FolkWorld Article by Arthur O'Neill (compiled by Walkin' T:-)M)

The Granard Harp Festival

Excerpts from `The Memoirs of Arthur O'Neill' (1810)

`The Memoirs of Arthur O'Neill' have been written down about the year 1810 for the traditional Irish music collector Edward Bunting, and O'Sullivan included it in his Carolan manuscript (-> FW#20). Arthur O'Neill (1734-1818) was born in Drumnastrade near Dungannon, Co. Tyrone. At the age of two he diverted himself with a knife and eventually lost his sight. As many blind he was taught the harp and became an accomplished itinerant harper. In 1760 O'Neill strung Brian Boru's Harp (-> FW#23) and played it in a procession down the streets of Limerick. He gained 2nd prize at each of the three Harp Festivals held at Granard, Co. Longford, in 1781, 1782 and 1785. Arthur O'Neill also attended the Belfast Harp Festival in 1792 and gave Bunting a large number of airs.

At the time I heard of the first Ball in Granard I was at my brother Ferdinand's in Glenart [near Caledon in the County of Tyrone], Arthur O'Neill (1734-1818) from whence I pushed towards the County of Longford without meeting anything particular, only touching at some of the gentlemen's houses in my way and met Patrick Carr going to Granard also. I remained in and about Granard for near a month before the first Ball.

These annual Balls originated in the following manner. A Mr. James Dungan, a native of Granard and a very extensive merchant at that time residing in Copenhagen in Denmark, heard in some manner that the gentlemen of Scotland encouraged annual meetings or competitions amongst Highland pipers, where premiums were awarded to the best performers. Dungan by national ardour, in order to retain and support the original instrument of his own country, wrote to his friends in and about Granard and remitted a sufficient sum to defray the expense of the three celebrated Balls held at Granard in the years of (to the best of my recollection) 1781, 1782 and 1783 [1785].

`And it's to be lamented', says Dungan in his letter to his friends, that persons placed in high situations, and who have it in their power to do the most good by their rank or wealth for their own country are, I am sorry to hear, the least disposed to do it - I will not attempt to say whether by habit or inclination. I am informed they know nothing of Irish music or Irish misery only by the name, so great are their desires to support and promote modern English music. And I consider my native land half a century behind Scotland in encouraging and rewarding their best performers on the bagpipe, which if preferred to the wired harp, strongly evinces our taste. The Welsh harp is increasing, the Scotch bagpipes are increasing, but poor Erin's harp is decreasing. If I was among you it should not be the case. Farewell, my friends, and I hope you will amongst yourselves support what I make bold to dictate to you.

P.S. Why not make or establish a fund for the above purpose? I don't want you to imitate the Scotch but the ancient Irish. Adieu. Copenhagen, March, 178-.'

First Ball. Harpers present:

Charles Fanning Rose Mooney
Arthur O'Neill Charley Berreen
Paddy Carr        and
Paddy Maguire Hugh Higgins.

Bard & Harper from John Derricke's Images of Ireland (1581)All played their best tunes. Charles Fanning got the first for the `Cúilfhionn' (ten guineas). I got the second for `The Green Woods of Truagh' and `Mrs. Crofton' (eight guineas) and Rose Mooney got the third for `Planxty Burke' (five guineas).

The judges on this first Ball were excellent and there was some deliberation about the first premium between Fanning and me. But in consequence of my endeavouring to appear on the occasion in my best duds they decided in favour of Charley, who was careless in his dress, saying at the same time he wanted money more than I did. However, I received many handsome verbal compliments besides the eight guinea premium. To the best of my information there were at least five hundred persons at the Ball, which was held in the market house of Granard. A Mr. Alexander Burrowes was one of the stewards, who was a tolerable judge of music and who was so angry on the decision of premiums that he thrust his cane through one of the windows. Mr. Patrick Reilly, the innkeeper, prepared the supper.

After this first Ball was ended I became a favourite in and about Granard, where I remained about four months, where my company was much sought for. [...]

Second Ball. Harpers present:

Charles Fanning Hugh Higgins
Arthur O'Neill Rose Mooney
Paddy Carr Ned MacDermot Roe
Paddy Maguire        and
Charley Berreen Kate Martin.

All played their best tunes as usual, but the premiums were reduced this year to eight guineas the first, the second premium six guineas and the third four guineas. Charles Fanning got the first for the `Cúilfhionn' again. I got the second for `The Green Woods of Truagh' and `The Fairy Queen'. Rose Mooney got the third, but I don't remember for what tunes. Higgins got some way huffed and retired without playing a single tune. A Major Smith who knew nothing about music was appointed one of the judges [and he] declared, `By God, they made me a judge because they knew I knew nothing about it!' [...]

