Edward McBride

Edward McBride was a traditional Irish harper in the early 19th century. He played for the King in Dublin, and he taught the harp in Belfast. This post gathers information about him.

Traditionary information

Colin Crossey, a great great grandson of Edward McBride’s brother Henry, sent me a news clipping that his great grandfather (also Henry) had written about Uncle Edward.

DEAR SIR,- As I have been reading a very interesting account of the Irish Bard, Carolin, in your issue of 30th May last, and of other harpers who succeeded him, I can remember my late father telling some similar reminiscences, as his oldest brother, Edward M’Bride, who was born in 1793, was one of the pupils of the Belfast school you mention, which was started in 1807. Lord Belmoore, of Castlecoole, County Fermanagh, was one of the patrons of it, and as Edward M’Bride was the son of one of his tenants and lived in Crevenagh, near Omagh, which Lord Belmore owned then, he was very kind to him. He nearly lost his eyesight at nine years old by smallpox, and at ten years old went to learn the violin with a local musician called Bernard M’Ananley, who was celebrated as a violin player in his day. After learning the violin, he was sent at the age of 14 years to Belfast, his father accompanying him to learn to play the harp. He learned to play it with great proficiency, and afterwards went to play at Castlecoole, on several occasions, and also at Mountjoy West, where the guests of Lord Mountjoy stayed at times. When he would come to visit his father, he would play at the residences of several of the gentry around Omagh, but he always went back to Belfast, as he taught a school there. After the society at Belfast had broken up he was very popular there. 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. Fraser, from Armagh, Mr. Hannah, from Castledawson, and Mr. Byrne, from Monaghan. The late Dr. Fleming, of Omagh, was very much attached to Mr. Byrne, as he stayed in his house while in Omagh, and held a performance, got up principally by Dr. Fleming, in the White Hart Hotel, at which father and I attended. Uncle Edward M’Bride afterwards went to Dublin, to perform on the harp before King George IV, in 1821, and died three years afterwards there, deeply regretted.- I remain yours faithfully,
HENRY M’BRIDE, Mullaghmore.
Omagh, 26th Aug., 1903

Ulster Herald, Sat 29 Aug 1903

This is a fascinating account. I think Henry (junior), who wrote the letter, was born in 1837-8, after his uncle Edward had died, and so I assume that the information about Edward was passed down to him by his father, Henry (senior), who was Edward’s brother.

We can try to collate the information given by nephew Henry, with the information from other sources, to try to tell a story of Edward McBride’s life.

Birth and early years

Henry says that his uncle Edward was born in 1793. But the Harp Society record suggests he was born in 1790. I don’t know how we can tell which is right. I would be tempted to trust the Harp Society minute book because it was written at the time, whereas Henry was writing 90 years later (unless Henry had documents that are now lost.) Henry’s own age is not consistent between the 1901 census (58) and 1911 census (74) so I don’t know if we should put too much trust in his statement about his late uncle’s age! But it is possible that there is a scribal error in the IHS minute book.

Henry says that Edward’s family lived in Creevenagh townland, on the south-east side of Omagh town. You get a lovely view across Creevenagh from the main road into Omagh from the Armagh direction.

Henry tells us that uncle Edward “nearly” lost his eyesight at the age of nine (i.e. 1802-3), and then spent four years learning the violin, and then was sent to Belfast aged 14 (i.e. 1807-8).

I haven’t found Bernard McAnanley, but if we could track him down that would add another layer of information about Edward McBride’s education.

Education 1808-1810

In November 1808, Edward McBride entered the Irish Harp Society school in Belfast as a full-time boarding pupil. We have very little direct information about McBride’s progress, but we can pull together hints and snippets from newspaper reports and from the Society minute-book for these years.

The Society had started in the summer of 1808. An article in Freemans Journal 16 June 1808 announces that the famous harper and tradition-bearer Arthur O’Neill had been engaged as the teacher, and that they were now actively recruiting for pupils. The first pupil, William Gorman, entered in June 1808; the second, Patrick McGrath, in September, and Edward McBride was the third pupil to enter.

Edward McBride’s entry is recorded retrospectively in the minutes of a meeting on Tuesday 2nd January 1810 (it says 1809 but I think that is a mistake) where the complete list of current pupils was entered. I discussed the complete list earlier; for our man the entry reads:

Edwd McBride from Omagh C of Tyrone aged 19. Entered Nov. 1808 recommended by Mr. Galbraith of Armagh

minute book of the Irish Harp Society (Linen Hall Library, Beath Collection, box 5.1 p39)

We can also see that his recommendation did not come from his father’s landlord Lord Belmore, but from Mr Galbraith in Armagh. I don’t know how Galbraith may have known him. Perhaps it was a connection with his earlier fiddle teacher.

