George Sampson’s letter to Sydney Owenson
concerning his interview with Dennis Hampson
[also known as Hempson, Hampsey, O'Hampsey and, in Irish, Donncha Ó hÁmhsaigh]

On the 2nd of July 1805, at the behest of Sydney Owenson (Lady Morgan), the Rev. George Sampson visited the harper Dennis Hampson at his home in Magilligan, County Derry. The following day he wrote an account of this interview in a letter to Owenson, who reproduced it in her novel The Wild Irish Girl [i]. This book proved very popular, being reprinted on numerous occasions, and lent a degree of celebrity to Hampson, broadening his recognition beyond those who already knew him. The inclusion of Sampson’s letter also fixed in print the most important account we have of Hampson’s life.

Edward Bunting later “transplanted” (to use his own term) Sampson’s letter into his 1840 volume The Ancient Music of Ireland [ii]. However, this book included a number of alterations to the original text–some minor, and some not so minor. Since the publication of this work, many writers and researchers have simply looked to it as the main source of information on Hempson, but were almost certainly unaware of the changes it contained.

For this reason, we have reproduced Sampson’s letter below in its entirety as it was printed in The Wild Irish Girl [iii]. We have also taken the liberty of adding reference points to the text to indicate where the version reproduced in Bunting’s volume differs from the original. The more significant alterations are numbered, while changes of a minor nature are denoted with a letter. Differences in layout or punctuation have not been shown.

page 77

The following account of the Bard of the Magilligans was taken from his own lips, July 3d, 1805, by the Rev. Mr. Sampson, Magilligan, and forwarded to the author (through the medium of Doctor Patterson of Derry) previous to her visit to that part of the North, which took place a few weeks after.

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Umbrae, July 3rd, 1805,

“I made the survey of the man with two heads,[1] according to your desire; but not till yesterday, on account of various impossibilities. Here is my report —

“Dennis Hampson[2], or the man with two heads, is a native of Craigmore, near Garvagh, county Derry[3]: his father, Bryan Darrogher (blackish complexion) Hampson, held the whole town–land of Tyrcrevan; his mother’s relations were in possession of the wood town (both considerable farms ina Magilligan). He lost his sight at the age of three years by the small–pox; at twelve yearsb he began to learn the harp under Bridget O’Cahan: “For,” as he said, “in those 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 masterc was John C. Garragher, a blind travelling harper, whom he followed to Buncranagh, where his master used to play for Colonel Vaughan: he had afterwards Laughlin Hanning [Fanning –ed. and Bunting] and Pat Connor in succession as masters.

“All these were from Connaught, which was,” as he added, “the best part of the kingdom for Irish music and for harpers.”[4] At eighteen years of age he began to play for himself, and was taken into the house of Counsellor Canning, at Garvagh, for half a

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year; his host, with Squire Gage and Doctor Bacon, foundd and bought him a harp. He travelled nine or ten years through Ireland and Scotland, and tells facetious stories of gentlemen in both countries: among others, that, in passing near the placee of Sir J. Campbell, at Aghanbrack, he learned that this gentleman had spent a great deal, and was living on so much per week of allowance. Hampson through delicacy would not call, but some of the domestics were sent after him; on coming into the castle, Sir J.f asked him why he had not called, adding, “Sir, there was never a harper but yourself that passed the door of my father’s house;” to which Hampson answered that, “he had heard in the neighbourhood that his honour was not often at home;” with which delicate evasion Sir J. was satisfied. He adds, “that this was the highest bred and stateliest man[5] he ever knew; if he were putting on a new pair of gloves, and one of them dropped on the floor (though ever so clean), he would order the servant to bring him another pair.” He says that, in that time he never met but one laird that had a harp, and that was a very small one, played on formerly by the laird’s father; that when he had tuned it with new strings, the laird and his ladyg were so pleased with his music, that they invited him back in these words: “Hampson, as soon as you think this child of ours (a boy of three years of age) is fit

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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 Stone[6] with a great deal of comic relish. When he was playing at the house, a message 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 vexationh,” replied the laird; “give us enough to eat, and I will supply the rest; and as to 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[7], 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 king 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

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Your Royal Highness, but he shall be sent for.” He meant to say Sullivan, continued Hampson, but that was the way he called the name. He says that Captain McDonnel[8], when in Ireland, came to see him, and that he told the captain that Charley’s cockade was in his father’s house.

“Hampson was brought into the Pretender’s presence by Colonel Kelly, of Roscomon, and Sir Thomas Sheridan; and that he (Hampson) was then above fifty years old.[9] He played in many Irish houses; among others, those of Lord de Courceyi, Mr. Fortescue, Sir P. Belewj, Squire Roche; and in the great towns, Dublin, Cork, &c. &c.; respecting all which he interspersed pleasant anecdotes with surprising gaiety and correctness. [10] As to correctness, he mentioned many anecdotes of my grandfather and grandaunt, at whose houses he used to be frequently. In fact, in this identical harper, whom you sent me to survey, I recognised an acquaintance, who, as soon as he found me out, seemed exhilarated at having an old friend of (what he called) “the old stock” in his poor cabin. He even mentioned many anecdotes of my own boyhood, which, though by me long forgotten, were accurately true. These things shew the surprising power of his recollection at the age of a hundred and eight years. Since I saw him last, which was in 1787, the wen on the back of his head is greatly in–

