Roger Begley

Roger Begley was a blind traditional Irish harper from Belfast. He married a Dublin girl and they went to live in England.

I had not heard of Roger Begley until a few years ago. His name doesn’t appear in any of the books or articles about the Irish harp tradition. This post summarises what I have found from digging in the archives, to try and give us a picture of his life.

Traditionary information

I first came across Roger Begley in 2018, when I was in the National Museum of Ireland archive, and I found the information written down by William Savage, from the dictation of the harper and tradition-bearer George Jackson in about 1908. Jackson says:

Roddy Bagelley (knew this Roddy Bagelley

National Museum of Ireland, Dublin, Arts & Industry Division, archive File AI.80.019

Later, perhaps in 1911, Savage made a neater more expanded re-writing of Jackson’s information, and he writes:

Roddy Baggley – George knew him personally

National Museum of Ireland, Dublin, Arts & Industry Division, archive File AI.80.019

This is not very much to go on! George Jackson doesn’t say anything else about him, and so for a few years I would occasionally be thinking “I wonder who Roddy Baggley is?”

There are 11 harpers on this list, but only two of them get the tag that George “knew” them; Roddy Bagelly and Tom Hardy.

The other pieces of traditionary information I came across much more recently were in a series of letters written to the newspaper. The discussion was started by a person who signs themselves “M. C.”, and were a kind of vague musing about the possibility of organising an Irish musical revival in Belfast. In a reply to M.C., another correspondent wrote:

Blind boys learn very rapidly by ear, if they are at all intelligent. Mr. Begley (the harper), now in England, could play a set of quadrilles after hearing them three or four times; and I have heard that a pupil of the last harp school in Belfast is equally quick

Belfast News Letter, Monday 22 May 1871

Almost as an aside, M.C. says

There are some three or four players on the Irish harp yet in Belfast – Patrick Murney, in Mustard Street; a blind woman, in Academy Street; a player on the Shankhill Road – exclusive of Begley, now in England

Belfast News Letter 15 Jun 1871 p.3

I have tried to collate M.C.’s list with Jackson’s. We know Pat Murney, he was Jackson’s harp teacher. I think the blind woman in Academy Street is Sally Moore. I think the player on the Shankhill Road is Tom Hardy, who George Jackson “knew personally”. And then Begley, now in England.

This was enough to set me off trawling in the archives.

Birth and early years

As usual, we don’t have any information about Roger Begley’s birth and early years. All we have is what we can calculate from the later census and registry records. And as usual they don’t quite match. The various official records of his age (see below) suggest that he was born either 1832-3, or 1834, or 1835-6. So at this stage I wouldn’t like to say more than that he was born some time between 1832 and 1836.

The later records all agree that he was born in Belfast, and that he was blind; two of the records tells us this was caused by smallpox.


We don’t know when and where Roger Begley learned to play the harp. But we can make some guesses. We know that he became a professional or “artisan” blind Irish harper, and to me that implies that he probably had an intensive full-time apprenticeship training for a few years between the ages of about 12 and 20. We know this was the norm for previous generations of professional Irish harpers.

All the rest of this is speculation and guesswork and might be completely wrong.

The Irish Harp Society in Belfast had come to an end in 1839-40, when Begley was only aged less than 8 years, too young to have become a pupil there. Hugh Frazer was teaching the harp in Drogheda between 1842 and 1844. Begley would have been at most 12 years old, probably younger, and so I think it is unlikely that he would have gone to the Drogheda school, especially because that school doesn’t seem to have been a proper charitable boarding school like the earlier Belfast ones.

In the Tyrone Constitution for Friday 5th June 1846 p.3, there is a list of the newly admitted blind boarding pupils of the Ulster Society for Promoting the Education of the Deaf and Dumb and the Blind. One of the ten is “Roger Begley, Belfast, Antrim, 521”. This must be him (how many blind children called Roger Begley would there have been in Belfast at that time?)

Begley would have been between 10 and 14 years old in 1846. Blind pupils spent 3 years in the Society school; they would learn to read from books with raised printed lettering, and they would learn some kind of trade. Another blind pupil admitted in the same year was “Thomas Harding, Belfast, Antrim, 333”. Could this possibly be our Tom Hardy? I am much less sure about this.

Suppose Begley went to the Ulster Society school in 1846, aged between 10 and 14, and stayed for three years; he would have left in 1849 aged between 13 and 17. He would not have learned the harp there I don’t think.

