Hugh O’Hagan has been known as a harper from the Oriel region for a long time, but there has been very little information about him. I have done some digging over the past few months and this post draws together what I know now.
I first came across Hugh O’Hagan back in 2006, when Ann Heymann gave me a photocopied page with a photograph of a harp and a caption:
However, way back then I did not know how to understand this information and so I filed it away.
Padraigín Ní Uallacháin mentioned Hugh O’Hagan in her book A Hidden Ulster (2003), in a brief footnote on p357, and again on her Oriel Arts website. These mentions made me look again for the references in the Journal of the County Louth Archaeological Society; as well as the page that Ann had sent me, I found a list of the “Collection of Antiquities Belonging to Mr. Henry Morris”, published the previous month, in Vol. 1, No. 3, Sep, 1906, p93-94:
26. Harp, standing 4ft. 9ins. high, with 38 metallic strings, ornamented body, bears maker’s name “Francis Hewson.” This harp belonged to the last native harper of Louth–O’Hagan.
He was blind and died about 40 years ago.
The Dundalk musician Jim Johnston gave me a tip-off in 2019 that a harp connected to O’Hagan was in storage at the County Museum in Dundalk. But again I did not really follow up on this information at the time.
Now that I am actively chasing 19th century Irish harpers, Hugh O’Hagan came to mind and so I have been digging, and I have found a load of fascinating new information about him.
Birth and death
I do not have a birth record or any information about Hugh O’Hagan’s early years, but I did find his death record online. The death record shows that he died on 15th May 1886, in Park Street, Dundalk. His name is give as Hugh O’Hagan; male, bachelor, aged 64 years. His occupation is listed as “Harper”. The informant who reported the death, was his brother Patrick who was present when Hugh died.
If we believe the age at death (often not reliable at this time), Hugh O’Hagan would have been born around 1821-22.
Information provided by Dundalk Museum says “Hugh O’Hagan of Rampart Lane, blind harper born 1822” but I don’t know the source of this information.
You can see both Park Street and Rampart Lane next to each other on the map.
If Hugh O’Hagan was born in the early 1820s, then he could have gone to Belfast to study the harp at the Irish Harp Society school, under Valentine Rennie (d. 1837) or his successor Jackson who was master until the school was wound up in about 1840. O’Hagan would have been about 18 when the Belfast school came to an end.
The first reference to O’Hagan I have found so far is at a concert given by the Drogheda Irish Harp Society on 19th February 1844. The master of the school, Hugh Frazer, performed along with “six of his pupils” (Drogheda Conservative Journal, 17th Feb 1844). Hugh O’Hagan is listed along with five other names, and so he must have been a student of Fraser at that time.
I have found a few newspaper reports of Hugh O’Hagan performing at various public events, starting with the Drogheda concert mentioned above. A review of the concert in the Galway Vindicator and Connaught Advertiser, Sat 9 March 1844, lists three tunes played (presumably as a duet) by Hugh O’Hagan and J. Branagan: the traditional harp air “The song of sorrow” (better known now as Uilleacán Dubh O), the set dance tune “The Sprig of Shillelah”, and the Tom Moore song air “The meeting of the Waters”. These three titles all appear in my top 20 Irish harp tunes of the 19th century (though I notice I missed the O’Hagan and Branagan attribution for two of them!). I don’t have much information about Branagan; apart from him being at the Drogheda school in 1843-4, the only reference to him I have so far is in 1849 when he played at the Harvest Home at Rokeby Hall (Drogheda Argus and Leinster Journal, 3 Nov 1849).
By 1853, Hugh O’Hagan was associated with Dundalk, and we find this wonderful review of a boat trip from Dundalk to Dublin in 1853:
Pleasure excursion.Dundalk Democrat and People’s Journal, Sat 25th June 1853
On Wednesday morning, as previously advertised, the ‘Pride of Erin’, Captain Williams, commander, left our Quays on a pleasure excursion to Dublin. The weather was beautiful, and about 400 persons of all classes of this town and neighbourhood availed themselves of the opportunity, thus liberally given by the directors, to visit the Great Exhibition. The sea was as smooth as a lake, and the splendid vessel made the run to Kingstown in four hours, the company having been amused during the time by the performances of sundry musicians and amongst others Mr O’Hagan, the celebrated performer on the ancient Irish harp. The visitors having made the most of their time time in Dublin returned on board on Thursday evening, and were landed at Dundalk Quay at 12 o’clock night.