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creased; it is now hanging over his neck and shoulders, nearly as large as his head, from which circumstance he derives his appellative, “the man with two heads.”[11] General Hart, who is an admirer of music, sent a limnerk lately to take a drawing of him, which cannot fail to be interesting, if it were only for the venerable expression of his meager 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 heard my name he started up (being already dressed), and seemed rejoiced 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 bedfellow, 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 Cualinl, The Dawning of the Day, Elleen–a–roonm, Ceandubhdilis,n &c. These, except the third,

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were the first great tuneso, which, according to regulation, he played at the famous meeting of harpers at Belfast, under the patronage of some amateurs of Irish music. Mr. Bunton, [Bunting –ed. also corrected in Bunting] the celebrated musician of that town, was here the year before,[12] at Hampson’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 Innisowen, whom he found living in the house of an old friend. “I can’t tell,” quoth Hampsonp, “if it was not the devil buckled us together; she being lame and I blind.” By this wife he has one daughter, married to a cooper, who has several children, and maintains them all, though Hampson (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:

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his habits have ever been sober; his favourite drink, once beer, now milk and water; his diet chiefly potatoesq. I asked him to teach my daughter, but he declined; adding, however, that it was too hard for a young girl, but that 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 Hampson now lives. At the house warming His Lordship with his lady and family came, and the children danced to his harp;[13] the bishop gave three crowns to the family, and in the dear year, His Lordship called in his coach and six, stopped at the door, and gave a guinea to buy meal.

“‘Would it not be well to get a subscription for poor old Hampson? It might be sent to various towns where he is known.

Once more ever yours,


“In the time[14] of Noah I was green,
After his flood I have not been seen,
Until seventeen hundred and two. I was found,
By Cormac Kelly under ground;
He raised me up to that degree;
Queen of Music they call me.”

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“The above lines are sculptured on the old harp, which is made, the sides and front of white sally, the back of fir, patched with copper and iron plates.[15] His daughter now attending him is only thirty–three years old.

“I have now given you an account of my visit, and even thank you (though my fingers are tired) for the pleasure you procured to me by this interesting commission.

Ever yours,

In February 1806 the author [i.e. Sydney Owenson], being then but eighteen miles distant from the residence of the Bard, received a message from him, intimating that, as he heard she wished to purchase his harp, he would dispose of it on very moderate terms. He was then in good health and spirits, though in his hundred and ninth year.

[i] Sydney Owenson (Lady Morgan), The Wild Irish Girl, 1806, Vol. 3, letter XXVII.

[ii] Edward Bunting, The Ancient Music of Ireland, Dublin, 1840, pp.73—76.

[iii] The version given has been taken from the 5th edition, published 1813, pp.77—85.

[1] In Bunting’s volume the following bracketed comment is added at this point: "[in allusion to an enormous excrescence or wen on the back of this head,]"

[2] The spelling of Hampson’s name in Bunting has been altered from “Hampson” to “Hempson”, and this alteration is then consistently repeated on every subsequent occasion that his name occurs.

[3] In place of “county Derry” Bunting uses “in the county of Londonderry.”

[4] Bunting changes the wording from “...Irish music and harpers.” to “... Irish harpers, and for music.”

[5] Bunting changes the word order in this sentence: “...this was the stateliest and highest bred man...” (instead of highest bred and stateliest man).

[6] Changed from “Stone” to “Strone” in Bunting

[7] At this point Bunting inserts the words “he was at that time, by his own account, nearly fifty years of age:”

[8] Changed from “McDonnell” to “Macdonald”

[9] The words “and that he (Hampson) was then above fifty years old” has been removed from Bunting’s version.

[10] Bunting has omitted from his published edition the next five sentences of Sampson’s letter.

[11] Bunting has omitted from his published edition the previous five sentences of Sampson’s letter.

[12] Bunting’s version has altered the wording and he inserts a date different from the one that Sampson’s text implies. Sampson’s words “the year before” have been removed and replaced with “in 1793, the year after the meeting”.

[13] Bunting stops his transcription of the letter at this point, leaving out the final sentences. However, in a footnote on page 76, he does include information taken from the Addenda that Sampson gave at the end, but still Bunting neglects to credit this information to Sampson (see the following notes [14] and [15]).

[14] Bunting adds this poem in his footnote but incorrectly changes “time” to “ days”.

[15] Bunting has also borrowed this brief description of the harp from Sampson’s Addenda and put it in his footnote without crediting the source, in which he states: “The sides are made of white sallow, the back of bog fir, patched with copper and iron plates.” Note that in doing so, Bunting has changed “sally” to “sallow” and has arbitrarily added the word “bog” so that it reads “bog fir”.

Alterations of a more minor nature are noted below:

a Bunting changes “in” to “at”.

b Bunting adds the word “old”, so the text reads “ twelve years old”.

c Bunting changes “master” to “instructor”.

d Bunting changes “found” to “joined”.

e Bunting changes “place” to “residence”.

f Bunting adds the surname “Campbell” to “Sir J.”, giving “Sir J. Campbell”.

g Bunting adds the word “both”, so the text reads “...laird and his lady both were so pleased...”.

h Bunting changes “vexation” to “uneasiness”.

i Bunting changes the spelling of “Courcey” to “Courcy”.

j Bunting changes the spelling of “Belew” to “Bellew”.

k Bunting changes “limner” to “painter”.

l Bunting changes the spelling of “Cualin” to “Coolin”.

m Bunting changes the spelling and form of “Elleen—a—roon"” to “Ellen a Roon”.

n Bunting changes the form of the title “Ceandubhdilis” to “Cean dubh dilis”.

o Bunting removes the word “great”.

p Bunting changes “quoth” to “said”.

q Bunting prints the word “potatoes” in italics.

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