The Parting of Friends

Music from 18th–century Ireland

By Bonnie Shaljean

2016 marks the 100th anniversary of Charlotte Milligan Fox’s death, so in honor of her, we are re–printing the following article, written by Bonnie Shaljean and published in the Summer 2015 issue of the Folk Harp Journal (No. 167).
Photograph of Charlotte Milligan Fox from ITMA

Charlotte Milligan Fox

Image of Charlotte Milligan Fox © and courtesy of the Irish Traditional Music Archive, Dublin

A little over a century ago, a well–dressed lady walked into a London harp shop to select an instrument for the daughter of a friend. She made her choice, the sales assistant wrote up the bill and, as she was about to leave, an impulsive question popped into her mind. Without pausing to consider how strange it might sound, she asked him, Do any old wandering harpers ever come in here to buy strings? She immediately felt foolish, for the clerk gave her a rather cynical smile, but his answer, when it came, could not have been more helpful. Indeed, this reply altered the course of Irish musical history.

Well, no, he said, we have no such customers; but, by the way, a gentleman was in here not long ago who would interest you. He bought a harp, and when giving the order he said, ‘It is only right that I should have a harp in my house, for it was my grandfather who preserved the music of the ancient Irish harpers.’

With mounting excitement the lady asked for his name and address, and soon entered into a correspondence with him. He was Dr. Louis MacRory, he lived in Battersea, and before long he invited her to his home to make further acquaintance. In particular, he wished to show her certain papers in his possession which had belonged to his grandfather. And his grandfather was none other than Edward Bunting.

It was Bunting who, as a youth not yet out of his teens, was present at the historic meeting of harpers in Belfast in 1792. His task was to circulate among them, noting down their music to save it for future generations; and in so doing he rescued many fine airs from being lost forever. The players were for the most part old, poor, blind—or all three—and few followers would carry on in their footsteps. Times and tastes were changing, revolution was in the air, and this event represented the closing of a chapter in Ireland’s cultural past. Young Edward Bunting was the one chosen to record it, and if ever a moment symbolized the passing–on of a torch, this gathering did. And it was this man’s manuscripts which the lady was about to see.

But upon arriving for the much–anticipated visit, Dr. MacRory met her at the door with a rather odd greeting, considering that he himself had asked her to come. He said, Now I hope you are an Irish woman, for I think someone from Ireland should handle my grandfather’s papers.

So who was this lady? She was an accomplished musician, who had studied abroad. She was the Honorable Secretary of the Irish Folk–Song Society. She was familiar with Bunting’s three printed collections. And yes, she was Irish. Her name was Charlotte Milligan Fox. She later recalled:

At this time I hoped for nothing more than some gleanings... for the Irish Folk–Song Journal; but... I saw that a great amount of unpublished material had survived. Here were musical note–books, letters, faded documents, which demanded most careful consideration. I grew more and more absorbed in the study of them, and in the end the doctor decided that I must take the box away with me, and investigate them at leisure.

To Charlotte’s delight, she learned that there was a second cache of Bunting papers in Dublin, in the possession of Dr. MacRory’s cousin, Florence Wright Deane. Their mothers had been sisters, the only surviving children of Edward and Mary Anne Bunting. Dr. MacRory lost no time in arranging for the two women to meet, and before long Charlotte found herself in Dublin, calling on Mrs. Deane. This satisfying introduction resulted in her receiving the remaining manuscripts. [These] papers occupied me pleasantly for many months, she wrote. In the note–books I found many beautiful airs which Bunting had never published...

I would now like to turn our attention to one of these, which bears the same title as a tune that did appear in Bunting’s first printed volume. Both were known as The Parting of Friends but they are different melodies. However, before proceeding further, it is enlightening to take a brief look at the historical background of the period.

By 1792 Belfast was in a fever of idealism and excitement over the French Revolution. The Society of United Irishmen had been founded in that very city only the previous year, bearing for its symbol a harp, with the motto: Equality–it is new strung and shall be heard. It’s worth quoting Charlotte at some length, for she does a fine job of capturing the public mood:

It is 11th July, 1792. There are bands, banners, and marching men. Amid popular enthusiasm, a procession winds its course along the High Street, going by one bank of the river, which flows seaward between the houses, and returning by another. There is a review in a field on the Falls Road, a convention, and, finally, a banquet. This is, in short, a muster of the Irish volunteers, who have already made history. The occasion of their assembly is to celebrate the fall of the Bastille, and declare themselves in favour of Catholic Emancipation and the Rights of Man.
Side by side with this political demonstration there was a proceeding, what would be called nowadays a feis ceoil or musical festival, a gathering of the Irish harpers, the successors of the ancient bards of the Gaeldom. What a strange contrast is afforded here, between the politicians of the new era, fired with the principles of the French Revolution, and the musicians, mostly aged and blind, assembled in the Exchange Rooms, who waited for the sound of the drums and the cheering to pass into the distance, ere they wakened the clear sweet music of their harps.

Unfortunately, one of the founders of the United Irishmen, Wolfe Tone, seems to have thought less of the real instrument than the metaphorical one, for his diary of those days records:

July 11th: Rise with a great headache; stupid as a mill horse... All go to Harpers at one; poor enough; ten performers: seven execrable, three good, one of them, Fanning, far the best. No new musical discovery; believe all the good Irish tunes are already written...
July 12th: Rise again with a headache resulting from late hours... Do not know what to do... Lounge to harpers...
July 13th: Rise again with a headache... Generally in low spirits... The Harpers again, strum, strum and be hanged...

