Harp Society scandal

From the Minute Book of the Irish Harp Society, Belfast, some time in the first few months of 1810:

The Committee proceeded to an investigation of certain charges made by Arthur O Neill our Harper against Bridget O Reilly and Edward McBride two of our Scholars for having an Improper Connection. They were unanimously of opinion that such charges have been altogether groundless, false and unfounded

Belfast, Linen Hall Library, Beath Collection, box 5, item 1

(the previous page is dated 6th Feb 1810; this may be from that meeting or may be from an subsequent undated meeting. The entry is followed by a few blank pages and then the next item, in a different hand, is dated 8th May 1810.)

Bridget O’Reilly was from Virginia, County Cavan. She was a student of the Irish Harp Society school starting in September 1809.

Edward McBride was born around 1792. He was from from Omagh. He was a student at the Irish Harp Society starting in November 1808. When the Irish Harp Society was re-formed in 1819, McBride was recruited to be the new master and teacher of the school; one of his students then was Patrick Byrne.

Charles Byrne

Charles Byrne is listed as one of the harpers who went to Belfast for the harpers’ meeting in July 1792. The collector, Edward Bunting, says:

Charles Byrne, from the county of Leitrim, aged 80, played “The old Trugha,” author and date unknown; “Oganioge,” very ancient; author and date unknown.”…

…Charles Byrne, another Leitrim man, born about 1712, was one of those who attended the Belfast meeting. Although not distinguished as a performer, he possessed an extraordinary fund of songs and anecdotes, of which the Editor has availed himself to a considerable extent

Edward Bunting, The Ancient Music of Ireland, Dublin 1840, introduction p.63 & 77

Harper and tradition-bearer, Arthur O’Neill, tells us:

Chas. Byrne – worse than tol lol

comments dictated by Arthur O’Neill to Thomas Hughes, Belfast Central Library, F.J. Biggar archive, envelope V6

I met a Charles Byrne who was taught by his uncle to be a Harper /
(I may be taugt thought too be severe when I made use of the word “Tol: Lol” /
in my account of the Irish Harpers. others may Say the same of myself). But /
the fellow not being blind, had many advantages over those who had not that first /
of Gifts, (Sight,) and as he had a tolerable memory, He could recount all /
that happened to him during the time he led his blind uncle thro’ the Kingdom. & /
I must conclude my Biography of him. &Set him down a _____ Tol: Lol: /
I Know myself besides what I am Credibly informed that he could and can Sing a good variety /
of real Irish Songs in a pleasing Stile with a pleasing Voice.

Arthur O ‘Neill, Memoirs first version, Queens University Belfast Special Collections MS4/46 p.15

I met a Chas. /
Byrne who was taught by his uncle on the Harp, this /
man had many advantages not being blind, he was a good /
player. He had an excellent memory and could recount /
all the little incidents that happened to him during the /
time he led his blind uncle thro’ the Kingdom. I heard /
him sing a good many Irish songs in an agreeable stile /
and pleasing voice.

Arthur O ‘Neill, Memoirs second version, Queens University Belfast Special Collections MS4/14 p.19

The two different versions of the Memoirs do not agree on the quality of Byrne’s playing!

William Carr, listing all the harpers who went to Belfast in 1792, tells us

Charlie O Byrn from Leitrim (played worst) He was originally but the servant to a harper and always carried his Masters Harp but he and he only took a fancy to learning as well as he cd, never well Educated for it

A Scientific, antiquarian and picturesque tour – John (Fiott) Lee in Ireland, England and Wales, 1806-7 ed. Angela Byrne, Routlege 2018, p. 303

Edward Bunting collected tunes from Charles Byrne. As well as telling us the two tunes Byrne played in Belfast in 1792, Bunting tags a number of tunes in his manuscript and printed books with Byrne’s name, as well as in his annotated copies of his 1809 and 1797 publications.

In Edward Bunting’s papers there is a letter to Bunting from Reilly of Scarva:

To Edward Bunting Eqr

Scarvagh 16 Apr ’40
L.Bland.
Sir,
Doctor M’Donnell expressed
a wish that I should let you
see the enclosed slight sketch
of Charles Byrn a native I believe
of Connaught who for many years
visited this house & the neighbourhood
about Xmas & was the “last Minstrel”
I can remember regularly
visiting this country – he could
speak Irish & sing in that
language, & my sister who made
this sketch used frequently to
adapt English words to some of
his tunes, & altho’ I may have

some of his tunes amongst
my papers I have not at
this moment any idea of
where to look for them else
I should be most happy to
send you any thing of the
kind in my p[…] according
to Doctor M’Donnel’s wish
– the sketch I send tho’ very
slight is very like & brings
the old man strongly to my
view – should it be of any use
to you in your proposed work
I should be glad but hope

you will have the goodness
to return it when you have
done with it.
I remain with great
respect your obt
servant
JM Reilly
since I wrote the above Mrs
Reilly has found one of the
songs I alluded to, & which
I hope you will also return

(Queens University Belfast Special Collections MS4/35/31)

This letter raises all kinds of questions, and seems to have been the starting point of a lot of guesswork and speculation about Byrne that I am starting to doubt. If we assume there was only one Charles Byrne harper around at the end of the 18th century, it seems likely that it was the same person.

