The Irish Harpers in Belfast in 1792 (2)

“The Irish Harpers in Belfast in 1792” … continued


From The Ulster Journal of Archaeology, Second Series, Volume 1, Number 2, 1895

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These Granard meetings excited a very wide interest and enthusiasm for Irish music, and no doubt helped to stir up the not less patriotic and probably more practical townsmen of Belfast to united action in the same good cause.

A circular was accordingly issued in 1791 by Dr. James MacDonnell and others, of which the following is the substance:—

A subscription to be opened to be applied in an attempt to “revive and perpetuate the Ancient Music and Poetry of Ireland. They are solicitous to preserve from oblivion the few fragments which have been permitted to remain as monuments of the refined taste and genius of their ancestors. To assemble the Harpers, those descendants of our ancient bards, who are at present (1791) almost exclusively possessed of all that remains of the music, poetry, and oral traditions of Ireland.” Prizes were to be awarded, and a person well versed in the language and antiquities of the nation should attend, and also an accomplished musician, “to transcribe and arrange the most interesting portions of their knowledge.” It was considered that this project would be approved by men of taste and refinement; “and when it is considered how intimately the spirit and character of a people are connected with their national poetry and music, it is presumed that the Irish patriot and politician will not deem it an object unworthy of his patronage and support.”

The following advertisement appeared in the Belfast News-Letter, Friday, 6 July, 1792:—

The Meeting of the Irish Harpers at Belfast.

To be held in the Exchange Rooms, on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, the 11th, 12th, 13th, and 14th July, instant. The Entertainment to commence at one o’clock each afternoon, excepting Saturday, when, on account of the Review, it will be held at seven in the evening. It is requested that the subscribers will immediately pay in their subscriptions.

Admittance for the four nights to non-subscribers, half-a-guinea; the tickets transferable. Tickets for non-subscribers to be had at Mr. Joy’s, Mr. Magee’s, Mr. Bradshaw’s, and the Coffee-room.

BELFAST, July 4th, 1792.

* On account of the Coterie, the meeting is unavoidingly postponed from Tuesday to Wednesday.

The same notice appeared in the Northern Star, dated 4 July, 1792. The News-Letter of 13 July, 1792, contains an account of the first day’s meeting only. It is prefaced by a really interesting disquisition on the subject of National Music, the gist of which is that in Greece, the Mistress of the Fine Arts, Music was not considered merely as an amusement, but attracted the attention of the State.

The Northern Star, published some days later, makes up for the deficiencies of its rival, so that by combining their accounts we have a tolerably full description of the proceedings of the four days, from 11th till 14th July.

The News-Letter’s account of the first day’s doings is much more ample and interesting than the very condensed and generalised statement of the four days in the Northern Star.

We find from it that when the meeting was opened on Wednesday, 11 July, 1792, only ten Harpers had been brought together for the friendly contest, but a very important advance was now made on the way in which the Granard meetings had been carried on.

“As a chief motive in this undertaking was to revive some of the most ancient airs now nearly obsolete, their dates and authors perhaps for centuries unknown, pains were therefore taken to have a skilled musician to reduce to notes some of those played, which might lead to a general publication of the best sets of our times.” By a singular concurrence of events the choice of the directors fell upon young Edward Bunting, the man of all others specially fitted for the work.

As his warm friend George Petrie says, “This was a task for the accomplishment of which his mind peculiarly fitted him, and he entered upon it with enthusiasm; for he was deeply imbued with the political feelings so prevalent among the middle classes of the locality at the time; and his musical sensibilities led him, as indeed they did throughout his subsequent life, to consider melody the important—the sine qua non—quality of musical composition. Moreover, it was most fortunate that there was just at that time one so fitted to undertake the task, for it would have been a happy chance, that if any other musician had been employed he would not, in the prejudiced spirit of the time, have held in contempt the strange and wild strains, so unlike anything he had been accustomed to regard as good music—often feebly performed and barbarised by rude harmonies, and that having accomplished his task in this spirit, he would not have allowed the tunes to have shared the fate to which the minstrels were fast hastening whose harps had given them utterance.”

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