|Denis O'Hampsey, His Style and Technique
Donnchadh Ó Hámsaigh (1695-1807), known in English as Denis O'Hampsey,
Hampson or Hempson, was a contemporary of Irish harper Carolan, and by
seventeen years the oldest harper to attend the 1792 Belfast Harp
Click image for more detail.
|At ninety-two years of age, he was the only harper there who
still employed the traditional fingernail techniques that give the
Gaelic wire-strung harp its full range of expression. Edward Bunting,
who had been hired by the Festival Committee to notate the music played,
was most impressed and made several trips to O'Hampsey's cottage at
Magilligan, County Derry, to procure more music and information. In
Magilligan Denis was known as O'Hampsey and not as Hempson, so although
Edward Bunting's use of Hempson as the surname has prevailed, it lacks
authenticity and sanction and O'Hampsey is preferable.
Bunting tells us that the "pieces which he [O'Hampsey] delighted to
perform were unmixed with modern refinements, which he seemed studiously
to avoid; confining himself chiefly to the most antiquated of those
strains which have long survived the memory of their composers, and even
a knowledge of the ages that produced them. Hempson was the only one of
the harpers at the Belfast Meeting, in 1792, who literally played the
harp with long crooked nails, as described by the old writers. In
playing, he caught the string between the flesh and the nail; not like
the other harpers of his day, who pulled it by the fleshy
part of the finger alone. He had an admirable method of playing Staccato
and Legato, in which he could run
through rapid divisions in an astonishing style. His fingers lay over
the strings in such a manner, that when he struck them with one finger,
the other was instantly ready to stop the vibration, so that the
Staccato passages were heard in full perfection...It was with the
greatest difficulty [I] was able to procure the old harp music from
Hempson. When asked to play the very antique tunes, he uniformly replied
that there was no use in doing so, they were too hard to learn, they
revived painful recollections. In short, he regarded the old music with
a superstitious veneration, and thought it, in some sort, a profanation
to divulge it to modern ears."
At the close of the eighteenth century O'Hampsey's age and musical
conservatism set him apart from the other harpers of the time.
Validating his importance, he alone used the traditional fingernail
technique, and he alone preserved ancient and neglected repertoire -
most notably Féach an gléas and Scott's Lamentation. Bunting says
that Denis never enjoyed playing the hugely popular compositions of
Carolan, and they comprised less that 20% of his known repertoire. While
approximately one of every two tunes reported played at the 1792 Belfast
Harp Festival were Carolan's, O'Hampsey played none.
Two pages of Scot's Lamentation. Click on images for detail.
The following titles, gleaned mostly from information contained in
Bunting's manuscripts and personal effects, comprise the extent of Denis
O'Hampsey's known repertoire:
Lady Letitia Burke
O'Hampsey told Bunting that this tune "is one of the progressive
lessons taught young harpers and is the fourth tune generally learnt."
An Chúilfhionn (Coolin or Lady of the Desert)
Brighid na bPéarlaidh (Bridget of the Pearls)
The Darling (A Mhuirnín, literally "My Darling")
Dawn of Day (Eirghe An Lae)
Down Beside Me (Sin Sios Suas Liom)
Eibhlín a Rúin(Eileen Aroon)
The Fox's Sleep (Coladh an tSionnaigh)
A chailíní, a' bhfaca sibh Seóirse (Girls, Have You Seen George or
Tá mé i mo chodhladh is ná dúisigh mé (I am asleep and don't waken
Madam Keel or Eleanor Plunkett
(All known sources consider these to be different pieces,but they are
the same tune and the titles refer to the same person)
A Lovely Lass to a Friar Came
Love is a Tormenting Pain or Showers of Rain
Bunting gives the perhaps conflicting evidence that O'Hampsey
considered this to be Scottish and to be a William Connellan
composition entitled The Golden Star. Music for The Golden Star has not
been identified, and Bunting twice elsewhere confused the title with
other Connellan tunes: The Jointure and Dawn of Day (both also in
O'Hampsey's repertoire). On the other hand, being Scottish and
associated with the Connellan harpers is not necessarily incompatible
because Thomas and (possibly) his brother are known to have travelled
Sgarúint na gCompánach (The Parting of Friends)
Scott's Lamentation (Cumha an Albanaigh)
Traditional instrumental and vocal Gaelic laments were normally
tripartite, and this three part instrumental lament for Thomas Purcell,
Baron of Loughmoe, was composed by 16th century harper John Scott from
County Westmeath. According to O'Hampsey "this was one of the Old Irish
Lessons for the harp" and it had been at least fifty years (before
1746) since someone asked him to play it.