Charlotte Milligan Fox published a transcribed text of the letter in her book Annals of the Irish harpers in 1911. She also published a portrait, which she said was the sketch done by J.M. Reilly’s sister.

Charlotte Milligan Fox, Annals of the Irish Harpers. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1911

When I went to Queens University Belfast to look at the letter (which I have made my own transcription of, above), I also hoped to see the sketch, but as far as I can tell it is not in the Bunting manuscripts (QUB Special Collections MS4). The letter is written on both sides of one piece of paper, about 22 x 18 cm, and has been folded six times to give a small package of about 11.5 x 6.5 cm. If the sketch was indeed included in the letter, it must either have been folded to a similar small size, or have been in total not much larger. It is not clear how big the original might have been from Milligan Fox’s reproduction.

We also might wonder about the rather pressing instruction in the letter, to return both of the enclosures, the sketch of Byrne and the “song” mentioned in the letter. Did Bunting not return the sketch and the song, and keep the letter? If he kept the sketch, did he also not keep the song?

What were the grounds that Charlotte Milligan Fox used to identify the sketch that she published? She says that the sketch was done on 16 Aug 1810, and that Byrne was then 92 years old. Where does that information come from? The age contradicts the information from tradition bearers mentioned above. Where is the published sketch now? Is it in Queen’s, uncatalogued and un-noticed? Or was it separated from the rest of the manuscripts before Fox passed them on to Queen’s? Did Milligan Fox jump too hastily to conclusions, finding the sketch in the box of papers, and finding a letter which refers to “the enclosed slight sketch”, and put two and two together to make twenty?

Milligan Fox points out that there is information from harper and tradition bearer, Patrick Byrne, that “Miss Reilly of Scarvagh is the only person whom he knows now living who was taught to play through the Irish language” (undated letter quoted in Milligan Fox p.136. I have not seen this letter). Is this “Miss Reilly of Scarvagh” the same person as “my sister” of J.M. Reilly who made the sketch of Charles Byrne posted to Bunting?

In 2012, Michael Billinge wrote a long and detailed article about the portrait published by Milligan Fox, saying that this portrait shows Charles Byrne playing the Mulaghmast harp. There is a whole lot more that could be said about similarities and differences between the harp in the sketch, and the Mulaghmast harp, but this post is only about Charles Byrne and so there is no space to go into that here. However, I do think that all these nested layers of assumption and connection need picked apart much more carefully before we can make any firm statements about any of this.

edit 23 July – Leitrim is in Connaught

Carolan tune collation

Donal O’Sullivan’s book, Carolan: The life times and music of an Irish harper was published in two volumes in 1958. It presented a biography, and 213 tunes presented as corrected typset melody lines, and also with quite detailed notes on each tune including some lyrics. This book has defined Carolan studies ever since, and the book has been reissued a couple of times, and there have also been derivative works.

I think there are a number of big problems with this book, which have never been addressed to my knowledge. One is that Donal O’Sullivan’s edited versions of the melody have become used as sources for performance, even though many of them are arbitrarily changed from the early source versions. Another problem is that O’Sullivan relied heavily on late fiddle and pipe sources, rather than respecting earlier harp transcriptions. Thus he also ignored harp idiom in the early sources including key, basses and ornamentation.

He also was very hasty to associate titles, lyrics and melodies, sometimes making demonstrable errors. He also included every tune he could find that had even the slightest hint of an association with Carolan, only marking the most unlikely with an asterisk to show their doubtful status. This system has been continued in the 2001 Ossian re-issue of O’Sullivan’s book, which includes new material not available to O’Sullivan. Catríona Rowsome’s 2011 book uncritically accepts all of O’Sullivan’s suggestions and the 2001 additions, giving a corpus of 226 tunes.

To Donal O’Sullivan’s credit, he did include references for all of his source material. However his referencing system is very tricky to use, with sources given by index letters, requiring constant cross-checking between pages and volumes. Also, many of his sources are still not easily available in facsimile.

