Patrick Murney was a blind traditional Irish harper living in Belfast in the 19th century. We have portraits of him and we have traditionary information from him. This post gathers together what I have found so far about him.
(Header image courtesy of National Museums NI)
We have an account of Pat Murney which was written down by William Savage I think in 1908, apparently from the dictation of harper, tradition-bearer and pupil of Pat Murney, George Jackson. You can read more about this document in my post from last year.
Pat Murney last of Irish harpers father was Pat Murney a cooper Pat was blind from a boy – not sure whether born in Belfast or Cushendall his mother well known by his Master Rainey. Rainey did not want to teach Pat Murney as he was too well known his excuse was that pat was too small and could not open the octaves. However pat was received and Rainey was his teacher. Pat was so fond of the Harp that it was not long until he exceeded his master who was more a Fiddler than a Harper on one occasion he caught pat lifting a tune he had been teaching an other pupil for which he reprimanded him told him not to attempt the like again Some Gentlemen visiting the School to hear the boys play Rainey called pat first – He played the Harmonious Blacksmith and the Coulin all played it of course he excelled all the others for which he was Highly complimented Pat died in the Poor House he had 2 sisters one married to a painter went to AmericaNational Museum of Ireland archive File AI.80.019
There is a huge amount of useful information in this account. We can collate what George Jackson has told us, with what we know from other sources.
Birth and early years
We don’t have much information about Patrick Murney’s birth and early years. George Jackson says “not sure whether born in Belfast or Cushendall”. William Savage added a note to his neat expanded version of Jackson’s information: “He is mentioned in Mrs Milligan Foxs Book as from Cushendall”, however I only find three mentions of Patrick Murney in the Annals of the Irish Harpers (p.277, 290, 291) and they don’t say he was from Cushendall, so I am not sure about this. If his parents moved from Cushendall to Belfast within a few years of his birth then there might be doubt as to whether he was born before or after the move.
We also don’t know when he was born. We have conflicting indications of his age. The only official record I have found so far, his death record (see below), would place his birth in 1837-8. However this is too late. John Bell says he was “about 25” in 1849 (see below), which would suggest he was born c.1824. The traditionary information from George Jackson says that he learned the harp from Valentine Rainie, who died in 1837. I doubt that Murney was younger than 10 when he started learning, so he likely was born before 1827. Perhaps we could suggest early-to-mid-1820s as an initial guess?
We are also told by Jackson that “he had 2 sisters one married to a painter went to America”. But I don’t have any more information about these two sisters.
Murney was blind, but we don’t have more information about how or when he went blind.
Patrick Murney went to the Irish Harp Society school in Belfast. He learned the harp under its master, Valentine Rainey. This must have been in the mid-late 1830s. It is possible that Murney studied for a couple of years full time, and was discharged when Rainie died in 1837.
George Jackson’s information suggests that Murney may have been a kind of star pupil; “Pat was so fond of the Harp that it was not long until he exceeded his master”.
We also get an intriguing snippet of information about the way the boys were taught at the Society school: “on one occasion he [Rainey] caught pat lifting a tune he had been teaching an other pupil for which he reprimanded him told him not to attempt the like again”. I think there are a couple of things we can take from this – one is that Rainie was teaching “an other pupil” behind closed doors – not a group class. The second is that Rainey disapproved of Murney listening in and trying to pick up the tune by ear. Presumably the tune was taught in a specific way with fingerings and techniques which the pupil would learn in a supervised way.
I think it was normal for harp students to get their own harp after they had finished their formal full-time education. Previously, the Harp Society had funded a harp to be presented to students on their discharge. But this doesn’t seem to have happened in Murney’s case. Dr James McDonnell wrote in a letter dated 16th August 1840:
…The only harp-maker in Belfast is the one who made Pat Murney’s which you heard. I think it was eight pounds it cost, and I was the Paymaster. There are some ornaments upon it.Charlotte Milligan Fox, Annals of the Irish Harpers, 1911, p290
I don’t know when this harp would have been made; perhaps 1837 or whenever it was that Murney would have been discharged from the Society school.
I also don’t know what the “ornaments” might have been, whether they would have been carved decorations or whether they may have been just painted shamrocks in the style of the Egan wire-strung Irish harps.
I also don’t know if this would have been the harp we see in the portraits of Patrick Murney. Probably it was. If so, it is clearly copied from Egan’s design. We can wonder if this harpmaker was the same as who was approached by the Irish Harp Society back in 1821 (see my post on Hugh Fraser for more on this)
We know that Patrick Murney would have used metal wire strings on his harp; we have information on Patrick Murney’s stringing and setup from later in his life. I will discuss this below.
