Martin Craney (or Crenny) was a traditional Irish harper in the early 19th century. He toured in England and the Isle of Man; he went into Connacht trying to follow in the footsteps of Carolan; and he played concerts in the south-west. This post gathers information about him.
Birth and early years
Our information about his birth and early years comes from the Irish Harp Society minutes. There is also some biographical information about him in the newspaper articles.
Martin Craney was born in 1812, according to his age as given in the minutes.
We are told that he was from “near Larchfield”. I am assuming this is the country estate of Larchfield House, in county Down, south of Belfast and Lisburn. The estate was owned by the Mussendens (the same family that the Mussenden Temple at Downhill had been built for). But there are other places called “Larchfield”.
We are also told that Martin Craney went blind when he was a child.
Martin Craney was admitted as a student in the Irish Harp Society in Belfast on 1st November 1822. We are told by the newspapers that he was “recommended by a gentleman in the neighbourhood of his father’s residence” but I don’t know who.
We have his details recorded in a report presented by the teacher, Valentine Rainey, to the meeting of the Gentlemen of the Committee on 29th June 1824:
Present pupils on the Society’s Books, as reported by Mr. Rainey; viz.Minutes of meeting on 29th June 1824, in Irish Harp Society Calcutta 1828 (Penn Libraries ML1015.C3I7) p.42
ENTERED. / PRESENT AGE
1. 1820, May 7. Hugh Frazer, Ballymacarrett . . . . . . 16
2. ——-, April 8, Pat. McClosky, Bainbridge . . . . . . . . 15
3. 1822, March 11, Alex Jack, Lambeg . . . . . . . . . . . . . 12
4. ——-, November 1, Martin Crenny, near Larchfield
5. Arthur Morgan . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Craney appears in another report presented by Rainey two years later, at the meeting of 24th August 1826:
Present Pupils on the Society’s Books, as reported by Mr. Rainy.Minutes of meeting on 24th August 1826, in Irish Harp Society Calcutta 1828 (Penn Libraries ML1015.C3I7) p.44
ENTERED / PRESENT AGE
1st March 1822, Alexander Jack, Blind . . . . . . . . . . 13½
2d November ——, Martin Crenny, ditto . . . . . . . . . 14
3d April 1824, Arthur Morgan, has sight . . . . . . . . 11½
4th August ——, John McMullan, blind . . . . . . . . . . 10½
5th August —–, Matthew Wall, nearly blind . . . . . . 14½
Independently of four extern who receive, at present, daily tuition gratis.
You can see the changes over the years. Hugh Frazer and Patrick McClosky had both finished their education and been discharged, with a harp and a certificate, to start their life on the road. Arthur Morgan and Alex Jack were still there, younger than Martin Craney. These three had been joined by two new boys, John McMullan and Matthew Wall.
We can imagine what their life was like. The five boys lived in the Harp Society house on Cromac Street, Belfast, along with the master Valentine Rainey. Their board and lodging was provided to them by the Society.
Every day the boarding pupils would be joined by the other “external” pupils who lived elsewhere in Belfast. The boys studied the old Irish wire-strung harp full time, using the harps that were owned by the Society: floor-standing, 37-string, strictly diatonic, wire-strung Irish harps, made for the Society by the Dublin harpmaker John Egan. One of the harps that was made for the Society by John Egan in the early 1820s has been preserved; the photo shows this harp in 1904 with its then owner, the harp historian Robert Bruce Armstrong; the harp is now in the National Museum of Ireland. I am sure that Martin Craney would have practiced on this harp and used it during his classes with Rainey.
The rules stated that the pupils could finish their education and be discharged in as little as 18 months, but I think it usually took longer. We can see that Martin Craney started his study aged 10 in November 1822, and was still studying three-and-a-half years later in August 1826. The minutes for 24th August 1826 mention two new pupils who were to be admitted as soon as there was a vacancy, but no discharges are mentioned. There is also a new rule “that no certificate shall in future be granted to any Pupil leaving the establishment, until one year after he shall have been discharged, in order that his conduct may be ascertained”.
We don’t have any more minutes for the next four years until 1830 when Matthew Wall was sent to Canada, and so we don’t know exactly when Martin Craney was discharged. We are told later (see below) that Craney spent 6 years studying at the Irish Harp Society in Belfast, so we might guess he was discharged with a harp in about 1828.