We do know of one person who seems to have been teaching traditional Irish harp in Belfast in the 1840s to 1850s, and that is Patrick Murney. He had learned the harp under Valentine Rainey at the Belfast Irish Harp Society School; I don’t know when he was discharged but it must have been in the late 1830s. Dr. James MacDonnell may have acted as a mentor or patron to Murney; in 1839, MacDonnell referred to him as “my little harper” (Annals p.277). MacDonnell died in 1845; Murney was well established with his own premises. We are told in 1849 that “he plays in Little Donegal St, Belfast, in his own house.” (H.G. Farmer, ‘Some notes on the Irish Harp’, Music and Letters 24, 1943 p 106). In the 1852 Belfast street directory, Pat Murney is at 38 Little Donegall Street.

The information written down by William Savage tells us that George Jackson “was a fair player of the Harp. Anything he learned was from Pat Murney”. Jackson was born in 1833, so it is possible he learned the harp from Murney in the late 40s or early 50s at Murney’s house in Little Donegall Street. To stretch the speculation even further, George Jackson says he knew both Roger Begley and Tom Hardy. Were the three boys all classmates at a kind of private harp school run by Murney in Little Donegall Street, Belfast, between 1849 and 1852? Three years would seem a normal amount of full-time study for a teenage boy to learn to play the Irish harp to a professional standard, judging by the progress of students in the Society school a couple of decades earlier. But this is all pure speculation.

There’s also the question of where Begley got his harp from, and what it was like. We know from his stringing list that Patrick Murney expected 36 wire strings on a harp, and we know from his portraits that Murney’s harp was the same general shape and size as the big floor-standing Egan wire-strung Irish harps. But where would Begley get a harp from? Perhaps he could find a second-hand harp, because some of the students from the Irish Harp Society in Belfast earlier in the 19th century were dead or retired by the early 1850s. Or perhaps there was someone in Belfast who could make a harp copying the design of Egan’s big wire-strung Irish harps? I don’t know at the moment, but it is something to think about and maybe do some more work on.

Professional career

In 1853, aged somewhere between 17 and 21, Roger Begley placed an advertisement in the newspapers:

those Ladies and Gentlemen who kindly favour him with their patronage that he has Removed to No. 3, COLLEGE COURT, where any orders left for him shall be punctually attended to. R.B. will be happy to attend parties with his Irish Harp for One Shilling per Hour.

Belfast News Letter, Wednesday 9th March 1853, p3

What kind of parties was Roger Begley playing the harp for? We get a glimpse of him in action in Belfast five years later:

The second annual soiree, in connexion with this flourishing association, came off with great eclat at the society’s room, Donegall-street, on Friday evening last. The hall, which is a commodious one, was beautifully decorated with evergreens, and the banners of England and France hung conspicuous through the apartment – mottoes, such as the “Irish Harp and Shamrock” with the words “Erin go-Bragh” were neatly executed with laurel-leaves on the walls; and the services of the justly popular Irish harper, Mr. R. Begley, were secured for the occasion, who sang sweetly and and with great feeling, some of the most popular airs. His rendering of “The Harp that once through Tara’s Halls” was exquisite, and drew forth applause. After tea, which was served up in good style by the ladies…

The Ulsterman, 1 Mar 1858 p3

There is a lot of useful information for us here. Mutual Improvement Societies “were democratic and usually provided instruction by working men themselves … Political discussion was also a major feature.” (Radcliffe, ‘Mutual Improvement Societies’, IJLE 2006). I hope Begley had increased his prices and was being paid more than one shilling per hour for this event!

Here, he is here clearly fulfilling a popular or even political role, being a kind living counterpart of the “Erin go bragh” leaf-picture on the wall. The men would expect a traditional harper to sing popular songs such as Tom Moore’s “The Harp that Once”, just like they would expect the ladies to stay in the kitchens preparing the tea. This is Begley doing his best to make his living with the traditional Irish harp.

There are loads of notices and reviews of similar semi-private meetings, dinners and entertainments in newspapers of this time; they will often mention the music provided by “an Irish harper” without giving a name.

Punched in the face

ASSAULT – A respectable-looking man, named Robert Roddy, was charged by a blind fiddler, named Roger Begley. It appeared that the prisoner had been drinking in Mrs Skene’s, in North-street, where he met defendant, and, like a coward, struck him in the face, for which he was, this morning, ordered a month, at hard labour.

Northern Whig, Wednesday 4th August 1858 p3

Some of the details may be slightly wrong; other reports in two different newspapers on the same day (Belfast Morning News and The Ulsterman) say that the assailant was called William Roddy, and explains that Roddy got 14 days for assaulting the “blind man” (not fiddler) Begley, and another 14 for assaulting Constable McCoubrey who came to take him away. We don’t know for sure that it was our man who got hit; but as I said above, how many blind men of that name were there in Belfast? Did our harper Begley play fiddle as well, or did the N.W. journalist get mixed up with what instrument Begley played?

