Edward Bunting’s First Published Collection of Irish Music, 1796

Edward Bunting’s A General Collection of the Ancient Irish Music of 1797 has occupied a highly influential position in the history of Irish traditional music. Although it is by no means the earliest such collection, its focus on the then disappearing centuries-old music of the Irish professional harpers resonated with the romantic sensibilities of its time, and in the years since its publication it has been extensively mined by arrangers, publishers and performers. Its influence continues in print, on sound recordings and on the Internet.

As is well known, the collection had its origins in a commission given to a young Armagh-born classical organist and pianist Edward Bunting (1773–1843), by the organisers of the Belfast Harp Festival of 1792, to notate and preserve the instrumental and vocal music of the Irish harpers. Bunting made this task his lifework and published two further similar volumes: A General Collection of the Ancient Music of Ireland (1809) and The Ancient Music of Ireland (1840). More of the music and song that he gathered remains unpublished in his surviving manuscripts.

The volume presented here (along with its 66 related interactive music scores) is the original undated edition of the Collection, edited by Bunting when he was in his early twenties, and produced in London in 1797 (and later) by the firm of Preston and Son. The motivation and finances for its publication came from the Belfast Society for Promoting Knowledge (forerunner of the present Linen Hall Library, Belfast), which included many of the Harp Festival organisers and would nowadays be regarded as its publisher. Bunting's preface lays stress on the antiquity of the music of the harpers and the importance of rescuing the music and its lore from oblivion. The music was drawn by engraver surnamed Neele. In spite of the 'Vol. 1' inscription on the title page, no second volume appeared under this title. Reference found elsewhere to music published by Bunting about 1790 can be disregarded. At the time of his death Bunting was working on a revised edition of the volume, but this was never completed.

The profits from the original publication were allocated to Bunting by the Society, but as early as 1797 there were rumours of a pirated edition being prepared in Dublin. In the event several such editions, undated, appeared in the following years from the Dublin firms of Hime, Gough, and W. Power, and from the London firm of W. Power & J. Power. An undated ‘new edition’ was issued in Dublin by J. Willis. Legitimate reprints were published in 1969, 1981 and 2002 by Walton’s Piano and Musical Instrument Galleries in Dublin, in 1996 by the Linen Hall Library in Belfast, and in 2011 by ECCO Print Editions in Michigan. An extensively annotated edition of the music of the volume utilising Bunting's surviving music manuscripts, with song texts etc., was made by Donal O'Sullivan and A. Martin Freeman and published as vols XXII–XXV of the Journal of the Irish Folk Song Society (1927–30). The edition was reprinted in 1967 by the London firm of Wm. Dawson & Sons.

Crucial in spreading the melodies published by Edward Bunting worldwide over the last two centuries has been their early adaptation by the Dublin poet Thomas Moore for the song lyrics of his highly successful Irish Melodies series (1808–1834). In all Moore took 21 airs from the 66 of this first Bunting collection.

With thanks to Brigitte Bark for the initial setting of the interactive music scores. The facsimile copy of the book presented here is of an original edition carrying Bunting's autograph which was donated to ITMA by Leslie Shepard.

NC, MG, TH & JS, 13 October 2015


Research by Dr Peter Downey, published in 2017, has established that 1797 was the date of publication of this volume, and not 1796, as has been generally thought. See here for details.

NC, 30 November 2017