I have been working on a collation of all the different versions of each of the tunes attributed to Carolan. I have entered all the information from Donal O’Sullivan’s book into a spreadsheet, and tried to unpick the different strands presented. I have put the spreadsheet here on Google Docs for you to look at and interact with.

You can use the spreadsheet to sort by source, or by Donal O’Sullivan’s number. I have also put a tentative rating beside each tune, to show how likely I think that Carolan had anything to do with the tune. These can be edited later if new information comes to light.

Rather shockingly, only a bit over half of the tunes have a solid and reliable attribution to Carolan; about 1/4 are almost certainly spurious.

There’s a lot more work to be done on this, and in time I will update the spreadsheet. But I thought it was in a useful enough state at the moment to show it to you,

Laser scan

I’m being slow at organising my data, but today I managed to re-sample the NMI Carolan harp laser-scan, and uploaded it to Sketchfab. This allows it to be easily embedded in web pages.

NMI Carolan harp (National Museum of Ireland) by Simon Chadwick on Sketchfab

Sketchfab does allow downloading of the low-res model but I have also made a link to the full-res version: OBJ mesh file. I use the MeshLab app to view and manipulate the OBJ mesh file

The scan data is marked cc-by (attribution) on Sketchfab but I think it is really public domain, since it is just a digital reproduction of a public-domain publicly owned artefact. You don’t need to attribute it to me – please give attribution and credit to the National Museum of Ireland, who own the original object and gave permission for the laser-scan to be made.

Here’s the video of Elaina Sugrue of Accuscan, making the scan back in the October 2018. You can see how the point-cloud, captured by the scanner, is rendered real-time on her laptop screen. This scanning process generates a huge amount of point data, which had to be processed, and separate passes with the scanner “registered”, to generate the finished mesh file.

I think it is important to be able to release this kind of primary data, as part of the project to understand the old harps more. This scan is a wonderful resource, but it needs a lot of further study to be of practical use. I have made many slices and renderings, which in due course I will publish.

This harp, being very damaged and distorted, requires also a lot of theoretical reconstruction work. Hopefully in time we can also publish reconstruction drawings. I am still thinking about how best to go about this.

I remembered my old post, Archaeological copies of old Gaelic harps from back in 2016. We are not moving at the rate I suggested of one per year, but this kind of study and documentation is an important part of this kind of long project.

The header photo is by Brenda Malloy, and shows myself and Elaina Sugrue at the National Museum of Ireland in October 2018

A typology of tuning pins

There are a number of different styles of taper harp tuning pins. I am trying to categorise them so that it is easier to be specific when talking about the different types. Up to now I have talked about the “old” style with fat drive heads, and the “modern machine-made” style with narrow heads. But I see now that these are rough categories, which can be broken down more subtly.

I think the most distinctive and diagnostic thing is the relationship between the drive and the shaft. The drive is the square- or rectangular-section end of the pin, which is where you put the tuning key on, to turn the pin. The shaft is the conical main part of the pin, which is embedded in the wood of the neck, and also which carries the string at the far end. The shaft is always, and the drive usually, tapered rather than parallel-sided.

Basically I think the first diagnostic is whether the head is wider or narrower than the shaft; in other words whether there is a step up or a step down to the head from the shaft.

I’d suggest Type 1 pins have a step up from the shaft to the head; Type 2 pins have the head about the same size as the shaft, and Type 3 pins have a step down from the shaft to the head.

We could have sub-categories; sub-type a could have a sharp step at about 90°; sub-type b could have a clear transition at about 45°; and sub-type c could have a very smooth flat transition. We could also append R for pins with rectangular (not square) drives.

Suggested typology of harp taper tuning pins

Because both head and shaft taper away from the centre of the pin, and because there is often a gradual transition from shaft to head, it can be hard to state at what point the diameter or width of each part should be measured and compared. So while it is easy to think about comparing the width of the head with the width of the shaft, it is often difficult in practice to choose where to measure. So my idea of looking for the nature of the “step” between shaft and head might prove more useful.

Left to right:
Type 3a (modern #5×3″ steel pin)
Type 3a (modern #4×3″ steel pin)
Type 3b (steel pin from Arnold Dolmetsch harp no.10, c.1932)
Type 2c (iron pin made by Simon Chadwick for a replica medieval Gothic harp, 2018)
Type 2cR (iron pin made by Simon Chadwick for the replica Queen Mary harp, 2014)
Type 2cR (brass pin made by Simon Chadwick for the replica Queen Mary harp, 2007)
Type 1b (brass pin made by Simon Chadwick for the replica Carolan harp, 2019)
Type 1c (brass pin from county Monaghan, c.17th century)

I think that previous attempts to document tuning pins have not been specific enough about where the measurements have been taken. The scheme below suggests where to measure:

Point A is the extreme end of the pin
B is the smallest diameter of the conical shaft of the pin
C is the largest diameter of the conical shaft of the pin
D is the largest width across the flats of the drive
E is the smallest width across the flats of the drive
F is the extreme end of the pin.

