Harp Festivals and Harp Societies

William H. Grattan Flood
Chapter XXVII

BEFORE describing the various harp festivals and harp societies, it may be well to glance at four distinguished harpers of the period 1750-1790, namely, Jerome Duigenan, Dominic Mongan, James Duncan, and Arthur O'Neill. Duigenan was born in County Leitrim in 1715, and, in addition to being a clever harper, was an excellent classical scholar. Many amusing anecdotes are related of him. His patron, Colonel Jones, M.P. for Leitrim in 1740, once brought him up to Dublin for a trial of skill with a famous Welsh harper, at that time in the train of an English nobleman residing in the Irish metropolis. This Irish harper was requested to dress himself more Hibernico, and to wear his cotach and barred, "in which he looked uncommonly well, being a tall, handsome man." O'Neill tells us that some of the parliamentary members, hearing of the intended trial of skill, requested that it would take place on the floor of the Irish House of Commons, which accordingly was done. The competition came off previous to the commencement of the usual parliamentary business, and the decision was unanimously given in favour of Duigenan, who gained the laurel.

Dominick Mongan was also a famous bard and performer on the harp. Born in County Tyrone in 1715, he was blind from infancy, and sedulousy cultivated the national instrument, but was also thoroughly conversant with the works of Corelli, Handel, Geminiani, other masters. O'Daly styles him a "gentleman bard," and quotes his "A Raid tu ag an g-Carraig?" (Have you been at Carrick?) as a good specimen of his abilities. His third son, Charles, became Protestant Dean of Clonmacnoise. Among the Hardwicke Papers (1803) is the following note in reference to Dean Mongan, who had assumed the name of Warburton:—"The King has declared he will never make him a Bishop. He was a Roman Catholick originally; his name, Mongan, and his father an Irish Harper. He himself was a missionary, and acquired, by plausible manners, to the amount of £2,000 a year and upwards of Church preferment."[1] James Duncan was also a gentleman harper, and merely pursued the avocation of minstrel in order to raise the necessary funds for carrying on a law-suit to regain his ancestral property. He won his case, "and died in 1800, in the enjoyment of a handsome competence," as the late Sir Robert Stewart writes.

Arthur O'Neill deserves special notice as the last really typical Irish harper of the old school. Born at Drumnaslad, near Dungannon, in 1734, he accidently lost his sight when still a child, and was, in 1742, placed under the tuition of Owen Keenan, "the blind Romeo of Killymoon" (near Cookstown), and subsequently under Hugh O'Neill, in order to become a professional harper. Early in 1750 he began his career as a wandering minstrel, and during ten years made a circuit of the four provinces, visiting the chief families in each county. As an incident of his visit to the hospitable mansion of Mr. James Irwin, of Streamstown, in 1759, he thus writes in his Memoirs:—

“This gentleman (Mr. Irwin) had an ample fortune, and was passionately fond of music. He had four sons and three daughters, who were all proficients; no instrument was unknown to them. There was at one time a meeting in his house of forty-six musicians, who played in the following order:—The three Miss Irwins at the piano; myself at the harp; six gentlemen, flutes; two gentlemen, violoncellos; ten common pipers; twenty gentlemen, fiddlers; four gentlemen, clarionets.”

O'Neill played on the so-called "Brian Boru's Harp"—re-strung for the occasion—through the streets of Limerick in 1760, but he ceased his wanderings in 1778, and settled in Belfast, taking up the position of harp tutor in the house of Dr. James M'Donnell, where he remained till 1780.

Through the generosity of an Irish gentleman, James Dungan, residing in Copenhagen, a harp festival was organised at Granard in 1781. Seven harpers competed, namely, Charles Fanning, Patrick Kerr, Patrick Maguire, Hugh Higgins, Charles Byrne, Rose Mooney, and Arthur O'Neill. Fanning got first Prize (ten guineas) for his rendering of "An Cuilfionn;" Arthur O'Neill got second (eight guineas) for the "Green Woods of Truagh" and "Madame Crofton;" and Rose Mooney got third (five guineas) for "Planxty Burke."

The second Granard Festival came off on March 2nd, 1782, but only two new candidates, Edward MacDermot Roe and Catherine Martin, presented themselves, in addition to the seven others. Mr. Dungan came over specially from Copenhagen to attend the third festival in 1783, when Laurence Keane and James Duncan brought the number of competitors up to eleven. The fourth festival came off on August 1st, 1784, when four premiums were offered, but the results were not encouraging, and the attendance of spectators showed a falling off. However, the fifth festival was announced for Monday, August 1st, 1785, the premiums being seven guineas to the best performer, five guineas as second prize, three guineas as third, and two guineas as fourth. The stewards were Messrs. A. Burroughs, Connell, and Edgeworth. From O'Neill we learn that this was the last and best of the Granard Festivals, and it was attended by a thousand persons. He adds:—"In consequence of the harpers who obtained no premiums having been neglected on the former occasions, I hinted a subscription, which was well received and performed; and, indeed, on distributing the collection, their proportions exceeded our premiums."

