Hugh Frazer

Hugh Fraser (or Frazer) is an Irish harper whose name appears quite often, because he taught the harp in Drogheda in the 1840s. This post is to draw together other references to him, to try and build more of a picture of him and his life.

We are told that Hugh Fraser was originally from Armagh, according to traditionary information from Henry McBride (The Herald, 29 Aug 1903), though this may not be reliable. We don’t at present know anything more about Fraser’s birth or early years. He first appears in the historical record in the minutes of a meeting of the Irish Harp Society in Belfast on 20th August 1821, printed in Irish Harp Society Calcutta 1828 (Penn Libraries ML1015.C3I7) p.27. The teacher, Edward McBride, presented a list of the students; “Heugh Frazer, Ballymacarret” is listed as a day pupil, having entered the Society on 7th May 1820. His age as of August 1821 is given as 13 years, which would date his birth to the second half of 1807 or the first half of 1808. He is said to have learned 40 tunes out of the 60 “Irish, Scotch and Welsh, at present taught in the House”.

We also get a glimpse of his student life; he was living in Ballymacarret, on the East bank of the river Lagan opposite the centre of Belfast, about fifteen to twenty minutes walk from the Society House on Cromac Street. There were four boarding students living in the house, and one other day student. One of the six was a girl, the rest were boys. Three were listed as “blind”, but Fraser wasn’t. At 13, Frazer was one of the youngest; the oldest, Patrick Byrne, was said to be ten years older than him.

Unfortunately, we don’t seem to have the complete run of minutes for the Society meetings. After it was revived in 1819, we only have the occasional excerpts printed in the Irish Harp Society Calcutta 1828. The next entry we have is from almost three years later, extracted from the minutes of a meeting on 29th June 1824. By this time, Edward McBride was no longer the teacher; he had been replaced by Valentine Rainey. Hugh Fraser is still listed as a student; he is still of “Ballymacarrett”, and his age is given as 16, which matches the previous age.

We don’t have the minute for Hugh Fraser being discharged, but we do have the general rule, from the earlier meeting, of 20th August 1821:

Resolved – That where a pupil of at least eighteen months standing shall have signalized him or herself by proficiency on the Harp, and general good conduct in every respect, the society may make the gift of a Harp to such pupil; with the name of the pupil and of the society engraved on a brass plate thereon.

There is a record in the accounts for 1824-5 relating to gift harps for McClosky and Frazer. We have McClosky’s discharge recorded at the meeting in June 1824 (when Frazer was still listed as a scholar):

Resolved, That Patrick McClosky be discharged on the 1st Day of August, with certificate of good conduct and proficiency; and also with a Harp, value 9 guineas, (cover and strap), one third of which to be paid by private subscription, agreeable to rule.

Poor Patrick McClosky died two years later, but that is another story. My assumption at this stage is that Fraser must have been discharged soon after that, probably later in 1824 or early in 1825.

Hugh Fraser’s harp

We don’t have Hugh Fraser’s harp to my knowledge, but we can still talk about what his harp was like and how he got it.

Egan wire-strung Irish harp number 2044. Nancy Hurrell suggests that this harp dates from after c.1825. Photo © The Fitzwilliam Museum, used under a Creative Commons License CC-BY-NC

There is a fair amount of information about harps in the Society minutes. At the very first meeting on 16th April 1819, Edward Bunting was “requested to order three Harps to be made on the most improved construction, in order that an adequate number may be purchased, if those shall be approved of”. These three harps appear in the accounts presented on 20th Aug 1821, showing that they were purchased from Egan for the sum of £45 17s 3d. (i.e. they cost £15 5s 9d each).

In 1821, the Society resolved to get harps from Belfast makers instead, copying Egan’s design but to be priced at no more than £6 6s each.

