Biography:Denis Hempson

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Denis a Hampsy or Hempson, with whom the Editor [Bunting] of this collecgtion was many years ago struck as a model of the old Irish school, was born shortly after Crolan, in the year 1695. He had been in Carolan’s company when a youth, but never took pleasure in playing his compositions. The pieces which he 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 truck them with one finger, the other was instantly ready to stop the vibration, so that the Staccato passages were heard in full perfection. When asked the reason of his playing certain parts of the tune or lesson in that style, his reply was, “That is the way I learned it,” or “I cannot play it in any other.” The intricacy and peculiarity of his playing often amazed the Editor, who could not avoid perceiving in it vestiges of a noble system of practice, that had existed for many centuries; strengthening the opinion, that the Irish were, at a very early period, superior to the other nations of Europe, both in the composition and performance of music. In fact, Hempson’s Stacatto and Legato passages, double slurs, shakes, turns, graces, &c., &c., comprised as great a range of execution as has ever been devised by the most modern improvers.

An accurate portrait of Hempson, when above one hundred years old, was inserted in the Editor’s former collection, and is given here in miniature. The following account of him, communicated in a letter from the late Rev. George Sampson, the historian of Londonderry, was originally published by Miss Owenson, now Lady Morgan, in her admired novel, “The Wild Irish Girl.” Were the writer still alive, the Editor is satisfied he would approve of his memoir being transplanted into a work to which it is so perfectly suited, and where it will be handed down with the minstrel’s favourite music.

July 3d, 1805

“I made the survey of the man with two heads, [in allusion to an enormous excresence or wen on the back of his head,] according to your desire, but not till yesterday, on account of various impossibilitiesl here is my report:

“Denis Hempson, or the man with two heads, is a native of Craigmore, near Garvagh, in the county of Londonderry. His father, Bryan Darragher (blackish complexion) Hempson, held the whole townland of Tyrcrevan; his mother’s relations were in possession of the Woodtown (both considerable farms at Magilligan.) He lost his sight at the age of three years by the small-pox; at twelve years old he began to learn the harp under Bridget O’Cahan; ‘for’, as he said, ‘in these old times, women as well as men were taught the Irish harp in the best families, and every old Irish family had harps in plenty.’ His next instructor was John C. Garragher, a blind traveling harper, whom he followed to Buncranagh, where his master used to play for Colonel Vaughan; he had afterwards Loughlin Fanning and Patrick Connor, in succession, as masters. ‘All these were from Connaught, which was,’ as he added, ‘the best part of the kingdom for Irish harpers, and for music.’ At eighteen years of age he began to play for himself, and was taken into the house of Counselor Canning, at Garvagh, for half a yearl; his host, with Squire Gage and Doctor Bacon, joined, and bought him a harp.

“He traveled nine or ten years through Ireland and Scotland, and tells facetious stories of gentlemen in both countries; among others, that, in passing near the residence of Sir J. Campbell, at Aghanbrach, he learned that this gentleman had spent a great deal, and was living upon so much per week for an allowance. Hempson through delicacy would not call, but some of the domestics were sent after him. On coming into the castle, Sir J. Campbell asked him why he had not called, adding, ‘Sir, there never was a harper but yourself that passed the door of my father’s house.’ To which Hempson answered, ‘that he had heard in the neighbourhood his honor was not often at home;’ with which delicate evasion Sir J. was satisfied. He adds, ‘That this was the stateliest and highest bred man he ever knew; if he were putting on a new pair of gloves, and one of the dropped on the floor, (though ever so clean,) he would order the servant to bring another pair. He syas that in that time he never met but one laird who had a harp, and that was a very small one, played formerly by the laird’s father; and that when he had tuned it with new strings, the laird and his lady were so pleased with his music, that they invited him back in these words: ‘Hempson, as soon as you think this child of ours (a boy of three years of age) is fit to learn on his grandfather’s harp, come back to teach him, and you shall not repent it; but this he never accomplished. He told me a story of the Laird of Strone, with a great deal of comic relish. When he was playing at the house, a messenger came, that a large party of gentlemen were coming to grouse, and would spend some days with him, (the laird.) The lady, being in great distress, turned to her husband saying, ‘What shall we do, my dear, for so many, in the way of beds?’ ‘Give yourself no uneasiness,’ replied the laird; ‘give us enough to eat, and I will supply the rest; and as for beds, believe me, every man shall find one for himself,’ (meaning, that his guests would fall under the table.)

“In his second trip to Scotland, in the year 1745, he was at that time, buy his own account, nearly fifty years of age; being at Edinburgh when Charley the Pretender was there, he was called into the great hall to play; at first he was alone, afterwards four fiddlers joined; the tune called for was ‘The king shall enjoy his own again;’ he sung here part of the words following:

I hope to see the day
When the Whigs shall run away,
And the Kings shall enjoy his own again.