Going away

At some point Begley went away. At the moment I don’t have any information on where or why. I think it was fairly normal at this stage for the harpers to go south, to Dublin or Waterford or similar, to get work in hotels or to do concert tours. Hopefully in time some references to Begley will turn up for this period between 1858 and 1864.

Return to Belfast

At the beginning of 1864, Begley returned to Belfast, and paid for an advert in the newspapers to announce this. The newspaper editorial comments, “Doubtless, many will avail themselves of Mr. Begley’s ability as a performer on this favourite instrument.”

returned to Belfast, wishes to inform the Public that he is now prepared to give Tuitions on the IRISH or PEDAL HARP, and also to attend Evening Parties, Concerts, &c.
Address at Mr. EDGAR’S, 65 John Street.

Belfast News Letter, Monday 8th Feb 1864 p2

40 years earlier, Valentine Rennie had come back to Belfast after a spell working in Dublin, and there was a similar advert offering his services “to attend Ladies and Gentlemen for tuition on the Irish and Pedal Harp” (Belfast Newsletter, 8th Jan 1822). I discussed this back in 2017.

I wonder if Begley might have owned a pedal harp as well as his (presumably wire-strung) Irish harp; I wonder if he had spent some of his time away from Belfast between 1858 and 1864 attending a classical music teacher to learn classical pedal harp playing technique and style; or if he was just playing a pedal harp using the traditional Irish harp playing techniques he had learned perhaps from Murney; or if he didn’t actually play pedal harp at all but was just being opportunistic and offering “tuitions” to amateur middle class patrons on whatever instrument they had at home. Or if the advert was drafted by a patron or an agent who was over-estimating Roger Begley’s capabilities.

Anyway presumably Begley spent 1864 working in Belfast, playing at private parties and at dinners and other events. Maybe he did private lessons for middle-class amateurs, visiting them at their homes? Just because he advertised doesn’t mean he had any takers… and teaching amateurs at home is very different from the full time focussed apprenticeship-style training that professional Irish harpers had been getting in the first half of the 19th century.

He would always be looking for work, making contacts and asking people if they wanted a traditional Irish harper to play for their event. And then at the beginning of 1865 he got his big break.

In the lime light

Will make his First Appearance

Belfast Morning News, Monday 30 January 1865, p2
Interior of the Victoria Hall, from The Graphic, 13 October 1883, p361 (reference via David Byers)

At the beginning of 1865, Roger Begley’s career as a professional (“artisan”) Irish harper took a slightly unexpected turn, when he was hired by Dr Corry to perform in the Diorama, which was playing to sell-out audiences every night at the Victoria Hall in Belfast.

The Diorama was a fascinating entertainment spectacle of the 1860s. The general idea of a diorama display, exhibiting a sequence of huge paintings in an illuminated theatrical show, was a “thing” in 1860s Belfast; there were a number of such shows. But the National Diorama of Ireland seems to have taken it to a whole new level. The brainchild of Dr. Corry, working in conjunction with the artist J. H. Connop, the National Diorama opened in Belfast in December 1864. “Connop and his assistants had produced fifty views of Ireland on twenty- by twelve- foot canvases, which were installed on large spools allowing the easy transition from image to image. The mechanism was concealed from the audience by a large painted proscenium. The images were varied, and further intensified by the use of gas lighting and other special effects.” (Richard Kirkland, ‘Dr Corry’s National Diorama of Ireland and Irish Performance in Nineteenth Century Urban Popular Culture’, in New Hibernia Review vol.19 no. 4, Winter 2015). A lecturer would give a kind of commentary or description with information about each scene; performers would come onto the stage in front of the different scenes and perform songs and sketches which, with the dramatic lighting effects, would bring each scene to life.

We get more information in this longer advert, which was reprinted almost every day for the next month or two:

THIS NATIONAL EXHIBITION, NOTWITHSTANDING its immense success, must shortly close, as arrangements have been made to open at the Rotundo, Dublin, in February, after which it will proceed to America and the Colonies, and can never again be exhibited in this country.
However, before leaving Belfast, the Proprietors, in order to render the Diorama still more attractive, and worthy of public patronage, have engaged the services of
The Celebrated Irish Harper
Who will make his first appearance THIS EVENING
Assisted by the Lady Artistes of the Company, attired in the Costume of the period.
The Instrumental Band, under the direction of Mr. Mulholland, will be considerably augmented, and several novelties introduced into the Vocal Programme, including Two Songs by Mr. GEORGE WASHINGTON.
Performance to commence each evening at EIGHT o’clock
FASHIONABLE MORNING PERFORMANCE Every FRIDAY, at Half-past TWO o’clock. Doors open half-an-hour previous to each Exhibition.
Reserved Seats (numbered), 3s; Reserved Seats (un-numbered), 2s; Body of Hall, 1s; Gallery, 6d; Schools and Children under Twelve, Half-price.
Reserved Seat Tickets may be procured at Mrs HART’S, Castle Place.

