Bridget O’Reilly

I don’t know very much about Bridget O’Reilly, but I thought it might be useful to start gathering references to her. There are also a few references to un-named female harpers which might possibly be her. Hopefully in time we will find more detailed references which will allow us to tell more of her story.

The nearest thing we get to Bridget O’Reilly’s own words, is her advertisement that she placed in a Dublin newspaper in 1817.

Richmond Tavern, 31, Upper Ormond-quay.
MISS O’REILLY begs to announce to her Patrons, Friends and the Public, that she has commenced, and will continue to perform every evening on the IRISH HARP, from 7 o’clock till 12 o’clock.
N.B. JONES, the celebrated Welch Harper, will also perform every evening, at the usual hours. 31
March 31, 1817

Saunders’s News-Letter, Monday 31 March 1817, p.3

This is the usual gruelling schedule for the traditional harpers in the 19th century, playing for five hours or so every evening, presumably 5 or 6 days a week.

We can try and trace references to Bridget O’Reilly before and after this. It is not always easy!

At the Irish Harp Society in Belfast, 1809

There is an interesting description of Bridget O’Reilly at the Irish Harp Society in Belfast, published in a newspaper article in December 1809. The Irish Harp Society held a “splendid entertainment” in honour of Edward Bunting, at O’Neill’s Hotel in Belfast, on Wednesday 20th December 1809. This was a formal gentlemen’s dinner, with the great and good treated to a lavish dinner, after which were the usual toasts, songs and speeches. After the gentlemen had drunk their fill of toasts, there was a musical entertainment:

…After dinner, he [Arthur O’Neil] led into the room his twelve blind pupils, one of whom is a female, Miss O’Reilly. Their entrance exhibited a scene peculiarly impressive; but when Miss O’Reilly, and two of the youths, strung their harps, and played some trios, duets &c. they were followed by the most enthusiastic applause. Among other admired airs were the following: Patrick’s Day – The Green Wood Tringha – Ullighan dubh O! or the Song of Sorrow – Bumper Squire Jones – Planxty Plunkett – Planxty Reilly, &c. &c. Their performances gave much satisfaction, and it was very gratifying to behold this youthful groupe, the objects of the Society’s care, thus surrounded by their patrons, delighting their ears with the music of ancient times.

Belfast Commercial Chronicle, 23 December 1809, p2

Most of these tunes feature in my list of the most popular Irish harp tunes of the 19th century.

Presumably Arthur O’Neill then took his students away out of the room, leaving the gentlemen to their business of drinking and singing. The gentlemen finished with “Rule Britannia … sung in excellent style, the whole company joining in chorus”. If nothing else this shows us the completely different social and musical worlds of the harpers and their patrons!

We have a nice list of these twelve students, in the minute-book of the Irish Harp Society (Belfast, Linen Hall Library, Beath Collection, box 5). There is a list probably compiled at the beginning of 1810, titled “Names of the present scholars stating age, from whence they came, by whom recommended, and when admitted into the Society”.

Wm Gormanfrom Ballymena County Antrimaged 15Entered Society June 1808Recommended by Revd John Fitzsimmons
of Ballymena
Patrik McGrathfrom Dundalk C of Louthaged 14Entered Sept 1808Recommended by Mr Bell of Lambeg near
Edwd McBridefrom Omagh C of Tyroneaged 19Entered Nov. 1808recommended by
Mr Galbraith of Armagh
Patrick O Neilfrom near Dungannon C of Tyroneaged 13Entered January 1809recommended
by Arthur O Neil our Harper
James O Neilfrom Dungannon C of Tyroneaged 17Entered Feby 1809recommended
by Dr James McDonnell Vice President
Valnte Raineyof the Glens County of Antrimaged 14Entered February 1809Recommended by the Vice President
Abraham Wilkinsonof Ballymoney County of
aged 13Entered Sept 1809Recommended by Mr Moore of Moore’s
Lodge County of Antrim
James McMolaghanof Lifford County
aged 13Entd Oct 1809Recommended by Mr Mitchell of
Breis Bridge one of our Committee
Bridget O Reillyfrom Virginia Co of CavanEntered Sept 1809

