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Home Uncategorized The Harp That Once

The Harp That Once

Fintan Vallely

Annals of the Irish Harpers, by Charlotte Milligan Fox, ed Sara C Lanier, Ardrigh, 396 pp, €25, ISBN: 978-1909721012

This is a reissue of a tremendous 1911 book compiled and beautifully written by musicologist Charlotte Milligan Fox. The failure to reprint before now such an intelligent and lyrical compendium is, arguably, a consequence of the ambiguity of the harp in Irish music history, the necessarily defensive nature of traditional music revival and, within those factors, attitudes to women as commentators and analysts. But it is enough to say at this point that the availability of this edition puts balance into the published works which scaffold the understanding of indigenous (Gaelic court “classical” and “traditional” alike) music in Ireland. The Annals deals with the harp and harpers, so, first, it is perhaps appropriate to consider something of the significance and status of that instrument.

The harp was so visible in earlier centuries that it could be designated as an emblem of Ireland in the 1200s, being used later on Henry VIII’s Irish coinage in 1534 and then inserted on the British royal coat of arms in 1603, where it remains today representing Northern Ireland (something of a paradox perhaps for half the area’s population). It also appeared on British Irish-regimental and, later, RUC caps and documents, just as it can be seen on all of the artefacts of official Ireland, and it remains symbolic of Irishness in British regiments. Yet, on account of the popularisation of African and other traditional music forms today, most people are by now aware that harps are not unique to Ireland. But Irish harp music is, and so the instrument’s past, surviving and modern musics are spiced with a complementary history and Gaelic representation which quite subverts its having been colonially requisitioned. This also has implications for indigenous Gaelic-court “classical” music, much of which is shared today by both contemporary-classical and traditional artistes, and which has filtered in as a strong influence in traditional dance music.

Charlotte Milligan Fox was by no means promoting any holy grail of Irish nationalism however, for most of her family were staunchly unionist; rather, she seems primarily interested in the worth of the music of Ireland. Contemporary archaeological knowledge in the decades before her endeavour had already established that the story of the harp in Ireland was underpinned by hard iconological evidence, in that various forms of it have been documented and celebrated for some 1,200 years, depicted on stone crosses in counties Kildare, Laois and Kilkenny. This confirmed a continuity for the early harps from 800 AD or so onward, and then, a few centuries later, the relatively modern form as seen in a twelfth century carving at Ardmore Cathedral, Co Waterford and on a tomb at Jerpoint Abbey in Co Kilkenny.

Quite aside from literature and oral history, these attest to a status for the harp in Irish society and culture, an aesthetic/spiritual significance of which Milligan Fox was aware. The fact that those iconological artefacts were there to be viewed in her time (and indeed still stand today where they have always stood) imparted a mute testimony to a style of music which was described in 1188 by the colonial cultural surveyor Giraldus Cambrensis as remarkable, if not unique. Even though the harp was hugely developed after the first millennium (as were all instruments) early forms coexisted with the modern because they were technologically sophisticated, were taught methodically and formally until the seventeenth century and had substantial multi-expressive and multi-functional repertoires. Not just in Ireland but throughout Europe the harp was the supreme instrument of its day, making skilled Irish harpers and harper-composers sought after in European courts and big houses. However, with the invention of plucked-string, keyboard instruments like the virginal and harpsichord in early classical music, and the uilleann pipes in sophisticated traditional dance music, the harp declined. It is this decline, and the worth of the music that risked disappearance along with the harp, that sparked Milligan Fox’s zeal and commitment.

The story of the Annals was set in motion by the 1792 Belfast Harpers’ Assembly, which had the aim of preserving an instrument and repertoire, but effectively became a seminal event in the reassembly of a fragmented indigenous cultural identity in Ireland; it can be viewed as both musically preservational and ideologically inspiring. The motivation for the assembly was political, the thinking behind it that of people who supported the revolutionary ideals of the United Irishmen. The participants were musicians who may or may not have held strong political opinions, for since their economics depended on patrons of all political and religious hues, discretion prevailed. Since these performers’ training, practice and development had all been part of an oral process ‑ dependant on the ear ‑ the assembly might easily not have had anything other than the momentary significance of being “indigenous entertainment”. But, crucially, music literacy was involved and transcription carried out by an able musician, one Edward Bunting, an Armagh-born pianist with a discerning and accurate ear. This was to be transformative.