These three boys were joined later by others, three in Jan-Feb 1809 (one of whom was Val Rainey), and two more in Sept-Oct 1809, making 8 resident boys in total. There was also Bridget O’Reilly (already a competent harper) who entered in Sep 1809, and three day pupils.

Edward McBride obviously did well, because he was singled out in the minutes just over one year after joining:

Agreed that in consequence of Ed. McBrides services since his entrance into the Society he shall be presented with a new suit of Cloaths, and that Mr Radcliffe be appointed to furnish him, charging them to the Society.

meeting on Saturday 16th December 1809, minute book of the Irish Harp Society (Linen Hall Library, Beath Collection, box 5.1 p.33)

I don’t know what these “services” might have been. My understanding was that the Harp Society House ran like a very small boarding school, with Arthur O’Neill as the master and with the students living in and studying all day, while the Gentlemen of the Committee ran things in a very hands-off way. But there was obviously something else going on, because of this reference to Edward McBride’s “services”.

In Dec 1809, “Miss O’Reilly, and two of the youths, strung their harps, and played some trios, duets &c” at a Harp Society dinner to entertain the Gentlemen committee and subscribers. I think the two boys mentioned here must be Valentine Rennie and Edward McBride, as we will see in a bit.

We have a newspaper report from February 1810 about the progress of the students. I’m guessing Bridget O’Reilly might be the first pupil mentioned and Val Rainey and Edward McBride are likely the other two:

…The Society have already so far succeeded as to have nearly completed the musical education of one pupil; two others are so far advanced, as to be able to play with some degree of excellence in public…

Freemans Journal, 12 Feb 1810 p3

Bridget and Edward certainly appeared to be up to something together in February 1810:

The Committee proceeded to an investigation of certain charges made by Arthur O Neill our Harper against Bridget O Reilly and Edward McBride two of our Scholars for having an Improper Connection. They were unanimously of opinion that such charges have been altogether groundless, false and unfounded

meeting on Thursday 15th Feb 1810, minute book of the Irish Harp Society (Linen Hall Library, Beath Collection, box 5.1)

The two most advanced pupils are mentioned again in the newspaper in May. Here the count of pupils is 8, so perhaps Bridget is not being included in this:

On Tuesday evening last, the Society for the Preservation of our National Instrument and Melodies held their half yearly general meeting at Belfast. It appears from the statement then laid before them, that there are at present eight blind pupils in the House, all of whom are clothed, fed, lodged and taught by the Society; and also that from the improvement displayed by them on the harp, there is every prospect of the full attainment of the object aimed at by this institution. Two of the pupils have made such a progress in the space of about two years, that they intend shortly to claim the harps which are to be presented by the Society to to every one of them who appear qualified to play it without further instruction…

Freemans Journal, 14 May 1810 p3

We finally get these two top pupils named, in a curious resolution, not to discharge them and present them with harps and certificates, but to send them out for three months:

Resolved – That the sub: Com for the superinten<dence> of the musical department be fully authorized and empower’d to provide for and despatch Ed Mc Bride & Val Rainey to the country for for three months in such a a manner as shall [??st] contribute to the b[enefit] & [????] of the institution.

Committee meeting Tuesday 15th May 1810, minute book of the Irish Harp Society (Linen Hall Library, Beath Collection, box 5.1 p53)

Anyway the next week the report came back.

The subcommittee appointed last meeting for the purpose of fitting out McBryde & Rainey for their intended journey, not being prepared to report satisfa[??] on the subject in consequence of a deficiency in Harps.
it is as resolved –
That the said sub comittee be fully authorized to have three Harps made soon as possible for the use of the Society

Committee meeting Tuesday 22nd May 1810, , minute book of the Irish Harp Society (Linen Hall Library, Beath Collection, box 5.1 p54)

Over a month later they were still discussing whether McBride and Rainy should both be allowed to take a harp away:

In consequence of a report from the sub comm. appointed to <send out> Val. Rainey & Edwd M’Bryde. concerning the propriety of allowing th [e]ach of them a Harp during the time they should remain absent
Resolved – that the Comm. be authorised to use their discretion with regard to that subject

Committee meeting Wednesday 4 July 1810, minute book of the Irish Harp Society (Linen Hall Library, Beath Collection, box 5.1 p57)

This discussion by the Society gentlemen about allowing the boys to take harps away highlights a lot of interesting points. I have said before how the students did not have their own harps; they would use Society harps for their study, and the rules provided for them to be presented with a harp and a certificate on their discharge. But it doesn’t look like Rennie and McBride were being discharged, and presented with their own harps. Perhaps they were kind of on probation. Perhaps as the first students to complete their studies the committee were unsure how to proceed. Perhaps some of the committee thought they should travel together with only one harp between them.

