland and abroad for collections of ancient melodies. In 1809 Bunting published his second volume, A general collection of the ancient music of Ireland, complete with newly composed poetry set to melodies, following Moore’s approach. In 1840 Bunting published his substantial third volume with significantly detailed information on the harping tradition and anecdotes of harpers. The ancient music of Ireland is a treasure trove of historical descriptions complete with 151 airs.

Bunting was a talented musician and teacher. He lived between Belfast and Dublin, contributing to the musical life of both cities through his concert organisation, church performances and teaching. He was recognised outside of Ireland too as a talented performer. His legacy however almost wholly rests on his work with Irish harpers. While often criticised for over editing or arranging the harpers repertoire to suit contemporaneous tastes, Bunting made an irreplaceable contribution to the preservation of Irish music through his collections and publications. Much of our knowledge today stems from his work, work that has generated and inspired imaginative artistic responses since its publication. He recognised the existence of a rare and beautiful music and utilised his talents to document that tradition for posterity.

“Shall we suffer them to perish in our hands at the close of perhaps the last century in which a single new ray of light can be struck out amidst the gloom, with which time envelops the earliest and often the most interesting of its works?” ¬– Edward Bunting, 1796

Dr Helen Lawlor

TU Dublin Conservatoire, December 2021