And then after that is another list, “Day scholars not depending on the Society for support”

Edward O Neill
Hugh Dornanall of, or near Belfast
John Wallace

I find it interesting that in the minute-book, we are not given an age or a recommendation for Bridget O’Reilly. Perhaps because she was female, it would be considered indiscreet to give her age, especially if she was slightly older? Why does she not also have someone to recommend her? And why is she not in the list in order of date of entry, but tagged on the end? And the place she is said to be from, is the furthest distant from Belfast.

We can think of how this list can inform our understanding of the harpers coming out and playing at the dinner. One of the boys had been studying the harp for 18 months by the time of the dinner in December 1809; another had only been there for two months. I presume that the three who played were chosen as the ones who could actually get up and perform a selection of tunes. Perhaps they did duets and trios to give them more confidence than making them play solo. I also find it interesting that the only harpers named are Arthur O’Neil (who didn’t play), and Miss O’Reilly. Was Bridget O’Reilly the most senior student, leading her two classmates? Or was she named because she was a girl? Or was she already well-known to the newspaper readers for some reason?

Before the Irish Harp Society?

A kind of prose poem in praise of Miss O’Reilly was published in a Belfast newspaper in August 1809. It doesn’t say she was our Bridget O’Reilly, but it seems a sensible enough assumption to me at this stage.

They, who have ever admired the fascinating, and sense-delighting music of the Irish Harp, and wished to see that sweet instrument rescued from the cold untuneful hands of forgetfulness, will listen with pleasure, to the following effusions, occasioned by hearing the aforementioned Miss O’REILLY (a native of Cavan, and a pupil of Mr. ARTHUR O’NEILL’s), play some enchantingly beautiful strains on the Harp, highly creditable to both master and scholar:-
“They were the sweetest notes I ever heard!” STERNE’S MARIA
Blessed be your hands, daughter of an illustrious line! that can thus sweep with so much ease, the hallowed, long-neglected lyre of my native country! The magic sounds of sphere-born Music, spring to life, from the gentle touch of thy active fingers – Love, passing on his way, is caught by the persuasive force of heavenly minstrelsy – he relaxes his pinions, and hovers over the harmonious strings – he fills his empty quiver with imperceptible, but dangerous darts; barbed arrows, pointed with the keenest powers of dulcet music, against which, the heart has no fortress of defence – he flies away, rejoicing at his good fortune, and thus he reasons: ‘Presumptuous man! too long have I been the object of your ridicule and pastime! – imperious woman! too long have my sharpest weapons been blunted and rendered useless by your haughtiness and disdain! no longer, therefore, may I be the sport of the human race: fortify your hearts ye sons of men, and ye daughters of women; make them proof against every horrible invader, and, when you have done your best, then will you experience, that the arrows of Love, when pointed with the irresistable lightning of Lyric Melody, can force a passage into the most obdurate and stubborn soul. Of what avail shall your invectives, your satires, and your biting sarcasms against Love be now? Why, they shall avail nothing! Praises and panegyrics shall resound to his name; the altar of every heart shall burn with the incense of Love; – but it shall be pure and holy, and sacred to the celestial Power that gave Love and Song re-animation.’
The genius of Erin is proud of thy beautiful accomplishments, young and prosperous shoot of an ancient stock! Hope no longer sickens with suspense; neither does the blossom of her expectations spread its languid bloom on a withering branch, but on a promising fertile bough. The guardian spirits of our island will shield with their wings this flourishing Scion of luxurious growth, and it shall suffer no injury from the blighting breath of calumny or freezing neglect.
But, alas! the Author of Nature has deprived thee, youthful minstrel! of that which constitutes the most pleasing of the senses – the powers of vision. ‘Twas, no doubt, for a good purpose; for although not blessed with the light of heaven, or the beamy effulgence of day, you, “like the wakeful bird, sing darkling, and in the shadiest covert hid, tune your nocturnal note.” Still he has given thee inward light, and has planted in thy soul, eyes that shed an eternal and unfading lustre on the beauties of thy mind.
Maids of Ierne! emulate the bright example set by your sister; only touch the wires with your fine fingers, and they will speak in heavenly language to your immortal fame. O preserve those lovely sentimental national airs from oblivion! that possess more power over the heart and feelings, when played on the Harp, than the sweetest and most refined music of any other country on the habitable globe.
Belfast, 17th August, 1809

