Hugh Dornan

Hugh Dornan was a traditional Irish harper in the early to mid 19th century. I thought at first that we knew almost nothing about him, and that this would be a very short post, but as I have started to line up the evidence it seems we may have quite a lot of information.

However, I am not entirely sure that all these references refer to the same person. We have Hugh Dornan, harper. We have H. Dornan, harper. We have Hugh Dornan, Musician. And we have an anecdote about Dornan, harper, but there are questions about this anecdote.

I am cautiously thinking that these might all refer to the same person but I really don’t know. Hopefully in time more specific details will be discovered to add to the story, and perhaps to rule out some of the references.

One way to rule out references is to find other documents which clearly refer to people who are not our harper. There are other people of this name around Belfast in the 19th century who are definitely different – there was a farmer called Hugh Dornan who died near Saintfield on 7th Feb 1860, who is most likely not our harper. And there was a violinist called Mr Dornan in Befast in the 1860s and 70s, but his first name was John, so he is not our harper.

In this post I will line up all the Dornan references that I think might be our man, and we will see what we think.

Irish Harp Society minute book, 1810

Hugh Dornan is listed as a “day scholar” in the Irish Harp Society school in 1810.

The Irish Harp Society was set up in Belfast in 1808 by a committee of wealthy Gentlemen Subscribers. The Gentlemen wanted to continue the traditions of Irish harp playing, but of course as gentlemen they did not actually want to learn to play. There were deep class and cultural divisions at the time. What the Gentlemen did was to hire a harp teacher, Arthur O’Neil, and recruit poor blind boys to be harp students. The Gentlemen provided a house for the teacher and pupils to live in and study full time, with full board and lodging, and they intended to give each boy a harp when he finished his education and was discharged from the school, so that he could go and make a living as a professional or “artisan” traditional Irish harper. You can read more about how the school was run in my post about Edward McBride, who was one of the top pupils.

The Minute Book of the Society from 1808 through to the end of 1810 is preserved in the Linen Hall Library, Belfast, Beath Collection box 5.1. However it concentrates on the business of the Gentlemen Committee, with fundraising, election of officers, the dates and formats of future committee meetings, and similar business. There is much less on the pupils and their learning.

In the minutes of a meeting on Tuesday 2nd January 1810, there is a complete list of the pupils then living at the Harp Society House, along with their ages (from 13 to 19), where they were from, and who had recommended them. You can see the whole list in my post about Bridget O’Reilly. At the end of the detailed list of full time boarding pupils is a second summary list headed “Day scholars not depending on the Society for support”. There are three names, Edward O Neill, Hugh Dornan, and John Wallace, and the tag “all of, or near Belfast”, and no further information about them. I think this must be the first reference I have found to our man Hugh Dornan.

So we can imagine Hugh Dornan living somewhere in Belfast, walking every day into the Harp Society House, and studying the traditional wire-strung Irish harp under the old harper and tradition-bearer, Arthur O’Neil.

The Irish Harp Society ran out of money and came to an end in 1812. There was so little money that the Society couldn’t 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 try and make a living for themselves (Belfast News Letter 22 June 1813). I don’t think there were enough harps for them to have each been given one. Perhaps some of the boys just went home to their families.

1819 street directory

The 1819 Belfast street directory (transcribed online at LennonWylie) has two entries for “Hugh Dornan, Musician”. One entry gives his address as 1 Edward Street and the other gives 19 Robert Street, but I am pretty sure both street addresses refer to the same premises, on the corner of Robert Street and Edward Street, up behind St Anne’s Cathedral. This area has been newly developed as St Annes Square; Robert Street has been renamed Exchange Street West.

I think only a certain class of people would have an entry in the street directory. Many of the harpers I have been dealing with don’t appear in the directories, I think because they were living in lodgings rather than running their own premises. A notable exception was Pat Murney who (for a few years at least) had his own house on Little Donegall Street, perhaps paid for by his wealthy patrons? Perhaps this entry in the street directory shows us that Hugh Dornan was more middle-class than the rest of the harp society pupils?

