Irish Harpers particularly from Belfast

File AI.80.019 in the NMI archive contains papers associated with a harp (NMI DF:1980.6) which is said to have originally belonged to Valentine Rainey, master of the Belfast Harp Society school in the early 19th century. The file includes letters relating to the purchase of the harp, as well as photocopies of a selection of other documents which may have come with the harp; there are some pages from Charlotte Milligan Fox’s book, Annals of the Irish harpers (1911), a photo of the harp with some information about its provenance, and a couple of handwritten pages of information about harpers.

There is no other information about these handwritten pages; all we have is the photocopies themselves. One is obviously a quick draft version, and the second a neater and slightly fuller version. The handwriting is difficult to read. This is my transcription of the two sheets.

Sheet 1 (rough draft version), side 1

Bell. Died about Derry
Tom Brown died Belfast was a Belfastman a good harper
            died from a wetting coming from England to Belfast
Blakeley. Whose father was a sergeant and Bandmaster
            this Blakeley was a good harper had a good knowledge
            of music. Travelled with his father
Sam Patrick
Sally Moore Academy St
Tom Hardy (Knew this Tom Hardy – (Hardy played in McCulloghs
                                                            corner of Shankhill Rd
                                                            and Townsend St.
Roddy Bagelley (knew this Roddy Bagelley
Burns Belonged to Drogheda never played in Belfast
Alex Jackson good harper taught in Belfast
            born in Ballinderry lost his sight when a child
            playing Smoking cane sticks
Pat Murney last of Irish harpers father was Pat Murney a cooper
            Pat was blind from a boy – not sure whether
            born in Belfast or Cushendall his mother well known
            by his Master Rainey. Rainey did not want

Sheet 1 (rough draft version), side 2

to teach Pat Murney as he was too well known
his excuse was that pat was too small and could
not open the octaves. However pat was received
and Rainey was his teacher. Pat was so fond of the
Harp that it was not long until he exceeded his
master who was more a Fiddler than a Harper
on one occasion he caught pat lifting a tune he
had been teaching an other pupil for which he reprimanded
him told him not to attempt the like again
Some Gentlemen visiting the School to hear the boys play
Rainey called pat first – He played the Harmonious
Blacksmith and the Coulin all played it of
course he excelled all the others for which he was
Highly complimented Pat died in the Poor House
he had 2 sisters one married to a painter went to America
Walker. Shipbuoy St Sexton in a church Rosemary St
            Belonged to place Call the Rough Fort High Town
            made a Harp and played fairly well only played Bass note thumb
            and finger had never seen fingering proper. Visited Raineys
            school heard the boys play and played for Rainey on all

Sheet 2 (neater expanded version), side 1

Irish Harpers particularly from Belfast
by George Jackson (Clock maker to trade) Belfast
this information taken down by me William Savage
from George Jackson when he was stringing my Harp
a copy of the O’Brian Harp now in Trinity College
Dublin. George was a fair player of the Harp.
Anything he learned was from Pat Murney.
Rainey <Valentine> – Cousin to Burns Scotch Poet. (See Mrs. M. Fox’s Book
Taught the Belfast School in Cromac St.

Bell… Died about Derry
Tom Brown – Born in Belfast and died in it. A good
             Harper. Died from a wetting coming from England
             to Belfast.
Blakeley. Whose Father was a Sergeant and Bandmaster
             This Blakeley was a good Harper and had
             a good Knowledge of music Travelled with his Father
Samuel Patrick -. Played at Queens Island and Ormeau Park
Sally moore – []Academy St good player I think she
             was in Dr Corrys panorama of Ireland when he
             travelled america. This is not too reliable
Tom Hardy – George Jackson knew this Tom Hardy
             Hardy played in McCulloughs Free and easy
             Corner Townsend St. and Shankill rd Tom Hardy was
                                                            [???? ?n Shankill]
Roddy Baggley – George knew him personally.
Burns – Belonged to Drogheda he never played in Belfast.
Alexander Jackson a good Harper taught in Belfast –
             was born in Ballinderry lost his sight when a
             child playing Smoking cane Sticks
Pat Murney – Last of the <local>. Harpers who played in Belfast.
            His father was a Cooper to trade
            Pat was blind from Childhood. Not sure whether born
            in Belfast or Cushendall. He is mentioned in Mrs
            Milligan Foxs Book as from Cushendall.
            His Mother well known by his master Rainey
            Rainey did not want to teach Pat as he was too
            well known. His excuse was that Pat was too
            small. and could not play the Octaves.
            However – Pat was received and Rainey was his teacher
            Pat was so fond of the Harp that it was not long until
            he excelled his teacher or Master who was more a
            Fiddler than a Harper. On one occasion he caught
            Pat lifting a tune he had been teaching another pupil
            and for which he reprimanded him
            and not to attempt the like again