From 1828, he would be out on his own, making a living as a professional or “artisan” blind traditional harper. He would have his big wire-strung Irish harp, and (from 1829) his certificate of good conduct and proficiency.
Life on the road
We have snapshots of Martin Craney’s life as a professional or “artisan” traditional Irish harper. A lot of what he did is now invisible to us, though I am sure more information will turn up in the future from newspapers, or private diaries or other documents. But what we have is enough to fill out his travels and work.
A couple of years after he was discharged from the Harp Society school, we find him in Newry:
THE IRISH HARP. – A correspondent, who signs himself “An Amateur,” informs us that there is a very superior performer on the above delightful instrument at present in Newry, named Martin Craney – formerly a pupil in that excellent Institution, the Harp Society of Belfast. Craney is quite blind – and, as “An Amateur” informs us that his style of playing the wild, but beautifully plaintive, airs of Old Erin is brilliant in the extreme, we trust that the inhabitants of Newry – all those of them, at least, to whom the concord of sweet sounds is pleasing – will exercise their humanity, and gratify their taste, at the same time, by encouraging deserving merit – although, as in this instance, the individual in whom it is evinced belongs to but a humble grade of society.Newry Telegraph, Friday 19 Nov 1830 p2
There is so much of a hidden agenda here! The paper hopes that people will “exercise their humanity, and gratify their taste, at the same time”, by supporting Craney, even though he “belongs to but a humble grade of society” – the social classes in 1830s Newry were obviously pretty stratified!
I think that this kind of piece may have been submitted on Craney’s behalf by an agent or patron, as a kind of advertising. Actually I wonder if a lot of these press pieces might be “placed” rather than genuine reporting.
Anyway it seems that enough “respectable” people paid attention, and another notice was printed a week later:
THE IRISH HARP. – In consequence of the kind interest taken in Martin Craney (the blind harper to whom, on a former occasion, we alluded) by several highly respectable Gentlemen of the town and neighbourhood, we understand he intends executing a great variety of beautiful airs on the above instrument in the Sessions-house. The performance is to commence at 8 o’clock this evening, and as the admission is extremely moderate, we trust that the Ladies and Gentlemen of Newry will evince their usual good taste by attending, and thus encourage a praiseworthy individual whose style of performing on our National instrument is very superior indeed.Newry Telegraph, Fri 26 Nov 1830 p2
Tour in England and the Isle of Man
It seems that Martin Craney was touring in England and the Isle of Man in 1831. I have not yet found any information about this tour, but he mentions it in his advert in 1832, after he had returned to Ireland.
Going to Carolan’s places
In 1832, Martin Craney did a tour through counties Fermanagh, Leitrim, Sligo and Mayo. He seems to have got a notion to go to places associated with the late 17th / early 18th century harper, Turlough Carolan.
We have a couple of newspaper articles describing what he was doing. I hope that in time more information about this interesting tour will appear.
He must have started maybe in Belfast, and headed West. He stopped for a week in Enniskillen. This article looks like it was placed by himself, or an agent or patron, and it also gives us a lot of interesting detail about his education and earlier life:
CRANEY, THE IRISH HARPER.Sligo Journal, Fri 10 Feb 1832 p4
This young man, a pupil of the Royal Institution, Belfast, has been delighting the lovers of melody in Enniskillen for the last week, by his admirable performance. Of all the proficients we have witnessed on our National Instrument, CRANEY certainly stands the highest. His powerful execution, combined with refined taste – the variety of tones, from the most delicate piano to the bold fortissimo, at once delight and astonish his auditory. Humble, unassuming, and primitive in his manners temperate in his habits, and prudent in his conduct, he possesses merit beyond many in his situation of life. Having lost his sight at an early age, he was recommended by a gentleman in the neighbourhood of his father’s residence, to the Royal Harp Society of Belfast, from which he has a certificate of his great progress and good conduct during the six years of his abode in the Institution. He has taken a fancy to visit different parts of the country, particularly those in which his talented predecessor, CAROLIN, spent the greater portion of his days, and purposes to proceed on his rout to that quarter tomorrow.
