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 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 toobe 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.