In the Irish Harp Society Calcutta 1828 p.43, we have the accounts for the year 1824-5. There is a sum for combined expenditure on harps and wire: £26 0s 3.5 “this year”. There is also income from two donors to part-pay for harps given to students, both for 1824-5. “Mr H. Bell” (Henry Bell Esq. of Lambeg who was one of the gentlemen “members” of the Society) gave £3 8s 3d towards the cost of McClosky’s harp, and “Rainy” (presumably Major W.H. Rainey who was also a gentleman member of the Society) gave £3 8s 3d towards the cost of Fraser’s harp.

Which type of harp were these? We are told that Egan’s Dublin-made harps cost over £15 each. The Belfast made copies were supposed to cost £6 6s each maximum, and £6 6s is the amount budgeted for these gift harps to be presented to students. But the harps presented to McCloskey and Frazer seem to be valued at £9 9s each, hence the need for the £3 or so top-up from private donors to add to the £6 or so from Society funds. Had the costs of Belfast-made harps spiralled up by 50%, or had Egan knocked his price down by 33%? I think at this stage we can’t tell. Frazer could have got a genuine Egan wire-strung Irish harp, or he could have got a Belfast-made copy.

Hugh Fraser’s performing career

The minutes of another meeting two years later, on 24th August 1826, include two separate lists. As well as the list of current students (five boarding and four day), there is also a list of six former pupils now working as professional musicians (or “artisan musicians” to use Reg Hall’s term), playing on wire-strung Irish harps that had been given to them by the Society. Four are listed as “blind”, one as “nearly do.” and the last listed is “Hugh Fraser, sees indistinctly”.

We have a few newspaper clippings that give us some more detail about what Hugh Fraser was doing to earn a living as a harper after he had graduated from the Society in 1824-5.

In May 1830, he was touring in Sligo with another ex-pupil of the Society. Michael McClusky had been admitted to the Society after the August 1826 meeting, so the two of them had not been students together. Perhaps McClusky was “placed” with Fraser for experience?

Two Members of the Belfast Harp Society, Messrs FRAZER and M’CLUSKY, have arrived in this town, and intend performing on that National instrument before the public, at the Theatre, Linen-Hall-street, on the evening of Monday next. From what we have already heard them play, and the opinion of one of the first Professors of Music in this town, expressed in high approbation of their style of performance, we can safely promise the Gentry of Sligo a treat on Monday night. From the constitution of the Irish Harp – altho much improved – the performer cannot have that scope of harmonic transition which the pedal harp supplies; but in the soft and flowing MELODY of our National Music, its tones come upon the heart “like the memory of former times” and wedded to the words of MOORE, the listener feels himself as it were transported to the Halls of TARA, the long-neglected harp taken down from the walls on which it had slumbered – the venerable bard again placed in his seat of honor, and giving expression to the beautiful aposthophe of the Bard of Erin–
“Dear Harp of my Country in darkness I found thee
The cold chain of silence had hung o’er thee long
When proudly my own Island Harp I unbound thee
And gave all thy chords [br]ight F[reedom] and Song”!

Sligo Journal, Friday 21 May 1830, p.4

We could spend the entire rest of this post dismantling this article, but we won’t. I’ll mention a few things though. We know this is Michael McCloskey, and not Fraser’s old classmate Patrick McCloskey, because Patrick was already dead in 1830. The comments comparing the Irish harp to the pedal harp are interesting, implying that the Sligo audiences might have been more familiar with pedal harp at this date than the strictly diatonic (non-levered) big wire-strung Irish harp that the lads were playing.

When the journalist says “…wedded to the words of MOORE…” is this in his imagination, or are the two boys singing Tom Moore’s lyrics to the harp? I mentioned in my 19th century tune lists post how some of the harpers were singing Moore songs. The whole thing gets a bit wild and fantastical after that point, with the “venerable bard” – Fraser was about 22 years old and McClusky was probably younger. But it shows what their audiences were expecting. The boys were out on the road to make a living.