Maidin Bheag Aoibhinn (Soft Mild Morning)
Molly St. George (Mailí San Seórse)
Uilleagán Dubh O [literally "Dark Head O"] (The Song of Sorrow)
Tá an samhradh ag teacht (Summer is Coming)
Féach an gléas (Try If It Is In Tune)
The title also was used as a term by medieval Gaelic scribes for the
testing of their quill pen's trimming. Improvised instrumental preludes
were performed throughout medieval Europe, and this one corresponds
with the "melodic line in rambling style and free rhythm, extending
over a few sustained chords" of 15th century German organ preludes.
*Caitilín Triall(Kitty Tyrrel)
What is That to Him
The Young Man's Dream (Aisling an Óigfhir)
Later variants are said to include Castlehyde, Groves of Blarney, Last
Rose of Summer, Preab sa Ól and Danny Boy.
*denotes titles we ascribe to O'Hampsey solely on the basis of their
position in Bunting's original manuscript (MS 29).
On the authority of other sources his repertoire also included:
Black Headed Deary (Ceann Dubh Dilis)
The King Shall Enjoy His Own Again
Molly Bheag O (Little Molly O)
The White Cockade
The Dying Lover
"Saibha gheal ni Granda"
Seven of these pieces (Letitia Burke, The Darling, John Jones, Eleanor
Plunkett, Scott's Lamentation, Summer is Coming and Try If It Is In
Tune) - three of them Carolan's - would not survive today were it not
for O'Hampsey's playing them for Bunting. Another five (Bridget Cruise,
The Fox's Sleep, Love is a Tormenting Pain, The Parting of Friends and
What is That to Him) are the earliest recorded versions of the tune.
Turlough O'Carolan is represented six times (Lady Letitia Burke, John
Jones, Bob Jordan, Planxty Connor, Eleanor Plunkett and The Parting of
Friends), and four are compositions by the harping brothers Thomas and
William Connellan (Dawn of Day, The Jointure, Love is a Tormenting Pain
and Molly St. George). Apparently Denis was fond of the variations
composed by contemporary Kerry harper Cornelius Lyons, for he played at
least five of them: The Coolin, Eileen Aroon, A Lovely Lass to a Friar
Came, Conor Macareavy and What is That to Him.
Denis was born at Craigmore, near Garvaghin County Derry, but both his
father's (Bryan Darrogher O'Hampsey) and mother's families held large
land holdings in the Magilligan area 10-15 miles to the northwest, where
Denis eventually settled. At age three he was blinded by smallpox and by
age twelve he began to learn the harp from the first of four teachers
(Bridget O'Cahan, John C. Garragher, Loughlin Fanning and Patrick
The author with the original Downhill Harp. Click image for more detail.
|Six years later a Counsellor Canning in Garvagh bought him what
we know today as the Downhill harp that is owned and displayed by the
Guinness Brewery in Dublin.
Denis travelled extensively throughout
Ireland and Scotland, playing before Prince Charles Stuart in 1745. In
his later years and until his death in 1807, Denis was patronised by
Frederick Hervey, 4th Earl of Bristol and Bishop of Derry, who built the
Downhill estate between Magilligan to the west and Portstewart to the
east on the northern County Derry coast. Downhill overlooks the strand
at the mouth of the River Bann, which is named in Gaelic mythology as
the birthplace of the first harp--and O'Hampsey, the last of the
traditional Gaelic harpers, was from this same region. With his death at
Magilligan coincided the death of the instrument itself, in a strange
way completing the tradition's cycle.
O'Hampsey's legacy is not only the survival of his Downhill harp and its
tuning schedule, but also knowledge of the necessary techniques,
repertoire and style to allow the true voice of the Gaelic harp to be
heard once again.
You can hear Ann play Cumha a' Chléirich (an Irish
pìobaireachd) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0tT9MGhvzFU
Listen to Feaghan Ghleas
& Scott's Lamentation of Youth played traditionally on a replica of the
Downhill harp from Ann Heymann's album Queen of Harps.
|Click on images for more details.