Edward MacBride’s harp

Arthur O’Neill, who was Edward McBride’s teacher

Actually we have a bit of a problem here because we really have no idea what kind of a harp Edward McBride would have played on. We can talk in general terms though.

All of the traditional Irish harpers at this time, their teachers and their students, were playing on the traditional old Irish wire-strung harp, floor-standing, with between 30 and 36 brass wire strings.

The teacher of the Irish Harp Society, Arthur O’Neill, played a floor-standing wire-strung Irish harp with 36 wire strings, as you can see in his portrait; we have surviving harps that were played in the 1790s by other harpers of Arthur O’Neill’s generation.

Patrick Byrne, who was Edward McBride’s pupil

And we know what kinds of harps the next generation after Edward McBride would play – we have photos of his student Patrick Byrne with his harp, a floor-standing harp with 37 wire strings, and we have surviving examples of this kind of harp that were played by other harpers from the 1820s on. But there is a gap in the evidence for Edward McBride’s generation.

We know that the Irish harp Society tried to purchase harps for use in the Harp Society house. In June 1808 at only the second meeting I think, they had decided to approach two Belfast instrument makers, White and McClenaghan, to order harps. By December they still hadn’t got any, but they were at the point of purchasing, and they resolved that “the choice of the Harp to be purchased is to be made by Mr O’Neill” – a sensible resolution, since Arthur O’Neill would know which harp would be most suitable for his boy students to learn on. In September 1809 White sent two harps in to the Society house, and the Society decided to buy them.

Anyway it seems clear that there were not a lot of harps in the Society House, perhaps only three or four in total including Arthur O’Neill’s own old harp. The pupils would have had to share the harps owned by the Society, and this might explain the problems about letting McBride and Rennie borrow a Society harp when they were sent out in the summer of 1810.

Anyway this is a completely open research question – what were the harps made in early 19th century Belfast like? What shape were they? Does one survive but we haven’t realised what it is?

Did Edward McBride get his own harp from the Harp Society?

There is one other unexpected piece of information to add in to the mix. A snippet of traditionary information about Valentine Rennie from the harper and tradition-bearer Patrick Byrne, says

Rainie’s harp was made by James Mc Bride, a wheelwright, near Omagh, so it is not an ancient harp. It is the one that Mr. Byrne is to get for me. It was the harp Rainy play’d upon before George the 4th

James McBride made the harp at Omagh. His son was a teacher at Belfast….

John Bell’s notebook, c.1849, cited in H.G. Farmer, ‘Some notes on the Irish harp’, Music & Letters XXIV April 1943

This seems pretty clear, that Edward McBride’s father, James, a wheelwright, had made a harp for Valentine Rennie before 1821.

I am not finding other references to James McBride making harps; but we do have the mention from nephew Henry about “his father accompanying him” to Belfast in 1808. I never understood this – we know Edward was a boarding pupil not a day pupil at the School. Did the father James come to inspect harps? Did he go back to Omagh and make a few?

Unfortunately John Bell doesn’t seem to have ever got hold of this harp, or at least it doesn’t appear later in his collections, so we don’t know what it might have been like.

Did James also make a harp for his son Edward?

Sent out by the Society, 1810-1811

Edward McBride and Valentine Rennie seem to have toured and performed together during the summer of 1810, but we have very little information about where and when. A correspondent from Newtownlimavady sent a romantic poem in to the newspaper:

Impromptu, on hearing Rainey and M’Bride, the two Lads lately sent out by the Belfast Harp Society, play.
Sweet harp of Erin! once again
is heard thy sadly-pleasing strain;
Again, thy chords to rapture strung,
Warble thy native hills among;

Belfast Commercial Chronicle, Monday 1st October 1810 p4

So were McBride and Rennie only out on tour for three months in the summer of 1810? Did they return to Belfast to rejoin their classmates at the Harp Society House? or were they out on their own?

The next reference I have found is from the summer of 1811, when the cash-strapped Society once again organised a benefit concert. “Two of the pupils, who are to appear before the public to-morrow evening, have made such a progress, that they are now enabled to gratify the admirers of our antient melodies by some native strains, in a style highly creditable to the young performers, and thus procure the means of a comfortable subsistence.” (Belfast News Letter 18 June 1811 p2). I’m assuming that these two might be McBride and Rennie.

The Irish Harp Society seems to have dribbled to a halt over the course of 1812, desperately short of cash and being unable to even pay the harp teacher Arthur O’Neill his salary. (Belfast Commercial Chronicle 7 & 25 Nov 1812). There were no pupils in the Society house by November 1812; they had all been sent to the country to make a living for themselves (Belfast News Letter 22 June 1813).