Anyway, if this is our man, then he was working as a professional musician from his own premises in 1819.

Irish Harp Society minutes, 1820

Hugh Dornan is listed as a pupil of the Irish Harp Society school in 1820.

In 1819 the Irish Harp Society was re-formed after a huge amount of money had been sent to Belfast from Gentlemen in India. We don’t have the minute book from this time, but we do have the minutes of a few of the meetings which were printed in pamphlets or newspapers.

The Gentlemen started by organising a new Committee; then they ordered harps, and then they recruited a teacher. Edward McBride (a classmate of Hugh Dornan 10 years previously) was appointed teacher starting at the beginning of 1820. You can read more about this phase of the Irish Harp Society in my post about Edward McBride.

The Committee advertised for pupils in January 1820:

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

This notice must have been drawn to the attention of Dornan, because (presumably at 10 am) on 21st February he turned up at the Harp Society House and was enrolled as a student, alongside four other boys. Two more joined over the following months, until six months later, the minutes for the meeting of 8th August 1820 list the names of 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 have already met two of Dornan’s new classmates, Hugh Frazer and Patrick McCloskey. But this list also gives us new information about Dornan. It says he was 29 years old in August 1820, so we can calculate that he was born in the second half of 1790, or the first half of 1791. We are also told he was from Belfast.

There is also an interesting note in these minutes that says how Byrne, McCloskey and Hannah had been taken into the Society House lodgings to live with the teacher Edward McBride, from 26th May. Between 21 Feb and 26 May all the pupils had been living out in town; as the advert says, the Harp Society was providing free full-time tuition, but the pupils had to fund their own board and lodging. After 26 May 1820, the arrangements changed and the Harp Society provided Byrne, McCloskey and Hannah with full board and lodging in the Harp Society House. But Dornan continued to live in town at his own expense, coming in to the Harp Society House every day for his classes.

The next minutes we have are from 20th August 1821, printed in Irish Harp Society Calcutta 1828 (Penn Libraries ML1015.C3I7) p.27, and there is a list of pupils, but Dornan is not listed there. Had he finished his education, and was he officially discharged and presented with a certificate and a harp? Perhaps not, since the resolutions deciding how the discharges worked were not agreed until this 1821 meeting. Or did he just drop out? I am not finding any hints in the records.

Another minute from 24th August 1826, printed in Irish Harp Society Calcutta 1828 (Penn Libraries ML1015.C3I7) p.44, gives a list of six “pupils gaining their bread throughout the kingdom; Harp being given to them by the Society”. Dornan is not on this list.

More street directory entries

We can see Hugh Dornan listed at what looks like the same house, for the next few decades.

After 1819, the next street directory I have seen is from 1841-2. Hugh Dornan, Musician, is at 17, Robert Street. I think this may be the same house as no.19 where we saw him in 1819, and I suspect that the houses on Robert Street may have been re-numbered. Unless the positions of side streets are indicated in the directory, it is hard to know. The next street directory online is 1843, and we can find Hugh Dornan, Musician, listed at 17 Robert Street. Then the next directory online is 1852, and Hugh Dornan, Musician is listed at 17 Robert Street, and at 1 Edward Street. This confirms that we are still talking about the same house, on the corner of Robert Street and Edward Street, where the Dumpling Library is now.

I also checked the 1856 directory and Hugh Dornan, Musician, is at 19 Robert Street and 1 Edward Street – obviously another re-numbering.

I am not finding Hugh Dornan in the 1861 street directory. The house on the corner (1 Edward Street and 21 Robert Street) is listed as occupied by Hugh Keenan, a shoemaker. Hugh Dornan must have moved out of the corner house some time between 1856 and 1861.

There are other street directories that are not online or which I haven’t seen in local libraries. It would be worth checking to see if we can find more references for the in-between dates.

