Earliest noted musicians

Carn Cross…..Engraving of King David playing the harp on one of the side pillars at Carndonagh Cross, Inishowen

One of the earliest references to music in Inishowen is written in stone, rather than on paper.

The Carndonagh cross has been described as one of the earliest and most beautiful examples of an Irish high cross. It dates to the late sixth century. The stone cross is flanked by two stone pillars. Carved on one of the pillars is a harper – an indication of the importance of harper in Irish society at the time.

Carndonagh Cross is regarded as one of the earliest and most important High Crosses in Ireland. Two smaller pillars are set to each side of the Cross. Although worn over time you can still see the faint engraving of King David playing his harp. This is probably the oldest carving of a harp in Ireland.

There are references to harpers in Inishowen down the centuries. One is found in the book ‘The Last of the Name’, the memories and stories of a weaver and tailor from Clonmany, Charles Mc Glinchey (1861–1954). Charles talks about the poet Seán Mac an Meirge Doherty, who lived at Keenagh, Malin, and mentions that Seán was descendant of a harper called Doherty who was “a great harper, the best in Ireland”.

John C. Garragher, a blind travelling harper, was the resident harper for Colonel Vaughan at Buncrana Castle. References to this can be found in the Vaughan Estate records and in a letter written in 1805 by Rev. G. V. Sampson, a clergyman who lived across Lough Foyle at Magilligan in County Derry.

This letter also has important information about the

famous blind harper Denis Hampson (1695-1807), who has been described as “the last of the genuine old Irish school” of Irish harpers.

Hampson also lived in Magilligan in his final years. Rev. Sampson visited him on 2nd July, 1805, at the request of the celebrated novelist Sydney Owenson (who became Lady Morgan). In his letter to Owenson telling of this visit, Rev. Sampson says that Hampson is married to a woman from Inishowen, and they have a daughter and several grandchildren.

Engraving on side pillar, King David playing the harp

Incidentally, Sydney Owenson was christened by the Rev. Charles Macklin, a noted uilleann piper who was a nephew of the celebrated Shakespearean actor Charles Macklin from Culdaff. She later recalled him as “a marvellous performer on the Irish bagpipes – that most ancient and perfect of instruments”. William Henry Grattan Flood, in his book on the history of the bagpipe, notes that Rev. Macklin “was dismissed from his curacy in the diocese of Clonfert for having played out his congregation with a solo on the bagpipes”.

Mael Iosa O’Brolchain, a monk associated with Both Chonais (Carrowmore near Culdaff), composed many religious poems and hymns. One of these hymns ‘Deus Meus’, written in Gaeilge and Latin, was composed at the beginning of the last millennium and is still performed to this day.