His early professional career
We have already seen how Dr James MacDonnell acted as a patron to Patrick Murney, paying for Murney’s harp. Dr. MacDonnell also referred to Murney as “my little harper”, and he introduced him into aristocratic society:
Mr Price… gave my little harper, Pat Murney, a guinea the other day, and has sent for him again, where I have consigned him to Captain King and the ladies, who are all taken with him…Dr. James MacDonnell, 10th September 1839 (Annals p277)
..My little harper pleased two or three great people very much, who visited this since you were here viz. the Bishop of Derry, Lord Lansdowne, and Mr Blake of Dublin.Dr James MacDonnell, 28th September 1840 (Annals p291)
Charlotte Milligan Fox added in a footnote on page 290 that Murney was “A young harper who played at Glenarm Castle, 1839”. It was at Glenarm that the sketches of Murney (see below) seem to have been done.
I think this period early in his career, when Dr MacDonnell introduced him to the gentry and aristocracy to perform, is when the three portraits date from.
This watercolour painting of Patrick Murney is now in the collections of National Museum Northern Ireland. Its reference there is BELUM.P328.1927. The NMNI catalogue suggests it was painted in 1839. It shows Murney sitting on a chair with his big Egan-style wire-strung harp against his left shoulder. The whole thing is in a slightly heavy hand; the harp seems over-sized (though Murney was said to be a small person). It has a natural wood finish and has green shamrocks painted all up the soundboard. Murney is wearing a full long coat pulled in with one button at the waist. The shoulder of the harp sticks out behind his head. His left hand is up in the treble; his right hand seems lifted quite high, possibly off the harp. I don’t know who might have painted this portrait or where it might have been done.
There are also two sketches of Patrick Murney at Glenarm Castle. These were discovered by Roland Spottiswoode and Sara Lanier, who published reproductions of them in their 2013 edition of the Annals of the Irish Harpers as plates 10 and 11.
One of the sketches is a kind of pen-and-wash drawing. It shows the harper (presumably Murney) perched on the edge of a chair, his ankles crossed and his toes just touching the ground. His overall appearance seems similar to the NMNI watercolour. His big Egan-style harp is pulled back against his left shoulder, his left hand high in the treble and his right hand in the mid range (it looks like he would not be able to reach the bass strings). He is wearing a similar long coat with big lapels, which looks like it is pulled tight around his waist by a belt or a single button. His face is sharp and angular. Another even smaller boy wearing a tail coat over a waistcoat is perched behind the harper on the same chair; his face is much smoother and almond shaped. This sketch is not signed, but Spottiswoode and Lanier’s caption reads “10. Patrick Murney… and friend performing at Glenarm Castle, June 1838. watercolour by Lady Dufferin (Private Collection)”.
The second sketch shows Murney from the other side. He is sitting on a chair, his toes dangling, his head level with the shoulder of his harp. He is wearing a tail-coat with wide lapels. His harp is well-drawn and shows a large Egan-style wire strung harp, with Egan’s distinctive bass recurve on the neck. The harp is shown tipped back onto Murney’s left shoulder, and one of the little feet that the harp rests on is shown. His left hand is shown in the treble and his right hand is high in the bass. There is a classical pillar behind him suggesting a grand country house setting. The sketch is signed “[? ?] Dufferin Oct 10 1839” (I think the initials are A O but I am not sure). Spottiswoode and Lanier’s caption reads “11. Patrick Murney performing at Glenarm Castle, June 1838 pencil drawing by Lady Dufferin (Private Collection)” though this date may be mistakenly transferred from the other drawing.
Ignored by Bunting
Dr. MacDonnell introduced Murney to Edward Bunting in 1839, mentioning such a meeting twice in his letters. He reminds Bunting that he had heard Pat Murney’s harp (Annals p291) and he comments that “you took so little notice of him” (Annals p277). I discussed this in my post “two letters to Edward Bunting”.
His later career
Dr. James MacDonnell died in 1845, and so his patronage of Murney would have come to an end. But Murney seems to have been well set up. We have a brief description of Murney in 1849, from the antiquarian John Bell:
Patrick Murray is a harper. He plays in Little Donegal St, Belfast, in his own house. He is a little fellow of about 25 years old. 27 Augt 1849H.G. Farmer, ‘Some notes on the Irish Harp’, Music and Letters 24, 1943 p 106
George Jackson’s information says that he had learned the harp from Patrick Murney; I have suggested (on my post on Roger Begley) that the three boys, George Jackson, Roger Begley, and Tom Hardy, may have attended a kind of private harp school under Murney at the house in Little Donegall Street around 1849-52. But this is pure speculation on my part and I fully expect further records to disprove this idea of mine. We will see.
Concerts and private dinners
From 1850 we start finding mentions of Patrick Murney in the newspapers. Of course these only give a little snapshop of some of the things he did; a lot of his work would not be reported in the newspapers, and even if it was I am sure I have not found everything. But there is enough here to give us a sense of what he was doing to make a living.