I assume this article was placed by a patron or agent in the Sligo newspaper, as a kind of advertisement that Craney was on his way over towards Sligo. The “respectable” people of Enniskillen would pass on testimonials or recommendations by word of mouth or private letter to their friends in Sligo. We get a hint of Craney playing at private functions, but it is important to remember that these published accounts are just the tip of the iceberg of a full-time job as a working musician for Craney. Most of what he was doing is invisible to us now.
Craney’s credentials seem to have become somewhat inflated; the Irish Harp Society never had any “Royal” status. But I suppose that kind of exaggeration looks good in the provincial newspapers.
Two months later, Craney placed an advert in the Connacht newspaper. You can see that this advert uses similar language as the Enniskillen report, though he now has given himself the title of “professor”:
MARTIN CRANEYConnaught Telegraph, 25 April 1832 p3 (also reprinted 2nd May p1)
Professor of the Irish Harp,
RESPECTFULLY states, that he has recently returned from a Tour in England, and the Isle of Man, and signifies his intention of visiting different parts of Ireland, particularly those in which his talented predecessor, CAROLIN, spent the greater portion of his days. He is at present in Ballina, having arrived there from Sligo, and proposes being in CASTLEBAR the ensuing week, and will proceed from thence to WESTPORT. It is not for him to boast of the very flattering encouragement with which his exertions have been rewarded; but he trusts it will not be considered presumptious in him, if, in this place, he should give expression to his expectation, – that neither will the beautifully-wild and National Instrument of old Ireland be less valued, nor he, whose greatest happiness and honor consist in calling forth the sweet sounds of its many-toned chords, be less encouraged in this, his Native Land, than both were in that of the Saxon and the Stranger.
Any commands left for him at the TELEGRAPH office, Castlebar, shall be respectfully attended to.
Ballina, 23d April, 1832
There was an editorial comment on the same page; it is pretty much a duplicate of the Enniskillen article with the place names changed.
CRANEY, THE IRISH HARPERConnaught Telegraph, 25 Apr 1832 p3
This young man, a pupil of the Royal Institution, Belfast, has been delighting the lovers of melody in Sligo and Ballina and their vicinity, for the last fortnight, by his admirable performances; of all the proficiencies on our National Instrument, CRANEY certainly stands the highest. His powerful execution, combined with refined taste – the variety of tones, from the most delicate piano to the bold fortissimo, at once delight and astonishes his auditory. Humble, unassuming, and primitive in his manners, temperate in his habits, and prudent in his conduct, he possesses merit beyond many in his situation in life. Having lost his sight at an early age, he was recommended by a gentleman in the neighbourhood of his father’s residence, to the Royal Harp Society, Belfast, from which he has a certificate of his great progress, and good conduct during six years of his abode in the Institution. We entertain no doubt he will have occasion to express gratitude for the reception he will meet in Castlebar and Westport. His arrival will be notified by Hand bills.
If only we could find one of his hand bills! It is also interesting to wonder if he travelled with a press release like this to hand in to the local newspaper office.
I think we can see that the focus of Craney’s work appears to be playing for private functions. He does not seem to be angling for public concerts here. I imagine him being booked by a wealthy gentleman or lady or household, to play during an evening dinner party, or at a kind of private house concert.
I don’t know what Martin Craney was doing for the next four years, between 1832 and 1836.
Concerts with O’Connor
At some point, Martin Crenny joined forces with O’Connor.
I don’t have very much information about O’Connor; I don’t even know his first name. He seems to have been a singer as well as a harpist, mostly performing alongside other harpers. O’Connor first appears here alongside Craney; later on in 1842 he performed with McMullen and McCurley; from 1844 he performed with a harper called Rennie (I don’t know who this was; it wasn’t Valentine Rainey because he was dead by then); and from 1851 to 1854 O’Connor formed a double-act with Bell. At some point I will do a post on O’Connor but I need to try and find more about him first.
Anyway we have a series of concert announcements of Martin Craney performing with O’Connor from 1836.
Summer has at length opened with all its glory and the sea cost of Clare teems with visitors; Milltown, in particular, exhibits its usual attractions, among which, the brilliant talents of Messrs. Crenny and O’Connor, the celebrated Irish harpers, stand pre-eminent.Tipperary Free Press, Sat 20 Aug 1836 p1
I think this must refer to Miltown Malbay. Over the next three weeks, the duo made their way south, probably passing through Limerick to get to Tralee:
THE IRISH HARPTralee Mercury, 17 Sep 1836, p3
The concert held on Thursday evening last at Neligan’s Hotel, by these celebrated Irish Harpers, the Messrs. CRENNY and O’CONNOR, was numerously attended by the Gentry of this Town and neighbourhood.