In this way Bunting enters Irish music history, notating tunes from the harpers who played at the assembly, and, in the process, himself becoming obsessed with “ancient” Irish melody and harping practices. He published one collection of the music within a few years, then expanded his remit by commissioning individuals to note down music from older singers and performers in rural areas, so compiling a collection which became the stuff of three subsequent editions. While Bunting’s collections would have survived in libraries, his raison d’être might not have, and this is Milligan Fox’s great achievement: she studied Bunting’s notes, his correspondence and the transcriptions of those who had collected material for him, and compiled all into a fabulous historical, blow by blow document which she titled Annals of the Irish Harpers.

This was not the work of a dilettante ‑ as is implied by the absence of serious consideration of this woman’s work by the largely male constituency of traditional music revival ‑ and none of it happened by accident. But it does throw up (in the way that all-Ireland rugby also does) the fact that there are multiple shades of Irishness, in that, historically, it has been affirmed and represented among all religions, classes and political loyalties: there is no one “true” Irishness. Indeed, no political opinion is expressed by the author in relation to Bunting, his collectors or his backers, or indeed by Milligan Fox herself; this is a factual account of what was done and by whom, about which one can only be sure that it would be impossible for Milligan Fox to have undertaken the work without having a strong Irish identification.

The Annals is in this way as unbiased a record as could be got. It is based on Edward Bunting’s ideas and work, an amazing tale of his process and the difficulties which he laboured under. Milligan Fox uses his materials expertly, weaving in suspense as in a documentary, and bringing to life vividly the peregrinations of Bunting’s collector Patrick Lynch and his interviewee Arthur O’Neill. Among the many things we learn from the reproduced letters alone is something of the scale and popularity of music-making in the late 1700s, with, at one point, a Co Mayo piper being unable to meet Lynch due to his having to teach music to a class of children; O’Neill’s story alone in this book includes some remarkable information on the scale of “amateur” social music-making, notably in Co Sligo. The underlying politics of the times do of course come across, seen for instance in the reported suspicion in Co Mayo of the Belfast-based collector being possibly associated with revolution. The cost of all of it comes out too ‑ payment to contributors, buying drinks to ease source-performers’ tensions, money for the collector’s welfare and transport, the cost of publication. The reader is brought too into the controversy of how Bunting regarded Thomas Moore as having plagiarised his collected and published music, sanitised and rounded it off with contemporary lyrics which made Moore wealthy and as famous as it is ever possible to be in any era; one is left sympathetic with Bunting, who lived a relatively poor life as musician and music teacher.

Milligan Fox’s presentation of Bunting’s papers also cover contemporary comments and controversy, taking in such as Samuel Ferguson, George Petrie and Grattan Flood. The island of Ireland is the territory of this work; the tale may be of music collected from among the poor native Irish, but it is decidedly about music being collected and promoted on their behalf by and among the Anglo-Irish. Perhaps then it is small wonder that later, in the climate of post-1948 Irish withdrawal from the British Commonwealth, the new revival organisation Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann would exclude harping tunes from its competitions for several decades, these being seen as tainted by ascendancy association. Bunting’s work, and that of Milligan Fox in interpreting it, does however affirm the collector/publisher as having a vital role in oral music transmission, much the same as that occupied by the major traditional music radio presenters, ideologues and archivists in the post-World War II era.

Charlotte Milligan Fox was born near Omagh, Co Tyrone in 1864. Her mother had been educated at a school which included tuition in the harp by harpers from the Drogheda Harp School before she married into “staunch Irish Unionists”. Her husband had, however, a powerful belief in education, and in antiquarianism, was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, and when they moved to Belfast, they lived close to FJ Bigger’s house, where the children met Irish Revival circle writers and musicians. Charlotte’s music education was to the highest level, including piano study in London, Frankfurt and Milan, but her interest in Irish music dominated, and saw her publish arrangements of traditional Irish airs in 1898, five years after moving to London in the same year in which the Folk Song Society was founded by antiquarians, folklorists and musicians. The Irish connections of many of this group interested Charlotte, and on its decline in 1904 she was instrumental in forming the Irish Folk Song Society (IFSS), of which she was secretary for the remaining dozen years of her life; she co-edited its Journal of the Irish Folk Song Society (JIFSS) with another associate of FJ Bigger, Herbert Hughes.