He performed in Lisburn alongside a brass band on 28th August 1850:
CONCERT IN LISBURN – On Wednesday evening last, a concert, in which the young men composing the Lisburn amateur band, and Mr. Murney, the harpist, were the performers, was given in the Assembly Room of that town, to a crowded and highly respectable audience. Several of the pieces set forth in the programme were executed by the band in very good style, giving ample indication of future excellence, and these were followed by the hearty and general applause of the gratified audience. In the performance of the several pieces, those two great accessories to the perfection of instrumental music, time and tone, were especially remarkable, and reflect no less credit on the masters under whom the young men studied than on the pupils. One lad exhibited great ability in his performance on the cornopean, an instrument capable of wonderful scope, and on which great execution can be shown; but, at the same time, it is one requiring more correctness of ear, and management of the lip, than perhaps any other of the present day. During the evening, Mr. Murney sung a number of songs, accompanying himself on the harp. In the concluding ballad, “Hail to the Oak,” he was loudly encored. Altogether, the concert went off admirably, and the audience seemed highly pleased by the performance, which, taking into account the short period the band has been in existence, is of considerable merit.Banner of Ulster, Friday 30th August 1850, p3
Six months later, we find Pat Murney playing at a private dinner in Belfast:
ULSTER LITERARY CLUB. – The members of this praiseworthy society held their second anniversary meeting on Tuesday evening last, in the Glasgow Hotel, High-street. About thirty sat down to supper. Mr. James Stewart filled the chair, and Mr. Davis, the vice-chair. After the usual loyal toasts, several popular sentiments were given, and ably responded to. The [hilarity] of the evening was kept up by the performances of Mr. Murney, on the harp; and the company separated much gratified with the delightful evening they had spent together.Belfast News Letter, Friday 28th Feb 1851, p2
These meetings of societies and associations seem to have quite often hired musicians, and they are a venue where we can often find our harpers playing. We have to remember that it was a precarious way for a blind man to make a living, playing the traditional wire-strung Irish harp.
This description of a dinner the following year gives us a huge insight into Murney’s work. He is not playing in the town hall for the gentlemen; instead he is entertaining the farmers and townspeople in the courthouse, apparently just another part of the exuberant decoration. I have skipped the long description of the cows and sheep, and also the speeches and toasts of the gentlemen.
CARRICKFERGUS AND KILROOT FARMING SOCIETY – ANNUAL SHOW.Northern Whig, Saturday 23 August 1851 p1
On Thursday, the annual show of cattle and agricultural produce of the Carrickfergus and Kilroot Farming Society, in connexion with Broadisland, Carnmoney, and Straid districts, was held in the Market place, Carrickfergus. The yard was suitably partitioned into compartments, where the different varieties of stock were exhibited…
The members of the committee, the judges, and a number of other gentlemen took dinner in the Town Hall; and, about eight o’clock, a very large number of respectable farmers, with the female members of their families, as well as a considerable number of the inhabitants of the town, assembled in the County of Antrim Court-house to partake of supper. The hall in which the repast was laid out was very handsomely decorated with tasteful designs in flowers and evergreens, interspersed with devices most artistically executed.
Immediately above the Chair, occupied by the President, a floral Crown was handsomely formed, surrounded by flags, and having, immediately under, a green scroll bearing the words “God Save the Queen”. Beneath this device was a rich collection of flowers, of varied hues and great beauty, while, on either side, were appropriately placed sheaves of wheat, flax, oats, &c. Cornucopiæ, in green and gold, bearing oranges, apples, and various fruits and flowers, and a harrow and plough of the same materials, filled the spaces between, while, above all, large festoons of laurel, laburna, and other evergreens, diversified with flowers, hung gracefully downwards. The entire of this handsomely ornamented space was bounded, at either end, by pillars, wreathed round by pea and flax plants, and the whole had a remarkably pleasing and agreeable effect.
The wall to the right of the Chair was not less prettily decorated. The arch, spanning the entrance into the Record Court, was adorned by flags, which drooped their folds gracefully over a profusion of flowers and evergreens, while a large bouquet was suspended from its centre. A transparency, painted by one of the officers now in the garrison, occupied a window recess to the right. It bore the words, “Success to the commerce and agriculture of Carrickfergus,” and represented the former by a well-drawn ship at anchor in the Lough, and and the latter by a plough, horses and ploughman. The execution of the drawing was remarkably tasteful. Next this, the crest of the Prince of Wales, formed of flax plants, and surmounting the usual device, “Ich Dien,” attracted attention. The remainder of the wall was decked out gaily with flowers and festoons of evergreens.
The wall to the left, among its many other decorations, was ornamented by a handsome device, formed of two flags, falling over the national emblem, the harp, and in the second space, between the two windows, was another, made of two immense hollyhocks, ten feet long, in full flower, brought from the gardens of S. D. Stuart, Esq., with a number of garlands.
The entrance was, also, prettily ornamented, and over the door, Murney was seated at his harp, which he played at intervals, during the evening.
On the gallery, opposite the President’s chair, a large scroll, with the words “Success to the farmers,” formed with flowers, upon a blue ground, had a pretty effect.