There are so many associations linked with this beautiful instrument, the HARP, blended as it is with every incident that either illumines or darkens the page of Irish history – hung, as it has been neglected upon the willow, for centuries in the land of its nativity – that we hail the revival of the “Melody of yore,” with no small degree of enthusiasm –
“Bring daughter of Toscar, bring the Harp! the light of song rises in Ossian’s soul! It is like the field when darkness covers the hill around, and the shadow grows slowly on the plain of the sun”
It has been said that Ossian wrote about the Second Century; Then what associations does it not awaken – what feelings does it not inspire? – Of the performance, we have seldom heard with such exquisite gratification any thing like the brilliant execution of those Irish Minstrels upon this much admired instrument. In the course of the evening they played several of our most popular Airs, which drew forth the rapturous plaudits of their admiring audience. “The Moments were Sad,” solo, by Mr. Crenny, was loudly applauded, “My Ain Kin’ Deary,” duet, was well executed, “Webber’s Last Waltz,” and that National Air, the “Coolin,” were also performed with exquisite taste and execution. But that beautiful Air, “Come rest on this bosom,” solo, by Mr. Crenny, was rapturously encored – the air, so well adapted to the instrument, the finished execution of this talented young Irishman, his exquisite taste, with the wild swell and the thrilling tone of the instrument in his performance of this delightful Melody, came home to the heart, indeed, and awakened sentiments not to be suppressed. Mr. Crenny was equally brilliant in his performance on the two Harps in accompaniment, and played several Duets with perfect ease, the facility with which his fingers swept through the chords of the two instruments, and his finished execution was truly astonishing. – We are happy to find that in this Town and neighbourhood those Irish Minstrels have met with such deserved encouragement. They will give another Concert here and intend visiting Killarney in a few days; we are sure their trip to that quarter will be appreciated by the Gentry in that vicinity.
We observed among the crowded audience many of our fair Amateurs, also Lord Beresford and the Officers of the 90th Regiment.
There is a lot packed into this fascinating review. We can see that Martin Craney is the better known of the pair; I wonder if the Harp Society encouraged its more experienced graduates to take on younger harpers freshly discharged to help them build their careers. But I don’t know.
Is Martin Craney playing two harps at once here, as a kind of novelty act? Or is the review incredibly badly worded at that point?
We can look up the titles that are mentioned. Some of these appear on my 19th century harp tune list post.
“The Moments were Sad” is the 19th century song to the tune of Savourneen Deelish (‘s a mhuirnín díleas)
“My Ain Kind Deary O” is a song by Robert Burns, written to the traditional Scottish tune of The Lea Rig.
“Weber’s Last Waltz” was composed by Carl Gottlieb Reissiger (1798-1859) but was mis-attributed to Weber after his death in I think 1826. This is not at all part of Irish tradition today; it is not clear to me how the traditional harpers might have handled this kind of classical composition. I am sure Craney was not playing it in this piano style!
The Coolin, of course, comes straight from the 18th century harp tradition; I assume Craney had learned it in Belfast from his teacher Valentine Rainey, who had learned it from Arthur O’Neil. I wrote up the earlier harp versions a few months back. The Coolin is still well-known in Irish traditional music today.
“Come rest on this bosom” is a song composed by Thomas Moore, to the old traditional tune of “My lodgings uncertain where ever I go”, which also comes from the 18th century harp tradition. I wrote up the live harp transcription notation 2 years ago. It doesn’t seem to be well known in the living tradition of Irish music, but you could listen to this very modern take on it:
Four days later, we have an advertisement (mis-dated!) for Craney and O’Connor’s performance every evening at Neligan’s. The advert gives us the context that the Tralee Races were on, which would guarantee a great audience.
TRALEE RACES — IRISH HARPKerry Evening Post, Wed 21 Sep 1836
DENIS NELIGAN, “CROSBIE ARMS’ HOTEL,” will keep the ORDINARY, this season, at Mr. M’CARTHY’s Lodge, Spa, where BREAKFASTS, SNACKS, DINNERS & SUPPERS will be supplied upon his usual MODERATE TERMS.