James O’Laverty’s lecture, 1902

We have an anecdote about Dornan the harper, recounted many decades later in a lecture to Gaelic Revivalists in 1902.

Lecture by Very Rev. J. O’Laverty,
P.P., M.R.I.A
The West End Branch of the Gaelic League … has now settled down for the winter’s work, and Belfast Gaedhilgeori may look forward to a series of enjoyable entertainments thoroughly redolent of the new spirit which has come into Eirinn…
The first lecture of the season was delivered last night by the Very Rev. James O’Laverty, P.P., M.R.I.A., who dealt with the origin and history of the Irish harp, in a paper in which the fruits of patient research were wedded to a fine literary style…

The Irish News and Belfast Morning News, Sat 15 Nov 1902 p6

The report continued with the welcome, in Irish, by the chair Mr. P.J. O’Shea, and then we are given the full text of O’Laverty’s lecture over four columns of the newspaper. O’Lavery’s lecture is the usual early 20th century historical overview from ancient Egypt through early Irish mythology via the Venerable Bede, Giraldus, the Brian Boru harp, the Belfast Harp Festival, and to the then-current “revival” of the newly-invented classical style lever harp. O’Laverty piles up a huge amount of information without much critical awareness of what its relevance was to the story. I have already mentioned his anecdote of Patrick Murney, but he also includes an anecdote of a harper named Dornan:

…the same patriotic spirit induced the Belfast gentlemen (their memory should never be forgotten) to found the Belfast Harp Society, which, during the six years, from 1807, expended £950 on paying a teacher and lodging and boarding a number of blind boys, who were taught to play the harp. With several of them I was acquainted. One of these named Dornan, a native of Coleraine, I induced Dr. Corry to to employ for his Panorama of Ireland. Some of you may remember him playing in the Crystal Palace on the Queen’s Island, a little after that island ceased to be named Dargan’s Island after the great Irish contractor who formed it…

The Irish News and Belfast Morning News, Sat 15 Nov 1902 p6

I don’t know how reliable this information is, since it is being given in a great jumble of facts, and refers to events half a century before. I think it is possible that O’Laverty was mixing up different harpers that he remembered. But we can try and work out when these events that O’Laverty mentions might have happened.

I discussed the Crystal Palace on Queen’s Island in my post about Samuel Patrick. The best source of information is Eileen Black’s booklet The People’s Park published by the Linen Hall Library in 1988.

The island is artificial reclaimed land, basically a dump of the sediments dredged out of the river Lagan in 1841 to create the neat straight Port of Belfast we see today. The artificial island was called Dargan’s Island after the contractor who was in charge of the works, William Dargan. The south and east of the new island was zoned for shipbuilding, but from 1843 the north and west was planted with trees and paths were laid to form a public pleasure garden. From 1844, events and entertainments were held there.

The island was renamed Queen’s Island in 1849, for the visit of Queen Victoria to Belfast. The Crystal Palace was built in the summer of 1851. You can see the low flat island and the glistening Crystal Palace in in the background of Wilson’s Emigrant Ship leaving Belfast, painted in 1852.

We know that Samuel Patrick played in the Crystal Palace in the summer of 1863, just before it burned down in January 1864. So perhaps Dornan played in the Crystal Palace some time from 1852 to 1862, and perhaps Sam Patrick took over his pitch.

We have met Dr. Corry, in my post about Roger Begley. Dr Corry started his Diorama in Belfast in December 1864; Begley joined the show in January 1865 and continued for the next six months or so. Other harpers also played in this kind of show, both before and after. William Savage, relaying information from George Jackson, tells us that “Sally moore – []Academy St good player I think she was in Dr Corrys panorama of Ireland when he travelled america. This is not too reliable”. Corry’s show seems to have been in America over the winter of 1870-71. And we have a reference to Tom Hardy playing in a Panorama in 1863.

