Denis Hempson (1695-1807)

24 November 2006, 10:11 PM GMT

Denis Hempson (1695-1807)

Denis Hempson was born in 1695 at Craigmore, near Garvagh, Co. Derry. He was blinded by smallpox at the age of three and got tuition at the age of 12 on the harp from Brigid Ó Cathain. Other instructors included John Garrigher an itinerant harper whom Hempson followed into Donegal, and Patrick Connor and Loughlin Fanning, both of whom came from Connacht. At 18yrs. Hempson set out on his own under the patronage of Mr. Fanning from Garvagh who bought him a harp. He travelled throughout Ireland and Scotland playing in the big houses of noblemen who patronised harp music. He played for Bonnie Prince Charlie in Edinburgh in 1745. Hempson was one of ten harpers who competed at the Great Belfast Harp Festival in July 1792.

The others competing were - Arthur O Neill, blind (Tyrone); Charles Fanning (Cavan); Dan Black, blind (Derry); Charles Byrne (Leitrim); Hugh Higgins, blind (Mayo); Patrick Quinn, blind (Armagh) William Caer (Armagh); James Duncan (Down); Rose Mooney, blind (Meath). William Caer was 15 years of age while all the other were over 45 years. Fanning won the competition allegedly because of his good choice of the favourite ‘Coolin’. A gay bachelor, Hempson married at the age of 86 and commented that the devil must have buckled them, he being blind and she being lame! He died moments after playing the harp, aged 112 in 1807 after living through three centuries.

His Music

Though he was a contemporary of Turlough O Carolan, and met him on occasions, he cared little for that music, preferring to play the old Irish airs. He was the only harpist at Belfast who played with long crooked nails. In playing, he caught the string between the flesh and the nail, unlike the others who pulled it with the fleshy part of the finger. He had a delightful way of playing Staccato and Legato because he placed his hands over the strings in such a way that when he pulled with one finger, the other was instantly ready to stop the vibration. The collector Edward Bunting was present at the Belfast festival and had great difficulty in procuring the music from Hempson because he thought it would be profane to divulge it to modern ears. Bunting was always amazed at the intricacies of Hempson’s playing and perceived it to be vestiges of an old noble system.

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