Harp Festivals and Harp Societies

From A History of Irish Music by William H. Grattan Flood

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Chapter XXVII....concluded

Dublin, too, had its Harp Society, due to the exertions of the eccentric but well-meaning John Bernard Trotter (ex-secretary to Charles James Fox), who brought to the Irish metropolis Patrick Quinn, the famous blind harper of Portadown, "one of the last of the ancient race of harpers," as teacher of the Society. It was formally inaugurated on July 13th, 1809, and the list of subscribers embraced "noblemen, gentlemen, and professors," including Sir Walter Scott, Tom Moore, Joseph Cooper Walker, Mrs. Liddiard, etc. Trotter himself subsidised the Society to the extent of £200, and took a house at Richmond, near Clontarf, where he entertained lavishly, and kept Quinn "to delight his guests with unheard-of strains of melody." Further, in order to foster a love for the old Irish airs, he conceived and successfully carried out a grand "Carolan Commemoration" in Dublin, in 1809. Hardiman adds:—"With the impetuosity natural to Irishmen, it was held twice in the same week, but never since repeated"—a statement which is inaccurate.

The Carolan Commemoration took place at the Private Theatre, Fishamble-street, on Wednesday, September 20th, 1809, and was repeated on the following Wednesday. Sir John Stevenson, Tom Cooke, Mrs. Cooke, Logier, Dr. Spray, Willmann, the Misses Cheese, and Patrick Quinn assisted.

The Rules and Regulations of the Dublin Harp Society were printed in 1810, but the movement declined at the close of that year, and became defunct in 1812, when, owing to his profuse hospitality, Trotter became bankrupt. After a chequered career John Bernard Trotter died at Cork, September 29th, 1818, in the forty-third year of his age, and was buried in the churchyard of St. Finnbar's.[4]

After Trotter's death, the Irish Harp Society at Belfast was re-established, as the result of a meeting held to adminster a fund of £1,200, forwarded by a number of public-spirited residents in India, "to revive the Harp and Ancient Music of Ireland." This meeting was held on April 16, 1819, with Thomas Verner as chairman, and classes were again started, with Edward M'Bride as teacher, who was succeeded by Valentine Rennie (1819-1822). A small number of harps was ordered of the most approved construction, and the pupils were selected from "the blind and the helpless." This benevolent scheme lingered on for twenty years, regarding which Petrie writes as follows:—"The effort of the people of the North to perpetuate the existence of the harp in Ireland by trying to give a harper's skill to a number of poor blind boys was at once a benevolent and a patriotic one; but it was a delusion. The harp at the time was virtually dead, and such effort could give it for a while only a sort of galvanised vitality. The selection of blind boys, without any greater regard for their musical capacities than the possession of the organ of hearing, for a calling which doomed them to a wandering life . . . was not a well-considered benevolence, and should never have had any fair hope of success."[5]

Meantime, Edward Bunting (who was organist of the Second Congregation of Rosemary Street, Belfast, from 1806 to 1817) published a second volume of Irish airs in 1809, which was reprinted in 1811. He was organist of St. George's, Belfast, from 1817 to 1820, and then removed to Dublin, where he published his third collection in 1840. His death occurred on December 21st, 1843, and he was buried in Mount Jerome Cemetery, where a modest slab marks the grave of a man who preserved hundreds of exquisite Irish melodies from utter oblivion.

Between the years 1803 and 1823 the harp was taken up as a "fad'' by many titled dames, and hence had a passing popularity. Lady Morgan tells us that she treated herself to an Irish harp, made by John Egan in May, 1805, "as the first fruits of her literary earnings by the publication of the Novice." At the close of the year 1805 she published a small collection of Irish melodies, and in the year following she collaborated with Tom Cooke in an operetta entitled The Whim of the Moment, produced at Crow-street Theatre Royal on March 5th, 1807. In 1809 the Marchioness of Abercorn and Lady Aberdeen purchased Irish harps from Egan, and in 1811 there were further orders for the national instrument. Finally, in 1822, Charles Egan published a Harp Primer, "being a familiar introduction to the study of the harp," which was reprinted in 1829. He also issued The Royal Harp Director in 1827.

When Valentine Rennie died, in 1837, the Belfast Harp Society was moribund, but a new teacher (James Jackson) was appointed in January, 1838, and kept the school in Cromac-street for a twelvemonth. The end came in 1839, after twenty years. However, a new Harp Society was inaugurated at Drogheda on January 15th, 1842, owing to the zeal of Father Thomas V. Burke, O.P., of that town. The first year's report showed a class of fifteen pupils, and the Society had obtained twelve new harps, manufactured in Drogheda, at a cost of £3 each. Hugh Fraser was the first—and last—teacher, at a salary of £27 a year. Kohl, the German traveller, visited Drogheda in 1843, and was delighted with the harp performances he heard whilst a guest at the house of Father Burke. He praises the powers of Patrick Byrne, a famous harpist and composer, who was family minstrel to the Shirleys, and who died at Dundalk in 1863. From the printed programme of the first public concert of the Drogheda Harp Society, on Monday, February 24th, 1844, it appears that Mr. Frazer had taught sixteen pupils, including a number of blind boys. At this concert the harpers were assisted by Miss Flynn, Mr. Halpin, Mr. Dowdall, and Mr. M'Entaggart. The Society collapsed in 1845. Then came the famine, and, alas! the harp was allowed to become neglected till the Irish Ireland movement, inaugurated by the Gaelic League, and fostered by the Celtic Literary Society and kindred associations, again galvanised the national instrument into life. However, it is evident that notwithstanding those efforts, as evidenced by the harp competitions at the Feis Ceoil and Oireachtas since 1897, the national instrument is now merely heard "to show that still she lives."

END OF CHAPTER XXVII.

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NOTES

[4] In November, 1809, Trotter published, in Dublin, Stories for Calumniators, in two volumes, dedicated to Lord Holland. His Walks through Ireland in 1812, 1814, and 1817, was published at London in 1819, with a memoir of the author by Rev. Dr. Walshe.

[5] O'Curry's Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish, vol. iii., p. 298.


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