Ever interested in older music associations, in pursuit of purchasing a harp for a friend’s child, a question she asked in a Battersea music shop led her to Dr McRory, Bunting’s grandson. He entrusted to her a substantial volume of papers, music and field notes accumulated by Bunting, out of which she published a detailed articled in the JIFSS, and spent the following years editing the material for publication as a book; her sister, the poet Alice Milligan (a staunch nationalist), helped her with Gaelic translations. She published Songs of the Irish Harpers in 1910, then the full material as Annals of the Irish Harpers, a year later. This led her to embark on a promotional tour in America “to increase awareness of Irish Traditional music”. While there she convened a New York branch of the IFSS, and in Boston located the volumes of music collected by Dubliner William Eliot Hudson; the latter she also published in the JIFSS. By this time she had a passionate belief in collection, and using the most advanced technology of her time ‑ the Edison wax-cylinder phonograph ‑ gathered song and music in Co Waterford. Her failing health however reduced her editorial output to one edition of the JIFSS from 1913-15, and she died in March 1916.

The events of that year are seen by this edition’s editor, Sara Lanier, as marginalising “those aspects of the Irish Cultural Revival that had successfully restrained the passions of political factionalism”. Yet while Charlotte does not appear to have been overtly in favour of Irish independence from Britain, might it not also be said that her work had, independently of her, provided key elements for the reassembly of an Irish cultural identity which underpinned the call for revolution? Lanier’s view implies that Milligan Fox’s music activism could be seen to diffuse or divert political extremes. While this may be so, considering her social class, and the fact that she then lived in London, she may not have had any conscious political agenda, despite the fact that her Belfast connections included those of the Home Rule persuasion. But she knew the potential of Bunting’s work, and had his manuscripts willed to the safe keeping of Queen’s University, Belfast, where they remain today; there they could be ‑ and have been ‑ profitably studied, resulting in the production of such as Colette Moloney’s enormous 2000 The Irish Music Manuscripts of Edward Bunting (1773-1843), and the provision of materials for various editors of Bunting’s music. Milligan Fox’s setting up the IFSS indeed itself left a great legacy in printed analysis and commentary, and her arrangements of airs have value too.

But it is the Annals that is her great achievement, not least for making visible the exceptional story of the harper Arthur O’Neill, a truly wonderful, first-hand account from the lips of a professional musician, his routes, methodology, associations and observations as one of the last of the peregrinating harpers: what Carolan left in composed music, Arthur O’Neill has left in lore, which Milligan Fox published for the first time.

Sara Lanier not only restores a key set of information with the republication of this book, she also notes that she is setting the historical record straight. She tells us that Dónal O’Sullivan in his fabulous, two-part 1958 Carolan: The Life, Times and Music of an Irish Harper, which also includes a version of the Arthur O’Neill story, destructively criticised Milligan Fox’s version of this oral biography, and himself selectively used the first, unedited, draft of O’Neill’s story, on which he imposed his own structure and “capriciously selected material … to construct a composite, modernised text that shows scant respect for O’Neill’s creative process”. Lanier tells us that Milligan Fox in fact used the version of the O’Neill story which the harper had approved of and edited himself (using an amanuensis, since he was blind) the better to reflect the artistry of his turn of phrase, sequencing, fresh thinking and self-questioning. Lanier thus debunks O’Sullivan’s dismissive critique of Milligan Fox, which undoubtedly contributed to the latter’s invisibility in the post-1950s revival of traditional music. His attitude she describes as “mean-spiritedness”, “arrogance of attitude of the professional academic … using the criticism of work, often of equal if not greater merit … in order to further his own career and reputation”. Yet this is a trivial part of this edition of the Annals, for the book as it is reproduced simply stands the test of time as a literary work as well as an historical, narrative and biographical one, a superb document and analysis.

Political and social class, and the shadows of Irish history and politics are probably the other factors which kept Milligan Fox below the horizon of those who decide who and what is credited as meaningful, for she did not take political stands, and was anti-Irish-nationalist by family, something which is seen as inimical to the task of reviving a traditional music which is considered to be preserved by the “real people” ‑ the poor, working class and small farmer society. Contemporary awareness and research today collapse the simplicity of this thinking for two reasons. One is that since “the plain people” can be seen to largely follow the trends in music which is simply “popular”, regardless of source (as they do in fashion and other aspects of cultural consumption) is it likely that they were any more highly motivated in the early twentieth century? Another reason is seen in the work of Francis O’Neill, the most prolific commentator on the history of traditional music, who details the lives and contributions of many pipers, among whom are members of the landed and upper classes; their compositions and associations indicate that the modern body of that music is by origins also of the upper, non-plain-people classes. This being common knowledge in music circles suggests that the dismissal of Milligan Fox lies in gender rather than in politics. Indeed the case of the earliest collector of Irish song is similar: she was also of the Anglo Irish, the Co Cavan Charlotte Brooke, who published Reliques of Irish Poetry in 1789, which, according to UCD collector Tom Munnelly, marks her as having “laid the foundation for folk and traditional music revivals”.