In 1834 there is a brief notice about Fraser in the Derry Journal. I haven’t found the original, but the story was franchised or reprinted by other papers:

IRISH HARP – There is now in this city, a young man, a pupil of the Irish Harp Society of Belfast, Mr. Fraser, whose performances on that national instrument exceed all displays of the kind which we have hitherto witnessed. – He has proved to us a power in the harp which, hitherto, we did not suppose it to possess. There is a brilliancy, and, at the same time, a delicacy, in his style, which, we think, unrivalled – Derry Journal

Belfast News-Letter, 10 Oct 1834 p.2, also Northern Whig, 16th Oct 1834, p.2

In 1840 Fraser was performing in Dungannon:

Mr. Hugh Frazer, formerly a pupil under the patronage of the Belfast Harp Society, gave a public performance upon the Irish harp, at Dungannon, on the 4th inst. About four hundred of the most respectable inhabitants of the town were present. The playing of Mr. Frazer drew forth the warmest plaudits from his audience. Mr. Frazer, it appears, purposes shortly visiting the North.

Vindicator, Saturday 9th May 1840, p.2

It is possible that as well as concert tours, Fraser may have played regularly at hotels, or may have found an aristocratic patron, but I am not seeing any mention of this. These news clippings give us the impression of a very competent musician, playing concerts to large enthusiastic audiences, playing up the national sentiment of seeing and hearing a real Irish harper.

From 1841 we find him in Drogheda:

Mr. FRAZER THE IRISH HARPER – This celebrated performer on the Irish Harp is at present in Drogheda, and has delighted many of our music-loving townsmen by the exquisite melody of his harp. His performance is truly admirable, particularly the national airs of Ireland, which he executed in a style that we have never heard surpassed. We have had the pleasure of hearing him perform a few times, and to us it appeared that a more skilful hand than Mr. Frazer’s never touched the lyre. He deserves to be warmly patronized.

Drogheda Argus and Leinster Journal, Saturday 1 May 1841, p.2

And 9 months later:

Our readers will perceive by our advertising columns that our fellow-townsman, Mr. M’Entegart, is about to give, in conjunction with Mr. Von Hartman and family, together with Mr. Frazer, the celebrated performer on the Irish Harp, a morning and evening Concert in the Mayoralty Rooms, on next Wednesday, and we feel confident that he will meet with that encouragement which his musical talents so deservedly merit.

Drogheda Conservative Journal, Saturday 22 Jan 1842, p2

You don’t get sentences like that these days! I don’t know who Mr von Hartmann and his family were. I also don’t know who Mr McEntegert was, though we will meet him again shortly. I assume these are all classical or cabaret style singers or musical entertainers.

the Mayoralty House on the quays at Drogheda in about 1900

Teaching in Drogheda

So Fraser was in Drogheda in 1841-2. Perhaps he was just in the right place at the right time, and he was hired as teacher for the Drogheda Irish Harp Society.

In the early 1840s, Drogheda seems to have been writhing with political, social, religious and abstinence societies, apparently all run by Thomas Burke (1801-1844). Burke had great ideas for national and religious revival through organised self-improvement, education, temperance and music. At some point, Burke got the idea of incorporating the old Irish harp into this movement. I have not done a lot of work on the Drogheda Irish Harp Society; there are other resources you can follow up on including Nancy Hurrell in History Ireland, January/February 2013, or Patrick Cooney in the Journal of the Old Drogheda Society 1976. Vivienne McKeon did her MA thesis on Father Burke’s society, and she concludes “…that Fr. Burke’s motivations in forming the Harp Society were primarily socio-political in nature rather than musical” (abstract at SMI, I have not read this thesis).

Anyway Father Burke wanted harps being played, and so he needed a harp teacher, and so Hugh Frazer got the job.