The rest of the space, decked out with flowers and garlands, in great profusion, looked also remarkably pretty. The taste and beauty of the entire reflected a great deal of credit on the ornamentative talents of Mr. Stannus, and the gentlemen by whom he was aided…
We are not told, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Murney was dressed up in some kind of ancient bardic fancy-dress for a display event like this.
Four months later we find Murney back in Lisburn playing for a more low-key event:
MARK OF RESPECT. – On Wednesday evening last, a number of the friends and acquaintances of Mr. John Rennie entertained him at supper, in the Queen’s Arms Hotel, Lisburn, previous to him leaving that town (where he has resided for some time past) for Glasgow, his native place. The chair was filled by Mr. John Reid, and the duties of croupier were ably discharged by Mr. Robert Wilson. The proceedings of the evening were considerably enlivened by Mr. Murney’s excellent performance on the harp, and by several of the company singing a number of capital songs.Belfast News Letter, Wednesday 5 Nov 1851, p2
I think we can understand that the songs here were sung by the gentlemen diners for their own entertainment, and we can see a class division between the gentlemen attendees, and the paid harper.
Two months later, on 2nd Feb 1852, Murney performed in a solo concert in Armagh Market House. He seems to be experimenting with his programme and repertory, perhaps trying to work out what goes down best with a paying audience:
A NATIONAL MINSTREL – On Monday evening last, Mr. Murney, a blind minstrel, played before a tolerably numerous audience in the Market-house, Armagh, some favourite tunes on the harp, which were accompanied by a vocal display from the harper. The songs were varied and chiefly comic, and were given with such genuine tact, in the way of vocal modulation, as to occasion several encores. We should, however, say that Mr. Murney’s forte lies in songs of a pathetic and sentimental character, which are most congenial to the music of the Irish harp, wedded, as it is, to the inspiration of a melancholic muse. “The Exile of Erin” was admirably sung. Delightful sounds were elicited from the harp – theNewry Telegraph, Sat 7 Feb 1852 p4
“Soul of love and harmony.”
We feel pleasure in hailing a national minstrel, as a living reminiscencer of the good old times,
“When the beards wagged all
Merry in the hall;”
when love of native land was the absorbing sentiment. Mr. Murney impersonates the character of the Irish harper in true national style, and his performance on the harp, and vocal displays, constitute a very acceptable treat even in the estimate of amateurs and professional musicians. – (Correspondant.)
I wonder if this was a kind of promotional text sent in by Murney’s agent or patron in the hope of getting more bookings? I don’t know.
The next month, Murney was in Lambeg to play for a private function on a larger scale:
INTERESTING SOIREE AT LAMBEGBelfast News Letter, Monday 22 Mar 1852 p2
PRESENTATION TO JONATHAN RICHARDSON, ESQ.
On Friday evening last, the persons in the employment of Jonathan Richardson, Esq., Lambeg, together with their female relatives, to the number of about 450, met together in the very commodious school-house of Lambeg, to tender to their employer a small tribute of gratitude for his uniform kindness towards them, and for the very peculiar interest he has ever taken in their temporal and spiritual welfare.
The room was tastefully decorated with evergreens, and several mottoes, such as “Prosperity to the Linen Trade,” “Cead Mille Failte,” “Irish Manufacture,” &c., were very elegantly dispersed in various conspicuous places. The Lisburn amateur band was in attendance, and Mr. Patk. Murney, harpist, contributed with them to enliven the proceedings of the evening. A platform was specially fitted up for the occasion, on which were placed several tables for the accomodation of Mr. Richardson, his family, and his more intimate friends.
The rest of this long article gives a detailed account of the speeches and presentations made during the evening.
Three years later we find Murney booked to perform as part of a concert in Ballymoney
BALLYMONEY GLEE CLUB – We are much gratified to learn that our musical friends in Ballymoney are to have a grand concert on Thursday evening, the 23rd inst. Mr. Murney, the celebrated Irish harper, is to take a prominent part.Coleraine Chronicle, Sat 13 Jan 1855 p3
And the following year I think he is playing a concert in Belfast, supporting another traditional Irish harper, Mr. Bell:
HARP PERFORMANCE – It will be seen, by a notification, in our advertising columns, to-day, that, on Tuesday evening next, Mr. Bell, the harpist, assisted by a Mr. Murney, and the band of the Antrim Rifles, will give a concert in the Corn Exchange Rooms. As the national instrument, and, moreover, as one whose compass and power, under the hands of a skilful performer, which, from his testimonials, we believe Mr. Bell to be, afford the widest scope for the production of “most excellent music.” The harp should always have attractions for those among us to whom ancient memories are dear, and to whom the “soul of music” can speak.Northern Whig, Sat 5th July 1856 p2
This editorial is very hard to understand because it has too many commas, and for a moment I wondered if this is a different Murney, perhaps associated with the Antrim Rifles; but the paid advert is clearer and seems to be speaking about our man:
THE IRISH HARPNorthern Whig, Sat 5th July 1856 p3
MR. BELL, THE CELEBRATED HARPIST,
has much pleasure in announcing to the Nobility, Gentry and Inhabitants of Belfast and its Vicinity that he will give a CONCERT, assisted by
on the National Instrument, in the CORN EXCHANGE ROOM, on TUESDAY Evening, 8th July 1856, under the distinguished Patronage of Lieutenant-Colonel FERGUSON and the Officers of the Queen’s Royal Antrim Rifles, whose splendid Band, Mr. Bell has the honour to intimate, will perform Select and Classic music on the occasion.