On Tour 1812-1819

Edward MacBride, however had moved on. He and Rennie continued to tour together, and perhaps also separately, performing professionally. We have only a couple of snippets of information, and so we have to imagine all the work they were doing that we don’t currently have any record of.

They could have been playing for aristocrats in their big houses. Nephew Henry says that Edward McBride “went to play at Castlecoole, on several occasions, and also at Mountjoy West, where the guests of Lord Mountjoy stayed at times. When he would come to visit his father, he would play at the residences of several of the gentry around Omagh”

Castle Coole. Photo ©2022 Lucius Winslow CC BY-SA

Castle Coole is a mansion house just outside Enniskillen; it was the seat of Earl Belmore who Henry mentions was the McBride’s landowner and who was also a founder member of the Irish Harp Society. “The Cottage” at Old Mountjoy was a slightly eccentric country house on a large wooded demense just North of Omagh, which belonged to Viscount Mountjoy. These would have been plum jobs for young Edward McBride to take his harp into the big house and play for the aristocrats.

We have information about a couple of different concert appearances where the pair performed together.

In the summer of 1813, Edward McBride and Valentine Rennie were in Limerick. Presumably they were playing many concerts in many different towns and cities that summer, but this is the only notice I have found so far.

The inhabitants of this city and its vicinity are respectfully informed that a number of exquisite Irish Airs will be performed on the IRISH HARP, at the Assembly Rooms, Charlotte’s-Quay, by Messrs. M’BRIDE and REANY, on Monday 5th July.
The revival of our national music on this delightful instrument is become an object of warm interest in the North of Ireland, and in the Metropolis; nor is this predeliction for the Ancient Harmonies of ERIN unmerited. In remote periods, the Irish were unrivaled in the tenderness of their plaintive airs and in the sweet vivacity of their more rapid melodies. The choicest of these melodies have been transmitted to us by our ancestors; and the BELFAST Society has at once been instrumental in reviving the national taste of Irish Music, and is enabling a number of young men to procure their livelihood by amusing the Public with a delightful performance of the strains that have pleased the world through a long series of ages. – M’BRIDE and REANY, come forth under the approbation of that respectable society as appears by their Certificates, to solicit the generous inhabitants of this city for patronage – They feel an humble hope that they will be found competent to gratify the Public with an amusement at once national and pleasing.
Performance commences at half past Seven O’Clock,
Admittance, [2]s. 6d. – Children, half price.
Tickets to be had at the several Newspaper Offices in this city.

Limerick Gazette, Tuesday 29 June 1813 p3

Two-and-a-half years later they were making their Dublin debut, as part of a much bigger concert.

On Friday, February 2, at One o’Clock
Will be performed
of Sacred and Vocal and Instrumental Music,
Under the Direction of
To liquidate the vast expenditure incurred in the repairs of,
and improving the avenues leading to the Chapel.
OVERTURE . . . . Dr. Cogan.
Recitative and Song, Mr. Spray, from the Messiah, “Comfort ye my People,” and “Every valley.” } Handel.
Chorus, Messiah and the Glory of the Lord. Handel.
Solo Violin – Mr. Fallon (in which he will introduce “O Salutaris,” with accompaniments, by Mr. Fallon, for the occasion, } Rode.
Song, Mr. Weyman. “For behold darkness shall cover the Earth,” &c.
Recitative, Mr. Jager, “Behold a Virgin,” Air, “O thou that T[e]llest,” } Handel.
Quartetto, “Benedictus,” Messrs. Spray, Smith, Jager, and Weymann, } Mozart.
Song, Mr. Smith, “Total Eclipse,” Handel.
Chorus, “Lift up your Heads,” Handel.
Concerto, Grand Piano Forte; Miss Fallon, (Pupil of Mr. Fallon) } Dussek.
Song, Mr. Jager, “Return, O God of Hosts,” Handel
Quartetto; “When the ear heard him, it blessed him;”Messrs. Spray, Smith, Jager, and Weyman } Handel.
Song; Mr. Weyman, “The Trumpet shall sound;” accompanied by Mr. H. Willman } Handel.
Recitative and Song; Mr. Spray, “Deeper and Deeper Still;” and Air, “Waft her Angels,” }
Chorus; “From the Mount of Olives,”
Grand Symphony . . . Finale
Between the Parts
by Messrs. RENNIE and M’BRIDE
From the Belfast Irish Harp Society, being their first appearance in Dublin.
Leader of the Band, Mr. FALON
Violins – Messrs. Barrett, Miller, Glover, Gayne, Nelson, Hall, &c.
Violencellos – Messrs. Boden and Glover, sen.
Double Basses – Messrs Grey and Smith.
Tenors – Messrs. Kelly and Saunders.
Flutes – Messrs. B. Cook and Kavanagh.
Horns – Messrs. Mulligan and Burgess.
Trumpet – Mr. H. Willman.
Double Drums – Mr. Mulligan.
Several Gentlemen Amateurs have kindly volunteered to perform on the occasion.
Tickets of admission to be had at Mr. Coyne’s, 16, Parliament-street; Mr. Fitzpatrick, 4, Capel-street; at the Bar of the Commercial Buildings; at the principal Music Shops, and at the Lodge in the Chapel Yard.
Red Tickets, admitting to the Pews through the New Passage, 5s.
Red Tickets, admitting to the Aisle, through the iron gate, 3s. 4d.