Thus, republication of this book has a triple significance: providing fresh access to a great work in Irish music scholarship, demanding attention be given to key Protestant, Anglo-Irish intervention in the preservation and revival of Irish music, and highlighting the influential actions of women within the latter milieu. Annals of the Irish Harpers is as modernist as it is antiquarian, a valuable informational text and a memorial that brings to vivid life in their contemporary politics and geographies the earliest movers in the process of traditional music revival. Its republication throws a clear light on an aspect of that music’s genesis which could, if it were studied seriously by politico-cultural “movers”, lead to clearer thinking about Irish traditional music’s nature, cultural origins, applicability and potential for expressivity on the post-Brexit, modern island.


Fintan Vallely is a musician, and writer and lecturer on Irish-Traditional music. An adjunct professor with UCD’s School of Irish, Celtic Studies, Irish Folklore and Linguistics, among his numerous publications is the encyclopedia Companion to Irish Traditional Music.

Space to Think, an anthology bringing together more than fifty of the best pieces to have appeared in the Dublin Review of Books since its foundation ten years ago, will be published this month. Selling in the shops at €25, it is available now for pre-order at a special price of €20 (to collect in Dublin) or €20 + post and packing charges as appropriate for shipping to addresses in Ireland and internationally. To buy online, follow the steps from the home page of our website.

One piece featured in Space to Think is Catherine Marshall’s 2016 essay “Picturing the People”, on the painting of Daniel Macdonald. Here is an extract:

It is fascinating that despite a not inconsiderable trail of documentary evidence about Macdonald, very little was known about him until this publication. That cannot be attributed solely, perhaps not at all, to his name change, which, if anything was likely to excite curiosity rather than the opposite, nor to his early death, before his thirty-second birthday, although that truncated his career before it had a chance to fully develop. It is, in fact, much more likely to derive from dismissals of his work as naive by earlier writers such as Crookshank and Glin and from the politics of his work. To be seen as both naive and from Cork, in the eyes of certain writers, was a bit like being, in the manner of Oscar Wilde’s Ernest, guilty of carelessness. His work received little national coverage in Ireland, and although he was well received in his native city and in London, where within a year of his arrival in 1844 Prince George and Princess Mary of Cambridge sat for portraits by him, the unique contribution that Macdonald made to Irish history and visual culture has never been adequately recognised until now.

Crookshank and Glin were aware of Macdonald’s famine painting An Irish Peasant Family discovering the Blight of their Store, which they describe as “his most dramatic picture … one of the very few contemporary paintings recording the tragic years of the Great Famine …” (Crookshank and Glin, Ireland’s Painters, 2002), and later they reference it again, this time declaring that is was “as far as we know, the sole surviving contemporary depiction in oils of the disaster”. Unlike Niamh O’Sullivan, they do not attach any particular importance to this fact, or wonder why others had not also painted it. Instead they pass on immediately to talk of other things. A painting of such a subject by a “naive” artist did not find an easy place in their account of Irish art from 1600 to 1940, although they did show some interest in his pre-famine painting of Eagle’s Nest, Killarney (1841), with its fashionably dressed visitors and his portrait of General Sir Rowland Smyth in Uniform (c 1845). It has taken a new generation of art historians to penetrate the shield of exclusivity surrounding the canon of western art that accorded importance to academically trained artists (which Macdonald was not) and valued a hierarchical approach to history, which Macdonald did not practise.

As O’Sullivan rightly points out, Macdonald is important precisely because he was an outsider to that tradition. It appears that his only training was received from his father, who was self-taught. Neither the son nor the father found it necessary to adopt the mores of classical strait-jacketing to their artistic expression. Yet Daniel Macdonald was skilful enough to represent a range of subjects in a manner that neither doffs a cap to the powermongers nor patronises the ordinary people of the country. His paintings of life around him in Co Cork, whether he is recording the visits of polite society to well-known landmarks, exploring the rich culture of folklore, rural sports and faction fighting, or showing the trauma of poverty and eviction, mix the different classes in Cork society with a degree of subtlety that is not compatible with naivety. It allows him to travel where peers like Daniel Maclise, more successful but more bound by the rules, could not follow.



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