Mr. Bell was a harper from around Coleraine and Derry area I think. I will write a post about him at some point. I find it interesting how Bell promotes himself first, but perhaps because he has come to Belfast onto Murney’s territory he feels obliged to invite him to share the platform? This must have been an interesting concert with the two harpers and the military band.
On 2nd October 1856 he played at another grand private dinner:
ADDRESS AND PRESENTATION TO D. HOLLAND, Esq. – On Thursday evening, D. Holland, Esq., was invited by a large number of the young men of Belfast, to be present at a supper, at which an address and testimonial were presented to him. The testimonial was a beautiful gold watch (with massive gold chain) of exquisite workmanship. It was manufactured by Mr. Donegan, of Dublin; and, as a specimen of native workmanship, was most creditable to that gentleman. The watch bore on the back a beautiful emblem of a harp in blue enamel, and round this was a wreath of shamrocks exquisitely wrought in green. On the dial is engraved the figure of Ireland personified, with harp by her side, and the Irish wolf-dog at her feet, with the sea in the distance, the ruined round tower, whose shadow is reflected in the waters – and the mountains behind which the sun is rising. On the inside of the case is an inscription setting forth that the watch was presented to Mr. Holland, Editor of the Ulsterman, “by some of the young men of Belfast, who admire the national spirit evinced by him in the conduct of that journal.”Belfast News Letter, Sat 4 Oct 1856 p1
When the company were assembled, previous to the supper, Mr. D. R. Brannigan was called to the chair; and, at the request of the chairman, Mr. Charles M’Lorinan read a complimentary address to which Mr. Holland returned a very eloquent reply. After the presentation, the company sat down to a supper, consisting of the choicest viands and wines. The presentation took place in the establishment of M. Lajoinie, to whose cuisine the repast did infinite credit. Mr. Brannigan presided; Mr. Russell occupied the vice-chair. And among the guests were Messrs. P. Macaulay, Randalstown; Joseph Murphy, Lurgan; M’Gee, Lurgan; and Kelly, Derry, &c., &c. The toast of “Ireland’s prosperity” was ably responded to by Mr. Russell. The chairman next gracefully proposed the health of “Mr. Holland, the guest of the evening,” to which that gentleman appropriately replied. Several other toasts were proposed and responded to. A variety of national airs was performed during the course of the evening by Mr. Murney the Irish harper.
I do wonder if these kinds of events hired the harper as a deliberate nod to the symbolism of the Irish harp as a national symbol. There is a lot of symbolism in this event I think; the Ulsterman was an Irish nationalist newspaper. You can see a similar but less lavish watch by Donegan for sale here.
I also think we can see Murney’s career getting gradually more low-grade, from its height when he was at Glenarm Castle in about 1840, descending through private functions through the 1850s, until in the 1860s he had to get a job at the circus.
THE CIRCUS! THE CIRCUS! THE CIRCUS!Belfast Morning News, Friday 14th March 1862 p2
THE NIGHT OF NIGHTS FOR AMUSEMENT.
TOM CORRIGAN’S BENEFIT – FRIDAY, March 14, 1862
BELL’s EQUESTRIAN TROUPE will on this occasion excel in their unrivalled performance. The CLOWNS will be, if possible, more witty, the ATHLETES more daring in their surpassing feats, and Treat upon Treat.
The celebrated JACK SMYTH, Champion of Portsmouth, is engaged for a GRAND SPARRING MATCH with NED WOLF, of London. Also, YOUNG LANGAN, of Liverpool; NED KEARNEY, of Waterford; the famed Sparrer, BILL SAVAGE; JEM BUNTING, Newcastle; TOM CORRIGAN; and a host of other Talent.
Remember FRIDAY night! BELL’S troupe will excel; the Artistes (engaged special) will excel.
PAT MURNEY, the far-famed Irish Harper, will (at the interval) perform, on that unrivalled instrument, to whose strains the “pulse of chiefs and ladies bright once throbbed,” a few Irish airs, accompanied by voice.
MR, CORRIGAN will endeavour to give the Public a regular treat on the occasion.
Prices as usual. Boxes, 2s 6d; Side do., 1s 6d; Pit, 1s; Gallery, 6d.
☛ Again and again – Remember FRIDAY night.
