A discussion on the possible influence ofScottish and Irish ceòl mòr on each other

By Frank Timoney

And what of the strange testimony by Dennis Hempson?

In 1792, the Belfast city fathers finally realised in probable grateful relief, that the ancient tradition of Irish harp playing was about to disappear forever. It was decided to hold a harp festival for three days and a young music student, one Edward Bunting was appointed to transcribe harp music to printed staff. Apparently, Irish harp music was taught in much the same manner as piobaireachd, by oral vocables.

Edward Bunting.

Around ten harpers played and in one of them Edward Bunting became absolutely transfixed. A 97-year-old blind and physically deformed harper, one Dennis Hempson, played a strange type of music to the assemblage. So strange to the ears of the audience and other harpers, that they began to ignore his playing. Here was old Dennis Hempson playing his heart out with an ancient ceòl mòr tradition and all these people laughing and talking while he played. Bunting realised in it, the aboriginal music of ancient Ireland and arranged a private recital. The old man was reluctant to perform exclaiming, “What’s the use of doing so, no one can understand it now, not even any of the harpers now living.” Hempson played in the ancient manner with his fingernails on wire strings. He was finally convinced to play but gave Bunting only a fragment of one of his tuning phrases. Hempson had seen the style and repertoire of the Irish harp change radically, a change that he continually deplored to Bunting.

Hempson was a professional harper for some 80 years, and began training at the age of 12 in 1707. Obviously, his instruction was from 17th century harpers, men who had experienced the drastic change in the old Irish Gaelic music. He was highly sensitive about the strange pieces in his repertoire and much to his credit, Dennis Hempson clung faithfully to the 17th century training and teachers of his youth.

Modern Scottish authors, in accessing Hempson, feel he was mourning for the lost art of playing with the fingernails on wire strings! Modern Irish authors who, on the whole have no idea as to what piobaireachd is, feel he was mourning for the loss of tuning preludes which preceded the famed laments. It seems as if the penny hasn’t dropped yet for either camp, because Hempson specifically complains of the celebrated O’Carolan’s music which he said was not of the ancient Gaelic style but more of the then modern Italian school of music. One aside is for certain however, wire strings, like the rod tension side drum, really would permit all kinds of gracenotes, and intricate finger movements. All of the material that Hempson provided Bunting with, still lies dormant in Bunting’s original manuscript. I believe this is to be located in the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum and high time that the Piobaireachd Society had a thorough look at it.

The Ulster Folk and Transport Museum in Holywood.

I can think of some questions I’d like answered. Take for instance, the adding of double beats on low A, or birls at the ends of some piobaireachd phrases. It’s felt that this four times repeated ending flourish is common to early Irish and Highland music. Examples are to be found in Lament for Duncan MacRae of Kintail and The King of Leix’s March. Does Hempson show any of these? And does his work show a regular stressed phrase construction, or is it asymmetrical? Are there second strains with bars longer than the first? Is there irregularity in its cadences?

Could there be any truth in the undocumented story that Donald mòr MacCrimmon came to Ireland for piping tuition? Or did he really come to study the ancient format of harp music? Did he and others later introduce it into a new type of vehicle?

Another Scottish mystery is the fact that the ancient harp music of that country has also disappeared. In 1784, Patrick MacDonald reminds us that the harp had ceased to be the favoured instrument, its interest having been transferred to the bagpipe.

Thankfully, we have a few actual samples of Highland harp music reconstructed for the piano in the unpublished Angus Fraser ms. Edited by the son of Simon Fraser who in 1816, published Airs and Melodies Peculiar to the Highlands of Scotland. Simon Fraser had collected these pieces from his father and grandfathers and they spanned the period from roughly 1715 until 1760. These examples were supplied to Simon’s relatives by persons who remembered them as they were played on the harp. The first interesting sample is called The Royal Lament (c.1649) showing a ground and two variations very much in the manner of piobaireachd, the variations in more simple form. The second sample is an even more interesting setting of Lament for The Harp Tree, that when played on the piano, sounds very much like the piobaireachd that we have today!

One of the things that mystifies on the Irish scene is for instance the piobaireachd, Frenzy of Meeting. Gesto calls this Tumilin O’Counichan an Irish Tune. Presumably, Gesto knew what he was about because he claimed his canntaireachd was as the MacCrimmons played it. So here we have Iain dubh MacCrimmon saying yes, there was an Irish ceòl mòr tradition. The Nether Lorn Canntaireachd calls the same tune, Brian O’Duff’s Lament and Angus MacKay and Thomason’s Ceol Mor each gave the two titles: The Frenzy of Meeting or Lament for Brian O’’Duff. Simon Fraser of Australia called it A Lament for King Brian of Old and maintained that it was composed by one Petrus Bruno in Ireland!

Overall, there is clearly a message here.

The startling thing is that after playing all these settings, one unconsciously conjures up an image of the old Finton Lalor band back in the 1930s playing at the games in Scotland because one suddenly realises all these settings are actually none other than Brian Boru’s March! The Irish have always maintained this to be their oldest march tradition and this was long before the mouth blown bagpipe was re-introduced earlier this century to Ireland. Archie Kenneth [pictured] had it right when he said all this was “too strikingly similar for coincidence.” Another thing is for certain, there was great “frenzy of meeting” on that April day in 1014.

And what of the piece Lochnell’s Lament (or Scarce of Fishing)? This is supposedly known as O’Kelly’s Lament and according to the Piping Times, might have been of Irish descent. But the ‘Times gave no source for this claim. Incidentally, Spiocaireachd Iasgaich is really ‘Spearhead Fishing’ not ‘Scarce of Fishing’.

There is supposedly a missing Irish piobaireachd called MacAlistrum’s March. It was said to have been written for the cousin of the second and third Earls, one Alasdair MacCholla, James’ great grandson. In 1785 at the Highland Society of London’s competition in Edinburgh, John MacPherson played the Piobrachd Ereanach an Irish Pibrach. This is right in the time frame of the last two MacCrimmons. So here we have a verification of an Irish ceòl mòr tradition by the Highland Society of London, and one which was recognised by the competing Scottish pipers of the period!

So, what happened to it? Did the Highland pipers take it as part of their own tradition as they appear to have done with their own harp music? It is a curious fact that in Buntings published book of 1796, A General Collection of the Ancient Music of Ireland, he gives a listing or table of the movements that were used in Irish harp music. A number of piobaireachd terms are included in that list including a reference to an Irish melody known as A Ghlas Mheur (or the Finger Lock) and Bunting does stipulate that his is “Irish Material”.

Which of the Earls would you give the piece to? Two things are for certain. He had nothing to do with Rory Mòr MacLeod or the MacCrimmons and he was not a Scot.

• From the December 1997 Piping Times.