Northern Whig, Monday 30th January 1865, p2

A newspaper review of the first evening’s performance gives us a good sense of what the production was like, as well as describing Begley’s role in it:

THE DIORAMA – SPLENDID MUSICAL ADDITION TO THE ENTERTAINMENT. – The marked success which has attended this admirable exhibition of paintings must be highly gratifying to all lovers of National Art. Ireland’s magnificent landscape and sea coast scenery has never before been so powerfully placed on canvas. The sketch of Carrick-a-Rede, with its wild cliffs and the flying bridge stretching from the rock to the mainland, seems so perfectly true to nature that with a little stretch of imagination the spectator is almost led to believe he hears the hoarse voice of the sea dashing against the foot of the rocky cliffs. Many of those who visit the Victoria Hall and gaze on the bold promontories of Antrim, as depicted by Mr. Connop, will thus be led to visit the real scenes which line the entire sea board from the Black Head to the Causeway. The musical department, instrumental and vocal, form an exceedingly attractive feature of the exhibition, and in spite of all the difficulties incidental to oral illustration of pictorial subjects, Mr. Hunter’s lectures on the exhibition, and the various additions which he has made to his lectures, gives especial interest to the whole affair. It is no easy matter to overcome the difficulties incidental to giving correct oral illustrations of pictorial subjects, but in this case Mr. Hunter has succeeded admirably, and his success is fully appreciated by all who have heard him.
Last evening, a splendid augmentation of the entertainment took place in the bringing before the audience the ancient bard of Ireland, Carolan, admirably personated by Mr. Begley, the distinguished harper, who accompanied Mrs. Ling as “Erin,” attired in green and gold with a tiara of diamonds, surmounted by the Irish harp. The lady sung the appropriate melody of the “Harp that once through Tara’s Halls, the soul of music shed.” She was in excellent voice, and elicited enthusiastic applause. Indeed, as a picture, apart from the music which Mr. Begley, with his long, flowing silver grey hair, and bardic costume, and of Mrs. Ling, in her beautiful robe, presented, justly merited the rapturous approbation which was elicited. Miss O’Toole, magnificently dressed in a national robe of pink and gold, and a head-dress of brilliants, sung the beautiful melody of “Oh Erin, my Country”, and the entire entertainment concluded amid loud and protracted applause. We perceive by advertisement that the Diorama has but a very short time to remain in Belfast, opening, as already announced, on February 7, at the Rotunda, Dublin.

Banner of Ulster, Tuesday 31st January 1865, p3

I wonder which of the 50 painted scenes was used as the backdrop for Roger Begley to play the harp to accompany Mrs Ling singing; perhaps Begley and the ladies came and went to provide atmosphere to a number of the scenes, in amongst the dramatic lighting effects and the other music-hall style performers.

Kirkland (citing The Belfast News Letter for 26 December 1864) lists some of the scenes: Belfast harbour, Belfast Lough, Shane’s Castle, Carrickfergus, Carrick-a-Rede, Dunluce, the Giant’s Causeway, various views of Derry and Enniskillen, Galway, Limerick, the Rock of Cashel, Rostrevor, Carlingford Lough, Killowen chapel, Drogheda, the Hill of Tara, Sackville Street, Dublin Custom House, Kingstown, the Dargle, Glendalough, the Devil’s Glen, the Vale of Avoca, Waterford, Queenstown, Cork, Blarney Castle, the Lakes of Killarney, the Gap of Dunloe, Howth lighthouse, and the grand finale, the shipwreck of the Queen Victoria complete with an artificial snowstorm on the stage.

The Diorama was advertised pretty much every day in the newspapers. The adverts often anxiously announce that the show is about to close and move on, that you have only a few nights left to see it before it goes away for ever to America… In fact the Diorama closed its run in Belfast on 23 Feb 1865, and then everything was loaded into wagons – the rolls of paintings, the mechanism, the stage props and all – and taken to Dublin; just a few days later (I think on 27th Feb) the show opened in the Rotunda in Dublin. Begley and his harp went to Dublin with the show; he is mentioned in a long descriptive review of the first night:

…the services rendered by the harper, Mr. Begley, were highly appreciated. He played two or three good pieces, including “Oh Blame not the Bard”

The Evening Freeman Tuesday 28 Feb 1865 p1

Blame Not the Bard is the title of the Tom Moore song, which is set to the traditional old Irish harp air called Kitty Tyrrell or Éamonn a cnuic. The description implies that Begley is not singing but just playing the tune.