But he also managed to keep going at concerts:
AMATEUR CONCERT AT PORTAVO – On Friday evening, an amateur concert of vocal and instrumental music was given, in the house of Mr. Alexander McConnell, of Portavo, near Donaghadee. Mr. Patrick Murney, the well-known Irish harper, from Belfast, the Newtownards amateur band, and a few amateur vocalists from Newtownards, were engaged for the occasion. Mr. Murney opened the concert, and greatly delighted the audience, which was large and respectable. The band, under the direction of Mr. John Cooper, their conductor, performed a variety of popular airs, and were frequently applauded. Mr. Edward M’Mahon and Mr. William Anderson, amateur vocalists, sang a number of popular songs, which were warmly received, and on the whole, the concert was a decided success. – Communicated.Northern Whig, Thursday 22 May 1862 p3
There is a thing going on here about the harpers performing alongside amateur bands and singers. I wonder if it is connected to genre division, with classical and traditional not being separated and so amateur and professional being used instead? I imagine the band and the singers were singing light classical / popular / music hall types of music, and maybe Pat Murney’s repertory also leaned in that direction; but I can’t imagine him being the same social class as these amateurs, and I can’t imagine him playing for free since this was his only way of making a living.
I already mentioned in my post on Begley, the list of “three or four players on the Irish harp yet in Belfast” in the Belfast News Letter 15 Jun 1871 p.3. One of the four is “Patrick Murney, in Mustard Street”. I checked the 1868 and 1877 Belfast street directories, but Murney isn’t listed; I think this means he did not have his own house or professional premises, but was likely lodging with someone else. As I said, he had come a long way down since the heady days of 1849-52.
I found a newspaper report of an un-named Irish harper playing at a fine art exhibition who is not named, but who is said to be “an Irish harper well known in Belfast who played and sang a variety of Irish music”. This could be Pat Murney but it could also be Samuel Patrick who was also around that that time. (Belfast News Letter 24 Nov 1871).
Cathal O’Byrne (1867 – 1957) wote:
As a child, one of our earliest recollections is of our being taken in the summer evenings to the Ormeau Park to hear Paddy Murney, the blind musician, play on his harp. The old man, and he must have been very old, sat in a sort of watchman’s box and played – when he wasn’t drowsing in the sun – which, much to our disappointment, could be said with truth to be the state in which we found him on nearly every occasion on which we paid the place a visit.Cathal O’Byrne, As I Roved Out, (Belfast, ) p176-7
I haven’t found any contemporary references to this but there are a couple of brief mentions in 20th century newspapers. The date they give, 1875, would fit with O’Byrne’s childhood memories; he would have been 8 years old then.
Perhaps the last of the Irish harpists to play in public was blind Paddy Murney who sang and played in Ormeau Park in 1875 by special permission of the Parks CommitteeJ H Smith, Fifty years ago today Belfast’s first and biggest public park was opened. Belfast Telegraph, 15 April 1939 p8
An unusual attraction was held there in 1875 when blind Paddy Murney one of the few remaining harpers, sang and played daily by permission of Belfast CorporationToday Long Ago: First public park. Belfast Telegraph 15 Feb 1958 p5
There were three public parks in Belfast, two of which are still there: the Botanic Gardens, by Queen’s University; the Ormeau Park to the east across the river Lagan, and Queen’s Island which is reclaimed land in the docks, later built on as part of the Harland & Wolff shipyard and now renamed the Titanic Quarter. We have references to other harpers playing in these parks; most famously Samuel Patrick is said to have played in all three. I did wonder for a moment if our later writers were getting mixed up between Patrick Murney and Samuel Patrick.
An illustrated lecture
In 1876, Murney was back in Lisburn. We have a very extensive newspaper article about a lecture on the Ancient Music of Ireland given in Lisburn Catholic church on Monday 27th November 1876 by Father Mulcahy. The church was crowded, with many people having to stand because there weren’t enough seats. Three and a half full columns of the newspaper give what looks like a complete transcript of Fr. Mulcahy’s lecture. At different points in the talk, there is a musical intermission played on the harp by Murney:
(Mr P. Murney, the blind harpist, at this stage delighted the assembly with the “Minstrel Boy,” and when it was finished the lecturer said they were more fortunate than many Irish people, who never saw a harp, except the one impressed on the halfpenny. (Great applause.))Ulster Examiner and Northern Star, Tuesday 28th Nov 1876 p3
(Mr. Murney then played “The Coulin”)
(Mr. Murney again favoured the audience with “Planxty Reilly.”)
(Mr. Murney finished by playing the National air, “Patrick’s Day,” and throughout added a very fair share to the pleasure of the evening.)
I don’t see any connection between what Mulcahy is saying and Murney’s tune at each point. At one point Mulcahy names a load of tunes but there is no musical intermission mentioned at this point. I think Murney is just playing as a kind of interval break between sections of the lecture. Perhaps it is interesting then to see he is being more conservative or more traditional in his repertory choices – the Coolin and Planxty Reilly being tunes that come straight down to him from the 18th century harp tradition. I think all of Murney’s tunes are included on my tune list post.
