Patrick McCloskey

Patrick McCloskey (or McClusky) was a blind Irish harper who died very young.

We have two main pieces of information about Patrick McCloskey. One consists of information from the minutes of the Irish harp Society in Belfast, of which excerpts were printed in Irish Harp Society Calcutta 1828 (Penn Libraries ML1015.C3I7). The other main piece of evidence is his gravestone, which is now lost, but which we have two descriptions of. This post will try to say something useful about Patrick McCloskey based on these sources.

Birth and early years

We instantly get stuck because our two sources don’t agree on his age and therefore his date of birth. The IHS minutes say he was aged 12 on 20th August 1821, and aged 15 on 29th June 1824, i.e. that he was born between August 1808 and June 1809. His gravestone suggests he was born between June 1806 and June 1807. One (or both) of our sources must be a year or two out. Personally, I tend to think that the school report ages are more likely to be correct than the gravestone age, because otherwise he would have been surprisingly young to enter the school, and so I am going to suggest he was born in 1808-9.

We are told by the IHS minutes that he was from Banbridge. We are also told that he was blind, though we don’t know when or how he became blind. And that’s about it at the moment.

Education

We know a fair bit about his education, because he was sent to Belfast; on the 8th April 1820 he admitted as a full-time boarding pupil at the harp school on Cromac Street, run by the newly re-formed Irish Harp Society. His teacher was the nearly-blind Irish harpist and tradition-bearer, Edward McBride (1793-c.1824).

If we believe the report ages, Patrick McCloskey was aged about 11 when he entered the school. There were three boys already pupils when Patrick joined, all much older than him (aged about 17 through to 22). There were two boarding pupils living at the Harp Sciety house, Thomas Hanna and blind Patrick Byrne, as well as a day pupil, Hamilton Graham, who lived somewhere in Belfast.

A month later, on 7th May 1820, another day pupil arrived, Hugh Fraser. He was perhaps one year older than Patrick McCloskey, about 12.

A year later, on 10th May 1821, a blind girl joined the school as a boarding pupil. Jane McArthur was aged about 17.

On 20th Aug 1821, the teacher Edward McBride presented his report to the Gentlemen of the Society. He reported on the number of tunes that each of the pupils had learned. Byrne and Hanna were top of the class, with 60 and 58 tunes. Patrick McCloskey and his classmates Fraser and Graham had each learned 40 tunes. The new girl Jane McArthur had only learned 9.

At this Aug 1821 meeting, the Gentlemen must have discussed how the pupils were doing; they agreed that the new girl Jane McArthur was doing OK and that she would be allowed to stay on. Presumably they had had a similar discussion about Patrick McCloskey at a previous meeting, back in the summer of 1820, but I don’t think we have the minutes for those earlier meetings.

Life at the School House

We can try to guess what life was like at the School House on Cromac Street while Patrick McCloskey was a pupil there. We don’t have actual descriptions, but we can read through the minutes and the accounts printed in the Irish Harp Society Calcutta 1828 to try and imagine what was going on. The Gentlemen of the Society ran the place and dealt with the money; they had wealthy international supporters who sent money. The harpers did not have anything to do with that I don’t think. I imagine there being two completely separate social “worlds”.

The teacher, Edward McBride, and the four boarding students lived at the House. The day pupils would walk in to the house; I assume they attended every day. I assume there may have been some kind of domestic servant, or housekeeper, though this is not mentioned. Everything was paid for by the Society, including McBride’s salary of £40 a year. There was food provided for the boarding pupils, and coal for the fire. The house was furnished.

There were three harps in the house which belonged to the Society, which had been made for the Society by the top Dublin harpmaker, John Egan. I think in general that the pupils did not have their own harps when they were pupils at the school – they would have used the three Society harps to practice on. It is not entirely clear to me what harps the Society owned at what point. The three harps in the house when McCloskey was a student may well have been the big 37-string wire-strung floor-standing Irish harps. This photo shows the author Robert Bruce Armstrong posing with Egan wire-strung Irish harp no.1933 in around 1900. The harp has an inscription saying that it was made for the Belfast Irish Harp Society, presumably in the early 1820s. Perhaps this is one of the school harps that McCloskey would have practiced on.

As far as I can tell, McBride worked full time as teacher, and the pupils studied full time, just like pupils at school or college today.

The plan for the school was that the pupils would study for two years, and then when they were competent as professional harpers, they would be given a harp and discharged, ready for their life as professional “artisan” traditional musicians. In practice I think that it often took longer than two years study to reach the required standard. There would be a formal examination of the pupils by the Gentlemen of the Society twice a year.

Further study, and discharge

At the end of 1821, Edward McBride seems to have resigned or been dismissed as teacher, and from the beginning of 1822 Valentine Rainie took over as teacher from Edward McBride.