Freeman’s Journal, 2 Feb 1816, p1. See also Dublin Evening Post, Tuesday 30 Jan 1816 p2 for variant readings especially “Blue Tickets admitting to the Pews…”

We also have a review of the event:

We were exceedingly well pleased to perceive that there was a very full and respectable attendance at the Concert at Clarendon-street Chapel, yesterday. Indeed the attractions in the way of performance, leaving all motives of duty or religion out of view, were in themselves sufficient to ensure a crowded auditory. Mr. Fallon was the leader of the band – Dr. Cogan presided at the piano-forte – Messrs Spray, Jager, Weyman and Smith, lent all the aid of their extraordinary vocal powers. – Miss Fallon (a pupil of the Leader) gave us the best specimens of her skill (and no doubt they were admirable) at the piano – and two Irish harpers, who reminded one of “the days of other years,” co-operated on the national instrument, it being their first public appearance in this quarter of the island. When those were the performers, and the best compositions of Handel the music it is little surprising that every expectation of those who instituted the concert should be realized.

Freemans Journal, 3 Feb 1816 p4

This is a very interesting concert for lots of reasons. It is very interesting to see our two harpers in this context with lots of Handel vocal music. At first I thought our two lads were also playing Handel, but this was because of typesetting errors in the Dublin Evening Post advert. I assume the lads were playing their usual Irish tunes. And it is also significant that they were not part of the programme proper – they were only to play “between the parts” (i.e. in the interval, the usual place for the harpers in the 19th century)

In November 1817 we find the two of them working in a tavern, in the Temple Bar area of Dublin:

Messrs. Rainey and M’Bride, who have obtained Certificates from the Belfast Institution, established for the revival of
Continue to perform a Selection of of the most popular and admired Airs on the
At the Shamrock Tavern, Fownes’s-street,
corner of Cope-street.
THOMAS LEE, (Late of the Theatre Royal, the Proprietor,) in submitting a continuance of the above Amusement, feels highly gratified that his Endeavours in this respect have obtained the most general approval from those respectable Characters who honor the SHAMROCK TAVERN by their resort. Arrangements have been made for accommodating the accumulation of Visitors, and the same satisfaction which the Public have heretofore so liberally acknowledged, shall serve as a stimulus for future exertions.
*⁎* Select Dinner Parties can be accommodated in the Upper Rooms with the Performance of the Minstrels until Eight o’clock, at which hour they commence each Evening in the Box Room.
☞ Fresh Soups, &c. every day, with London and Dublin Newspapers.

Freemans Journal, Tuesday 18 Nov 1817 p2

Its very curious that they stuck together, whether doing concert tours or playing every evening in the tavern.

However this partnership came to an end at the end of 1819.

The Irish Harp Society, 1819-1821

The Irish Harp Society was basically defunct between 1813 and 1818. In 1818 a huge amount of money arrived in Belfast, sent by a group of gentlemen in India, specifically to be used to fund the Society. And so the Gentlemen in Belfast started to organise again. Arthur O’Neill, the master, was dead; the pupils were long-scattered, and so the Gentlemen had to start again pretty much from scratch. They held their inaugural meeting in April 1819, and they placed in the newspapers in October:

For the Irish Harp Society, at Belfast:
(Founded on the liberal subscriptions of a number of Friends of the Ancient Music of Ireland, in India)
HE must bear a good character, and be competent to the TUITION of a number of PUPILS. – It is necessary that he be conversant with the Ancient Melodies of this Country, and the Compositions of CONNOLLAN, CAROLAN, &c.
An adequate Annual Salary will be given; and a convenient Dwelling-House, with School-Rooms, provided.
Applications in person, or by post, from Harpers in the different Provinces of Ireland, to be made to EDWARD BUNTING, Esq. now settled in Dublin (Leeson-street, No. 18); and to the Secretary of the Irish Harp Society, at Belfast…

Belfast Newsletter, 8 Oct 1819 p3

We don’t seem to have any information about who applied; but we do know that Edward McBride got the job. He was in position beginning 1st January 1820, on a salary of £40 a year, (Aiken McLellan, ‘The Irish Harp Society’, Ulster Folklife, 21, 1975 p19) and he was ready to receive his first pupils.