Belfast Commercial Chronicle, Monday 21st August 1809, p.4

We can paraphrase this romantic 19th century prose to extract a few facts: Miss O’Reilly, from Cavan, learned the harp from Arthur O’Neill. Someone who had heard her playing wrote in to the newspaper, saying that her playing affected them emotionally and made them think of love; also that it is good for Irish national life that she is a young and competent harper who is learning in the old tradition; also that it is a shame that she is blind, but that maybe this helps her music, or that her music compensates for her blindness. And also that other Irish women should also learn the harp, because Irish music played on the Harp is the best music.

This was written and published the month before she is said to have entered the Irish Harp Society in Belfast. It looks to me like she was already a competent performer on the harp by the time she entered the Society.

Opportunities to learn

We are told in the August 1809 newspaper that Miss O’Reilly was “a pupil of Mr. Arthur O’Neill’s”.

Before he was engaged by the Irish Harp Society in Belfast to teach the harp there, Arthur O’Neill had tried to organise traditional harp tuition in at least two other places. He had placed a newspaper advertisement in 1805, soliciting donations from wealthy patrons to support his teaching of blind students:

Arthur O’NEIL, performer on the IRISH HARP, with the greatest respect and gratitude acknowledges the many past favours of his numerous benefactors; he now takes the liberty to inform them, that he will soon recommence his Musical School at Benburb, in the co. Tyrone; which, for a few years past, he was obliged to discontinue from the disturbed state of the times. He wishes to signify to the Ladies in particular, and the Gentlemen in general, that being assured of their patronage and protection, he will shortly be enabled to prepare and instruct such pupils as may be recommended by them, to hail in native music the blessings of the olive branch, and for the remainder of his life to use every exertion to promote and perpetuate that heavenly music, the emblem of Ireland.
N.B. The object of this institution is to instruct the Blind and Lame, gratis, whom their misfortune have prevented from otherwise procuring a livelihood. – The Noblemen, Ladies and Gentlemen, who wish to support the above charitable institution, will please to subscribe their names, with such annual contributions as may be most pleasing to them, to any of the following persons, viz.
JAMES M’CANN, Esq. Channel-rock, Louth.
JOHN FARRELL, Esq. Bloomfield, Roscommon.
SIMON O’SHIEL, Esq. M.D. Ballyshannon.
JOHN SPILLARS, Esq. Omagh, Tyrone.
JOHN RYAN, Esq. Binburb, Tyrone.
Capt. JOHN O’DONNELL, Summer-island, Armagh.
JOHN BAKER, Esq. Cavan.
Mr. PAT. REILLY, 53, L. Dorset-street.

Dublin Evening Post, Saturday 23 November, 1805, p2, also Saturday 30 November, 1805, p.1

Arthur O’Neill also described an earlier attempt in his Memoirs

A little before the Rebellion of 1798. I formed the idea of opening a School which I proposed to my Dr deceased friend Captain Somerville of Lough Sheelan in the Coy of Cavan who ready readily Consented to erect one near his own House, and also to get me 3 Scholars, and to live entirely with himself But by means of the Subsequent Disturbances, and the Death of the Captain the plan of course fell to the Ground,

Arthur O’Neil, Memoirs, Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.46 p.29

Though the Lough Sheelin school would have been only about 10 miles from Virginia, it seems never to have got off the ground.

Lough Sheelin before dawn

Learning in Irish?