Stringing new harps
In 1882, Rev. James O’Laverty collected traditionary information on harp stringing from Patrick Murney. There is a mention of this in a long newspaper transcript of a lecture he gave on “The Irish Harp” for the West End Branch of the Gaelic League in Belfast on Friday 14th November 1902.
…Another, and I think the last, of the pupils of the Belfast Harp Society was the well-known Pat Murney, who when he was stringing harps for me on the 2nd of July, 1882, requested me to write down the rules for stringing the Irish harp – 36 strings of wire. These rules – perhaps the traditions of a remote past – I gave to Mr. M’Fall. The harps for that society were manufactured, some by O’Neill, of Belfast, and others by Egan, of Dublin. I have lent to Mr. M’Fall a harp manufactured by each of them.Belfast Morning News, Saturday 15 Nov 1902, p6
O’Laverty published the stringing list in a periodical the following year:
I think the last of the pupils of the Belfast Harp Society was the well-known Patrick Murney, who, when he was stringing harps for me on the second of July, 1882, requested me to write down the rules for stringing the Irish harp – 36 strings of wire. These rules – perhaps the traditions of a remote past – are: –Rev. James O’Laverty, ‘The Irish Harp’, Denvir’s Monthly 1903 p17
RULES FOR STRINGING THE IRISH HARP OF THIRTY-SIX STRINGS
Use hard drawn wire
No. 18 in the 8 strings nearest the pillar
No. 20 in the 7 following
No. 22 in the 7 following
No. 24 in the 7 following
No. 25 in the 7 following which are the shortest
This is very interesting, and I have discussed this before. For a long time I wondered what harps Murney might have been stringing in 1882.
After I had been to the NMNI store to look at William Savage’s harp, I asked the curator what other harps they had. She sent me a list extracted from the Collections Management System. One of the harps in the collection (reference number BELUM.O623.1937), is described in the catalogue:
…inside the sound box is a list of wires to be used when stringing the harp. Also a label reading “`FELIX O’NEILL MAKER BELFAST’. This harp is strung and has 36 metal strings.
Of course I had to see this harp, to measure the strings, to collate them against the list, and to see if the stringing list matched Murney’s.
The harp looks superficially like Egan’s design of a floor-standing wire-strung Irish harp. It seems more slender and lightly built than Egan’s, and the bass end of the neck is straight, without Egan’s distinctive recurve. It is painted green all over with large golden shamrocks on the soundboard. On the back of the soundbox are three access holes, and inside the top one, the hand-written stringing list is glued to the soundboard.
Rulespaper label inside BELUM.O623.1937
the 36 string
wire to be
1[6/7/8] . 20 , 22 , 24
No 18 in 8 strings
20 . 7 .
22 . 7 .
24 . 7 .
25 . 7 .
18 is coarse
25 . . fine
[6/7/8] is my transcription of the three digits written on top of each other superimposed.
You can see that this exactly matches Murney’s list, and so by this point I was pretty happy. I asked the curators to lay the harp down on its side so I could measure the strings, using a fibre-jaw caliper. My measurements are only ±0.1mm but you can see that the measurements of the strings on the harp conform to the list, and the gauges match AWG. I have made a PDF summary of my measurements and analysis. My chart is extracted from the PDF and shows the match between my mm measurements of the strings on the harp, and the calculated mm measurements of Pat Murney’s “rules” converted using AWG and SWG. (wire gauges are incredibly confusing and I make no claim that either of these systems is what Murney’s wire suppliers actually used. But at least we are in vaguely the right kind of place.)
The strings are grey in colour, apparently iron or steel wire (I did not test them with a magnet). They are wound off the backs of the tuning pins, pass over bridge pins, and are toggled inside with rather odd rectangular toggles each with two holes drilled through. The toggle knots are concealed between the toggles and the soundboard. Two strings and four fragments have been replaced by varnished copper electrical wire, strung with one wire to two strings (without a toggle knot, just threaded into the soundbox and back out). The two lowest iron strings are the wrong gauge and also are strung with one wire out and back. All the rest seem to be genuine.
I thought I had finished, and I was about to leave, when I glanced at the harp lying on its side, and I saw a pale unpainted area on the bottom of the harp. I went closer and realised it was another paper label. This is not mentioned in the catalogue, possibly because the harp has always been stored and handled standing up.
I made a whole load of close up photographs of the label and I have managed to transcribe quite a lot of the text. The writing runs parallel to the front edge of the base (top to bottom in my photo above), and the final lines are pretty much illegible where they have been rubbed. In my transcription, </> represents the large screw which pierces the centre of the paper label:
Paddy Murney’s Rules for stringingpaper label on base of BELUM.O623.1937
the Irish Harp of 36 strings
Use Nos 18 20 22 24 + 25 wires
(N. B. 18 is coarse </> 25 fine)
Use N[o] 18 [
20 7 following
22 7 [
So that ties this harp very securely to Paddy Murney, and probably also to James O’Laverty.
