James O’Neil was a traditional Irish harper in the early 19th century. We have only two sources which mention him. But we can join these two and try to find the context for them, to start to tell his story.
Studying at the Irish Harp Society
We first meet James O’Neil at the Irish Harp Society School in Belfast, where he was studying the traditional Irish wire-strung harp full-time under Arthur O’Neil. In the minutes of a meeting on Tuesday 2nd January 1810, (mis-written 1809), 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.
James O Neil / from Dungannon C of Tyrone / aged 17 / Entered Feby 1809 / recommended by Dr James McDonnell Vice PresidentIrish Harp Society minute book (Belfast, Linen Hall Library, Beath Collecton, box 5.1)
This entry tells us a lot about him. If he was aged 17 on 2nd Jan 1810, we can calculate that he was born in 1792. We don’t have a specific statement that he was blind, but all the descriptions of the pupils imply that they were all either blind or partially-sighted.
The minute book says he is “from Dungannon”. There is another younger boy, Patrick O’Neil, who was listed as being “from near Dungannon” so I assume that James may have been actually from Dungannon town rather than out in the countryside nearby. Arthur O’Neil himself was originally from Drumnastrade, about four miles south of Dungannon, so I am sure there were loads of O’Neils in the area who may have known each other or been related to each other.
James O’Neil was recommended to the Society by Dr James McDonnell, who was Vice President of the Gentlemen Committee who ran and funded the Society. Every student had to have recommendation from someone of sufficient social class and this in itself would be a fascinating study, to try and draw connections between the sponsors, the Gentlemen of the committee, and the boys themselves. It may say something about James O’Neil’s potential that Dr McDonnell recommended him; or he may have been known to McDonnell somehow.
Anyway, in February 1809, James O’Neil was enrolled as a full-time boarding student at the Harp Society school. When he joined, there were four boys already there. William Gorman had already been studying for eight months; Patrick McGrath had been there for five months, Edward McBride had been there three months, and Patrick O’Neil had been there about one month.
The minute book and newspaper reports give us snapshots of what the boys were doing, but only snapshots, because they focus on the affairs of the Gentlemen of the Committee – rules, fundraising, organising the next meeting, that kind of thing.
Only a month or so after James O’Neil had enrolled, a report in the newspaper describes a St Patricks Day dinner held by the Gentlemen Committee and supporters of the Harp Society. The Gentlemen sat in a dining room ornamented with “transparencies” (presumably illuminated glass panels) of St Patrick and Hibernia, and “an ancient Irish harp decorated with garlands of shamrocks” was suspended in the middle of the room. After the gentlemen had enjoyed their dinner, there was entertainment. First of all, Arthur O’Neil was brought in, and he played some tunes on the harp: Patrick’s Day, Mrs Crofton, and the Fairy Queen. Then two “amateurs” (perhaps two of the Gentlemen) sang a “duet, written to the old Irish air of Kitty Tyrrell”: “Last Minstrel of Erin, how sweetly thy fingers / in strains of wild melody sweeps o’er the strings / while each lengthen’d vibration seems slowly to linger…”, and several other songs presumably in similar classical style. Then James Cody, the piper and music collector, was brought in, and played some tunes on the pipes. Drinks were circulated around the Gentlemen, and “the heart, alive to the sensations excited, began to expand more freely”, Patrick O’Neil and his classmates were finally brought in to the room:
Eight Blind Boys, supported, clothed, and instructed on the Harp, by the Society, were admitted. … They were received with repeated bursts of applause. After playing some airs, as a specimen of their progress, highly flattering to their aged teacher, they retired, and the company prepared for the usual routine of conviviality…Belfast News Letter, 21 March 1809 p2
It is interesting that “eight blind boys” are mentioned. We know that James O’Neil was the fifth boy to enter; Valentine Rainey was also admitted in February, making six. There are also three “day scholars” listed in the 2 Jan 1810 minutes, so two of them must have been attending before March 1809.
Who played the airs, and what did they play? I don’t think the Irish Harp Society owned eight harps at that point; and of the eight boys, we know that two had only been studying for one month; the longest any of them had been studying was William Gorman who had nine months study under his belt.
