Edward Bunting

1773-1843

About the Collector

Edward Bunting was born in Armagh in February 1773.  He and his two siblings learned the organ from Mr. Barnes, the organist at the Armagh Cathedral.  In 1782, aged nine, Bunting and his siblings were orphaned.  He moved from Armagh to live with his brother, Anthony, who was by then an organist in Drogheda.  Aged eleven, Bunting relocated to Belfast in 1784 to be a substitute organist for William Ware in St. Anne’s parish church, Belfast

Bunting lived with John McCracken and his family in Belfast.  John McCracken was a merchant and ship owner, and he and his family were involved in the United Irish Society.  The United Irish Society were influential in the organisation of the 1792 Belfast Harp Festival, an event which has become monumental in the history of Irish music.

A public meeting was held in Belfast in April 1792 to discuss a proposal to ‘revive and perpetuate the Ancient Music and Poetry of Ireland’.  Henry Joy, owner of the Belfast News-Letter and uncle to Henry Joy McCracken, and Dr James McDonnell were the pioneers of the project.  Plans were made to hold an assembly of harpers in Belfast from the 10th to the 13th of July, 1792.  Music and performances would be judged and prizes would be awarded.  An announcement was made in the Belfast News-Letter which outlined that all participants would receive payment.  A special call was made for ‘airs not to be found in any public collection’.

John Sharpe, William Ware, and Edward Bunting (Ware’s assistant) were employed to transcribe the harp music at the festival.  Ten Irish harpers and one Welsh harper attended the festival, including Denis Hempson (1695-1807), a man of remarkable longevity who was, at this point, in his late nineties.  Sharpe and Ware were unable to attend, and neither could an Irish speaker be procured for the event.  Thus, the transcription duties fell entirely to nineteen-year-old Bunting.

The 1792 Belfast Harp Festival was a defining moment in Bunting’s life, career, and legacy, and thereafter, he devoted much time towards the collecting and publishing of Irish harp and folk music.  Later in 1792, Bunting toured Mayo, Derry, and Tyrone to collect music from harpers including Denis Hempson, and acquired further music from Arthur O’Neill and Daniel Black.

In 1797, Bunting’s first collection of music was published: A General Collection of the Ancient Irish Music Containing a variety of Admired Airs never before Published, and also The Compositions of Conolan and Carolan Collected from the Harpers & c. in the different Provinces of Ireland and adapted for the Piano-Forte with a Prefatory Introduction by Edward Bunting. The collection contains sixty-six pieces, arranged for piano.  Each piece can be found on this website in newly-transcribed scores with accompanying harp recordings.  

As a volume of scored piano music with notated treble and bass lines, Bunting’s arrangements were marketed towards amateur musicians of middle and upper classes, and his style of arrangement reflects an art music aesthetic.  The sources from which he collected these pieces mainly acquired their music through oral transmission.  Although direct, accurate transcriptions may be the ideal artefacts of historical musical traditions, Bunting’s work preserves precious music that may otherwise have been lost forever, and illuminates at least a glimpse of eighteenth-century harping practices. 

Bunting went on to publish several other collections of music which include Irish and English song lyrics, and writings about the historical harping tradition.  Bunting also contributed to the musical culture of Belfast as an organiser of the Belfast Music Festival in 1813, the Belfast Irish Harp Society, and as an organist in St. George’s Church.  He also taught piano lessons and established the music publishing company Bunting, Walsh, Pigott & Sherwin.

Edward Bunting and his wife, Mary Anne Chapman, had three children together. He died on the 21st of December, 1843, aged seventy, and was buried in Mount St Jerome Cemetery in Dublin.

Dr. Fiachra Ó Corragáin