Preview: BBC Beart Bunting documentary

Preview: BBC Beart Bunting documentary

MAL ROGERS previews a BBC Programme about music collector Edward Bunting who played a crucial role in preserving parts of Ireland’s ancient harping tradition.


NOW A bank, No. 2 Waring Street is Belfast’s earliest public building still surviving. In 1792 it was the venue for an event that was to have an enduring effect on Irish music. A far-seeing musicologist called Edward Bunting realised that the precious harping tradition of Ireland was almost extinct, and the country was about to lose something both irreplaceable and unique.

The harp is the official symbol of Ireland (not the shamrock) and this position is well-deserved,

Some form of the instrument was in use in Celtic pre-Christian Ireland, although what is usually referred as the harp era lasted from approximately the sixth century until the 18th century, with its heyday in the middle ages.

Before the sixth century information is, needless to say, rather scant, but it probably wouldn’t be any exaggeration to say that Irish bards and harpers of the sixteenth century were heir not only to an ancient tradition stretching back to pre-Christian Ireland, but to one whose roots lie in the earliest Bronze Age civilisation. Harps found in the middle east and dating to perhaps 2000 to 3000 BC resemble the Irish harp.

However the harp tradition as we know it is something which is uniquely Celtic. And although the music is classified as traditional music, it is not folk music, not the music of the populace at large. The harpers (not harpists, mind) of former times were a musical elite, writing and performing for their patrons and composing songs in their honour. As the great Gaelic families declined the harpers became a dying breed, and by the end of the 18th century their era was drawing to a close.

Although the harp tradition cannot be regarded as folk music in the accepted sense, the harp did have an enduring effect on Irish music through various channels. Firstly the ancient art of sean nós singing probably owes some of its distinctive cadences to the harping tradition.

Edward Bunting, who was born in Armagh in 1773 and subsequently lived in Belfast, arranged for the dozen or so surviving harpers in the 18th century to assemble in Waring Street to play through their repertoire. He then set about transcribing their music - eventually producing three collections of airs and melodies.

This in itself was an invaluable legacy to bequeath to Ireland. However Bunting’s work had one other consequence that ensured a place for harp music in Irish culture forever. In the following century Thomas Moore began arranging Bunting’s music and putting words to it; the collection was called Moore’s Melodies. Songs such as The Minstrel Boy, the Last Rose of Summer and Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms passed into general ownership, and are sung to this day.

The Last Rose of Summer is regarded by some as one of the the first million sellers by any Irish or British artist. Of course as we’re talking two hundred years ago this was sheet music. If this is accurate, it is an absolutely phenomenal feat, and made possible by events at Waring Street.

But there is another part of Bunting’s output, the part largely speaking that no one put lyrics to. This neglected part of Bunting’s musical collection is brought to life in a new BBC Gaeilge programme.

Beart Bunting, made for BBC Gaeilge and TG4 by Dearcán Media with support from Northern Ireland Screen’s Irish Language Broadcast Fund, is available on BBC iPlayer and on BBC Two Northern Ireland on Sunday, November 27 at 10.15pm.

In the one-hour programme six traditional musicians join up with the Strabane Brass Band to explore and perform part of the Bunting collection.

In the programme, the six musicians — Aoife and Deirdre Granville, Conor Caldwell, Aidan O'Donnell, Eilís Lavelle and Lauren Ní Néill team up with the the brass band to perform a unique concert. The recital will include military music such as regimental marches, which some of the harpers specialised in. There is even a theory that the US national anthem The Star-Spangled Banner derives from a Turlough O’Carolan harp tune. O’Carolan was the most famous of the later harpers, but implicating him in the authorship of the American anthem is a bit of a stretch. For the record, the theory states that the tune made its way to the US via the Inniskilling Dragoons.

The BBC programme on Sunday night will also feature military retreats —

And we have to remember that the military, no matter their other shortcomings, often helped to keep traditional music alive.

The repertoire on the BBC will also include traditional airs , quick-steps, reels and jigs