NOTICE is given, that a TEACHER of the HARP is ready to enter on the TUITION of SIX PUPILS.
Candidates are immediately to give their Names to the SECRETARY, No.23, POTTINGER’S-ENTRY; and to Attend on MONDAY, 21st February next, at the hour of TEN, at the Society’s House, No. 21 CROMAC-STREET, when Mr. BUNTING has kindly proposed to Assist in the Selection – Blindness will be a recommendation, but is not indispensable.
The Pupils will be taught Gratis: they are to find themselves in Board and Lodging.
Letters Post-paid will be attended to only
JOHN WARD, Secretary

Belfast News Letter, 11 Jan 1820, p3

I have very little information about Edward McBride’s tenure as Master of the Irish Harp Society School in Belfast. We don’t have the minute-book for the Society at this stage, unfortunately; all we have are excerpts from the minutes printed in pamphlet form. or reprinted by newspapers. There are two sets of minutes for the period when Edward McBride was master, one for August 1820 and one for August 1821.

The August 1820 minutes were published in the Calcutta Journal vol 2 no 75 p188 (you can read them online so I won’t transcribe them all here). There is also a “private letter” printed there which tells us what was going on:

…we took a neat dwelling-house … we have a careful Harper, who is unremitting in his tuition duties. He has already Seven young Minstrels under his charge…

Calcutta Journal vol 2 no 75 p188

The minutes for the meeting of 8th August 1820 list the names of the seven pupils:

Admitted Feb. 21, 1820, Pat Burns, aged 21 years, blind, from Kings Court, Co. Meath
Admitted March 7, . . . H. Frazer, . . . . . . 12 . . . Ballymacarrett
Admitted April 8, . . . . Pat. McCloskey . . 12 . . . Banbridge
Admitted Feb 21, . . . . Thos. Hanna, . . . 17 . . . Belfast
Admitted Feb 21, . . . . H. Dornan, . . . . 29, . . . Belfast
Admitted ” ” . . . . . Ham. Gillespie, . . . 17, . . . Ditto.
Admitted ” ” . . . . . John McCotter, . . 26, . . . Ditto

Calcutta Journal vol 2 no 75 p188

We see that five of these boys are listed as being admitted on 21st Feb 1820, which is the date in the advert above for walk-up interviews. The minutes also explain that Byrne, McCloskey and Hannah had been taken into the Society House lodgings to live with McBride from 26th May – so presumably for the first three months they were all day pupils supporting themselves in town, whereas after that the three were provided with full board and lodging by the Society.

There is a resolution about the Master (Edward McBride) and another about the running of the house, which give us a sense of how the place operated:

That the Master shall be subject to a Fine of Ten Shillings at any time that he shall take, or suffer to be taken, out of the Society’s House any of the Harps, save by permission in writing of one to the Trustees for the subscribers in India or Two Members.
That the doors of the House shall be locked at 8 o’clock in the evening, from the 25th of September to 25th March, in every year, and and from the 25th March to the 25th of September, at 9 o’clock.

Calcutta Journal vol 2 no 75 p188

If we assume that rules are brought in to deal with problems, then it sounds like there were problems with the boys coming and going at late hours, or that the day pupils were wanting to borrow Society harps to take back to their lodgings in town.

A year later we get another snapshot of how things were going. At the meeting on 20th August 1821, McBride presented his report:

EDWARD MCBRIDE, Teacher, reports that the present number of Pupils, Boarded and Lodged at the Society’s Expense, is Four, viz.
1820, Feb 21 – Patrick Byrnn. (blind) Meath, 23, … 60
——————–Thomas Hanna, Antrim, . . . . . 18, … 58
—–, April 8 – Patrick McClusky, (blind), Banbridge, … 12, … 40
1821 May 10 – Jane McArthur, (blind), Ballycastle, … 17, … 9
1820, Feb. 21 – Hamilton Graham, Belfast, 18, … 40
——-, May 7 – Heugh Frazer, Ballymacarret, … 13, … 40
Number of Tunes,, Irish, Scotch and Welch, at present taught in the House . . . . . 60

Irish Harp Society Calcutta 1828 (Penn Libraries ML1015.C3I7) p.27

We see changes over the previous year. A new girl had joined the three boarding boys. Two of the older day pupils have disappeared, John McCotter and H. Dornan – I think he must be the same Hugh Dornan who was Edward McBride’s classmate back in 1810. Why did they drop out? There is a story here that needs investigated. The other notable change is that Hamilton Gillespie’s name has changed to Hamilton Graham. I’m not sure how to explain this. The ages fluctuate a bit by a year or two as well.

