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.”

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

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

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 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?

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.

Pedal harp in Irish harp tradition

Usually, the classical Anglo-European pedal harp is framed as the exact opposite of the Irish harp. But my recent visits to Hospitalfield house to see their 1830s Erard pedal harp have got me thinking about how these instruments fit in to the native traditions.

Continue reading Pedal harp in Irish harp tradition

The Memoirs of Arthur Ó Néill

Today I presented my concert in St Andrews, “the Memoirs of Arthur Ó Neill”.

I read excerpts from his autobiography, and played the tunes referred to in the anecdotes.

Here is my video of the complete, half-hour performance:

Continue reading The Memoirs of Arthur Ó Néill

“…the fleshy part of the finger alone”

Today I was working on tunes collected by Edward Bunting from the 18th century Irish harper, Arthur Ó Néill, for my concert in St Andrews on 3rd August.

As I played through some of his settings of Carolan and other baroque Irish harp music, using a copy of an 18th century Irish harp, I started thinking about the whole issue of playing the harp with long fingernails.

Continue reading “…the fleshy part of the finger alone”