Two-and-a-half years later, there was a meeting of the Gentlemen of the Society on 29th June 1824. The teacher, Rainie, reported that Jane McArthur had recently been discharged, and had been given a harp which cost the Society 9 guineas (£9 9s). He reported that there were then 5 pupils at the school. Hugh Fraser and Patrick McCloskey were still there. They had been joined by three younger boys. 12-year-old Alex Jack from Lambeg had joined the school in 11 March 1822; Martin Crenny from near Larchfield had joined on 1st November 1822, and there was also a boy called Arthur Morgan.

There must have been an inspection of the pupils by the Gentlemen of the Society before this meeting on 29th June 1824, because the Gentlemen made a decision:

Resolved – that Patrick McClosky be discharged on the 1st day of August, with a 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.

Irish Harp Society Calcutta 1828, p.42

We can see from the accounts for that year (Irish Harp Society Calcutta 1828 p.43) that the donation to cover 1/3 of the cost of Patrick McCloskey’s harp was paid to the Society by “Mr H. Bell” (Henry Bell Esq. of Lambeg who was one of the gentlemen “members” of the Society). I discussed on my post about Hugh Frazer what these harps were like; either a big wire-strung Irish harp made by John Egan in Dublin, or a Belfast-made copy.

So that was it; from 1st August 1824, Patrick McCloskey, aged 15, blind, was out in the world on his own, with nothing but his new harp (with its cover and carrying strap), his “certificate of good conduct and proficiency”, and his skills and knowledge of music that he had been taught by his masters Edward McBride and Valentine Rennie during his four years living and studying in the Harp Society House on Cromac Street.

Professional Performing Career

Two years later, at the meeting of the Society Gentlemen on 24th August 1826 (printed in the Irish Harp Society Calcutta 1828 p.42-4), after the list of the current pupils at the Society school, there is a list of “Pupils gaining their bread throughout the Kingdom; Harp being given to them by the Society”. There are six names on this list, and one of the names is “Patrick McClosky, blind”. I think we can understand this list showing that the Gentlemen of the Society were keeping track of the former pupils of the school that they had organised and paid for.

I don’t have any information at this stage about when and where Patrick McCloskey played his harp in order to earn a living. At this time, there were four main options. He could have got a job as the private harper of an aristocrat, though very few positions like that were available. He could have performed public concerts, touring from town to town. He could have played for private functions, such as dinners. Or he could have got a regular job playing every evening in a hotel. Most likely he did a combination of some of these things. Maybe more information will turn up.

Death

Patrick McCloskey died just a few of years after being discharged from the school. He is buried in Kilrush graveyard, in Lisburn. (Street map / aerial photograph).

We have two apparently independent descriptions of his gravestone. The first was written in the Ordnance Survey Memoirs in 1835-7. I have not seen the original manuscript; the Memoirs were not published until 1991:

Curious inscriptions on another headstone in the above place: “Erected by the Irish Harp Society, to the memory of their pupil Patrick McCloskey, in consideration of his good conduct and proficiency in music, died 7th June 1826, aged 19 years.”

The Ordnance Survey memoirs of Ireland vol. 8 (1832-8) Lisburn and South Antrim (Institute of Irish Studies, 1991)

There is what looks to me like a second independent account of this gravestone from 1895. It is possible that this account was copied from the original manuscripts of the OS Memoirs, though it seems to me far more likely that Gardiner had copied the inscription direct from the stone

Irish Harper – In Kilrush Graveyard, near Lisburn, in the parish of Blaris, is a tombstone with the following inscription:-
“Erected by the Irish Harp Society in memory of their pupil, Patrick M’Closkey, in consideration of his good conduct and proficiency in music. Died 7 June, 1826, aged 19 years.”
The writer would be glad to learn the origin of the Irish Harp Society and something of its history. JOSEPH GARDINER

Ulster Journal of Archaeology, Second Series, Vol. 1, No. 2, Jan 1895, p151

From 1974, members of Lisburn Historical Society started transcribing inscriptions from the burial grounds in Lisburn, and their transcriptions were published as a book, These Hallowed Grounds volume 1: A record of the memorials in Kilrush and Saint Patrick’s burying grounds, Lisburn (Lisburn Branch of the North of Ireland Family History Society, 2001).

In the introduction of the book, there is the OS Memoirs description of the burial ground including the part about McCloskey’s grave (p7). In the biography section there is a brief note about McCloskey, referencing the OS Memoirs, and summarising the history of the Irish Harp Society; the description concludes “This stone no longer exists” (p.161). A number of the gravestones in Kilrush are damaged, broken or missing, from “heavy handed attempts to tidy up the ground, together with vandalism” (p.6). I wonder if McCloskey’s gravestone is still there, smashed and buried somewhere on the site?

The age on the gravestone does not match the age in the minute books; worse, the gravestone says he died 11 weeks before the meeting in Belfast where he is listed as a professional harper. Is it possible that he was dead, but the news had not yet reached the Society? Or is the date of 7 June, 1826 simply wrong? Was there a mistake in the carved lettering, or was the same mistake made by both transcribers? Perhaps the lettering may have been damaged or indistinct, leading to the two different readings “in memory of” and “to the memory of”. Perhaps it said he died on 7th June 1828 aged 19. Unless further records show up we may never know.


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.

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