'Tribeca' plans must protect historic Belfast building and Ireland's musical heritage

Plans to ‘rebrand’ a historic part of Belfast in the mould of an upmarket area of New York give rise to concern about the proposed fate of a building in which one of Ireland’s most important musical gatherings took place – the Belfast Harpers Assembly of 1792

Conor Caldwell, musician and academic at Queen's University Belfast
Conor Caldwell, musician and academic at Queen's University Belfast

PALIMPSEST is one of my favourite words. It refers to a manuscript page from which the text has been scraped or washed off so that the page can be reused to create another one.

The word came into my head when I heard that Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter was to be rebranded as Tribeca, an homage to the upmarket residential area of Manhattan.

“Weirdsville, Arizona.” I thought, not as an alternative to Tribeca – although...

Tribeca – the richest ZIP code in New York City – is a contraction of Triangle below Canal Street and one thing people might notice as they dander around Belfast city centre is that it is completely canal-less. Nada. Zilch.

The idea seems to be to scrape off the history of the area and to plant a faux-Big Apple vibe on an area of 1.5 million square feet that already has its own claim to uniqueness without the need for a flat-pack identity filling the void.

And yet, our city fathers (and mothers) gave outline planning permission for the £500 million scheme just last month.

But why should this be of concern to a traditional music column, I hear you ask.

Well, part of the musical heritage of Belfast and indeed the whole of Ireland will be obliterated with news that the now-dilapidated Northern Bank at the historic Four Corners at the bottom of Donegall Street could be turned into a boutique hotel.

The building was formerly The Exchange and Assembly Rooms, an 18th century edifice bought for the sum of £4,000 in 1769 by the absentee landlord, The Earl of Donegall. who invested a further £7,000 seven years later, adding the second storey to the building.

It was in this building that the The Belfast Harpers Assembly of 1792, a seminal event in the musical history of Ireland that still resonates today, took place.

The assembly was a four-day event running from July 11-14 1792 and organised by members of the Presbyterian merchant class, including Dr James McDonnell, Robert Bradshaw and Henry Joy, proprietor of the Belfast News-Letter.

Ten (some say 11) harpers attended, seven of whom were blind but the most important thing that happened was that an 18-year old from Armagh named Edward Bunting was employed to write down the music of the harpers and to make notes on their instrumental techniques.

To the late Breandán Ó Buachalla who wrote the wonderful I mBéal Feirste Cois Cuain about the Irish language in Belfast at that period, it must have been a bizarre sight… “to see the last group of Irish harpers gathered together in Belfast, the most recently established town in the country and a young man of 19 years, the son of an Englishman, going from person to person, writing down the tunes that were being played while the ladies and the gentlemen of the first fashion in Belfast and its vicinity looking on and listening intently”.

The music that Bunting collected spanned a wide period of time, so you have Denis Hempson from Co Derry who lived during three centuries, being born in 1695 and dying in 1807 at the age of 112.

“Hempson was connected to the very end of the Gaelic order in Ireland, playing for the Uí Chatháin and using the old wire-strung harp as Bunting describes, plucking the strings with his very long fingernails. To my mind, this would have made it sound more like a harpsichord than a harp,” says fiddler and QUB academic Conor Caldwell.

Indeed, most of the harpers were over 50 years old and would have played tunes by the popular composer of the day, Turlough O’Carolan but the purpose of the assembly was not just to make a record of the music that still existed and to note the differing styles of playing but also to revive an interest in harp music and to encourage future generations to take up the instrument.

In the following years, more and more harps were made and in 1808 the First Belfast Harp Society was set up, financed by 191 subscribers.

It lasted for well over 30 years but it was clear that young harpers were falling into bad habits due to where they were playing.

“I mention to you that we might probably keep up the society for a few years longer by private subscription, but from the fact that the young harpers can only earn their bread by playing in hotels, where they are too liable to contract fatal habits, we think the money could be more usefully laid out in other charities,” wrote John McAdam in 1839 on the decline of the society. Too many young musicians were falling foul of the demon drink, it seems.

However, the devil’s buttermilk aside, what happened afterwards is where the magic lies.

“The legacy of those four days is ongoing 228 years later and is, to a significant extent, undiscovered,” explains Conor.

“There is so much material in the 1,000-page Bunting Collection, held here in Queen’s University, with both the music and information about the pieces.

“The collecting job that Bunting undertook was the biggest that was ever done at that time, but what has happened over the years is that people have dipped into whatever excites their own interests. Singers have dipped into certain manuscripts looking looking for songs, harpers look at other manuscripts to find old tunes to reconstruct them.

Conor himself is involved in a project at the minute, going through Manuscript 6 and looking at old military marches which were collected and which transitioned into reels and jigs years later. So a lot of the richness is still being interrogated – and so Bunting’s work still lives today.

“Growing up, I would have listened and played in the Donegal style but as I got older and started to study Bunting, I began to learn a lot of the tunes and old airs and ended up making an album of tunes from his collection and even writing little pieces borrowed from ideas from his work,” Conor explains.

The music that Denis Hempson from Co Derry would have heard as a boy would have been played in the 17th century. He and others played at the Harp festival in the 18th century. Bunting’s works were influential in the 19th and 20th centuries and even today, in this 21st century, Conor Caldwell says he owes a debt to Edward Bunting.

No-one should allow this musical heritage – and the legacy that today’s musicians and artists will bequeath to the future – to be wiped from the history books in favour of a shallow and inauthentic make-over. It’d be like painting a moustache on the Mona Lisa.