Arthur O'Neill, Irish Harper

“The Irish Harpers in Belfast in 1792” … continued


From The Ulster Journal of Archaeology, Second Series, Volume 1, Number 2, 1895

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The rival of Hempson was Arthur O’Neill. He was born of highly respectable parents at Drumnaslad, Co. Tyrone, in 1734. He lost the sight of his eyes by an accident when only two years of age. As was almost universally the custom in such cases, his parents devoted him to music, and he was taught the harp by Owen Keenan of Killymoon, near Cookstown. Whilst quite a young man he had made a tour through the four provinces, and seems to have been received by the gentry more as a friend and companion than as a professional musician.

In 1792 he made the acquaintance of E. Bunting, Dr. James MacDonnell, and the other Belfast men, and in 1807, when they founded the Belfast Harp Society, he was chosen unanimously as the resident master, and taught there for several years. He was by all accounts a man of culture and information, well up in Irish history, which knowledge he had gained by his frequent visits to the well-known historian, Charles O’Conor of Belanagar, Co. Roscommon. He was also a most interesting companion, abounding in anecdote and playing many games with skill. He claimed to be of the old Hy Niall race, and the hand of the O’Neills was engraven on the large silver buttons of his coat. Hardiman tells the following anecdote, which illustrates the position he assumed:—

“Arthur O’Neill, the Northern Harper, always expected and received an extraordinary degree of attention, on account of the antiquity and respectability of his tribe. He generally sat at table with the gentlemen whose houses he visited, and once at a public dinner in Belfast, where Lord ——— presided, his Lordship made a kind of apology to O’Neill, and expressed regret at his being seated so low at the festive board. ‘Oh, my Lord,’ answered the Harper, ‘apology is quite unnecessary, for wherever an O’Neill sits there is the head of the table.’ His Lordship had the good sense not to appear offended, and the claim of the Milesian was not controverted.”

O’Neill retired from the Harp Society in 1813, and returned to his native place near Dungannon, where he died in 1818, at the age of 85 years.

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