We have a few references to a harper called Carolan in the first half of the 19th century. We are never told their first name. I do not know if these all refer to the same person or not. But this post is to gather these references and see if we can say anything useful.

It is difficult to find out more about our man, because of the two other famous harpers from the previous century also called Carolan. Turlough Carolan (1670-1738) remained famous long after his death; we have already met Martin Craney who wanted to travel to places associated with Turlough Carolan in 1832, as well as Roger Begley who appeared on stage dressed as Turlough Carolan in 1865. Turlough Carolan’s son, John Carolan, was also a harper, though we have much less information about him. He was sometimes referred to as “Young Carolan”. He published a book of his father’s music in about 1745, and is said to have eloped to London. I discuss this a little in my article ‘Provenance and recording of an eighteenth-century harp’ The Galpin Society Journal LXXIII, March 2020.

But we are interested in the harpers active almost a century later.

Benefit Concert

In 1816 we find a reference to “Caroline on the Irish harp”. I think this is just a variant spelling of “Carolan”. This is a charity concert to raise money for the benefit of the elderly declining retired harper and tradition-bearer, Arthur O’Neil, who was left destitute after the defunct Irish Harp Society had failed to pay him his salary for a few years.

The Concert for Mr. ARTHUR O’NEILL’s benefit, will be held at the Exchange-Rooms this evening. Messrs. HEWETT, SCRAGGS, HEILENDALL jun. Mrs. KELLY and Miss ESCHER are to be of the Vocal party; and Mr. HART on the Musical Glasses; and O’NEILL and CAROLINE on the Irish Harp, are to play a number of the most favourite airs. From such a combination of musical talent, we anticipate an evenings amusement well worthy the attention of the lovers of song; and whilst they are delighted with the well known abilities of the performers, it must be a pleasing reflection to persons of every taste, to know that the money received on this occasion is to be charitably disposed of.
The performance will commence at a quarter before Eight o’clock, and the door will open at Six. – Books of the performance to be had at the door at 2½d. each

Belfast Commercial Chronicle, Sat 2 March 1816 p2

The “Exchange Rooms” is the old name for the Belfast Assembly Rooms. Earlier adverts in the newspaper give less information about the performers, and re-schedule the date at least twice. We can wonder if the choir of five singers, and Mr. Hart on the musical glasses, would have played together with the two harpers; or if the singers and musical glasses would form the mainstream classical part of the concert while the two harpers played airs in between.

I was assuming that the “O’Neill” who played in the concert was Arthur O’Neill whose benefit the concert had been organised for, but I have a nagging feeling that this is not the case, and that the two harpers were both young students of Arthur O’Neil. There were three young harp pupils called O’Neil in the 1810 Irish Harp Society list so it could have been one of them performing alongside Carolan in this concert. I think James O’Neil was away in India, but Edward O’Neil or Patrick O’Neil are possible. Arthur O’Neil had retired to Maydown near Benburb by this stage, and he died eight months after the benefit concert, in November 1816.

Dublin pubs

We find “Young Carolan” performing at Home’s Hotel, and The Shades. In the 1830 Wilson’s Directory we find two different businessmen named George Home, but our man is the one listed at the Great Commercial Hotel and National Market, 19 Usher’s Quay, and also at the Royal Hotel, 35, College Green. In the index of hotels in the same directory his College Green address is given as 34.

It seems to me that Home was pretty ambitious, building a commercial premises and an adjacent hotel at both sites. In 1824, at 34 / 35 College Green, he built The Royal Arcade and the Royal Hotel. The Shades was a venue which was part of the Hotel and Arcade complex. Everything was destroyed by fire on 24th April 1837. The site (or part of it) was then used in 1840 to build the old National Bank.

In 1826 on Usher’s Quay, Home built a spectacular public market and hotel with distinctive columns on the front. I think this is the venue referred to in the adverts as “Home’s Hotel”. The hotel seems to have closed before 1840, and the building was demolished in the late 1970s.

Some of the adverts name Carolan, but others do not name the harper, and so I don’t know if there is more than one harper involved here. But we can review the series of adverts and see what we think.

THE IRISH HARP. – The Belfast Harp Society have just reason to be proud of producing a young Harper whose fine touches and execution on our National Instrument is drawing a crowded audience every evening at Home’s Hotel. The contrast between it, the singing of the Tyrolese, and the Italian Music on the Maudoline, and Guitar, is a treat to the lovers of music, as well as novelty.