In (I think) 1839, Dr James McDonnell wrote a letter to Edward Bunting:

Dear Bunting, since hearing from you, I have learned from Pat Byrne, a harper, that all harpers prior to O’Neill, having taught only through the medium of Irish, must have had names for all the strokes or chords on the harp. The strings which are octaves to the sisters he said had others, which he said were called ‘Gilli ni fregragh ni Havlai’, the servants of the answers to the sisters. He says that Miss Reilly of Scarvagh is the only person whom he knows now living who was taught to play through the Irish language, and he will endeavour to collect from her some technical terms…

Charlotte Milligan Fox, Annals of the Irish Harpers (1911) p. 135-6

This is a kind of Chinese whispers; Fox is transcribing a letter written by James MacDonnell, who is paraphrasing a conversation he had had with Patrick Byrne, who is talking about Miss Reilly. I think the original letter is Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.35.23, though I have not seen this.

There is a common assumption that this “Miss Reilly of Scarvagh” is James Miles Reilly Esq. of Scarva’s sister, who sketched the harper Charles Byrne in 1810. However there is no evidence that anyone from the Reilly of Scarva family ever learned to play the harp, or spoke Irish. Even more problematical for this idea, of J.M. Reilly’s three sisters, two married (and so were no longer Miss Reilly by 1839), and the other died in 1813.

There’s no independent reason to think that “Scarvagh” has to refer to Scarva in co. Down; there are other places with similar names, such as Scairbhigh (Scarvy) in co. Monaghan. It is also possible that “Scarvagh” has been interpolated into the account somewhere along the line, perhaps by Byrne, perhaps by MacDonnell. I need to go and look at the letter. I seriously wonder if the “Miss Reilly” that Patrick Byrne knew and referred to in 1839 might be our Bridget O’Reilly.

A female harper in Dublin before 1809

In 1809, There is a little aside in a review of James McHenry’s The Bard of Erin:

In the notes, Mr. Arthur O’Neil is described as the only Harper in Ireland. Patrick Quin, of Portadown, has perhaps superior merit to O’Neil. There is a harper in Drogheda. Another, a female, in Dublin, and doubtless several in the South and West.

Belfast Monthly Magazine vol 2 no. 7, 28th February 1809, p.137

Sylvia Crawford previously has pointed this out in her study of Patrick Quin (MA thesis p.44), but I wondered who the other two were. I presume the “harper in Drogheda” was William Carr; John (Fiott) Lee met him there on Wednesday, 18th February, 1807, though by 1810 Carr was working in Dublin (Saunders’s Newsletter, Monday 9th April 1810 p2).

Was the “female in Dublin” perhaps Bridget O’Reilly? We can’t tell how up-to-date the information in this anonymous review is. But she could have been working in Dublin in 1808, and have gone to Belfast in the summer of 1809. This is just wild speculation.

Charitable appeal?

Another enigmatic newspaper article appears in a Cavan newspaper

        THE IRISH HARP–This instrument so indissolubly wedded with our ancient legends would have been forgotten long ago but for the men of Ulster. Strange to say, the Presbyterians of the North, who had no direct claim upon the olden harp, were the men who fostered and preserved it. We now have very few harpers, and of these Mr. BYRNE now appears the most successful; wherever he goes through Ireland, England, Scotland, he is received with a “cead mille failthe”. But while awarding the laurel to Mr. BYRNE, we must not forget the unfortunate. There resides in this county, not far from Virginia, an old woman upwards of seventy years of age, who in her early days played upon this instrument, to the delight of thousands, and who has hereditary claims upon us beside; she is now in a destitute state, but with the pride of her race has hitherto refused to solicit elymosynary aid. We are not at liberty to mention her name, as we have not got authority to that effect, but if any kind individuals think well of assisting this relic of better times the publisher of the ANGLO-CELT will receive their contributions and transmit them to her for whom they are intended.