Seventeen years later, Hugh O’Hagan was working in Dublin, performing for four-and-a-half hours every evening at a hotel. The Ship Tavern on Lower Abbey Street was notable for employing harpers through much of the 19th century, including Welsh harpers and classical pedal harpists as well as traditional Irish harpers playing wire-strung Irish harps. The Ship Tavern’s resident Irish harper, Joseph Craven, died on 14 Sep 1869, and six months later the hotel’s proprietor John Cunningham ran a series of newspaper advertisements:
Ship Hotel and Tavern,The Irishman, Sat 19th Feb, Sat 5th March, Sat 26th March & Sat 2nd April 1870
5 Lower Abbey Street
and 14, Sackville Place, Dublin,
John Cunningham, Proprietor
J.C. wishes to inform his Friends and the Public that he has secured the services of Mr. O’Hagan, the celebrated Irish Harper and Vocalist, who will perform in the Coffee room every Evening, from Half past Seven o’Clock to Twelve, it being the only house in Dublin where an Irish harper performs.
By early 1872, the classical pedal-harp player Owen Lloyd seems to have replaced Hugh O’Hagan at the Ship, but O’Hagan was still in Dublin. On (I think) Sunday 8th September 1872, O’Hagan was engaged to perform at a temperance meeting in Dublin:
Dublin Temperance UnionFlag of Ireland, 14 Sep 1872, p5
To the Editor of the Flag of Ireland
Dear Sir–it is seldom that an Irish harper can be found at any of our public meetings in Dublin, and strangers may think that the sounds of “The Harp That Once” had faded out of the memory of Irishmen. But anyone present on last Sunday night in the Mechanic’s institute, where the Dublin Temperance Union holds its weekly meetings, can no longer doubt the fidelity of the people of Dublin to the traditions of their country.
In that hall there could be no less than 600 persons, and on the platform were some of the most able of our temperance advocates. Amongst them were the following gentlemen: Mr. P. McGrade (in the chair); Mr T. Mooney, of the London Home Rule Association, and Mr. Boyles, of London also; Mr. Church, of Belfast; Messrs. Foxwell, Fair, Kavanagh, Walsh and Neill; though last, not least, Mr. O’Hagan, the blind Irish harper, who played and sung some of his best and most patriotic songs.
A few well-delivered and telling speeches were then given on the subject of temperance, and was warmly received, after which the harp was again tuned to the soul-stirring strains of “The Chiefs of Old”.
The audience could no longer restrain itself, and gave vent to its feelings in wild bursts of cheers, again and again renewed, which compelled the chairman to announce to the excited audience that the committee had made arrangements which would secure the attendance of the harper upon every Sunday evening in the future. At the conclusion of the meeting, Mr. Mooney, of the Home Rule Association, took out his card of membership, an example which was followed by over two dozen others. The meeting separated cheering lustily for the Irish harper – Yours, &c., J.J. Casey
Hugh O’Hagan must have returned to Dundalk in the mid 1870s. We have a nice newspaper advertisement for the musical entertainments at Middletown Bazaar in 1878:
Middletown BazaarPeoples Advocate and Monaghan Fermanagh and Tyrone News, Sat 7th Sept 1878
A Grand Concert of Vocal and Instrumental Music Under the patronage of his Grace the Most Rev. Dr. McGettigan, Primate of all Ireland, will be given in the New Convent Schools, Middletown, On Friday 13th September, 1878 in connexion with the Middletown Bazaar
A number of distinguished amateur Vocalists and Instrumentalists from Armagh, Keady, Lurgan and Monaghan have kindly consented to attend.
On Wednesday, first day of the drawing of Prizes, the Monaghan National Brass Band will attend; on Thursday, the second day, the Armagh Christian Doctrine Band will be present; and on Friday, the third day, the Monaghan, Armagh, and Keady Brass Bands will be in attendance, and perform alternately a choice selection of favourite airs.
The services of Mr. Hugh O’Hagan, of Dundalk, the celebrated Irish Harper, have been secured for the occasion, who will perform a grand selection of Irish National Melodies.
Doors open at 6:30; Concert to commence at 7.
These give just a few fragmentary glimpses of O’Hagan’s performing career. I am sure that in time we will find more references to his music and his performances.
Hugh O’Hagan’s harp
I made an appointment with the Louth County Museum, Dundalk to go to the storage facility and view the harp. It belongs to the County Louth Archaeological and Historical Society, and is deposited on loan to the Museum, where it has the accession number 1998.1164.1(L). The Dundalk Museum catalogue gives a provenance from the beginning of the 20th century, starting with the antiquarian Henry Morris, who sold it to Dr. J.V. O’Hagan of Fairymount, Blackrock, whose daughter Miss Mary O’Hagan presented it to the Society before 1961.