We have a report of another dinner organised by the Gentlemen of the Society, this time in honour of Edward Bunting, on Wednesday 20th December 1809. “About fifty gentlemen … sat down to a sumptuous dinner, elegantly served up, with excellent wines, &c.” It seems that Arthur O’Neil was at the dinner as well. After the dinner, there were formal toasts and speeches, and then after that Arthur O’Neil
led into the room his 12 blind pupils, one of whom is a female, Miss O’Reilly, – their entrance exhibited a scene peculiarly impressive; but when Miss O’Reilly and two of the youths strung their harps, and played some trios, duets, &c., they were followed by most enthusiastic applause…The Irish Magazine or Monthly Asylum for Neglected Biography, Jan 1810 p5-7
Now we have the full compliment of students from the Jan 1810 list, but only three play. I have already suggested that as well as Bridget O’Reilly, the other two may have been Edward McBride and Valentine Rainey. Presumably James O’Neil and the others stood neatly in a row.
Two months later we have a similar show of the pupils at the St Patrick’s day dinner. After the dinner and speeches,
The Pupils of the Society, consisting of one female, Miss O’Reilly, and eight boys, all blind, and neatly, though plainly and uniformly dressed, were introduced into the room, and convinced the gentlemen present by their improved performance, that the attention of their venerable tutor O’Neill, had not been bestowed in vain on the rising talents of his scholars, some of whom promise fair to attain the highest eminence in their profession. After their departure, the toasts recommenced…Belfast News Letter, 20 March 1810
We are not told if they all played here or not. I am sure the Society did not own as many as nine harps. Only nine pupils were there; perhaps the three day scholars were not present.
By this stage James O’Neil had been a student for just over one year. His most senior classmate William Gorman had been studying for a year and nine months.
Normally I don’t like to dwell on the business of the Gentlemen, because I am trying to focus on the lives of the individual harpers. But I think the fact that the Society was having serious money troubles is relevant to the next stage of our story. The minute book is full of resolutions to try and get the subscribers to actually pay the money that they had pledged to; the Society had apparently stopped paying Arthur O’Neil his salary after 1808 so that they owed him serious amounts of money; and we know there was a shortage of harps (perhaps partly because at this date there were not established harp makers to buy traditional floor-standing wire-strung Irish harps from). On 22nd May 1810, the minute book records that the two top pupils, McBride and Rainey, could not be sent out to perform because of a “deficiency of harps”.
Dismissed from the Society
Rule 13, in the minutes of the General Meeting of 18 Nov 1809, gave the Gentlemen of the committee the power to expel students:
13. If any pupil be found either thro’ incapacity or neglect, not to have improved as was to have been expected, he shall be removed and another admitted in his placeIrish Harp Society minute book (Belfast, Linen Hall Library, Beath Collecton, box 5.1) p27
Seven months later, at the meeting of 19th June 1810, we see this put into action. Only four committee members were present, Edward Bunting, Rev E Groves, William Radcliffe, and John McAdam.
Ordered – that Jas O Neil and Wm Gorman (agreeing to a former resolution) be immediately dismissed the Society as incapable by nature of Learning the Harp.Irish Harp Society minute book (Belfast, Linen Hall Library, Beath Collecton, box 5.1) p56
There is no record of any other student being admitted. I think that the Society finances were so strained that they may not have felt able to admit a new beginner. On the other hand I have a couple of names of traditional harpers in the late teens or early 20s who I can’t otherwise account for, so it is possible that one or two new boys were admitted in James O’Neil’s and William Gorman’s places.
I find this episode fascinating but mysterious. By June 1810, William Gorman had been a full time harp student under Arthur O’Neil for two years (he entered in June 1808). James O’Neil had been studying full-time for one year and four months (entered Feb 1809). Yet the resolution does not give practical explanation for them not being up to standard. “incapable by nature of learning the harp” seems like the kind of statement a teacher might make after a few weeks, not after two years of full time study.
There must be a story behind this.
Anyway that was it, James O’Neil was dismissed, but he was obviously not presented with a harp or a certificate of ability and good conduct. As a blind boy he would not have many options in life, not many opportunities to earn a living. He would have been 18 or 19 years old.
Even though he did not have a harp, or a certificate, he nonetheless had the enviable experience of having studied full time for 16 months with a highly respected teacher and tradition-bearer in the old Irish harp tradition.
Joining the army
Two years later, in 1812, James O’Neil joined the British Army, and became an army harper.
This morning, eleven fine young fellows, raised in the last month by Lieut. Hodgson, of the 86th, marched to join the regiment, now quartered at Ashford; they went off in high spirits, cheered by the melodies of one of the party (James O’Neill) the celebrated harper, from the Belfast Society – equally devoted to Mars and Apollo, with his harp slung at his back, he, no doubt, will ensure a welcome from his countrymen, for whose gratification he goes amply provided with the most select native airs.Limerick Gazette, Fri 2 Oct 1812 p3
This article seems very clear. James O’Neil the harper from the Belfast Society must surely be our man. He has got hold of a harp from somewhere, and he can play a lot of Irish tunes on it.
