Oidhreacht Dhonncha Uí Ámhsaigh: The Legacy of Denis O’Hempsey

The Downhill @ Guinness. Photo by Sue, August, 2009.

Well here is a rare opportunity to see several of the world’s best harpers perform.  As you’ll see in my previous post, TG4, the Irish Language TV station, created a documentary on the legacy of the mysterious blind harper, Denis O’Hempsey, who was an old man back in 1792 when Edward Bunting noted down the music he and several other harpers played at that last great gathering of early Irish harpers.


Take a look at each of the three parts of the film.  The coverage is a little bit choppy, and cuts  back and forth between the performer on stage and the small talk of the participants behind the scenes, preparing for their turn to perform.

Who will you see?  Ann Heymann plays Feachain Gleis on a Downhill replica, which I understand from Michael Billinge was made by Jay Witcher.   Her gorgeous Kortier Trinity is also on the stage, but unfortunately, whatever she played on the Trinity was not included in the film.  Alison Kinnaird plays her handsome Lamont replica, made, I believe, by Bob Evans.  Paul Dooley and Laoise Kelly both play clarsachs made by Dooley, as far as my eye can tell.  Two Breton harpers, Alan Stivell and Myrdhin, play more modern instruments, but are a pleasure to watch.  I was thrilled to see Alison Kinnaird play for the first time.  That was rather exciting.  The Downhill replica played by Nollaig Brolly was made by Seamus O’Kane, and is a handsome thing.  Take a look at this article from the Derry Journal to learn a bit more about the project.

It’s  fun to look at everybody’s styles up close, and appreciated having a close-up look at their manicures.  I was amused to see one of the harpers working on his nails before the concert.  We can all identify with him.

Special thanks to Karen Loomis, who mentioned the broadcast in the first place, and to Michael Billinge for further information about the film he was central to creating.  With good wishes for the end of the year,


More on Banríon an Cheoil: the Harp Recital in Belfast, Nov. 2009

Thanks to the sharp eyes of friend and doctoral research student Karen Loomis, I understand that TG4, the Irish language TV station, has presented a program this evening showing a number of the participants in the November 2009 Belfast harp recital.

The harpers include some of the luminaries, such as Ann Heymann and Alison Kinnaird. Several months ago TG4 released a documentary on a lever harp player, Nollaig Brolly, who sought to recreate the music of Denis O’Hampsey by learning to play a replica of the Downhill Harp.  Here’s the original post.  If you’d like a quick look at a video that includes an Irish language interview with Brolly, and shows, most interestingly, O’Hampsey’s grand Downhill being removed from its glass prison at the Guinness Brewery in Dublin, I’d recommend this short clip.  Remember that Brolly is a lever harper, as you can see from her hand positions when she plays the replica.

As soon as TG4 posts the concert documentary, I’ll add it to this blog. After all, I’m extremely eager to see the harpers, and to hear their choices of music. To learn more about the Belfast Harp Festival in 1792, here is a helpful link provided by Simon Chadwick. He’s added some downloadable PDF links if you’d like to take a look at Edward Bunting’s published works inspired by his transcription of the music at the festival.

For some in-depth information about the Downhill harp, here’s a good starting point.  You might also take a look at Armstrong’s chapter on the Downhill.  Take a look to the right at the link for Armstrong (it’s a very big PDF file–you’ve been warned).

Solstice good wishes,

Winter Solstice in the House of the Dagda

The front door to the house of the Dagda (Newgrange), 2010. Photo by Sue.

It’s the last evening before the solstice, and I’m thinking of the people who are coming from all over Ireland right now to gather at the house of the Dagda, or Brú na Bóinne, also known as Newgrange.  We were in the Boyne River valley during our last week in Ireland this past summer, and visited Newgrange once again.  For those who don’t know the site, it’s one of two passage tombs in Ireland that have that rare and amazing feature:  a roof box.  This is the upper shaft above the doorway that serves as a door for the ray of sunlight that enters the chamber on Winter Solstice morning.  The sun shines down the long passageway and illuminates the inner chambers of the tomb for a short period of time on that morning, as well as a few mornings on either side of the Solstice.  Here is a helpful site for further information.

This year, the event promises to be more spectacular than usual, as there is a total lunar eclipse occurring the night/morning of the Winter Solstice, depending on your time zone. Whether I’ll be waiting up to see it, here in the pacific northwest, is up to the condition of the skies.  I think it will be too cloudy.

Do you know the story of the Dagda and his harp?  It is from the account of the Second Battle of Moytura, and the manuscript (here in a translation by Whitley Stokes) is rich in details about the coming of Lugh, the Dagda’s exploits, and the war between the Fomoire and the Tuatha de Danaan.

Here is the excerpt of interest:

“Now Lug and the Dagda and Ogma pursued the Fomorians, for they had carried off the Dagda’s harper, whose name was Uaitne. Then they reached the banqueting-house in which were Bres son of Elotha and Elotha son of Delbaeth. There hung the harp on the wall. That is the harp in which Dagda had bound the melodies so that they sounded not until by his call he summoned them forth; when he said this below:

Come Daurdabla!
Come Coir-cethar-chuir!
Come summer, Come winter!
Mouths of harps and bags and pipes!

Now that harp had tow names, Daur-da-bla “Oak of two greens” and Coir-cethar-chuir “Four-angled music.”

Then the harp went forth from the wall, and killed nine men, and came to the Dagda. And he played for them the three things whereby harpers are distinguished, to wit, sleep-strain and smile-strain and wail-strain. He played wail-strain to them, so that their tearful women wept. He played smile-strain to them , so their women and children laughed. He played sleep-strain to them, and the company fell asleep. Through that sleep the three of them escaped unhurt from the Fomorians though these desired to slay them.”

If you’d like to see an English translation of the description of Newgrange from the Metrical Dindsenchas, which is the book of the lore of place names in Ireland, take a look here, and ponder this marvelous place on the eve of the Winter Solstice.  I’ll leave you with a photograph of Newgrange I took in July of 2010 while standing on the top of Dowth, another passage tomb in the Boyne River valley.


Newgrange from the top of Dowth. Photo by Sue, 2010.

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