The following measurements can be taken to record a pin:
1. Distance A-B
2. Diameter at B
3. Distance A-C
4. Diameter at C
5. Distance A-D
6. Width across flats at D
7. Depth across flats at D
8. Distance A-E
9. Width across flats at E
10. Depth across flats at E
11. Distance A-F

From these measurements we can calculate the taper of the shaft, the range of sizes of tuning key socket which will fit the head, and the nearest standard taper hole that the pin will fit in. We can also work out the nearest standard taper blank to use for making a copy.

Irish libraries

I’ve been working in a lot of libraries recently. I love seeing inside different library buildings – the ambience and atmosphere and architecture sometimes seem as important as the collections.

Armagh Public Library was set up by an act of parliament which stated that it would always be called the Public Library, but they changed its name recently and it is now called the Robinson library after its founder, Archbishop Robinson. It is a handsome 18th century classical building stuffed full of handsome 18th century leather-bound volumes. This is the most elegant and beautiful library but is the hardest to make practical use of because its collections are so old-fashioned! I did check out their copy of the Memoirs of the Marquis of Clanricarde, to understand more the preface which famously mentions the performance of bardic poetry with harp accompaniment.

I had previously seen a copy of this book at Luggala. I remember somewhere reading an opinion that Garech Browne’s was the finest private library in Ireland, but I never managed to get to see inside – there was always some excuse, or distraction.

In contrast, the Irish and Local Studies library in Armagh is hidden round the back of a council building, entered through a basement door at the back of a car park. It has excellent collections of journals and newspapers – I never even got to go into the rooms with books! I found some very interesting references in very obscure 19th century periodicals here.

The other interesting library in Armagh is the Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich Memorial Library and Archive. I have not done proper research here, only browsed, but it has interesting local studies collections.

In Dublin I have been working at the National Library of Ireland, and also at the Royal Irish Academy. Both have beautiful buildings, and excellent collections; I have mostly been looking at specific unique items there. I have especially been reading the RIA minute books from the 19th century – I have not found what I am looking for in them, but that in itself is kind of interesting. They are really fascinating objects, full of the signatures of the Great Men like Petrie and Wilde. I have more references to follow up especially at the NLI, but it is harder to do because they are not so easy to get to.

In Belfast I have been using the Linen Hall Library and the McClay Library at Queens University Belfast. The Linen Hall library is a lovely old building full of lovely old collections, while the McClay is a really impressive new building with a tower that reminds me a little of Cambridge University library. The McClay holds the Queen’s Special Collections, including the Bunting manuscripts, and so has been extremely useful for me.

A library I have been involved with creating for over a decade now is that of the Historical Harp Society of Ireland; this library unfortunately remains merely a collection of books, since it has no librarian and no building. Maybe in time that will change.

There are other libraries which I would like to get access to. Another private library I have been in, but not used, is that at Clonalis House. There is Marsh’s Library in Dublin. And there is the curious local studies library at Benburb – it was closed when I visited, but I should try again.

I am sure there are others that I have missed…

Triple harp tuning key

I was thinking for a while about the three-armed tuning key which is illustrated in Mersenne’s 1635 book, Harmonie Universelle. Joan Rimmer says in her article ‘The morphology of the triple harp’ (Galpin Society Journal XVIII, March 1965) “the three-armed tuning key still used in Wales is identical with that shown in Mersenne’s diagram”. I remember Tim Hampson showing me one, which fitted the three different sizes of tuning pin drives on a reproduction 18th century Welsh triple harp he had made.

I made my triple tuning key from brass, but instead of three close sizes to fit three types of pin on one harp, I used three very different sizes to fit all different kinds of harps. The huge socket will fit the Carolan harp replica; the middle sized socket will fit Student harps with standard American pedal-harp pins; and the tiny socket will fit modern minis such as the Dolmetsch harp or Ardival Kilcoys.

Now I have made it I am thinking it is a bit too small to be totally comfortable to use; the arms should be 1 or 2cm longer. But it makes a great keyring tuning key.

I’ve listed it on my tuning pins for sale page – if you want one you know where to come!

The year with three Easters

We are used to years with two Easters, and two chances to guzzle chocolate eggs, but this year there are three!