Anyway I think this all gives us some sense of Edward McBride’s life as a harp teacher. He was living in the Harp Society House, along with his boarding pupils. The day pupils would come in every day for their lessons. After 18 months tuition McBride had taught the best of them, Patrick Byrne, 60 tunes. I am interested in the appearance of “Irish, Scotch and Welch” tunes. Did Arthur O’Neill teach the boys Scottish and Welsh tunes back in 1809-1812, or is this an innovation that Edward McBride brought to the scene?

Playing for the King

The high-point of Edward McBride’s career came on 23rd August 1821, when he was part of a band of four harpers who played for King George IV at the Grand Corporation Banquet at the Mansion House, Dawson Street, Dublin. An eyewitness describes the event:

August 23rd – The City Dinner, extremely splendid, and what is more wonderful, good and well regulated and well served. About 400 dined. The room built for the occasion in less than six weeks, and for less than 5000l., represented the interior circular court of a Moorish palace open to the sky; the battlements were a gallery filled with ladies, music, and a company of halberdiers, in Spanish dresses of light blue silk as a guard of honour to the King. It was lighted by a vast circle of lamps, hung by invisible wires, which had a wonderfully fine and curious effect. Foster pleasantly and forcefully called it Saturn’s ring. The whole was gay, graceful, and grand, and went off with à souhait, except the music, which was bad – poor and scattered. The finest incident was that after the loud cheers of the company on drinking the King’s health had subsided, the distant cheering of the of the people from the surrounding streets burst in (from the invisible windows of the ceiling), and gave an air of reality to the whole pageant.

John Wilson Croker (ed. L.J. Jennings), The Croker Papers vol 1 (1884) p205

Before we get offended on behalf of our harpers, I think there was a lot of classical music at this event as well as the harpers.

As usual our information is fragmentary and sometimes anonymous or obscure. The other three harpers playing alongside Edward McBride were his old classmates Valentine Rennie, James McMonaghal, and John McLoughlin. Rennie was living in Dublin at the time, and appeared “in the character and appropriate costume of an ancient Bard of Erin” (Belfast News Letter 26 Sep 1837). We also have a reference to “…the Irish harpers, two of whom were sent by the Lord of Shane’s Castle, dressed in the ancient costume of the O’Neills…” (Hubert Burke, Ireland Sixty Years Ago, London 1885 p.20) – were these McMonaghal and McLoughlin? And presumably McBride was sent by the Irish Harp Society, and presumably he may also have been dressed in a robe and a hat.

This is the event where Rennie is said to have played on the harp made by Edward McBride’s father. See also Nancy Hurrell, The Egan Irish Harps (2019) p.154-7 for more abut the harps played at this event.

We have a printed programme for the harpers performance – well, we don’t actually have it, but Robert Bruce Armstrong published a facsimile of it in 1904:

Robert Bruce Armstrong, The Irish and Highland Harps, 1904, plate between p.52-3

This is a fascinating document, and it includes a substantial list of tunes played by the four harpers. I discuss this more on my Tune Lists post.

I think this is a very valuable insight into the kind of repertory that Edward McBride played. There are 34 tunes titles in this list – remember McBride had 60 tunes in his list for teaching at the school! But the school list included Scottish and Welsh tunes, whereas the royal programme is all Irish, with the exception of their first tune, the National Anthem. The next few are kind of popular national airs – Patrick’s Day, Erin go Brath, and (the sprig of) Shilleligh. Towards the bottom we get the march Garryowen. But the other 29 are all big traditional harp airs, which the 18th century harpers had played. It is a nice reminder that Edward McBride had got his music directly from Arthur O’Neill.

Leaving the Irish Harp Society

This is a thing that I really don’t understand. I have seen no hints as to what happened, but at the beginning of 1823 we see this:

THE COMMITTEE of MANAGEMENT for the IRISH HARP SOCIETY, at Belfast, beg leave to inform the Members of the Society at large, that they have supplied the place of their former Teacher, by the appointment of Mr. VAL RAINEY, as a person highly qualified for the situation.

Belfast Newsletter, 8 Jan 1822 p3

What happened to Edward McBride? Did he resign at the end of 1822, after two years in the job? Or was he pushed out?

Either way it was his old class-mate and travelling companion Rennie who got the job; but that’s for another story.