After remaining with my friends in and about the County Tyrone in the usual manner for about nine months, I then began to prepare myself for the third Granard Ball. I set out accordingly and touched or stopped at almost every house mentioned in going to the first and second Ball, without meeting anything particular worthy of notice, until I got to Mr. James O'Reilly's of Higginstown, County Longford, with whom I remained until the Ball, on which the following harpers attended :

Charles Fanning Charley Berreen
Arthur O'Neill Paddy Carr
Hugh Higgins Ned MacDermot Roe
Laurence Keane Rose Mooney and her maid Mary
James Duncan Kate Martin.

The premiums were the same as the second Ball, that is, eight guineas the first, six the second and four the third. Fanning (deservedly) always got the first. I got the second, and poor Rose Mooney got the third as usual. A gentleman named Miles Keane railed uncommonly about the distribution of the premiums and swore a great oath that it was the most nefarious decision he ever witnessed. I don't know what he meant but heard the expression. Lord and Lady Longford attended this Ball and the meeting was vastly more numerous than at the two former Balls. Quality forty miles around attended and there was not a house in the town but was filled with ladies and gentlemen, and the town was like a horse fair as there was no stabling for the twentieth part that came. There were at least a thousand people at the Ball. In consequence of the harpers who obtained no premiums being formerly neglected, I proposed a subscription, which was well received and performed, and indeed on distributing the collection their proportions exceeded our premiums. This last Ball was chiefly spoiled by means of a Bernard Reilly of Ballymorris, who entertained some antipathy to Mr. Dungan and took every pains to destroy the harmony of the Ball.

Mr. Dungan, the father and promoter of these three Balls, came over from Copenhagen chiefly (amongst other business) to see how this third and last Ball was conducted ; and he got so much disgusted with indecorous manners of the stewards and others who superintended Irish coinage the management of it that Mr. Dungan would not attend during the performance, but attended at supper. There was a very handsome ode composed for Mr. Dungan on his arrival at Granard, but through jealousy or some other motives he never saw either the ode or the composer.

I dined with Mr. Dungan the day after the Ball at the Widow Reilly's in Granard and I cannot account how I deserved his attention, but I should sit next to him and dined with him in different places. He acquired admiration everywhere he visited in consequence of his polished manner and gentlemanly accomplishments. He remained some time in and about Granard and I understand he is now alive and well in Copenhagen. If there was a Dungan and a Bunting in each province in this Kingdom, it's more easily imagined than my poor abilities can describe to what a stage of grandeur the Irish harp and the music incident to it would arrive to.

When the third Ball was over I took my leave of Duncan and Keane (two of the harpers). But I forgot to mention that before the Ball opened Rose Mooney pledged her harp, her petticoat and her cloak. When I make this remark of poor Rose, the faults or ludicrous remarks I make use of respecting her own conduct should be entirely attributed to her maid Mary, whose uncommon desire for drinking was unlimited, and taking advantage of her mistress's blindness she always when money was wanting pawned any article on which she could raise half a pint. Therefore, poor Rose, I acquit you of any meanness on your own account, as your guides and mine have led us into hobbles which we poor blind harpers have to get out of and afterwards laugh at. But we in general think that it's better for people in every situation in life to have about them the rogue they know than the rogue they don't know.

I made it a point to remain in and about Granard till I understood that Mr. Dungan was for returning to Copenhagen, and it may be imagined that I say too much of myself. He took me aside and exchanged mutual friendship on parting, and when done shaking hands I discovered the weight of six guineas in mine, adding that I deserved the first premium (as he was informed, not attending) and hoped that I would not be offended at his making it superior to Fanning's. [...]

20-27 April 2003 Granard Traditional Harp School (
Two hundred years later in 1981 a committee was set up in Granard to re-establish the competitions which are still on going to-day with competitors coming from all over Ireland, Europe and the USA. In keeping with the original festival it also gives large money prizes to reward the modern day harpers. In 1981 the first winner of the top prize was Ms Anne Heyman, USA (-> FW#17) and in 2002 the winner was Fionnuala Ni Ruanaidh, Monaghan. The present committee have re-established the Harp School, employing top class and well known teachers. The aims are the same as those of John Dungan back in 1781 - to promote the Irish Harp and Harp music.

9-11 May 2003 Edward Bunting Harp and Singing Festival
Edward Bunting (1773-1843) of Armagh was engaged at the Belfast Harp Festival in 1792 to note down the music of the last of the itinerant Irish harpers. Entranced by the music, Bunting made the collection, arrangement and publication of traditional music his lifework. The Edward Bunting Concert series lasts over a six-month period November 2002 to April 2003 in Markethill, Co. Armagh, and culminates in The 5th Edward Bunting Harp and Singing Festival in May 2003 in the newly opened Armagh City Hotel. The major aim is to arouse awareness and generate an interest in the existing harp music, instrumental dance music and song.

The Memoirs of Arthur O'Neill
Co. Longford / Granard

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© The Mollis - Editors of FolkWorld; Published May 2003

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