In 2019, the vernal equinox is at 21:58 UCT on Wednesday, 20th March. The full moon is 01:42 UTC on Thursday 21st March. So Easter, the first Sunday after the first full moon after the equinox, is on 24th March 2019.

Catholic and Protestant Christian churches use a theoretical equinox and a theoretical moon, which don’t accurately keep track of the real world, and so their Easter is 21st April. Orthodox Christian churches use a different theoretical equinox and moon, which is even worse at tracking the real world, and so their Easter is 28th April.

Bede, in The Reckoning of Time, describes Ēostre, supposely a pagan English deity, who gave her name to the month Ēosturmōnaþ. The idea of the first Sunday after the full moon after the vernal equinox seems to me to be connected to spring, and to light. The equinox has equal light and dark, the full moon lights the night all night; and Sunday is named for the sun so I suppose is the “brightest” day of the week. Lining them all up in this way, and delaying each after the next, gives a kind of ultimate bright day and night. I wonder if we are meant to stay up all night, and then look in the morning to see both the just-past-full moon and the sun above the horizon opposite one another.

My header image shows a screenshot from https://stellarium-web.org/

Laying out the pins on the neck of the harp

In 2011, Michael Billinge wrote an interesting observation on the layout of the tuning pins on the neck of the Downhill harp. Talking about the way the tuning pins become more spread along the cheek band, as the angle of the neck becomes higher in the bass, he writes: “instead of an even change across the range, as might normally be expected, he seems to have done this in a series of blocks or groupings”

In his footnote, Billinge gives a list of the gaps between adjacent pins, and the way that they increase in steps. My chart below gives a visual representation of his data:

Pins spacing on the neck of the Downhill harp (mm) (data from Michael Billinge)

What made me think of this was that I was doing the same work this week on the Carolan harp. I tagged points on the laser-scan corresponding to the cheek-band holes in the left side (string side) cheek band, and then calculated the distance between each one. Plotting a graph of these distances showed clear groups of similarly-sized spaces.

Tuning pin spacing on the neck of the Carolan harp (mm)

Billinge does not say what the error margin on his measurements are, and so it is difficult to analyse them further. On the Carolan harp, the error on the picked points is less than 0.1mm, but the selection of what points to pick is much less accurate than that, since the scan is quite messy around the tuning pin, with lots of scanning artefacts. I would estimate the accuracy of my measurements as perhaps ±1mm

You can see on my graph that there is a certain amount of zig-zagging, alternating around an average value. I saw this also on the spacing of the string shoes on the belly, but I explained that as an artefact of the alternating shoe design. I’m less sure how to understand this alternating spacing on the neck.I have not done such a detailed measurement of any of the other harps, but the point positions of the tuning pins as used to generate the string charts for the Kildare and the Mullaghmast harps can be used to analyse the pin spacing. The accuracy here is perhaps more like ±3mm. The Kildare seems to show some evidence of grouping, but the Mullaghmast pins are clearly spaced incrementally, with each pin a little further from its neighbour than the previous one.

Pin spacing on the neck of the Kildare harp (mm)


Pin spacing on the neck of the Mullaghmast harp (mm) (cropped, the largest spacing is 116mm)

We could follow Billinge by averaging each group on the Carolan harp, and calculating a standard deviation from the average:

Pins 1-3: 17±1.5mm
Pins 3-6: 14.5±6mm (too erratically placed to say much)
Pins 6-12: 13±1.5mm
Pins 12-19: 14.5±1.5mm
Pins 19-26: 18.5±1.5mm
Pins 26-30: 22±1mm
Pins 30-32: 26±1mm
Pin 32-33 crosses the opened neck-pillar joint.
Pins 33-36: 28.5±1mm

I think this kind of analysis can give us ideas about the working methods of the old harp makers. We can imagine the makers of the Downhill and the Carolan harp, working with dividers to lay out groups of pinholes on the metal cheek-band, as well as using dividers to lay out the string-shoes equally spaced on the soundboard.

What then of the Mullaghmast harp, with its progressive spacing? A different school of harpmaking?

My header photo shows a rendering from the laser-scan, showing two points picked for holes 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, and 4. The position of each hole was calculated as an average of the positions of the two points. The background grid is 1mm x 10mm. The messy damage around hole 3 and the break in the neck is visible in the top-right corner.

Denis O’Hampsey as a progressive

Edward Bunting was fascinated by the aged harper Denis O’Hampsey. Bunting visited him in Magilligan in the 1790s, making live transcriptions of O’Hampsey’s playing into his pocket notebook, and much later eulogising him in 1840 as some kind of living fossil, preserving a much more ancient strand of the Irish harp tradition than any of the younger harpers.

Continue reading Denis O’Hampsey as a progressive