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. We can start by wondering if this is the same person; “Charles Byrn a native I believe of Connaught”, when Bunting, O’Neill and Carr all say he was from Leitrim. However, if we accept that there may have been only one Charles Byrne harper around at the end of the 18th century, we may suppose 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.

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…

Otway harp string holes

While working on something else I came across this from last year which I had meant to write up.

Understanding the tuning and stringing of an old harp requires knowledge of string lengths and angles. This basically means measuring between the tuning pin and the little hole in the soundboard where the string goes in. But Ann Heymann pointed out to me years ago that on the Castle Otway harp, you can’t see a lot of those holes, because the metal strap down the middle does not line up with the string holes in the wood.

Continue reading Otway harp string holes

Knowing about na comhluighe, but not using it?

Patrick Byrne explained to the collector, John Bell, about the unison strings on a Gaelic harp which are called na comhluighe, or the sister strings:

The open on the bass string of the Violin is one of the Sisters on the harp. The next string below on the harp and it, were tuned in unison, for which reason they were called the sisters. These two unison notes are sometimes called, and in ancient times were called, Ne Cawlee – or the companions. Afterwards they were called the Sisters.
The harp is tuned to the Sister note

(John Bell’s Notebook, cited in Henry George Farmer, ‘Some Notes on the Irish Harp’ Music & Letters vol. XXIV, April 1943)

But did Byrne actually use na comhluige on his own harp?

Continue reading Knowing about na comhluighe, but not using it?

Gaelic harps in 18th century Scotland

As part of my work to re-connect with the most recent threads of the old Gaelic harp traditions, I have been working a lot on the late 18th and early 19th century Irish tradition-bearers. In some ways that work is easy; we have portraits, we have their harps in the museums, and we have live transcriptions of their playing, both treble and bass.

But what about the Scottish side of the tradition? What do we actually know about the 18th century Scottish harpers? To begin, what do we know about the instruments they were playing?

Continue reading Gaelic harps in 18th century Scotland

Edith Taylor of Rahoy

I first became aware of Edith Taylor many years ago, from reading Frances Collinson’s book The traditional and national music of Scotland. After describing briefly the wire-strung clarsachs made by Arnold Dolmetsch, he writes:

Miss Edith Taylor, the first Honorary Secretary of Comunn na Clàrsaich, has one of these on which she once played for the writer at a B.B.C. ‘Country Magazine’ programme from Lochaline, Morvern.

Continue reading Edith Taylor of Rahoy