The Diorama show was a success in Dublin, and then it returned North (with Begley and the Ladies), opening in Belfast on Easter Monday 17th April 1865 and running every day that week. Then the following month, the Diorama is advertised as running in the Tontine Rooms in Armagh (on upper English Street, opposite the Charlemont Arms Hotel) for four days only, from 15th May. Again, Begley is named alongside the music-hall style performers (Ulster Gazette, Saturday 13th May 1865). Begley was playing in the Diorama in Dundalk Town Hall from 22nd May (Newry Examiner, 20th May 1865 p2; Dundalk Democrat 27th May 1865 p1) until 31st May (“Positively the last night!”, Newry Examiner 31 May 1865 p1). And then Begley went with the Diorama back to Dublin, where the show was put on at the Antient Concert Rooms on Pearse Street starting 5th June (Dublin Evening Mail, Mon 5 Jun 1865). There are adverts for the Diorama running in Dublin and mentioning Begley through to 27th June.

From 5th July the adverts are smaller, headed “will shortly close” and don’t mention any of the performers by name; the advert for Saturday July 15th is headed “Last Night” (Irish Times 15 July 1865). The Diorama paintings and equipment were advertised to be sold off in Belfast on 2nd September (Belfast Morning News 1 Sep 1865 p6). I have not researched the next phase yet but Dr Corry seems to have employed a different artist, Thomas Dudgeon, to paint a new series of paintings for an new season of the Diorama which opened on 13th November 1865. Corry published a book with engravings based on the paintings in 1866. You can see a digitised copy online at the British Library. My header image shows part of the title page of this book. There is no mention of Begley in any of this.

As an aside, George Jackson’s information says “Sally Moore Academy St”, which William Savage later expands out: “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”. Apparently Corry’s show was in America over the winter of 1870-71. And as another aside, the famous piper Patsy Touhey played in a similar show in America in 1885-6. And much earlier, before Begley had announced his return to Belfast and before Corry had started his Diorama, Tom Hardy had played the Irish harp in a “panorama” back in April 1863.

But enough about the Diorama and other similar shows. Back to Roger Begley.


At some point in the 1860s, Roger had married a Dublin girl called Hannah Jackson. I have looked for their wedding certificate on both the Irish and English record websites but have not found it yet. Catholic marriages in Ireland were not recorded until 1864 and so it is possible they were married in Ireland before then.

At some point they moved to England. On 1st March 1868, their daughter Catharine was born. Their address was 3 Caledonia Street, Horton, Bradford. You can read a little about the history of Caledonia Street here. Their name is spelt “Bagley” on Catharine’s birth record. Roger’s profession is given as “Travelling Musician”.

We can find them three years later in the 1871 census of England, living in Westgate, Dewsbury. In the census return, “Rodge” Begley is age 35, his occupation is given as “harper”, his birth place is Belfast, and it says “Blind from smallpox”. His wife Hannah Begley is said there to be 34 years old, born in Dublin, and her occupation is given as “hawker”. Their daughter Kate Begley is said to be age 3, born in Bradford.

Dewsbury is a town in the West Riding, about 10 miles south-east of Bradford (map). You can see a very interesting old photograph of “Daisy Hill, looking towards Westgate” on the Kirklees Cousins website which will give you a pretty good idea of the surroundings of where Roger and Hannah were living. I am guessing they may have had a room or an apartment above the shops on Westgate.

Another aside, since I am always looking for harpers listening to bells: Dewsbury Minster had a ring of 8 bells, though in 1875 they were taken down and replaced with a new ring of 8 (tenor 13–1–6) which are still in use now. The Dewsbury band was competent enough to ring a peal of Kent major in 1874 on the old bells. Roger and Hannah lived less than half a mile away so would have heard them ringing, especially on Christmas eve.

The combination of Hannah being a hawker (a street seller) and Roger being a harper is interesting, and reminds us of Richard Sheale over three hundred years earlier, a harper in Tamworth in the English midlands, whose wife was a pedlar (see Andrew Taylor, The Songs and Travels of a Tudor Minstrel, York Medieval Press 2012). Did Roger and Hannah work together, Roger busking with the harp to draw a crowd, and Hannah selling knick-nacks? Would they bring little Kate with them?

They didn’t stay in Westgate very long, and within a few years they had moved to a house in Bright Street, just outside the town centre in the area known as Springfield (map). Roger and Hannah had a second daughter, named Hannah after her mother. She was born in Bright Street on 7th November 1873 But she died eight days later; her death notice in the Batley Reporter and Guardian, Saturday 22 Nov 1873, p8, reads “On the 15th Inst, Hannah, infant daughter of Mr Roger Begley, Bright Street”.

