Belfast Harp Festival

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The Belfast Harp Festival, called by contemporary writers "The Belfast Harpers Assembly",[1] 11–14 July 1792, was a four-day event organised by Dr. James McDonnell, Robert Bradshaw and Henry Joy, (proprietor of the Belfast News-Letter and uncle to Henry Joy McCracken), a six-year lapse from the last Granard harp festival. Edward Bunting (classically trained assistant to organist William Ware), aged 19, was commissioned to take down the airs, which formed the major part of his Collection, published in 1796.[2] The venue of the contest was in The Assembly Room, of the now unoccupied and until recently, Northern Bank building on Waring Street in Belfast (which was opened as a market house in 1769).


The objective of the festival was to assemble the remaining traditional harp players to compete for prizes. It was attended by ten Irish harpers and one Welsh harper, and 40 tunes were played in total.

William Caer was 15 years of age while all of the others were over 45 years old. Three winners were selected (Fanning took first place) and each was awarded a yearly stipend of £10. Edward Bunting subsequently visited each winner, one after the other, to collate all of the available contemporary harp music. He did not publish all this material until 1796, 1809, and 1840. Songs saved through this effort include: Feaghan Gealeash, Deirdre's Lament for the Sons of Usneach (thought to be the oldest extant piece of Irish music), Scott's Lamentation, The Battle of Argan More, Ossianic Air, Blackheaded Deary, Open the Door Softly (played by Arthur O'Neill), The Lament for Limerick, and Chorus Jig (a jig in name only).

The Rev. George Vaughan Sampson wrote of Denis Hampson that

"he played at the famous meeting of harpers at Belfast, under the patronage of some amateurs of Irish music. Mr Bunton, the celebrated musician of that town, was here the year before, at Hampson's, noting his tunes and his manner of playing, which is in the best old style. He said, with the honest feeling of self love, "When I played the old tunes, not another of the harpers would play after me."


  1. ^ Sara C. Lanier, «"It is new-strung and shan't be heard": nationalism and memory in the Irish harp tradition». in: British Journal of Ethnomusicology; Vol. 8, 1999
  2. ^ Irish Music; XXVII

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