So how can we fit Dornan into this? He would have been quite old by this stage – about 72 in 1863. I am thinking he may have been dead already by 1864 (see below), so Dr Corry’s show would have been too late for him. But perhaps he played in another panorama, perhaps the one Tom Hardy was also in. James O’Laverty was born in 1828 so would have been old enough to be recomending a harper to whoever was Dr Corry’s predecessor running a panorama. And perhaps Dr Corry’s name was so well known it got attached to all of his predecessor’s shows as well. Or perhaps O’Laverty met Dr Corry and suggested he should hire Dornan, not realising that Dornan was already dead. Perhaps that suggestion spurred Dr. Corry to hire Begley instead. I really don’t know.

Can we trust O’Laverty? Is he misremembering details? Is he thinking of Sam Patrick in the Crystal Palace, and Roger Begley in the Diorama, or Tom Hardy in the Panorama? And what about his comment that Dornan was “a native of Coleraine”? The IHS minutes say he was from Belfast. Is O’Lavery’s entire account hopelessly confused and muddled up? I don’t know.

Death record

There is a death record of Hugh Dornan who died on 5th November 1864, at 13 Brown’s Row, Belfast. The death was reported by Catherine Dornan, his wife, also of 13 Browns Row, which confirms that this was the address where they were living, I think. She could not sign her name and only wrote an X as her mark.

The record says that Hugh Dornan was married, aged 79 years, a musician.

The age of 79 in November 1864 implies he was born in 1785 which seems about five years too old. I am not sure how to explain this, but I think that ages on death records can often be wrong. It could of course be a different person (how many musicians called Hugh Dornan were there in Belfast?) but if we suppose it might be the same man, I would be more willing to trust the Harp Society records, which would make him perhaps 74 years old when he died.

Brown’s Row in the 1861 street directory only lists “small houses” without naming the people there; I think that means it was a lower-class neighbourhood where poor people lived. “Brown’s Row” is just two minutes walk from Edward Street and Robert Street.

Brown’s Row does not really survive as a street nowadays, as explained by Albert Bridge. You can see the street name sign on the wall here. There is also a Brown Street or Brown’s Street on the other side of the city centre but this seems less likely.


I don’t know how plausible any of this is, or if I have conflated the life stories of four or five different people. We need to find more information somewhere.

9 thoughts on “Hugh Dornan”

  1. Again, I find it moving. So he had what, maybe two years in the first round of the Society School? And maybe one more in the second? And no Society harp? And he’s obviously a bit peripheral — day student, and 29 years old — but he had a life.

    Forgetting about the gentlemen benefactors, I’m pretty sure that in the view of these ‘boys’ and their families, whatever bit of skill they acquired was precious as a means of survival. I once saw a street act in Italy that was a guy in a gorilla mask who could play ‘Besame Mucho’ (and nothing else) on the recorder. He actually did pretty well. I bet these guys got the absolute maximum mileage out of every little dittie.

    It’s funny, nowadays, to think of music lessons as a survival skill. We used to laugh at my Irish grandmother when she insisted that our piano lessons would ‘come in handy’ someday. She took in laundry and played in the silent movie houses. Hah! That’s probably why I so love this stuff.

    I hope to hear more about Hugh Dornan.

    Thanks, Simon.

  2. Yes, this “artisan” music making as a trade or profession that you depend on for your survival, perhaps with no other option. William Carr pretty much says exactly that.

    He had bad eyes when young and began learning music when about 12 years old, thinking it might be of some service to him as well as amusement (i.e. he was afraid he should go blind and therefore learnt to play the harp)

    This was before the Society schools, so he would have had to have organised his own tuition.

    Thanks for your insightful comments!

  3. You can see Hugh Dornan’s house in this 1950 photo. It is the house almost entirely hidden on the centre left of the crop, with an extra-tall chimney from the point of its roof. This is the beginning of Edward Street which runs back to the front left of the photo. The Irish Harp Society was just around the corner on Talbot Street in 1839-40.

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