the Anglo-Celt, 4th August 1848

Who could this woman be? Over 70 years old in 1848 means she was born around the 1770s, though the age could be exaggerated for dramatic effect or to disguise the person’s true identity. Rose Mooney was from county Meath or Westmeath, but she is said to have been born c.1739-40, and died in about 1800, so I don’t think it is her. Catherine Martin was from Virginia. We have very little information about her; Arthur O’Neil describes her in his Memoirs (neat copy, Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.14 p89). O’Neill also tells us that she played at the second Granard ball in 1782, though not the first ball in 1781 (his dates are wrong; the 1st ball was 1784, the 2nd in 1785). I suppose it is possible that she was only a young student in 1784; perhaps she was born about 1770, and so could have been around 80 in 1848. But it seems more likely that she may have been at least a few decades older than that, too old to have been still alive in 1848.

Other female harpers active in the 19th century would have been much too young in 1848; Jane McArthur would have been about 44; Miss Flinn was a student in Drogheda in 1843. Mrs Kerr nee Mary Doran would have been 25, and anyway I don’t think she was a professional harper in the old tradition; I don’t know when Sally Moore was born or when she learned the harp, but she was based in Belfast and was most likely still very young and learning in the 1840s.

So, could the woman in the Anglo-Celt have been Bridget O’Reilly?

A garbled misunderstanding?

Bridget O’Reilly is mentioned in the New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments:

The Belfast Harp Society inaugurated the teaching of a number of children by Arthur O’Neill and Bridget O’Reilly, two of the players who had taken part in the 1792 festival.

Mary McMaster, Harp. V: Europe and the Americas. 10. Revivals. (i) The Celtic revival, in The New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments (1984)

I am not sure if McMaster has based this on information that I have missed, or if she is just getting muddled up. I suspect the latter (Grove is notoriously unreliable) but it’s worth keeping an eye out for a source for this information just in case.


I suppose we can set out what we actually know about Bridget O’Reilly, and then try to fit in the ambiguous or vague possible references to try and build a possible picture of her life.


Here’s what we are told by the historical sources. Bridget O’Reilly was from Virginia, County Cavan. She was blind. She learned to play the traditional Irish wire-strung harp under Arthur O’Neill. She was already a good player by 1809, when she joined the Irish Harp Society in Belfast, where she studied further under O’Neil. In 1817, she was in Dublin, working in a hotel playing the harp for five hours every evening. Sin é.


Everything else is wild guesswork and fantasy at this stage. Perhaps she studied with O’Neill in 1805, at his Benburb school, maybe sent there by O’Neil’s patron John Baker Esq. of Cavan. Or perhaps she studied with O’Neil even before that. Perhaps as a child, she had been lined up to study at the Lough Sheelin school in 1798, though we know that this school never got off the ground. Perhaps she was sent to Arthur O’Neil after the failure of the Lough Sheelin school. She may have been a native Irish speaker, and she may have learned the harp from O’Neil entirely through the medium of the Irish language.

I assume she had not started to learn the harp by 1792, otherwise O’Neil might have brought her with him to the Belfast Assembly Rooms meeting in July of that year, like how Patrick Quin brought his young student William Carr.

I assume Bridget O’Reilly would have been over 16 years old in 1809, perhaps over 21, perhaps even as old as 30; perhaps she was born in the 1780s or 1790s. She may have been around 60 or 70 years old in 1848. Perhaps she died in the 1850s. I really don’t know at this stage.

And finally…

The Irish Harp Society minute book contains a sudden insight into her character, in a report which I think was from the meeting of 6th Feb 1810 (see earlier post on this):

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

What a story! Bridget O’Reilly had only joined the Society in September 1809, only five months previously. Based on my work above, I am thinking of her as a competent blind harper, perhaps in her mid to late 20s, a kind of protégée of Arthur O’Neil and a kind of senior student or even an assistant at the Harp Society school. We can re-read the August 1809 prose-poem, and wonder if she was charming, alluring even. Edward McBride was nearly blind from smallpox; he had begun as a student at the Society over a year previously, in November 1808; he would have been about 20 by this time. He was also the oldest of all the boys at the Society school. McBride was obviously a good student, since almost 10 years later, he was recruited to be master of the Society school, after Arthur O’Neil’s death. I wonder if McBride had been one of the two boys who played alongside Bridget O’Reilly at the December dinner in Belfast? All of the students (except the three day scholars) were living together at the Harp Society house in Belfast.