After a lapse of over six years, a project was launched at Belfast, in December, 1791, for an "assembly of harpers," the organisers being Dr. M'Donnell, Robert Bradshaw, and Henry Joy. Accordingly, on July 11th, 12th, 13th, and 14th of the year 1792, the memorable Belfast Harp Festival took place, when ten harpers competed, namely, Denis Hampson, Arthur O'Neill, Charles Fanning, Daniel Black, Charles Byrne, Hugh Higgins, Patrick Quin, William Carr, Rose Mooney, and James Duncan. The first prize (ten guineas) was awarded to Charles Fanning for "An Cuilfionn," whilst O'Neill got the second (eight guineas) for the "Green Woods of Truagh" and "Madame Crofton."

In all, there were forty tunes played by the ten harpers, and Edward Bunting (assistant organist to William Ware) was deputed to take down the airs,[2] which formed the major part of his Collection, published in 1796.

An impetus was given to Irish music ever since the period of the Volunteers; and the publication of Walker's Irish Bards, in 1786, added a stimulus to the study of our old melodies. In the year following appeared Thompson's Hibernian Muse, from which Tom Moore drew many of his inspirations, whilst Brysson's Collection of fifty favourite Irish airs was issued in 1791, followed by Cooke's Selection, in 1794; O'Farrell's National Irish Music, in 1799-1802; a new edition of O'Carolan's Airs, in 1804; and Smollet Holden's Collection (two volumes), in 1804-6.

Between the years 1792 and 1802 the cultivation of the Irish harp naturally led to a development of harp-making, and John Egan, of Dublin, established a famous factory for harps. At length, on St. Patrick's Day, 1808, the Belfast Harp Society was formally inaugurated at Linn's Hotel, the White Cross, No. 1, Castle-street. In the list of original subscribers (one hundred and ninety-one) the total annual subscriptions amounted to £300, Lord O'Neill being appointed first president vice Bishop Percy, of Dromore, who declined the honour. The first teacher was Arthur O'Neill, and the classes opened with eight boy pupils and a girl, Bridget O'Reilly. Of these, two were dismissed in June, 1810, "for inaptitude to learn," thus leaving seven boarding pupils, viz., Patrick O'Neill, Patrick M'Grath, Edward M'Bride, Nathaniel Rainey, Abraham Wilkinson, James M'Molaghan, and Bridget O'Reilly, in addition to Edward O'Neill, Hugh Dornan, and John Wallace as day scholars.

Harps were supplied by Messrs. White, M'Clenaghan, and M'Cabe, of Belfast, at a cost of ten guineas each. From 1809 to 1811 there were Irish classes in connection with the Belfast Harp Society, with James Cody as professor, the grammar used being that by Rev. William Neilson, D.D. In 1812 the society was in difficulties, and it collapsed in 1813, having expended during the six years of its existence about £955. To the credit of the Society, poor O'Neill was given an annuity of £30 a year, but he did not long enjoy it, as his death occurred at Maydown, County Armagh, on October 29th, 1816, aged eighty-eight.[3] His harp is now in the Museum of the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society.


[1] Dean Warburton (Mongan) was afterwards made Bishop of Limerick, over which see he presided till 1833, when Bishop Knox was translated from Killaloe as Bishop of the united sees of Limerick, Ardfert, and Aghadoe.

[2] The following is the list of the tunes played, as given in the Belfast Northern Star, of July 15th, 1792:—"Coulin," "Fairy Queen," "Molly Veagg, O" [Mhali bheag og], "Planksty Kingsland" "Gra go nish," "Denis Dealy," "Miss Fenning," "Collough an Tinnie," "Collendoon" [Cailin dhonn], "Carolan's Concerto," "Lady Latitia," "Planksty Reily," "Baccaugh Buie," "Scarant na Gompanaugh," "The Dawning of the Day," "Pearla an Vroley Vaun," "Cauher vac Aough," "Mable Kelly," "Lady Veaugh," "Tierna Vujoe," "Patrick's Day," "Aelion na Ruaen," "Mailin Guidey Uyain," "Nancy Cooper," "Gracy Newgent," "Carolan's Gap," "Thomas Burke," "Lady Bleany," "Mrs. Maxwell," "Pharaca na Ruarc," "Doctor Hart," "Carrie a Nuienish," "Shiely ni Conolan," "Mrs. Crofton," "Sir Festus Burke," "Cionn dhu dielish," "The Humours of Whiskey," "Denis Aily," "Cathelien Treall," "Trugh" I retain the original unique spelling of the Irish names.

[3] Bunting, with his usual inaccuracy, gives a wrong date, namely, "in 1818.''