I asked him if he heard the Pretender speak; he replied, I only heard him ask, ‘Is Sylvan there?’ On which some one answered, ‘He is not here, please your Royal Highness, but he shall be sent for.’ He meant to say Sullivan, continued Hempson, but that was the way he called the name. He says that Captain Macdonald, when in Ireland, came to see him, and that he told the Captain the Charley’s cockade was in his father’s house.

“Hempson was brought into the Pretender’s presence by Colonel Kelly, of Roscommon, and Sir Thomas Sheridan. He played in many Irish houses; among others, those of Lord de Courcy, Mr. Fortescue, Sir P. Bellew, Squire Roche; and in the great towns, Dublin, Cork, &c. &c., respecting all which, he interspersed pleasant anecdotes with surprising gaiety and correctess.

“General Hart, who was an admirer of music, sent a painter to take a drawing of him, which cannot fail to be interesting, if it were only for the venerable expression of his meagre blind countenance, and the symmetry of his tall, thin, but not debilitated person. I found him lying on his back in bed, near the fire of his cabin; his family employed in the usual way; his harp under the bed clothes, by which his face was covered also. When he hear my name, he started up, (being already dressed,) and seemed requiced to hear the sound of my voice, which, he said, he began to recollect. He asked for my children, whom I brought to see him, and he felt them over and over; then , with tones of great affection, he blessed God that he had seen four generations of the name, and ended by giving the children his blessing. He then tuned his old time-beaten harp, his solace and bed-fellow, and played with astonishing justness and good taste.

“The tunes which he played were his favourites; and he, with an elegance of manner, said at the same time, ‘I remember you have a fondness for music, and the tunes you used to ask for I have not forgotten,’ which were ‘Coolin,’ ‘The Dawning of the Day,’ ‘Ellen a Roon,’ ‘Cean dubh dilis,’ &c. These, except the third, were the first tunes which, according to regulation, he played at the famous meeting of harpers at Belfast, under the patronage of some amateurs of Irish music. Mr. Bunting, the celebrated musician of that town, was here in 1793, the year after the meeting, at Hempson’s, noting his tunes and his manner of playing, which is in the best old style. He said, with the honest feeling of self-love, ‘When I played the old tunes, not another of the harpers would play after me.’ He came to Magilligan many years ago, and at the age of eighty-six married a woman of Innishowen, whom he found living in the house of a friend. ‘I can’t tell,’ said Hempson, if it was not the devil buckled us together, she being lame, and I blind.’ By his wife he has one daughter, married to a cooper, who has several children, and maintains them all, though Hempson (in this alone seeming to doat) says, that his son-in-law is a spendthrift, and that he maintains them; the family humour his whim, and the old man is quieted. He is pleased when they tell him, as he thinks is the case, that several people of character for musical taste send letters to invite him; and he, though incapable now of leaving the house, is planning expeditions, never to be attempted, much less realized: these are the only traces of mental debility. As to his body, he has no inconvenience but that arising from a chronic disorder. His habits have ever been sober; his favourite drink, once beer, now mild and water; his diet chiefly potatoes. I asked him to teach my daughter, but he declined; adding, however, that it was too hard for a young girl, but nothing would give him greater pleasure, if he thought it could be done.

“Lord Bristol, when lodging at the bathing-house of Mount Salut, near Magilligan, gave three guineas, and ground rent free, to build the house where Hempson now lives. At the house-warming, his lordship with his lady and family came, and the children danced to his harp.”

It will be satisfactory to such as take an interest in the simple annals of the harpers, and venerate any vestiges of the bardic system, to learn, that the close of Hempson’s long life of 112 years (he died in 1807) was rendered comfortable by the humanity of the Rev. Sir H. Harvey Bruce, from whose hand he was often literally fed. The day before his death, upon hearing that this gentleman had come to his cabin, he desired to be raised up in his bed, and the harp placed in his hands. Having struck some notes of a favourite strain, he sunk back unable to proceed, tanking his last adieu of an instrument which had been a companion, even in his sleeping hours, and was his hourly solace through a life protracted to the longest span. His harp is preserved in Sir Henry’s mansion, at Downhill, as a relic of its interesting owner. It was made by Cormac O’Kelly, about the year 1700, at Ballynascreen, in the county Derry; a district long famous for the construction of such instruments, and for the preservation of ancient Irish melodies in their original purity. It was with great difficulty the Editor was able to procure the old harp music from Hempson. When asked to play the very antique tunes, he uniformly replied, “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.