Denis Hampson would have been a rarity in 19th century Ireland if only for his longevity. He died in 1807 but he had been born in the 17th century, probably in 1695. He is, therefore, one of the few men to have lived through the 18th century in its entirety.
But Hampson has another claim to fame, he was one of the great practitioners of an ancient Irish art which was dying out as he drew his last breath in the year Napoleon first made war on Russia and the Slave trade was abolished throughout the British Empire. Hampson was a harpist, a man who made his living collecting, composing and playing tunes for wealthy patrons.
What made his life even more extraordinary is that, like a number of the men who followed his trade, he had been blinded by smallpox at the age of three. Hampson was from the Magilligan area in Co.Derry and was first taught to play the harp by a woman named Bridget O’Cathain. He acquired a harp of his own at the age of 18 and spent most of his 20s travelling and playing in Ireland and Scotland. Many years later, on a return trip to Scotland, in 1745, he performed before Bonnie Prince Charlie, the pretender Charles Stuart. The harp, which became known as the Downhill harp after his last patron, Frederick Hervey, 4th Earl of Bristol and Bishop of Derry, who built the Downhill estate, is on display at the Guinness hop-store in Dublin having been bought by the company in the 1960s.
Hampson was also notorious for a swelling or a ‘wen’ on the back of his head. In 1805, when he was more than a hundred years old, Hampson was visited by the Rev. George Vaughan Sampson of Magilligan who wrote that ‘the wen on the back of his head is greatly increased; it is now hanging over his neck and shoulders, nearly as large as his head.’ Towards the end of his life Hampson was actually nicknamed “the man with two heads.”
He married at the age of 86, a lady described only as ‘a woman from Inishowen’, by whom he had a daughter and several grandchildren. Hampson once said of the marriage ‘I can’t tell if it was not the devil buckled us together, she being lame and I blind.’
In 1792 at the age of 96, Hampson was prevailed upon to attend the Belfast Harper’s Assembly, organized by, among others, United Irishman Henry Joy McCracken. It was the first such assembly for six years. A young Edward Bunting, who would go on to collect and record hundreds of traditional tunes, was engaged to notate the music played by the ten Irish and one Welsh harper, who gathered for the festival. Hampson was described as playing with long, crooked fingernails
Hampson was not a fan of the most celebrated Irish harpist and composer of harp music, Turlough Carolan from Meath. While much of Carolan’s repertoire featured at the Belfast Festival Hampson himself resolutely refused to perform the work of his great and more famous contemporary.
Denis Hampson graced the Belfast Harper’s Assembly with his presence, at the tender age of 96. The festival began 222 years ago, on this day.