What is this harp? Is this one of the ones that Pat Murney strung on 2 July 1882? It is interesting that all the strings are steel or iron wire. Murney does not mention what kind of wire to use in his “Rules” which is also interesting. Did O’Lavery only have supplies of steel piano wire? Or was this harp strung later by someone else, following Murney’s rules which O’Lavery had written down? Murney’s pupil George Jackson had used brass wire when stringing William Savage’s harp in 1908.
Is this Felix O’Neill of Belfast the same person as the O’Neill who O’Laverty says made harps for the Irish Harp Society in Belfast in the 1820s or 1830s? Is this one of the Belfast-made harps mentioned in the 1821 minutes? Or was Felix O’Neill a maker active in Belfast in the 1880s and 1890s, and made this harp then for O’Lavery? I have not found any references to Felix O’Neill in Belfast trade directories, but his printed label suggests he was not just a one-off instrument maker. I have too many questions at this stage and no answers at all.
I have a couple of newspaper references to O’Neill harpmakers, but they are not very useful. One is “an Irish harp made by … Patrick O Neill 10 Bishops Court… bricklayer… can discourse most eloquent music on his own instrument…” (Northern Standard 15 Jun 1844), but he is obviously not our man. The other is “…an Irish harp by O’Neill” in an auction listing (Saunders’s News Letter, 11 Aug 1854) but that tells us almost nothing.
Anyway enough of that, back to Murney.
Catholic Total Abstinence
From December 1883 through to October 1884 there is a whole series of notices of Murney playing at the regular meetings of the Belfast Catholic Total Abstinence League. This would be a temperance support group who meet on Saturday evenings. The meetings consist of society business, perhaps a motivational speech or sermon, and then entertainments.
A typical listing is as follows:
TEMPERANCE AND FRIENDLY SOCIETIESFlag of Ireland, 7 Dec 1883 p7
Belfast Catholic Total Abstinence League, – Meeting was held on Saturday evening, in the League Hall, Divis-street. Mr John Ferran occupied the chair. The secretary then read the minutes of the previous meeting, which were confirmed. The following gentlemen entertained the meeting:- Messrs T Hobbs, P Devlin, H M’Closky, E Canavan, J M’Knight, and J Doogan. P Murney, Irish harper, was present as accompanist.
Murney is usually listed as “present as usual during the meeting as accompanist” so presumably he played the harp to accompany singing. There are descriptions of “songs, readings, stepdancing, etc.” (Flag of Ireland, Sat 22 Dec 1883); “the secretary … addressed the meeting, referring to the disgraceful drunken orgies of which Belfast had been the scene during the past week” (Flag of Ireland, Sat 5 Jan 1884); “…in a short and telling address pointed out the foolishness of working men spending their money on drink” (Dublin Weekly News, Sat 22 Mar 1884), but usually these brief notices appear in a list of regional temperance meetings, and merely list some of the people present dealing with society business or providing entertainment. I have about 36 newspaper clippings mentioning Murney attending these meetings for ten months between December 1883 and October 1884.
I have no more references to Murney out in public after October 1884.
Last illness and death
William Savage made a neat version of his notes from George Jackson in or after 1911, and he added some new information:
He had been some time in the Nazareth Home Ballynafeigh – but I think he came out. and after some time died in the Poor House. I am not sure about his Harp but I heard that he had left it in Ballynafeigh where he had first wentNational Museum of Ireland archive File AI.80.019
The Nazareth Home in Ballynafeigh is a care homes for destitute people, both elderly and children, run by the Poor Sisters of Nazareth who run a number of such homes around the world. I wrote to the Sisters of Nazareth archivist in London, and also to their archive in Dublin, but they don’t have records for the Belfast home from that time period. I asked if the Sisters had a harp anywhere but they don’t seem to, unfortunately.
I found a death record that I think must be our man (there’s only two Patrick Murneys who died in Ireland after 1884, and the other one definitely isn’t him): died 5th March 1890, at Nazareth House, Ballynafeigh: Patrick Murney, male, batchelor, age 52, musician. The death was reported by his second cousin, Mary Ann Matthews, of 22 Carrick Hill, who was present when he died.
There are two problems with this. First there is the age – 52 is far too young and I would guess Pat Murney would be in his mid 60s in 1890. I understand that ages on death records can sometimes be wrong.
The second thing is that it slightly contradicts William Savage’s information, about Murney coming our of the Nazareth Home and going to the Poor House. But Savage is being a bit vague, and is adding this on to the testimony of George Jackson who was the one who actually knew Murney. So I don’t see that as too much of a problem either.
Many thanks to Tríona White-Hamilton and the staff of National Museums Northern Ireland for facilitating my visit to the museum storage facility to inspect the Felix O’Neill harp, and also to the picture library for supplying a copy of the portrait of Patrick Murney and for giving me permission to reproduce it here.
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.