I don’t know when Fraser might have started giving harp tuition in Drogheda. It looks to me like the idea of incorporating Irish harp into the temperance extravaganza was first thought of at the beginning of 1842:

THE IRISH HARP — TEMPERANCE — A delightful suggestion has been made, at a recent festival of “Drogheda New Total Abstinence Society”, by its president, the Rev. T.V. Burke, to promote the revival of the Irish harp, by means of the musical bands established by the Temperance Societies. He stated that some young men in Drogheda had already succeeded in making a harp, which was considered a well-toned, excellent instrument, and that he expected they would have at least a dozen ready before their next festival…

Kerry Examiner, 21 Jan 1842

A contemporary report says the Society was founded on 15th January 1842, and that in that year “The Master” (i.e. Frazer) was paid a salary of £27. (Freeman’s Journal, Saturday 8th March 1902. I haven’t seen the 1840s originals it cites)

Burke seems most obsessed with getting loads of cheaply made harps. He had engaged a local carpenter, Francis Flood, to supervise the construction. He says that the aim is that they should be locally made, and cost between £2 and £3 each. Nancy Hurrell has studied a harp made in Drogheda at this time; it seems to be copied from Egan’s design of large wire-strung harp (see History Ireland, January/February 2013 p.35). It seems likely that Flood used Fraser’s harp as a model.

Mr. Frazer has this day got four additional pupils – he has now 15. We are determined to keep him…
— Letter of the 17th of April 1842

Kilkenny Journal, and Leinster Commercial and Literary Advertiser, Wednesday 27 April 1842, p3

By 1st November 1842, Fraser’s pupils were performing at Burke’s multi-Society festival:

…The venerable bards and minstrels occupied a platform at the head of the room … during the repast, the harpists played several old Irish airs with excellent effect. After the tea, The Rev. Mr. Burke addressed the assembly in a fervent and eloquent strain…
…This night twelve months we had not one in our society who could strike the harp; now we have in our Drogheda Irish Harp Society more harps and harpers than are to be found in Ireland altogether…

The Dublin Journal of Temperance, Science and Literature, vol 2 1843 p.40

In (I think) 1843, the German tourist Johann Kohl visited Father Burke in Drogheda and was treated to entertainments. He published his account in Kohl, Travels in Ireland (1844). His description tells us a lot about the kind of world that Burke was in. On page 320, he says

“…The harp was produced, and a blind young harper prepared to play some old Irish pieces. I was told, that he was one of the most distinguished harp players in the surrounding country; and in fact his music enraptured us all. The first piece he played was “Brian Boru’s March,” at the famous battle of Clontarf, on the bay of Dublin…

I suppose it is likely that this was Frazer, as master of the Society. There is a lot more info about the music, and about other famous harpers (Hempson and Byrne). Finally Kohl says that “It was in contemplation to give a concert the following week, at which seven harpers, mostly blind, were to play together. Unfortunately it was not in my power to be present at this assembly of bards.”

Fraser comes to the fore in the concert held in Drogheda on 19th February 1844. The newspaper carried a full advertisement including a programme, and introduced it with an interesting editorial:

We beg to direct the attention of our readers to an advertisement in another column, headed as above, and we are confident that the merits of such a body as the Irish harp Society, will receive that support which Irishmen of all classes, should afford to native genius and talent. Mr. Frazer, the head of this Society, is one of the members of the Belfast Harp Society, who has been residing here for the last two or three years, giving instructions to pupil desirous of acquiring a knowledge of this our national instrument, but we regret to state that the means of the Society are very limited, therefore this appeal has been made to the patriotism of our fellow-townsmen, and we are confident that it will be responded to, so as to enable the Society to go on with increased vigour, and to extend its usefulness. We have frequently witnessed the performances of Mr. Frazer on the Irish Harp, and the skill, judgement and taste, displayed by him, brought to our recollection the history of Irelands ancient bards.
We have been assured that there is nothing of a political or sectarian nature in this society, therefore we the more strenuously urge its claims upon the public.

Drogheda Conservative Journal, 17th February 1844 p3

In the very next column on the same page, is the formal concert announcement.