Saunders’s News Letter, Sat 8 December 1832 p2

This advert nicely sets the parameters. The “young harper” from the Belfast school, performs every evening alongside Tyrolean singers, and Italian mandolin and guitar.

I don’t know how long the Young Harper had been working there – this is the first advert I have seen.

Three days later, George Home was advertising for new musicians since the Tyrolean singers were finishing their run:

GEORGE HOME respectfully intimates to the Citizens of Dublin, that the period of the Minstrels Engagement will close on Saturday next; and as they are engaged for the Christmas Holidays in London, their stay cannot possibly be prolonged after the above day.
G. H. avails himself of this opportunity of returning thanks for the extended patronage he has received, and a continuance, he trusts, will enable him to bring forward Native Talent, in whatever shape offered, in the Musical Profession. He is ready to enter into treaty with Persons duly qualified, either as Solo, Glee Singers or Musicians.
The Young Harper, from the Belfast Harp Society, will also perform his National Airs on the Irish Harp.
Admission One Shilling, for which a Ticket is given [t]hat passes for same amount in Room.

Saunders’s News Letter, Wednesday 12 December 1832 p2

This is a very interesting advert in that it gives us a little insight into the workings of this hotel performance scene. I am also interested in the admittance fee, apparently redeemable for purchases of food or drink inside the venue.

Five days later, Carolan is named. The advert also shows us a charming woodcut of the Tyrolese Minstrels:

RESPECTFULLY informs the Citizens of Dublin that he has prevailed on the
To prolong their stay until THURSDAY NEXT. They will, therefore, continue to sing the Melodies of their country
Being the latest period they can remain.
G. H. begs also to mention, that for these three evenings a few Amateur Singers will assist at the Concert, which will give the audience an opportunity of comparing the Music of some of our National Glees, Duets, and Solos with those of the Tyrol.
Admission, as usual – One Shilling, for which a Ticket is given that passes for the same amount in the room.
Hour – Eight o’Clock.
*⁎* YOUNG CAROLAN performs on the Irish Harp this week in the SHADES, College-green.
Home’s Hotel, Usher’s Quay.

Freeman’s Journal, Mon 17 Dec 1832 p2

The advert was also reprinted in the next day’s papers, with a corresponding adjustment of the text. In this advert Carolan is apparently not performing in the Usher’s Quay hotel alongside the Tyrolese, but in George Home’s other venue, in the hotel and arcade on College Green. We might wonder whether Home is employing two harpers, the “Young Harper” in Ushers’s Quay and “Young Carolan” in College Green. Or we might wonder if there was only one harper, and Home has moved him between venues; perhaps the “amateur singers” have replaced the harper in the Tyrolean Minstrels programme, and so the harper has been re-deployed into the Shades.

The next month, George Home is once again advertising the “Young Harper”, at a new show in the Usher’s Quay venue.

GENTLEMEN who are partial to the above mode of entertainment will be much gratified on visiting this performance. The Club possesses some of the first-rate talent in this City.
The celebrated young Harper will also perform, between the Glees, &c., his favourite
Usher’s-quay, January, 1833

Dublin Morning Register, Wed 30 Jan 1833 p1

This advert was re-printed each day for the next four days or so.

In July we find Carolan performing alongside a bird-imitator. We are back in the College Green building for this one.

GEORGE HOME, ever anxious to gratify the Citizens of Dublin, and recollecting the patronage which he received during the engagement of the Tyrolese Minstrels last Winter, has induced him to engage, for a short period, the celebrated
whose wonderful performance must be heard to be believed, as the power of imitation of the Feathered Tribe seems combined in his person, and his performances on a small Stick or Cane are equally surprising.
Young CAROLIN will also perform some National Airs on the Irish Harp.
To be heard every evening from Nine till Twelve o’Clock, at the SHADES, COLLEGE-GREEN.

Dublin Morning Register, Sat 6 July 1833 p2

I find this same advert reprinted two days later. I am very curious about Herr von Joel’s “performances on a small stick or cane”; another reference to him says he “whistled like birds, imitated a farm-yard, sang Swiss mountain melodies, and played tunes upon walking-sticks borrowed from the company”. Perhaps he pretended that the stick was an instrument, and mimed and used his voice to create the sound?

The next advert I have found is from eight months later. which gives us a lot more musical information than we usually get.

