Hempson (O'Hempsy), Denis (1695?–1807), harpist, was born at Braigmore, near Garvagh in the parish of Aghadowey, Co. Londonderry, one of three children born to Brian ‘Darrogher’ (‘Livid’) O'Hempsy, a substantial farmer; his mother was from the townland of Woodtown nearby. An attack of smallpox blinded the child at the age of three. Taking up the harp at the age of twelve (rather late for most pupils), he was tutored first by Bridget O'Cahan, a local harpist, then by a succession of master musicians from Connacht – John Carragher of Buncrane, Lochlan O'Fanning, and Patrick O'Connor. Bilingual from childhood, he was taught through Irish. Though most performers had given up using their fingernails to play brass harp-strings, he was taught exclusively in the old mode and persisted with it throughout his career. Residing for six months in 1713 with the Canning family of Garvagh (to which George Canning, future prime minister, belonged), he was presented by Mr Canning, Mr Gage, and Dr Bacon of the locality with a large low-headed harp, built in 1702 of bog-deal and white willow according to a late-medieval Irish pattern then going into disuse. Setting out to make his living as an itinerant harper, he spent, it seems, most of the next decade in Scotland, staying with some of the numerous Scottish gentry still pleased to maintain such relics of Gaelic society (native Scottish harpers having virtually died out). While such an existence was physically demanding; getting patronage was less of a struggle than later in the century, and his tall, well-knit frame was well able for hardship.
The bulk of his later reminiscences came from this period; in the 1790s he told stories about goings-on in the houses of drunken, spendthrift lairds ‘with a great deal of comic relish’ (Owenson, 200). Moving back to Ireland in 1723, he toured country houses and towns in season, playing for Lord de Courcy and Sir Patrick Bellew (qv) among others, and was called on to entertain at festivities in Cork and Dublin. Though friendly with Turlough Carolan (qv), he never departed from the canon of high tradition in his choice of airs, frowning on the adulteration of style evident in newer compositions. Clearly Jacobite in politics, he revisited Scotland in summer 1745, and in September was shown into the presence of Prince Charles Edward at Holyrood Palace, Edinburgh, by Col. George Kelly (qv) and Sir Thomas Sheridan (qv) (d. 1746), two of the prince's Irish advisers. Singing first ‘The king shall enjoy his own again’ to the harp, he was joined by four fiddlers for the denouement to the piece. During the 1770s Frederick Hervey (qv), bishop of Derry and earl of Bristol, provided him with land rent-free on the coast near Magilligan, parish of Tamlaghtard, under the see of Derry, throwing in three guineas to raise a cottage. The Herveys, husband and wife, took their children to see O'Hempsy when the cottage was finished, and he got the children dancing to the harp.
O'Hempsy's habit was to rest in Magilligan over the summer and to find engagements in Dublin and Belfast in the winter. He never left off the discipline of regular practice; it was said that parties of gentry in carriages used to park close to his cottage late at night to listen to the harp. Breaking his seasonal routine in 1792, he was among ten Irish harpists to attend the Belfast harpers’ festival in the Exchange Rooms off Donegal St. between 11 and 14 July. The last known harpist to play with the fingernails, O'Hempsy gloried a little in the discovery that even his fellow harpists found his style hard to follow. According to Edward Bunting (qv), O'Hempsy was ‘the only one who played the very old, the aboriginal music’ (Fox, 171); ‘the tinkling of the small wires under the deep notes of the bass was particularly thrilling’ (ibid., 114). The intricate manipulation of notes on strung wire was perhaps best done with the fingernail, this being the surest way to keep the resonating sound distinct during the flow of melody. O'Hempsy was not placed in the competition but, like others, got six guineas for his trouble.
Between 1792 and 1796 Bunting crudely transcribed at least ten melodies from O'Hempsy in Belfast and in Magilligan, together with information as to their provenance. Despite the poverty of his later years, he lived to an astonishing age, playing occasionally to the early 1800s for the family of Sir Edward Bruce of Downhill Castle. George V. Sampson (qv) found him in July 1805 lying with his harp under a blanket beside the fire in his decrepit cottage, slightly befuddled as to his present circumstances, but showing powerful recall of the incidents of his early and middle years. He was known as ‘the man with two heads’ (Owenson, 201) due to the growth of a large cranial cyst in his last decades. Though the last representative of Irish seventeenth-century harping style, he never (despite requests) passed on his techniques, and arranged to sell his harp to the Bruce family. He died 5 November 1807.
In 1781 he married a woman from Inishowen, Co. Donegal; ‘I can't tell if the devil buckled us together, she being lame and I being blind’ (Owenson, 202). Accounts differ as to the size of their family: some say they had only one daughter, others that they had two daughters and two sons. The name (uncommon in Ireland) was extinct in Magilligan by 1900. The ‘Downhill Harp’ is owned by the Guinness company and kept at its Storehouse museum in Dublin.