The harp is in very poor condition, apparently from damage and repairs sustained during its working life. It seems to have been terribly smashed, and crudely repaired, and then brought up to tension and used, so that it twisted and warped. Both the neck and the pillar are broken right through, and repaired with bolted on iron plates; the soundbox is collapsed at both bass and treble ends.
You can clearly see the wear-marks from how Hugh O’Hagan played this harp, with his left hand resting against the soundbox in the treble, and his right hand resting halfway down the soundbox to play the bass, and a worn area on the back where he rested the side of the harp against his left leg.
From a superficial point of view the harp looks crudely made and finished; the soundboard is painted with a kind of purple thick paint, and has glued on printed paper decorations, enhanced by crudely drawn on line-work. But when I looked closely, I could see traces of an earlier and very high quality layer of decoration, fine gilded line-work and sprays of gilded shamrocks. And I could read gilded lettering displayed on the right side of the bass end of the neck:
[ ]FRANCIS,HEWSO[N ]
I know of two other harps made by Francis Hewson, both of them in the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin. One of them has the same lettering on the bass end of the neck, reading:
MADE By FRANCIS, HEWSON.
For PAUL, SMITH.
I think the decoration on Paul Smith’s harp gives us some kind of clue as to how Hugh O’Hagan’s must have looked when it was new. Paul Smith’s harp is dated 1840 on the soundboard; perhaps Hugh O’Hagan’s harp was a similar date. The other Hewson harp in the NMI (DF:1951.2) is dated 1849 on the soundboard, but it is lying down on its right side and so I haven’t been able to see if it has the gilded lettering on the neck. The Dublin harp-maker Francis Hewson was a nephew and successor of John Egan, and these big wire-strung harps are slightly enlarged copies of the big wire-strung Irish harps that Egan had made for the Belfast Irish Harp Society from about 1820 onwards.
I measured the strings that are on Hugh O’Hagan’s harp; they are all iron wire, and seem to be only two gauges. They may be later cosmetic replacements. They don’t seem to be strung properly. I need to do more work on this, and compare them with the strings on other Hewson and Egan and similar 19th century Irish harps. I would expect the harp to have been strung with brass wire strings, as described by contemporary tradition-bearers Patrick Byrne and Patrick Murney. However, I have seen other 19th century Irish harps with iron strings, and also with only two gauges of strings, so it is possible that this was a traditional way of setting the harp up. On Hugh O’Hagan’s harp, the change over from thin (approx 0.5mm) to thick (approx. 1mm) is at about position 25 from the treble, which may be about where the sister strings (na comhluighe) may have been if O’Hagan used that system.
The tuning pins on Hugh O’Hagan’s harp are very crude, completely different from the neat 19th-century-style pins on the other Hewson harps. They remind me of the style of pins shown in the Drogheda Society harp photographed by Nancy Hurrell (History Ireland Jan/Feb 2013). We know that the Drogheda society made its own harps, and a review of the 1844 concert (which O’Hagan had performed in) says “All the harps used on the occasion were made in Drogheda” (Drogheda Conservative Journal, Sat 24 Feb 1844)
I am speculatively wondering if there might be a story here. Was O’Hagan given his harp on graduating from Belfast in about 1840? Did he damage it seriously? Did he take the wreck of it to Drogheda where he was studying, and was it repaired there? Were the pins made in Drogheda, were the metal repair straps fitted there, was the soundboard painted purple and were the paper decorations stuck on there? I don’t know. If we could find more about O’Hagan’s youth and education we could think more about these things.
Hugh O’Hagan was one of the last generation of Irish harpers in the inherited tradition, playing on a big wire-strung Irish harp. He learned to play the harp in the old tradition, when he was young, learning from teachers who had inherited their tradition through a lineage of masters going back through Arthur O’Neil to the 18th and 17th century Irish harpers.
O’Hagan’s formal tuition in traditional Irish harp playing was right at the end of the teaching; I think by about 1850 all tuition had stopped, and no new harpers were being trained. When Hugh O’Hagan died in 1886, I only know of five other harpers who had learned in the inherited tradition: Samuel Patrick, Patrick Murney, and George Jackson in Belfast; Roger Begley in Dewsbury; and Paul Smith in Dublin. There were probably one or two others who I have not managed to track down yet but that is it. All of these men learned to play before 1850 and were getting on in years by 1886. All were poor and were struggling to make a living.
Many thanks to the curator and staff of the County Museum Dundalk for facilitating my visit to view Hugh O’Hagan’s harp.
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.