I am not finding an old photo of Bright Street. The street is still there, but the little terraced houses were all demolished in the 1950s “slum clearance”. You can see what the area was like in this 1920s photo of the corner shop on the next street. I am sure Hannah (and perhaps Roger) would have gone round the corner from their house to this shop to buy their messages.

Performing in England

I have been looking for mentions of Roger Begley playing the harp in England. there is a reference to a “blind harpist and accompanist” playing alongside classical and popular entertainers at a concert for the Victoria Cricket Club in Birstall which is 3 1/2 miles from where Begley lived – this could be him, but it could equally be a travelling Welsh or English blind harpist. (Batley Reporter and Guardian, 14 December 1872). Also this was two years before the tram line opened from Dewsbury to Birstall.

In 1877, a benefit concert was organised for Roger Begley. I don’t really know what this means – was he running out of money, that his friends needed to organise something the help him out? I don’t really understand this.

A GRAND MISCELLANEOUS CONCERT will be given for the benefit of Roger Begley, the blind Harpist and Vocalist, in the PARISH CHURCH SCHOOL, Dewsbury, on FRIDAY EVENING, Feb 23rd, by a talented company of Artistes, amongst whom will appear Miss McDonagh ; Mr W.T. Greener, of Huddersfield : Mr Monk, R. A. M. ; Mr. Wilcock ; the Dewsbury Amateur Glee Society : Mr. J. Peel, the Harpist ; and others.
Doors open at 7.30 ; to commence at 8 o’clock.
Tickets: Front Seats, 2s ; Second Seats, 1s ; Back Seats, 6d
For particulars see small bills and programmes

Batley Reporter and Guardian, Saturday 17th February 1877 p5

The Dewsbury Chronical and West Riding Advertiser also ran an advert and editorial comment on Saturday 17th Feb, and then the following week it ran a review:

CONCERT AT THE PARISH CHURCH SCHOOL – A miscellaneous concert was given last night, in the Parish Church School, for the benefit of Mr. Roger Begley, the blind harpist and vocalist. The performers included Miss McDonagh, soprano vocalist; Mr W. T. Greener, comic singer and characterist, of Huddersfield; Mr. A Monk, R.A.M., solo cornet; Mr John Wilcock, tenor vocalist; Mr. J. Peel, Mr. Begley, harpest, &c., assisted by the members of the Dewsbury Amateur Glee Society. The room was completely filled, a large number of persons being obliged to stand. The concert was in every respect a great success, and the artistes were loudly applauded, although no encores were allowed, on account of the exceeding length of the programme.

Dewsbury Chronicle and West Riding Advertiser, Saturday 24th February 1877, p5

The Batley Reporter and Guardian and also the Dewsbury Reporter both carried a briefer review the following week, (3 March 1877) stating that “Miss McDonagh was unable to appear until late in the evening, but when she came forward and sang, the talented young lady met with a very gratifying reception”.

Roger Begley put a notice of thanks into the newspaper:

MR ROGER BEGLEY, the Blind Harpist and Vocalist, and the Committee who undertook to get up the Concert given for his Benefit at the Church School, on Friday Evening, February 23rd, hereby return their most sincere THANKS to all those performers who generously gave their services on that occasion, to the Vicar for the use of the schoolroom, and also to the public who attended, and all who in any way contributed to make the Concert a success.

Dewsbury Chronicle and West Riding Advertiser, Saturday 3rd March 1877 p4

Later that year we find Begley associated with the local Temperance band, performing for their meetings. The article goes on at length about the fundraising for the band, explaining that they had bought fifes but they had no drums yet, and that the proceeds from this entertainment would hopefully pay for the purchase of drums:

DEWSBURY INDEPENDENT TEMPERANCE FIFE AND DRUM BAND – The above band gave their first annual tea and entertainment last Saturday in Mr. S. Fothergill’s school, Boothroyd-lane, when Mr. G. F. Brook, of Huddersfield, took the chair. After tea, Mr. R. Begley, the blind harpist, gave a selection on the harp, and this was followed by the song, “Close the shutters, Willie’s dead,” and the singer was honoured with an encore but the chairman would not allow it on account of the length of the programme. Mr. A. Farrar then gave “The moon behind the hill” in good style…

Dewsbury Chronicle and West Riding Advertiser, Saturday 6th October 1877 p5

And again four months later:

TEA AND ENTERTAINMENT AT BOOTHROYD – The Dewsbury Independent Temperance Drum and Fife Band held a tea and entertainment on Saturday last, in the Boothroyd Congregational Mission Room, which was kindly lent for the occasion. Nearly 300 friends sat down to tea, and the entertainment was presided over by Mr. G. F. Brooke. The audience first sang “Hold the fort,” and after a few preliminary remarks from the chairman, the band commenced the entertainment by playing the “Daughter of the regiment” quickstep. This was followed by a recitation by Miss C. Dyson, and another by Miss C. Hudson. Mr. R. Begley, the blind harpist, sang “The heart that loves me,” with harp accompaniments, for the rendering of which he received a round of applause…

Dewsbury Chronicle and West Riding Advertiser, Saturday 9th February 1878 p5

The article continues listing the other performers.