Will on MONDAY evening, the 19th Instant,
Under the Patronage of his Worship the Mayor, the Aldermen and Councillors of the Corporation,

Ladies of Drogheda, the Harp of Erin ought not to be neglected, more especially now, that the virtue of her sons is the subject of many national and soul-stirring melodies, for, what but the national instrument, should celebrate national honor. Gentlemen, men and patriots of Drogheda, give to the sacrifices and labours of the founders of the Society, due encouragement, patronage, and support, and ere long, the sound of the Harp will be heard in every town and village of Ireland, and many in hours of their social joy, will acknowledge a debt of gratitude to the taste, talent and genuine Irish spirit of your native town, for the revival of our national instrument, and the honour of its revival, shall live for ever with the people of Drogheda.

Mr. FRAZER and M’ENTEGERTH , will open the concert with the RISING OF THE LARK and the HARMONIOUS BLACKSMITH.
The following are among the pieces to be performed on that evening:-

Remember the glories of Brian the Brave … Mr. Fraser
Brian Boru’s March … Do.
Planxty Connor … Do.
The Minstrel Boy … Do.
The Lord of Mayo … Do.
Miss Forbe’s Farewell … Do.
Love’s Young Dream … MISS FLINN
The Fairy Boy … Do.
The Harp that once thro’ Tara’s Hall – The Irish Volunteers – Planxty Judge … McEntegerth
The Song of Sorrow – Sprig of Shilelah, and Meeting of the Waters … MR. FRAZER
Carolan’s Fairy Queen – Planxty O’Reilly – Rose Dillon – Carolan’s Concerto – Sovournian Deelish, and Planxty Maguire, with the Coolin – Molly Asthore, and several other Irish Airs.

Doors will open at Half-past Six o’Clock, and performance to commence at Half-past Seven precisely.
TICKETS of Admission, one Shilling each; but as it is an object of the Society to place the harp in the hands and within the circumstances, of the daughters of Erin, every Gentleman having a Ticket, may bring a lady with him.

Drogheda Conservative Journal, 17th February 1844 p3

The advert is one of the richest sources for mid-19th century Irish harp music. There are so many layers to unpick. The tune list is fascinating, and I have written about a lot of these tunes on my 19th century tune list post. The framing of the advert tells us a lot about the direction public opinion was going; the line about encouraging the women to play the harp is in notable contrast to how all but one of the performers is male. We are given the names of a number of performers on the old Irish wire-strung harp, students of Hugh Fraser, some of whom I have not found anywhere else. We could consider how the performers are grouped; many of these may only have been learning the harp for two years.

I wrote recently about Hugh O’Hagan; it is possible that he may have already studied at the Belfast school. I assume that this McEntegerth who opened the concert alongside Frazer, is the same McEntegart who performed above him on the bill in January 1842, about the time Fraser was starting to teach. Was he already a harper? Or was he a classical singer or musician? Master Dowdall was a young boy, aged about 15 or 16; he went on to be the Clerk of Drogheda Union, (Journal of the County Louth Archaeological Society vol 2 no 2, Sep 1909, p.207) and died in 1902, so he did not go on to be a professional or “artisan” harper like Hugh O’Hagan or indeed like his teacher Hugh Fraser, but he became a respectable middle class pillar of the community. I think this is important for thinking about the strange religious, nationalistic and temperance fervour surrounding Burke’s societies.

And what about Frazer’s role in all this? He was employed as teacher, he is described as “head of this society”, but how much sway would he have in keeping his pupils on the straight and narrow of the old tradition?

We also have a brief review published after the event. Mostly it repeats the information from the programme above, but there are a couple of snippets of opinion:

…The attendance was numerous and respectable, and the entire of the performance went off with eclat. …

…Mr. Frazer is a member of the Belfast Harp Society, and possesses rare musical talents, worthy of encouragement…

…In fine, the Harp Concert reflected much credit on Mr. Frazer, and on all who took a part in it, and we sincerely wish the Society every success.

