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Sources for Gaelic harp music

the Bunting manuscripts: modern editions

Charlotte Milligan Fox
Charlotte Milligan Fox

The first person to issue modern editions of Bunting’s manuscript materials was Charlotte Milligan Fox in the early 20th century. She acquired the manuscripts in 1907, and her book Annals of the Irish Harpers (1911) includes a lot of the text from the manuscripts, though presented as part of a populist narrative rather than a scholarly edition. She also published some music from the manuscripts in Journal of the Irish Folk Song Society, printing copies of some manuscript pages.

The Irish music scholar Donal O’Sullivan set himself the task of tracing the manuscript origins of each tune from the printed books. He published in parts, being the complete issues of the Journal of the Irish Folk Song Society between 1927 and 1939. Working steadily through the printed books, for each tune he found an early manuscript version of the tune, which he presented as a single melody line; he also described Bunting’s sources for the tune, variant versions, and gave the words to any associated song with English translation. This work remains a very useful tool for anyone working with the manuscripts today, even if some of the combinations of text and tune look implausible. The task took him much longer than he had anticipated, and after completing six parts which cover the 1796 and 1809 volumes, he ceased work on the project.

Donal O’Sullivan restarted work on the 1840 tunes in 1965, and after his death in 1973, this task was completed by Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin and published in 1983. This book is inevitably less comprehensive and detailed than the editions of the 1796 and 1809 tunes, but it is still extremely useful for scholars working on the manuscripts, and forms an excellent completion of the whole project. It is a shame that both the 1927-39 and 1983 parts of Donal O’Sullivan’s great work on Bunting’s manuscripts are out of print; it would be an excellent project to re-issue the entire thing as a single volume, or perhaps a set of three.

Collette Moloney studied Bunting’s manuscripts for her PhD in Limerick, completing in 1995. She published a book based on her thesis in 2000: The Irish music manuscripts of Edward Bunting (1773-1843), an introduction and catalogue. The bulk of this book is the descriptive catalogue, listing every item of music or song in the manuscripts, which has become an essential tool for scholars and researchers.

Roy Johnson was a local historian based in Belfast. His book Bunting’s Messiah is a musical biography of Edward Bunting. While it makes little if no use of the manuscript collection, it does give a lot of very useful background information about Bunting’s upbringing and his musical activities in Belfast.


Specimens of Melodies with Words (Irish and English) from the Bunting MSS’, Journal of the Irish Folk Song Society Vol 6, 1908, p.6, pp.15-28
Alice Milligan & Charlotte Milligan Fox, ‘Gaelic Airs and Ballads Selected from Bunting MSS’, Journal of the Irish Folk Song Society Vol 7, 1909, pp.15-30
A Song of the Antrim Glens and Scottish Isles’, Journal of the Irish Folk Song Society Vol 8, 1910, pp.6-9
Charlotte Milligan Fox, ‘Songs from Bunting MSS’, Journal of the Irish Folk Song Society Vol 8, 1910, pp.19-22
Alice and Charlotte published songs, both tunes and texts, in a series of articles in the Journal. However a few of the published items seem to have actually come from more recent sources, so care is needed. The tunes are given in what looks like their own careful hand copies of the manuscript pages, mostly from James Cody’s books. Some of the Gaelic song texts are given in photo-facsimile.

Annals of the Irish Harpers

Charlotte Milligan Fox
Annals of the Irish Harpers
Smith, Elder & Co, London 1911
Charlotte discovered the papers of Edward Bunting in an attic in 1907; in this book she published anecdotes, stories and historical documents from them, including documents relating to the 1792 Festival, the Memoirs of Arthur O'Neill, the Diary and Letters of Patrick Lynch, letters to Bunting from Dr. James MacDonnell. Also a biography of Bunting and six portraits.
Available from the Emporium

Donal O'Sullivan's book

Donal O’Sullivan
The Bunting Collection of Irish Folk Music and Songs
Journal of the Irish Folk Song Society, 1927-39
Each tune in the first two (1796 and 1809) of Bunting’s published volumes is here given as a transcription of the melody taken from Bunting's manuscripts, and notes on who and where Bunting obtained it from, parallels, other sources, and also includes words to all the songs along with English translation. A useful resource for the scholar as well as for the Gaelic harp student. The work was published serially in the Journal of the Irish Folk Song Society between 1927 and 39. There was a facsimile reprint published by Dawson & sons, London, 1967. PDFs of each page of the 1967 reprint are available to download from the website of Na Píobairí Uillean though the site is extremely hard to navigate...

Donal O'Sullivan & Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin's book

Donal O’Sullivan with Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin
Bunting’s Ancient Music of Ireland edited from the original manuscripts
Cork University Press, 1983
Donal never completed his work on Bunting’s third published volume (1840), so after his death the material he had compiled was edited and completed by Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin. The notes are almost inevitably less full, and there are fewer lyrics, but Mícheál has made a point to include discussion of a few of the harp basses, which were overlooked by Donal.
Available for sale secondhand in the Emporium

Collete Moloney's book

Colette Moloney
The Irish Music Manuscripts of Edward Bunting (1773-1843): An Introduction and Catalogue
Irish Traditional Music Archive, 2000
This large and expensive volume is an heroic attempt to impose some order on the Bunting manuscripts in Queens University Belfast. Each manuscript is described and its contents listed in order. For each item we are given a title, and any textual annotations. Music incipits (the first 4 bars of a tune) are given but only for the first instance of each tune - this is less than useful as many of the items in the manuscripts are variants and so are different from each other. The draft notebooks, most essential to early harp scholars, are the least well indexed, with annotations confused for titles, and variations mis-catalogued as new tunes. The book contains a number of large indexes, by title, first line, person, etc. which mean that (with a bit of lateral thinking of spellings and alternatives) most items can be quickly located in the manuscripts. Perhaps the weakest part of the book is the introduction, which attempts to discuss the manuscript collection and the music of the harpers. While the discussion of the manuscript collection itself, with technical descriptions of ink, handwriting, paper, and bindings, is illuminating and useful, the discussion of the music of the harpers is disappointing and often misleading. For example, piano arrangements are accepted as being more honest representations of Gaelic harp idiom than the draft notations in ms29; in discussing the instruments played by Bunting’s informants there is no mention that a number of them survive in museums, and in the section on musical style and technique Ann Heymann’s work is not mentioned. However, the value of a work like this will always lie in the catalogue, and in this regard this book stands as a vital resource for anyone working on the Bunting manuscripts.
Order online from the publisher.

Bunting's Messiah

Roy Johnston
Bunting's Messiah
Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society, 2003
A comprehensive and readable biography of Edward Bunting, which covers his whole musical life from his training and apprenticeship as a church organist, to his organisation of an important performance of Handel's Messiah in Belfast in 1813, and also his work with the harpers. This book provides the essential context for Bunting's collection of the ancient Irish music.
Available here from the Early Gaelic Harp Emporium. Click here to order your copy

Simon Chadwick