Five months previously, the 86th regiment of foot had been re-named and re-badged. I think there must be a connection between the addition of the Irish harp to the insignia and colours of the regiment, and the recruiting of a traditional Irish harper five months later.
…in May, 1812, the royal authority was given for this corps being styled the “EIGHTY-SIXTH, OR ROYAL COUNTY DOWN REGIMENT OF FOOT;” at the same time the facing was changed from yellow to blue, the lace from silver to gold; the Irish “HARP AND CROWN” was placed on the buttons, and the “HARP” was added to the distinctions displayed on the regimental colours.Historical Record of the Eighty-Sixth Foot, p46
Now I am not a military historian so I don’t want to get too tangled up in this but as far as I can see the 86th had a depot at Ashford in Kent in 1812 (Steve Brown, British Infantry Regimental Depots 1804 – 1812). As I understand it, the depot is where new recruits would go, and where officers on leave would be, and where correspondence would be sent, while the regiment was away overseas. And at this period the 86th regiment was on duty in India.
The Historical Record of the Eighty-Sixth Foot has a good overview of the history of the regiment at this time, so I will just summarise the bits that may be relevant for James O’Neil.
We can imagine James O’Neil and his ten companions making their way to Ashford. Perhaps they would be trained there, or at least formally enrolled in the army. I am not sure what James O’Neil’s status would be, as a (perhaps blind) harper, whether he would be attached to the regimental band or drummers or if he would be attached to the colours as a kind of living embodiment of the Irish harp emblem that had recently been awarded. I think James O’Neil’s path as an Army harper could have gone in two slighty different ways depending if he was with Lieut. Hodgson, or if he was with the colours.
After the Royal grant of the new emblems and colours in May 1812, they had to be taken out to the regiment in India. I don’t know exactly when this happened but I think it is possible that James O’Neil (if he was the Regimental Harper) may have gone out with them.
… a detachment consisting of Captain Michael Creagh, Lieutenants Home and Perry, Ensigns Goold, Bradford, Caddell, Henry, and Moreton, had joined at Masulipatam, bringing the new regimental colours.Historical Record of the Eighty-Sixth Foot, p47
The regiment had been at Masulipatam since Autumn 1813 so this detachment could have arrived there any time from then on. The voyage could take 6 months or so.
Meanwhile, Lieut. Hodgson and his new recruits remained in the South East of England, perhaps for training, I don’t really know. The Historical Record refers to them as “volunteers from the militia”. At the end of 1813 they were formed into a brand new 2nd batallion of the 86th regiment, intended for service in the Napoleonic wars in Europe, and they were variously stationed in Hythe, Colchester and Deal, preparing to go to Holland. Napoleon abdicated on 11 April 1814 and the war officially ended before they ever got to Holland, and so the 2nd batallion was disbanded towards the end of 1814 and they all set off for India to join the main body of the regiment there. The Historical Record, p47, says “On the 11th of September , Major Baird, Captain Edwards, Lieutenants Mc Laurin, Webb, Leche, and Hodson, Ensigns Stuart, Law, Russell, Holland and Home, with sixteen serjeants and two hundred and thirty rank and file, (the effectives of the late second battalion,) arrived at Masulipatam.”
So whether he travelled with Lieut. Hodgson, or whether he had travelled earlier with the colour detachment, we can imagine James O’Neill the harper with his Irish harp arriving in Masulipatam at some point in 1814 or 1815.
In January, 1816, the head-quarters were removed to Hyderabad, where they remained nine months, and afterwards returned to Masulipatam, where Captain Chadwick had arrived, with forty-six recruits, from England, in the preceding August.Historical Record of the Eighty-Sixth Foot, p47-48
The Historical Record gives a lot of detail about the regiment’s exploits in India after that. The regiment was ordered to return to England in 1816, but these orders were cancelled. The return was again ordered in April 1818, and the regiment went to Madras (now called Chennai) to get on the ship, but they had to stop off at Ceylon (now called Sri Lanka) to “supress the hostile agressions” of the natives there. Eventually they all got back to Madras, where they finally had finished their work in India. Some of the officers and men transferred to other regiments so that they could stay in India, but the remainder left Madras in April 1819, landing in Gravesend in England on 23 October 1819.
Was James O’Neil still with them? Had he even gone to India? Did he stay in India? Had he died in India? Had he changed to a different regiment to have a career as an Army Harper elsewhere? Maybe some more hints will turn up.
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