NATIONAL MUSIC. – A great treat to the lovers of the ancient music of Ireland is now offered to the public every evening at Home’s Hotel, where young Carolan’s performance on the Harp is warmly applauded by a numerous audience. The pathos that Carolan of old brought out of that instrument could not possibly excel those of this modest performer, and the accompaniments of Broad have much surprised the musical world, to find so delicate an instrument as the Harp leader to so powerful an instrument as the Appolonicon. M’Dermot, the celebrated performer on the Union Pipes, is also at Home in his department, and must be heard to be credited.

Dublin Morning Register, Sat 22 March 1834 p3

I like the reference to “Carolan of Old” which shows a knowing echo of the young Carolan’s name and heritage. I am interested in the harp being accompanied; this is not something we see referenced very often, perhaps because many descriptions of the wire-strung traditional Irish harp are trying to paint a picture of it as old, doomed, aloof like the supposed ancient bards. I wonder if there was more of this kind of thing going on than we see in the sources. Here, we have Mr. Broad playing the Apollonicon to accompany Carolan’s harp playing. It is not at all clear to me what the Apollonicon that Broad played might have been. The name (with various spellings) seems to have been used for vast mechanical barrel-organs which could play automatically or by multiple organists. I also don’t know who McDermot the Irish piper might have been.

Anyway we find these three still at the Hotel on Usher’s quay three months later, where they have been joined by a novelty act who was too popular for the small size of the College Green venue. This also shows us how George Home could swap performers between his two establishments.

MR. WATSON, who has during the last and preceeding week been exhibiting his unrivalled performance in THE ROYAL SHADES, COLLEGE GREEN, finds that Establishment too limited to permit the Citizens of Dublin to witness his performance on TWO VIOLINS and ONE VIOLONCELLO at the same time, as also various other Musical Instruments, he has in consequence removed this week to
where he trusts those Citizens who have been disappointed in seeing a performance peculiar to himself will avail themselves of the present opportunity which now offers. He will also give specimens of his performance on
Young Carolan on THE IRISH HARP,
Mr M’Dermott on THE UNION PIPES,
Will also perform at intervals from Eight till Twelve each Evening.
Home’s Hotel, 16th June.

Dublin Morning Register, Tue 17 June 1834

So we can imagine the large coffee room on the Quays, with four hours of entertainment every evening, the same every evening; a kind of variety show with each artist or group doing a turn. Perhaps Carolan needed Mr Broad’s roaring accompaniment to stand any chance of competing with one-man-band Mr Watson playing two violins and a cello all at the same time.

Still travelling

At the moment I have no more references to Carolan performing at the hotels in Dublin. All we have left is a little comment 15 years later, from harper and tradition-bearer, Patrick Byrne. The comment, along with other traditionary information from Byrne, was written by the antiquarian John Bell into his notebook:

Carolan is still travelling, and he and Byrne are now the only travelling harpers. 9th July, 1849.

H. G. Farmer, ‘Some notes on the Irish Harp’, Music & Letters XXIV April 1943 p106

There were, of course, a lot more traditional harpers than this in 1849. Looking at my timeline of traditional Irish harpers, I am guessing there may have been 15 or more alive at this time. But perhaps Byrne might have argued that some of the others were not “travelling” if they were playing every evening in the same hotel, or were resident at a big house with an aristocratic patron. Either way, I think this is part of a long-standing trope often used by Byrne (and others), that there were hardly any harpers left.

Collating the references

It is possible that we are looking at more than one individual here. We have the Carolin who performed alongside O’Neil, at the benefit concert for Arthur O’Neil in 1816; we have the Young Harper who worked for George Home in 1832-1833; we also have Young Carolan who played at Home’s hotels in 1832-1834; and we have the travelling Carolan that Patrick Byrne knew in 1849.

I suppose the most important question for me is to try and work out if Carolan was one of our boys. Was Carolan one of our traditional “artisan” harpers? Did he learn from Arthur O’Neil or other tradition-bearers? Did he play on a floor-standing wire-strung traditional Irish harp?