Was there a little thing between the two of them? Did Arthur O’Neil cop on? He would surely have known Bridget well by then. How involved were the Committee with the day-to-day life in the Society school? Would the two of them have been able to pull the wool over the eyes of the committee gentlemen?

Many thanks to the Arts Council of Northern Ireland for helping to provide the equipment used for these posts, and also for supporting the writing of these blog posts.

12 thoughts on “Bridget O’Reilly”

  1. I missed that we have information from Pat Byrne, that Catherine Martin was “was an elder person than Arthur O’Neal” (H.G. Farmer, ‘Some notes on the Irish harp’, Music & Letters 24, 1943 p103) which must rule her out as the woman referred to in the Anglo-Celt of 1848.

  2. Another kind of connection between Bridget O’Reilly and Edward McBride is that both of them (but none of the others) were provided with a new suit of clothes for their services to the Society, as recorded in the minute book:

    Tuesday 5th December 1809
    …Agreed that in consequence of Ed. McBrides services since his entrance into the society he shall be presented with a new suit of cloaths, and that Mr Radcliffe be appointed to furnish him, charging them to the society.

    Tuesday 2nd January 1809 [obviously a scribal error for 1810]
    …Ordered that in consequence of Miss OReillys services since her entering into the Society she shall be presented with a new suit of cloaths, and that the Secretary do order the same, and have it charged to the society.

    What does it mean by “services”?

  3. I also missed that Seán Donnelly has already discussed Arthur O’Neil’s school at Lough Sheelin. (Seán Donnelly, ‘an 18th century harp medley’, Ceol na hÉireann no.1, 1993 p29-30). Donnelly’s article gives the text of a newspaper advert placed by Arthur O’Neil in August 1793, announcing a harp school to be set up in Virginia. Donnelly assumes this is the same school mentioned in the Memoirs as being proposed for Lough Sheelin in 1798, but since the patrons are slightly different, and the place seems slightly different, I wonder if this was a different attempt. Perhaps the 1793 school actually ran in Virginia for a while, and perhaps Bridget O’Reilly may have been a student there.

  4. I also missed that Arthur O’Neil mentions teaching Biddy Reilly in county Cavan, in his Memoirs.

    I visited my old Haunts in that County. and
    got some Scholars one of the best of whom was Biddy Reilly who was blind. and I think she plays very prettily.
    Memoirs (rough version) p.18 (QUB SC MS4.46.038)

    I next visitted my old Haunts in that County, &
    Taught some Scholars there, one of the best of whom was a Biddy Reilly who was blind who played very prettily before I quit that County.
    Memoirs (neat version) p.22-23 (QUB SC MS4.14.025-026)

    The dating of this episode is not clear, but it is immediately followed in both versions by his account of teaching James MacDonnell (which would be about 1778-1780), which he says he “forgot to mention in its proper place”, ie. that this episode must be after 1780. It also refers to O’Neil being in the area for 18 years. So I would guess that this is referring to the period 1780 to 1800, and so would fit very well as a description of his school in Virginia in 1793.

    I think the Memoirs were written in about 1808 when O’Neil was recruited to the Irish harp Society.

    I can imagine a tightened up story here, of Bridget O’Reilly being born perhaps in the mid 1770s, learning to play the harp at Virginia as a teenager in 1793 for a few years, playing professionally (including in Dublin) until she came to Belfast in the summer of 1809, aged in her early to mid 30s, met up with Arthur O’Neill, joined the Harp Society as a kind of assistant, helping with the teaching (as a woman would she be permitted to have formal status as Master of the school?), then after the school closed in about 1812, going back to work professionally, and finally retiring to Virginia where she was over 70 in 1848. And dying of poverty not long after that?

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