Playing every evening in a bar

Edward McBride seems to have gone to Dublin. That summer we find him starting a regular job:

RESPECTFULLY informs his Friends and the Public, that, at the request of several Patrons of his House, he has engaged Mr. BRIDE, late master of the Belfast Irish Harp Society, celebrated Irish Harper, who will perform every Evening, Sunday excepted, at the Moira Tavern, Lower Abbey-street, from Eight o’Clock until Twelve – Commences on this day, the 10th inst.

Saunders’s News Letter, Monday 10th June 1822 p3

So we see Edward McBride playing four hours every evening, six days a week. The Moira Tavern was at 2-3 Lower Abbey Street, just along from the Ship Tavern at no.5. The entire block was destroyed by British artillery fire during Easter 1916.

I don’t know how long the job lasted; a month later Crosbie was advertising that he had just hired “a celebrated Welch harper” to play every evening (Saunders’s News Letter, Monday 8th July 1822).


The only information we have so far about Edward McBride’s death is what his nephew Henry tells us, that he was in Dublin in 1821 and “died three years afterwards there, deeply regretted”. So we can provisionally say that he died in Dublin in 1824, but I have not yet found any obituary or death notice or anything. He would have been in his early to mid 30s.


Edward McBride was an important tradition-bearer, teaching the next generation of harpers after the death of Arthur O’Neil.

I also think he had an important role in the development of the design of the old Irish wire-strung harp, both by being involved with the Irish Harp Society in the years when John Egan designed his new model of big floor-standing 37-wire-string Irish harp, and also because of the tantalising hints that his father made harps. This is a complicated story and I have deliberately avoided it in this blog post because I wanted to focus on MacBride and not be distracted by John Egan, Edward Bunting, and the other Gentlemen. But it is clear to me that McBride would have been in a position of influence to make sure that the harps that his students played – Patrick Byrne most visibly – conformed to traditional norms, and so helped to keep the old Irish harp tradition going for another generation.

If only he had not died so young!

My header photo shows shows the restored cart shed at Camp Hill Cottage, Lower Castletown, near Omagh, which is now part of the Ulster American Folk Park.

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.

16 thoughts on “Edward McBride”

  1. Simon, an incredible article where you have pulled so many things together. I have never seen the programme before for the concert in front of King George the fourth. So that is a delight, to see my great great granduncle’s name in print. And to see the airs they played. Also I did not know my great great great grandfather made harps! James McBride, and I would love to know to any of them survive. There is a harp in the front drawing room at Castlecoole. I took note of it on one visit, it looks classical, but who knows, if they had an Irish harp still in their possession? It would be worth finding out. Can you send this article to the archivist at Castle Coole as I am sure the present Lord Belmore would like to see it. Really great work. Thank you sincerely for this. Colin

    1. Thank you Colin. I think the trouble with finding a harp by James would be recognising it if we saw it… there are harps in Museums that may date from about that time, but if they are not labelled or signed by the maker we have no way of knowing when or where they were made. But we can keep looking.

  2. Hello Simon.

    This is wonderful work. You’ve dug up so much interesting stuff! I love this bit from the Society’s letter inviting applicants for study with Edward McBride. “Blindness will be a recommendation but is not indispensible.” Hah!

  3. A month after Rennie and McBride’s Dublin concert in early 1816, we find two harpers being invited to play at a rather high class ball in Dublin Castle:

    On Thursday evening, her Grace the Duchess of Dorset’s Ball at the Castle, was attended by a great Assemblage of rank and fashion. The fine band of the Stafford Regiment played in the Great Hall, where it had an excellent effect.
    The Company assembled at an early hour, and dancing commenced at ten o’clock. The Ball was led off by the Honourable Colonel Cavendish and Lady Elinor Howard, and followed by twenty-five couple. Supper was announced before one o’clock. – the Supper-Rooms were splendidly lighted up, and the tables covered with profusion and every delicacy of the season. Her Grace, with that attention and respect which she is so desirous to pay to this country, had ordered two Irish Harpers to attend, in addition to the Music in the Ball-rooms.
    Freemans Journal, Sat 2 Mar 1816 p4

    The Duchess of Dorset was Arabella Diana née Cope (1767–1825). After the death of her husband John Sackville, 3rd Duke of Dorset, she had remarried to Charles Whitworth. He was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland between 1813 to 1817, and so we can see this ball that that Arabella was hosting at Dublin Castle, as part of her social duties as the “First Lady” of Ireland.

    The ball was on Thursday 29th Feb 1816. A long list of the attendees was printed in the Freemans Journal, 5th March 1816 p 3.

    The report does not name the harpers but I think there is no doubt that they must be Edward McBride and Valentine Rennie.

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