N.B. — The Celebrated Irish Harpers, CRENNY and O’CONNOR, will hold a CONCERT each evening during the Races, at the ORDINARY.
☞ CARS & CARRIAGES in readiness at all hours, for the convenience of Passengers to and from the Races.
Tralee, Sept. 21. 1886
A month later, an advert announces that they had “revisited” Tralee – were they off for a month somewhere else?
THE IRISH HARPTralee Mercury, 22 Oct 1836 p2
We feel pleasure in announcing that Messrs. Crenny and O’Connor, the celebrated Irish Harpers, have revisited Tralee, and again intend exhibiting their powers before a Kerry audience. We trust they will meet that encouragement which they so eminently deserve.
They did a couple of concerts:
THE IRISH HARPKerry Evening Post, Wed 26 Oct 1836 p3
The Concert held last night at Mr. Mahony’s large rooms, Mall, was numerously and fashionably attended. We observed several of our fair amateurs who seemed to fully appreciate the brilliant exertions of those two talented Irishmen, Messrs. Crenny & O’Connor, upon this National Instrument. Their next Concert is fixed for to-morrow evening (Thursday,) when a large assemblage is expected. We are happy to find that –
“The Harp that once thro’ Tara’s hall,
The soul of music shed,”
has again awaked its witching tone in the land of its nativity.
As well as this editorial, an advert was placed on the same page:
THE IRISH HARPKerry Evening Post, Wed 26 Oct 1836 p3
MESSRS. CRENNY AND O’CONNOR, Professors of this National Instrument, from the Royal HARP Institution, Belfast, beg leave to announce, that at the request of several highly respectable individuals, they have come to this country, and will give
On To-morrow Evening (THURSDAY, the 27th inst.) at Mr. MAHONY’s Large Room on the Mall, when there will be a rich Selection of Music performed, consisting of a variety of the most popular and National Airs – the two Harps accompanying each other.
Admission, 1s. 6d. – Children, half price.
☞ Tickets to be had at the Office of this Paper.
Tralee. Oct. 26.
After that there is a gap of nine months, until the summer of 1837 when we find them giving concerts in Clonmel:
THE IRISH HARPTipperary Free Press, Wed 26 July 1837 p3
Messrs. Crenny and O’Connor,
PROFESSORS OF THIS NATIONAL INSTRUMENT,
FROM THE ROYAL HARP INSTITUTION,
BEG leave to announce, that at the request of several highly respected individuals, they have come to this Town, and will give
At the ASSEMBLY-ROOM, COURT-HOUSE, on THURSDAY EVENING, JULY 27th, when there will be a rich selection of Vcal and Instrumental Music performed.
The two Harps accompanying each other.
Performance to commence at 8 o’Clock
Front Seats, 2s. each; Back Seats and Children half price.
Tickets to be had at the FREE PRESS Office.
The paper followed up with a brief review:
THE IRISH HARPTipperary Free Press, Sat 29 July 1837 p2
The lovers of our national instrument were much gratified on Thursday evening, by the performance of its professors, Messrs. CRENNY and O’CONNOR. — The music was excellent, well performed, and duly appreciated by a numerous and highly respectable audience; indeed the sweet and solemn tones of the Harp of Erin could not but awaken the most dormant feelings. On Monday night, we understand, another concert will be given, which, we have no doubt, will be well attended.
Martin Craney died three months after the Clonmel concert, in October 1837. He was only 25 years old.
DEATHSKerry Evening Post, Sat 21 Oct 1837 p3
In Limerick, Mr. Martin Crenny, an eminent professor of the Irish harp.
DEATHSLimerick Chronicle, Sat 21 Oct 1837, p3
At Cecil-street, Mr. Martin Crenny, professor of the Irish harp.
But he was not forgotten. I was interested to see him mentioned in the newspaper seven years later. In an article describing the various attractions at the Killarney Races, there is a section on a “ball at the Hibernian Hotel”. The article describes the room and the attendance, and continues:
A very agreeable feature in this ball was, the presence of the celebrated Irish Harpists Connor and Renny, the former known to many of our readers as the brother in song of the exquisite Crenny, whose harp is now silent in the graveCork Examiner, Mon 19 Aug 1844 p3