O'Hempsy, Denis (DNB00)
O'HEMPSY, DENIS (1695?–1807), Irish harper, whose name is sometimes written Hempson, was son of Brian O'Hempsy, and was born on his father's farm at Craigmore, near Garvagh, co. Derry. Local tradition assigns his birth to 1695. At three years of age he had small-pox and lost his sight, and at twelve began to learn to play the harp from Bridget O'Cahan, a female harper. He afterwards received instruction from John Garragher, Lochlann O'Fanning. and Patrick O'Connor, all Connaughtmen. When eighteen he lived for a half-year in the house of the Canning family at Garvagh. Mr. Canning, Squire Gage, and Dr. Bacon subscribed and bought him a harp. He then travelled in Ireland and Scotland for ten years. Sir J. Campbell of Aghanhrach and many other Scottish gentlemen entertained him. He paid a second visit to Scotland in 1745, and played before Prince Charles Edward at Holyrood.
Subsequently he travelled all over Ireland, and at last Frederick Augustus Hervey, fourth earl of Bristol and bishop of Derry [q. v.], gave him a house at Magilligan, co. Derry, where he ended hia days. Lord and Lady Bristol came to the house-warming, and their children danced to his harp. In 1791, at the reputed age of eighty-six, he married a woman from the opposite coast of Inishowen, and had one daughter. He attended the Belfast meeting of harpers in 1792. He used to play the harp with his long crooked nails, catching the string between the flesh and the nail. Edward Bunting, who heard him, says that the intricacy and peculiarity of his playing amazed him, and that his staccato and legato passages, double slurs, shakes, turns, graces, &c., comprised as a great a range of execution as has ever been devised by modern improvers. His harp, which was long preserved at Downhill, co. Derry, was made by Cormac Kelly in 1702 of white willow, with a back of fir dug out of the bog. The day before he died O'Hempsy sat up in bed and played a few notes on his harp to the Rev. Sir Harvey Bruce. He was temperate throughout life, drank milk and water, and ate potatoes. He died in 1807, having, according to the current belief in the north of Ireland, attained the age of 112. His portrait was published by Bunting. He is mentioned in Lady Morgan's 'Wild Irish Girl.'
[Bunting's Ancient Music of Ireland, Dublin, 1840.]