Sheet 2 (neater expanded version), side 2

Some Gentlemen visiting the School to hear the
boys playing. Rainey called Pat first. He
      played the Harmonious Blacksmith. and the
      Coulon all played it. Of course he excelled
      all the others and for which he was very highly
      Complimented. Pat died in the Poor House
      he had been some time in the Nazareth
      Home Ballynafeigh – but I think he came
      out. and after some time died in the
      Poor House. I am not sure about his
      Harp but I heard that he had left it in
      Ballynafeigh where he had first went
Pat had two sisters one was married to a painter
      and went to America.
Walker – Shipbuoy St – was Sexton in a Rosemary st
      Church. Belonged to Rough Fort
      Hightown. Made a Harp and played fairly
      well on it (only played Base with thumb
      and finger. Had never seen fingering
      proper. Visited Rainey’s School
      heard the Boys play and played for Rainey
      on all

There is so much fascinating information here about the harp scene in Belfast in the 19th century. We have a good amount of information about Rainey, but some of these harpers named are very obscure or little known.

The only passage I can’t make out is on the neat copy, the little marginal note about McCullough’s. There is also a deleted few letters after Sally Moore’s name. I have shown these with square brackets []. Insertions above the line are indicated with angle brackets <>.

Lineages of some of the people involved

Arthur O’Neill (1734 – 1816) was the master of the first Irish Harp Society school in Belfast. One of his pupils was Valentine Rennie or Rainey (c.1795/97 – 1837). Valentine Rainey himself became master of the second Belfast Harp Society school, between 1823 and 1837. Pat Murney was one of his pupils there. Dr James McDonnell was some kind of patron to Pat, referring to him as “my little harper”; Murney was still alive in 1882, when he dictated stringing instructions to James O’Laverty (reported in ‘The Irish harp’, Denvir’s Monthly, 1903). I do not know anything more about George Jackson, apart from what is given in this document – we are told that he learned from Pat Murney. That would have been after the end of the Society school.

Dating the documents

William Savage, with his brother, “spent twenty years” making a replica of the Trinity College or Brian Boru harp. William gave the harp to Richard Hayward in 1951, and he was dead by the time Hayward’s book The story of the Irish harp was published in 1954. Hayward tells us that the replica had been made “about 1900”. Savage tells us in the document above, that the information was “taken down … from George Jackson when he was stringing” the replica. The document references Charlotte Milligan Fox’s Annals of the Irish Harpers published in 1911, but these two reference to Fox’s book are in the neat copy, with none in the rough draft. It is possible that the draft sheet dates from before 1911, and the neat copy made some time after, but it is also possible that everything – the stringing, the draft note taking and all, date from after 1911.

12 thoughts on “Irish Harpers particularly from Belfast”

  1. The harp was finished and strung by June 1908 when Savage wrote a letter to Robert Bruce Armstrong (RIA Library SR 23 G 35). George Jackson died on 21st July 1909.

    So it seems that the first sheet may have been taken from Jackson’s dictation in early 1908. And then presumably the second sheet was written out by Savage in or after 1911, incorporating references from Annals. Additions or expansions in the second sheet presumably are from Savage’s memory or from other sources.

  2. For some reason Pingbacks don’t work any more So I have to remember to add links manually:

    Sally Moore

    Alexander Jackson

    Patrick Byrne (part 1)

    Its amazing now to review this post from May 2021, and to see that even as recently as that I had no idea about who most of these people were. Its scandalous how the entire tradition had been erased from historical and national awareness.

    I should also mention that it was November 2018 when I was in the archive and saw the sheets… it took me two-and-a-half years to realise that they were important enough to write up here.

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