But his temper can hardly have been helped by the all–too–obvious morning–after factor; and in any case, music was not foremost in his mind. He was to return to the city a few years later, on the eve of his departure for America; and when he next stood on Irish soil, it would be as a political fugitive, with the penalty for treason on his head.

Here is where we return to the two airs mentioned above. During Wolfe Tone’s brief visit to Belfast before sailing overseas in the summer of 1795, he was reunited with many old comrades, who planned amusing entertainments and outings to cheer him on his way. The last of these was a picnic on an island in Lough Neagh, and that evening the party gathered to bid him farewell.

Bunting, whose first collection was in the process of being published, was among those present. He was asked to perform a piece suitable for the occasion, and chose The Parting of Friends. The beauty and pathos of the melody was such that Wolfe Tone’s wife burst into tears. As well she might. Charlotte comments, Had they power to see into the future, the music chosen was singularly appropriate, for tragedy loomed darkly... for two there, the scaffold waited; for a third, death in a condemned cell. Of the listeners in attendance that night, it was not only Wolfe Tone’s family who would have cause to mourn.

After having spent considerable time examining Bunting’s notes and manuscripts, Charlotte began to question whether the version which appears in his 1796 volume is the one he actually played for Wolfe Tone. Her reasoning is:

That published..., though sweet and pathetic, lacks the poignant grief of another with the same name, which lies buried in one of the musical note–books. It is also given the title of An Cuman or The Bond... The air has all the character of a Gaelic lamentation...

It was of course impossible for her to know for sure which one was actually heard on that evening of farewell. In any case, she went on to arrange and publish it herself in her book Songs of the Irish Harpers. This volume contains a footnote which includes the following observation:

In another note we are told of an air called The Scattering of the Company or Parting of Friends which harpers were accustomed to play at the end of a banquet or festival, and in his first volume Bunting gives us a quite different tune, a brisk and graceful one with this name. It may have been that the sadder air was used on occasions when death had taken place, or a prolonged parting was in prospect.

These sentiments are certainly in keeping with the poignant leavetaking that June night.

The memory never left Mrs. Tone. Nearly fifty years later the scene still haunted her, for she wrote to the New York Truth–Teller, I live in complete retirement, and, to use Carolan’s words, ‘Lonely and desolate I mourn the dead.’

Regarding which of the versions Bunting so movingly played, scholar Colette Moloney’s extensive analysis of his papers has since revealed that the notebook containing Charlotte’s favorite dates from 1802, which is too late for both the harpers’ meeting and the goodbye–gathering. Though the manuscript itself is undated, examination of the binding methods, the paper, and the first 22 entries (song words in Patrick Lynch’s hand) indicates that Bunting had not yet written down this piece when he last saw Wolfe Tone.

But Charlotte is right that the music has the strength and character of a lament. And in fact it is not unlike the one used for Carolan’s beautiful elegy for Charles MacCabe–but that is another story.

If, on the day she visited that harp shop in London, the logical and order–keeping policeman that lives inside everybody’s head had stepped in while she was speaking to the sales clerk, and scolded that her question about the ancient harpers was stupid and made her look silly, the words would most likely not have gotten past her lips. She’d have gone out the door and on her way, never the wiser about the priceless treasures that lay waiting just south of the Thames and not far from the Liffey. And we—the harpers of the future, and all who will come after us—would be the poorer.

Click on each image below to download a full-size printable PDF of the music:

Parting of Friends first score Parting of Friends second score Parting of Friends third score

Bonnie Shaljean

Bonnie Shaljean

Originally from California, Bonnie pursued music studies in Boston and moved to London after college, where she performed in the British folk scene, on both gut–strung and wire–strung harps, and toured extensively with traditional Donegal musician Packie Byrne. She also played medieval harp with the early music ensemble Sinfonye. Bonnie made a solo harp CD based on historical sources, titled Farewell To Lough Neaghe, and wrote the appendix to the reissue of Donal O’Sullivan’s definitive biography, Carolan: The Life, Times, and Music of an Irish Harper, based on some recently discovered manuscripts.

She has also published a number of books of harp music, and some of her own compositions and arrangements are on the exam syllabi of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) and Trinity College London. She and her partner Michael Billinge co–authored an article on the 17th–century Dalway (now often called the Cloyne) Harp Fragments, which appeared in the British journal Early Music (May 1987). Bonnie moved to Ireland in 1991, where she taught harp for many years in the Cork School of Music, and in the music department of University College Cork. She also plays concert harp, piano, and sings.

In this photo, Bonnie is playing a replica of an 18th–century Irish harp made by Michael Billinge. More information on the original instrument and the harper who played it can be found at Charles Byrne and His Harp


Edward Bunting, A General Collection of the Ancient Irish Music, 1796

Charlotte Milligan Fox, Songs of the Irish Harpers, 1910

Charlotte Milligan Fox, Annals of the Irish Harpers, 1911

Colette Moloney, The Irish Music Manuscripts of Edward Bunting, Irish Traditional Music Archive, Dublin, 2000.
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© 2015 Bonnie Shaljean
This article was originally published in the Summer 2015 issue of the Folk Harp Journal (No. 167)

Submitted to this site on 5 August, 2016.
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