Later life

Roger’s wife Hannah died some time between 1873 and 1881, though I have not found her death record in England or in Ireland. In the 1881 census, we see Roger and his daughter Kate living together in Bright Street, Dewsbury. Their name is given as Bagley. Roger is stated to be a widower, blind, aged 47, born in Belfast in 1834. His occupation is given as “Harpist (Musician)”. Kate is said to be 13, born in Bradford in 1868. Her occupation is given as “scholar” (i.e. she was at school).

In the 1891 census, Roger Begley is listed in Dewsbury as a “harpist”, but I haven’t seen this full listing (the 1891 census returns for Dewsbury are not yet on freecen and I don’t want to pay for a big monthly subscription to a private genealogical company just to read one single record!) I don’t think Kate was living with him by then. Kate would have been 23; if she married I don’t know what her name would be. I haven’t found a death or marriage record for her.

Death and Legacy

Roger Begley’s death record says that he died in Dewsbury workhouse on 2nd September 1896, age 63. His “rank or profession” is given as “street musician / of Dewsbury”.

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.

9 thoughts on “Roger Begley”

  1. Rev. James O’Laverty (1828 – 1906) talked about the Belfast Irish harp Society students in a lecture in 1902: “With several of them I was acquainted. One of these named Dornan, a native of Coleraine, I induced Dr Corry to employ for his panorama of Ireland. Some of you may remember him playing in the Crystal Palace on the Queen’s Island, a little after that island ceased to be named Dargan’s Island, after the great Irish contractor who formed it”. (Belfast Morning News, Saturday 15 Nov 1902, p6

    I’m not sure how Dornan might fit into the timeline of the Diorama given above. At some point I’ll do a post on what I have about Hugh Dornan (not very much at present).

  2. I found a series of news clippings to help fill the gap between Begley’s return to Belfast in February 1864, and him starting at the Diorama in January 1865.

    George Washington was putting on a concert series, and on 7th March 1864 Begley was recruited to join the concert series:

    MR GEORGE WASHINGTON BEGS TO announce that the THIRD CONCERT of the series will be given on MONDAY evening, 7th March, in the above hall, when the following distinguished Artistes will appear:-
    Mrs. LING
    Miss O’TOOLE
    Mr. J. S. LEE
    Mr. J. CLARKE
    Will preside at the Pianoforte
    In addition to the above, Mr. Washington has secured the services of
    The Eminent Irish Harpist.
    Mr. WASHINGTON will sing some Old Irish Songs, with Harp Accompaniments.
    Admission – Front Seats, 1s; Second Seats, 6d; Gallery, 3d.
    Doors open at Half-past Seven. Concert to commence at Eight o’clock.

    Belfast News Letter, Saturday 5th March 1864 p2

    We can see that these are the same musicians hired by Corry for his Diorama. It is interesting to see them working together independently before being hired by Corry.

    The fourth concert in the series was advertised to be held on Monday 14th March 1864, with the same line-up. A review said:

    Last evening Mr. Geo. Washington gave the fourth in his series of concerts in the Victoria Hall. The attendance was very large… the programme was varied and select, and was executed in a manner that reflected great credit on all parties concerned

    Belfast News Letter, Tuesday 15th March 1864 p2

  3. Four years after Begley was punched in the face at Mrs Skene’s, North Street, we have a transcript of a court hearing at the Belfast Quarter Sessions when “Mrs Charlotte Skene applied for the transfer of the license from her late husband, for the ‘Stag’s Head’, 72, North Street” (this is a typo, the Stag’s Head was at 2 North Street, opposite the Assembly Rooms). The application should have been approved as a mater of course, except that the application was opposed by John Macnaughtan, minister of the Rosemary Street Presbyterian Church; his lawyer was Mr. Seeds, who is quizzing Charlotte Skene (the “witness”) about the business at her pub. She explains:

    Witness, cross-examined by Mr. SEEDS – My house is very much frequented by soldiers, and has been for fifty years. It is not more frequented on Sunday night than on any other night. I have given up the “Free-and-Easy” after the death of my husband. He kept a harper playing in the house, but neither political nor profane songs were sung there.
    The CHAIRMAN – What is a free-and-easy? Is a harp a free-and-easy? (Laughter.)
    Mr. M’LEAN – That is what they call it.
    Witness – We had a man that played the harp. One gentleman sang and he called upon another, and that is what they call a free-and-easy. I have given up that part of the business since my husband’s death.
    To Mr. GRIMSHAW – I never was fined in my life.
    To the CHAIRMAN – We never had a free-and-easy on a Sunday.
    To Mr. M’LEAN – The house is one of those sanctioned by the military authorities for the soldiers to go to. We keep English and Scotch ales.

