31 October 2020

Canon Charles Bunworth,
Rector of Buttevant, harpist
and patron of Irish harpists

A plaque in Buttevant, Co Cork, commemorates Canon Charles Bunworth and the Bunworth Harp (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

Going back over my recent ‘road trip’ photographs from Buttevant, Co Cork, I came across the former home and a memorial to Canon Charles Bunworth (1704-1772), a Rector of Buttevant who was celebrated for his skill as a harper, his knowledge of Irish music, and his patronage of harpers.

Charles Bunworth was born in 1704 in Freemount, Newmarket, Co Cork, the second son of Colonel Richard Bunworth of Newmarket and his wife Elizabeth (Philpot). His elder brother, Canon Peter Bunworth, also became a priest in the Diocese of Cloyne and was Prebendary of Lackeen.

Charles Bunworth was educated by a family tutor and at Trinity College Dublin (BA 1727, MA 1730), and was ordained deacon (1730) and priest (1731) by the Bishop of Cloyne.

He was appointed Rector of Knocktemple (1729-1740) and Prebendary of Cooline (1736-1740), and then became Rector of Buttevant (1740-1772), and Vicar of Bregoge (1740-1772), Tullylease (1748-1772), and Kilbrin (1764-1772), all in north Cork.

Throughout these years, Bunworth lived in the Coach House in Buttevant and was respected for his learning and loved for his kindness. He was described in his family as ‘a man of unaffected piety, and of sound learning, pure of heart and benevolent of nature.’

After a time at the Royal Irish Academy of Music, Bunworth developed a passion for the harp and Irish music. He was noted as an accomplished harpist, but most of all as a great patron of harpers and poets.

A patron of poets and bards, Charles Bunworth was chosen five times as president of the assembly of bards, held every three years at Bruree, Co Limerick from 1730 to 1750.

He was a skilled musician, and was known for his hospitality and entertainment of poor, travelling harpers. They, in turn, sang his praises and wrote songs about the charms of his daughters, Elizabeth and Mary.

He also provided instruction and financial aid to John Philpot Curran and Barry Yelverton (Lord Avonmore) before they entered TCD and went on to become prominent lawyers.

Charles Bunworth married Elizabeth Delacourt on 6 January 1743. They were the parents of two daughters: Mary; and Elizabeth (1746-1816), who married Croker Dillon in 1764.

The story of Bunworth’s death is almost as legendary as his collection of harps, and worthy of retelling on Hallowe’en. When he lay dying, a servant reported to the family that he heard the wailing of a banshee. He described how the woman had wailed and moaned and clapped her hands in despair, repeating Bunworth’s name. Local people said this meant that death was near.

Bunworth’s family dismissed the talk as mere superstition as his health appeared to be improving. However, without warning, his condition declined and on the night before his death events took a further turn.

Bunworth had been moved downstairs to sleep. Moaning and clapping was heard outside his room. When family members went out to investigate, it was found that a rose bush close to the window had been partially dislodged. Those who remained inside the house once again heard the sound of moaning and clapping.

As the night wore on, Bunworth’s condition worsened. By the time dawn broke he had died. It was 14 September 1772. He was buried in Saint John’s churchyard, Buttevant.

The story of the banshee was told by his great-grandson, the Cork writer and antiquarian, Thomas Crofton Croker (1798-1854), in Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland (1825).

When he died, Bunworth owned no less than 15 harps, bequeathed to him by grateful harpists. These harps were left in the loft of his granary, but were later burned as firewood by a careless servant. However, his favourite harp, now known as the Bunworth Harp, has survived.

The Bunworth Harp was made by the harp maker John Kelly in 1734. The sides and soundboard were carved from a single block of willow and incised with scrolling foliage and flowers, with black, red, and white painted decorations. It bears the inscription: ‘made by John Kelly for the Reverend Charles Bunworth, Ball-Daniel 1734.’

It is a large high-headed harp with carved, incised, and painted decoration, which has a one-piece soundbox, a narrow brass strip along the centre of the box with perforated string holes, 36 strings, and 36 pins.

This harp was inherited by his descendant, Thomas Crofton Croker, and was sold in London in 1854 after his death. It is now part of the Leslie Linsey Mason collection at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

In recent years, Bunworth and his work were commemorated when the local community in Buttevant organised a festival of music and art to commemorate the music and art of the area.

A local craftsman, Mick Culloty, was commissioned in 1995 to design and make a harp to commemorate Bunworth. It was unveiled by the Right Revd Roy Warke, Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross.

Charles Bunworth’s former home in Buttevant, Co Cork (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

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