Or was Carolan a classical pedal harp player, using the idea of the “Irish harp” as a marketing tool? We need to be aware that there were some classical pedal harpists working in Dublin in the 19th century who sometimes marketed themselves as an “Irish harper”. One of these classical pedal harpists around the same time was the “celebrated Irish harper” Quinn. I had long assumed that Quinn was one of our boys, and it looks like Keith Sanger in his Old News page may have been making a similar assumption when he asks “Who was the ‘Young Carolan’ performing in Dublin in 1832, and the celebrated Irish Harper Quinn also performing in Dublin during the early 1840’s.” Recently I found a reference to Quinn as “a student of Bochsa” (Freemans Journal, 8 Jan 1842), the famous Continental pedal harp teacher. Later on in the 19th century there was Owen Lloyd, a classical pedal harpist who marketed himself as an “Irish harper” and who took gigs off of the tradition bearers. So the fact that Young Carolan is also advertised as performing “on the Irish Harp” doesn’t actually tell us whether he was playing a wire-strung traditional Irish harp or a pedal harp, or what his background and lineage was.

On the other hand it seems very reasonable to assume that any harper mentioned by Patrick Byrne was one of the traditional boys. The “Young Harper” working at Home’s hotels is explicitly said to be “from the Belfast Harp Society”. And I think it is fairly likely that the two harpers at Arthur O’Neil’s benefit concert were his own pupils. So it is only “Young Carolan” who we have a question mark against.

I think it is possible that Home employed two harpers simultaneously – we can imagine Home employing the “Young Harper from the Belfast Harp Society” to play at his establishments, and then also taking on “Young Carolan” at the same time, perhaps to be able to have a harp player at each of his two hotels.

Conflating it all together

If we assume that all these references are to the same person, then we can trace a general life story from a youthful association with (and presumably tuition from) Arthur O’Neil in the first decade or so of the 19th century. We can see him having a solid residency at George Home’s two Dublin hotels in the 1830s, and we see him travelling presumably as an itinerant “artisan” traditional Irish musician through the 1840s.

In this scenario, assuming “Young Carolan” is Home’s “Young Harper”, then that would imply that Carolan attended the Society School under Arthur O’Neil. His name doesn’t appear in the minutes or the list of pupils from January 1810. Perhaps he joined in June 1810, when James O’Neil and William Gorman were dismissed. Then he could have had only a couple of years of study before the Society ran out of money and sent the pupils out to fend for themselves some time in 1812. Perhaps two years would be enough full-time tuition. Perhaps Arthur O’Neil continued to teach privately after the Society folded in 1812.

But I don’t know how to find out for sure. Perhaps “Carolan” could be a stage name used by a harper, as a tribute to the famous Turlough Carolan who died in 1738. Perhaps there is no connection between any of these references. I don’t know.

3 thoughts on “Carolan”

  1. This is nice. From knowing absolutely nothing about the lives of these players, so thoroughly forgotten and ignored, I love that I’ve already reached the point of not being able to keep track of them them all. That’s just wonderful.

    Thanks, Simon.

    And Happy New Year!

  2. I was in the Linen Hall Library looking through Street Directories. I found an 1820 street directory, which has been bound up at the back of Smyth’s Belfast Almanack for 1820. The Linen Hall Library shelfmark is BPB.1980.1 but I can’t find it in the online catalogue.

    On page 25 of the street directory is an entry:

    Carolan Patrick, professor of the IRISH HARP, 10, Pottinger’s entry
    1820. Smyth’s Directory to Belfast and its vicinity: containing a list of its inhabitants… (Belfast: Joseph Smyth, Dec. 1819)

    I think this must be our man. So we now know his first name, Patrick. In time I plan to do an investigation into Pottinger’s Entry because this is the street where the first Irish Harp Society school was.

    I am also interested that Patrick Carolan is advertising himself as “professor of the Irish harp”. Was he teaching? Or is this just an exaggerated way of boasting about his Harp Society certificate?

  3. It was indeed the aged Arthur O’Neil who performed alongside “his student” Patrick Carolan at the 2nd March 1816 benefit concert. Eugene Dunphy notes a review of the concert:

    …The concert was opened by Bumper Squire Jones by O’Neill who was most cordially greeted on his entrance, but it was melancholy to observe the havoc time has made in his powers over his favourite instrument. Sometimes, his fingers wandered through the strings like those of a child and, if he occasionally struck a chord with a master hand, it was only to show what he had once been and seemed but like a transient gleam of brightness before the setting sun. His pupil Carolin, however, did him great credit and played some of our beautiful Irish airs with fine effect…
    Belfast News Letter, 5 March 1816, quoted in Eugene Dunphy, ‘Arthur O’Neill (1734-1816) What the papers said’, in Dúiche Néill 19, 2011, p28

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