Drogheda Conservative Journal, Saturday 24th February 1844 p.2

After Drogheda

Father Burke died in October 1844, and his Society did not last long without him. We can even wonder if it really was a Society, rather than being a whirl of activity organised and supported by one man. There doesn’t seem to have been another concert, and Fraser would have been out of a job again. Presumably he was back on the road. We have an anecdote of Fraser touring with two other harpers, from the nephew of Edward McBride (Fraser’s teacher):

…As the pupils he taught always visited my father’s house on their rounds through Ulster, and would stop several days at Mr. J. Conroy’s, Omagh, grandfather to Dr. Todd M.D. I remember three of them, namely:- Mr. Frazer, from Armagh, Mr Hannah, from Castledawson, and Mr. Byrne, from Monaghan…

Henry McBride, in The Herald, Saturday 29 Aug 1903

I think Henry was born in 1837-8, after his uncle Edward had died. Presumably his memories of these three harpers date from after Fraser’s time in Drogheda. But it isn’t very clear. The “from” information about Hannah and Byrne is also a bit unreliable, which throws doubt on whether we trust him that Fraser was from (county) Armagh.

I have not yet found any other information about what Fraser was doing after 1844, except for a snippet of information in a news clipping. It is at the end of an extended musing on the possibility of reviving national music, and commenting on Rev. Burke’s Society. I don’t know how reliable or accurate this information is.

…it ought to be known that the venerable Bard and true disciple of Carolan, Mr Hugh Frazer (to whom the Society owed such success during its brief existence) died last year in obscure poverty, leaving a widow and a young family totally unprovided for, and his harp, which should have graced the ancient hall of some wealthy noble, was allowed to be raffled by a few kind friends and neighbours for their benefit. It was, however, generously returned by the winner, and sent to Bray’s music shop, where, being merely Irish, without foreign g[ild]ings, it has failed to bring a price, and we believe still lies unnoticed. …

Drogheda Argus and Leinster Journal, Saturday 6th October 1866

Many thanks to Colin Crossey, great grandson of Henry McBride for sending me the news clipping from The Herald.

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.

11 thoughts on “Hugh Frazer”

  1. I found Frazer playing in a variety concert in Dublin in 1857:

    This Evening (SATURDAY), SEPTEMBER 5,
    Will take place
    When the following Artistes will appear:-
    Mrs. Limpus, Mrs. Cantwell, Mr. O’Rorke, Mr. Limpus, and Mr. Grattan Kelly;
    Also Master W. H. Levey, aged Nine years; and
    Miss Levey, aged Eleven years.
    To commence at Eight o’clock.
    Admission – 2d., 4d., 6d., and 1s.
    N.B. – The celebrated Scottish Vocalists Mr. Angus Fairburn
    and the Misses Bennett, from the Royal Polytechnic, London, will appear next week; also Mr. Hugh Frazer, the renowned Irish Harpist.

    Dublin Daily Express, Sat 5th September 1857 p1

  2. I missed the minute book extract for the previous year’s meeting and report, 8th August 1820, where “H. Frazer” aged 12, admitted 7th March 1820, is listed alongside six other boys. We have a mismatch in the date of his admission here. More about this minute in my post on Edward McBride.

  3. I have an advert from May 1838, from Derry, which shows Fraser playing background music for a pop-up shop:

    Positively for Two Days longer only,
    [woodcut of Royal Arms]
    M. J. ALTMAN,
    IN returning thanks for favours already received, most respectfully announces to the Nobility, Gentry, and Public of Londonderry, that this being the period at which he generally visits the Continent, his stay is limited to TWO DAYS LONGER only.
    Having received a valuable addition to his Stock, in several splendid Timepieces, Accordions, richly inlaid Cabinet Goods, &c. those who have already favoured him with a visit, will find another one well repaid by the inspection of NEW ARTICLES, many of which are truly tasteful and elegant.
    Mr. A. begs to call particular attention to some very splendid semi-toned Accordions which he has received, and which he will offer, together with his other stock of Fancy Articles, at Terms which cannot fail to obtain him the continued patronage of a discerning Public.
    Open from 10 in the Morning till 10 in the Evening.
    Mr. Frazer, the celebrated Irish Harper,
    And in the course of the Evening perform several of his most Popular Airs on the Harp.
    Londonderry Sentinel, Sat 26 May 1838, p3

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