    Belfast News-Letter, Mon 7 Apr 1862 p4, also Belfast Weekly News, Sat 12 Apr 1862 p7.

    So do we then conclude that Begley was the harper who was playing at the Free and Easy at the Stag’s Head, from 1858 or before, through to 1861 or 1862?

    I already put this on my post about Tom Hardy, who played at a Free and Easy on the Shankill.

    1. There is a drawing of the Stag’s Head, and a load of useful information about Charlotte Skene and her ancestors who ran the place earlier in the 19th century, in Tony Merrick, ed. R.S.J. Clarke, Gravestone Inscriptions Belfast Volume 2: Friar’s Bush and Milltown Graveyards (Ulster Historical Foundation, 1984) p.86-8.

  4. I found a very nice review of the Diorama performance in Armagh in May 1869. This review does not name Roger Begley but it does single him out as “the most attractive feature in the entertainment” which is quite nice. The review also gives a vivid impression of how the show was structured and presented.

    Ireland, its scenery, music, and antiquities were never before so faithfully represented in their grandeur and beauty, than in the diorama and its accompaniments it was our privilege to see and hear for the last few evenings in the large room of the Tontine, which was occupied at the morning and evening displays by crowded and highly respectable audiences. Never before had the people of this ancient city so pleasant and profitable a tour of our native country, whose scenery, like herself, has been so criminally neglected. We have seen many exhibitions, but we can safely say that we have not witnessed any thing so charming, so attractive, in fact so fascinating, as the elegantly finished pictures of this ruin or that rock, this mountain or that valley, this castle or that tower, so peculiarly characteristic of our ancient land. The entertainment is eminently Irish in every feature, and to us infinitely more preferable than the mere artistic twaddle so commonly palmed off on the public, inviting their attention to scenes of which they know little and care less, from those beside them in every county they may choose to visit.
    The entertainment opens with a selection of Irish airs, performed in a style which would reflect credit on any orchestra, and sustains the fame of that “child of song,” Miss O’Toole, who, in addition to acting as conductress, sings each evening some of those native melodies which delight both ear and heart, and whose fullest beauty is realized by this accomplished young Armagh lady. In the vocal department we have also another Armagh lady, Miss M‘Mahon, whose voice is well adapted to render the songs of our country. The music all through is native, and we like it the better for its suitability to the paintings, and the skill developed in Mr. Mulholland’s arrangement.
    But now the curtain is withdrawn, and Mr. W. Lyttle, the eloquent and intelligent guide, with his white wand invites us to a view of the enterprising town of Belfast, whence he transports us to Shane’s Castle, Carrick-a-Rede, the Giant’s Causeway, Dunluce Castle, Londonderry, the famous old town of Enniskillen, Galway, Limerick, Cashel, and various other attractive spots, halting at the renowned hill of Tara, and introducing numerous places of lesser note in the journey, giving an interesting description as we accompany him. The second part finds us in Dublin, and after a look at the prominent places in Sackville Street, we are shown the Custom-house by moonlight, a beautiful scene. Thence we pass through Kingstown, are shown the Dargle, Glendalough ruins, the Devil’s Glen, the Vale of Avoca, and various other classic spots, finding ourselves presently at the lakes of Killarney – a cheap trip and a very interesting one. The entertainment concludes with a dioramic view of the Bank of Ireland, Dublin, as it was illuminated at the marriage of the Prince of Wales. This picture might challenge competition with any ever exhibited, and of itself is worth the whole cost of the entertainment. The tableaux altogether are the highest testimonial that could be given to Mr. Connop, the painter. Perhaps, however, the most attractive feature in the entertainment is the performance of the blind harper, a venerable type of our national character, the sweet strains of whose harp accompanying his own pure voice give a uniqueness to the exhibition. The comic songs and dances (in character) of the inimitable Miss Katie and Master Harry King, excel any thing of that kind we ever saw, and were warmly applauded. We cannot take leave of the company without expressing thanks to Dr. Corry, to whose taste and enterprise we owe such a magnificent treat – so national, so really attractive, whether we regard it as pleasing the eye, or in its higher aspect as educating and improving the public taste, all the while being the first and most successful effort to do justice to Irish scenery.
    Armagh Guardian, Fri 19 May 1865 p3

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