Abraham Wilkinson was a traditional Irish harper in the first half of the 19th century. This post is to gather the few references we have to him, so we can start to build a picture of his life.
Birth and early years
According to the Irish Harp Society minute book, Abraham Wilkinson would have been born in 1796 (or very early 1797). He is said to be from Ballymoney which is in the north-west of county Antrim.
I find two Wilkinsons listed in the 1803 Agricultural Census: Abraham Wilkinson in Ballymoney Town, and William Wilkinson in Ballywattick townland which is a couple of miles North-West of the town. One of these may perhaps be the young Abraham’s father. The Abraham in the town is not in either George Miller’s list of 1804-1810 nor in William Martin’s 1814 list, but William Wilkinson out in the countryside a few miles West is listed with his family in the 1817 Census of First Ballymoney Presbyterian Church. (There is also a John Wilkinson in the church list, with the same female family members, and I wonder if this is a duplicate entry). We wouldn’t expect to find Abraham the harper at this date, since he would be away working as a professional harper by then.
I think it is plausible that our Abraham may have been the son of the Presbyterian farmer, William Wilkinson of Ballywattick and Ballygobbin Townlands just North-West of Ballymoney town. But this is pure speculation.
The Irish Harp Society minute book includes a list of pupils as part of the minutes for a meeting held on Tuesday 2nd January 1810. Wilkinson’s details are recorded on the list:
Abraham Wilkinson of Ballymoney County of Antrim aged 13 Entered Sept. 1809 Recommended by Mr. Moore of Moore’s Lodge County of Antrim –Belfast, Linen Hall Library, Beath Collection 5.1
Each pupil had to have a recommendation from someone of higher social standing; Moore Lodge is south of Ballymoney, beside the River Bann (map). I think the Mr Moore who lived there in 1809 would have been a cousin of the main line of Moores but I am not entirely sure.
I have discussed before how the Irish Harp Society school worked. As far as I can see the Harp Society House in Belfast operated like a small boarding school; Arthur O’Neil was the teacher, and the twelve students (11 boys and one girl) studied the traditional wire-strung Irish harp full-time. The idea was to train them in a kind of craft apprenticeship scheme for a few years, which would finish after a few years with them being each presented with a harp and a certificate so that they could go and make a living as a full-time professional “artisan” Irish harper. You can read more on my posts about some of Abraham Wilkinson’s classmates: Edward McBride, James O’Neil, Bridget O’Reilly, and Hugh Dornan.
Abraham Wilkinson was admitted to the school in September 1809, aged `12 or 13. At that stage there were already six boys living in the Harp Society House, as well as the teacher Arthur O’Neil. We are not told specifically, but the descriptions of the pupils suggest they were all blind or partially-sighted.
In 1812 the school seems to have ground to a halt; by November 1812 there were no pupils at the Harp Society House because they had all been sent out to the countryside to fend for themselves, and as far as I can see the Society folded very soon after. It is not clear what Abraham Wilkinson might have been doing at this stage – whether he had been given or somehow acquired a harp. We know that some of them at least had certificates from the Society, and we know that some of them managed to find employment playing the traditional wire-strung Irish harp for aristocrats in big houses, or playing daily gigs at hotels or taverns. But I have no more information about Abraham Wilkinson. He would have been 16 years old by the end of 1812.
A concert in Wales
We find a Mr. Wilkinson performing in Caernarfon on 28th September 1840. I think this may well be Abraham Wilkinson. If so, he would have been about 44 years old by this time.
THE WELSH HARPER. – We feel glad to announce to the nobility and gentry of this and the adjacent counties, that on Monday next Mr. R. Roberts, of this town, so celebrated throughout the Principality as the best living type of the ancient harpists of old Cambria, and whose bereaved vision greatly enhances his claims upon public sympathy, intends giving a vocal and instrumental concert at the Guild Hall, on Monday next. Right heartily do we trust that the fine old harpist may, on that occasion, be favoured with liberal patronage and support. In the course of the evening, Mr. Wilkinson, an Irish harpist, will play a variety of national airs on the Irish harp, a novelty never before presented in this town; and Mr. Roberts will, besides playing several of his favourite airs, accompany his infant son, aged nine years, on the Welsh harp, and Mr. Wilkinson on the Irish harp. In addition to the harp performances, a few amateurs, who have kindly offered their services, will sing a variety of songs, duetts and glees.Caernarvon and Denbigh Herald, Sat 26 Sep 1840 p2-3
This fascinating announcement gives us a lot to think about. I think the Welsh harper is Richard Roberts (1796 – 1855) who was therefore the same age as Abraham Wilkinson. Richard Roberts was very well known as a Welsh harpist; he had been blinded age 8 from smallpox, and had learned the harp in the Welsh tradition from William Williams (Wil Penmorfa), and won many prizes for his harp playing, and had published a book of harp music. I found a reference to an unpublished portrait of Richard Roberts but I haven’t seen the portrait.
I think that at this time there were more Welsh harpers than Irish ones, and the teaching and transmission of the tradition had not become institutionalised like in Ireland – the harpers were still learning under the private patronage of individual wealthy patrons. A few Welsh harpers continued to teach in the inherited tradition through into the 20th and 21st century, unlike the Irish harpers who seem to have stopped teaching in the 1850s, leading to the end of the inherited Irish tradition.
The layout of the concert seems interesting as well. Roberts is the headline act, and Williams seems to be the support act. We see Roberts playing duets with his young son, and we also see Roberts and Williams playing together. This would have been an unusual and interesting spectacle, since the playing techniques, musical styles, and sound-worlds of the Welsh triple harp and the wire-strung Irish harp are very different.
We also see a turn in the concert done by “a few amateurs, who … will sing a variety of songs, duetts and glees”. This is the same kind of thing we often find in the concerts in Ireland, where local gentlemen or lady singers take the stage for some choral music as interludes between the harp music performed by the lower-class professionals.
I think the venue was the Guildhall in Caernarfon. (I’m pretty sure the concert was in Caernarfon and not Denbigh, but sometimes I doubt…) The Guild Hall in Caernarfon was built on top of the main gate into the old walled city. The old photo here shows it standing on top of the city walls; the bridge in the centre of the photo has houses and shops built on it. Nowadays the Guildhall and the wee shops are all gone, and all that is left is the bridge and the gate arch. The old Guildhall was the venue for many important events in Caernarfon, including anti-slavery debates in the late 1820s.
We have a review of the concert:
MR. ROBERTS’S CONCERT. – The Concert of this prince of the harpers of old Cambria on Monday last was extremely well supported – the families of Coedhelen Glangwyna, Llanfair, Plascoch, and Treborth, being present, together with a large number of the household at Glynllifon, although Lord and Lady Newborough were unavoidably absent. There was also a strong muster of the influential families in the town. This kind attention on the part of the elite of the neighbourhood has impressed a feeling of indelible gratitude on the mind of the aged minstrel; and we are commissioned to return his most grateful acknowledgements to the families by whom he was so liberally supported, the public at large, and the amateur vocalists whose assistance was kindly extended to him. Of Mr. Roberts’s performances it is unnecessary to speak. His faultless execution, his exquisite precision in time, and wonderful command over the resources of the national instrument, have been too widely and generally acknowledged to need any plaudits from the press. Let praises be showered upon the young and the aspiring, the blind old harper of North Wales is placed far above their influence or their action. His fame is on record. Of the Irish harp we do not profess to be competent judges, and therefore we have little to remark as to the performances of Mr. Wilkinson. In the vocal department the amateurs gave decided satisfaction. It would be invidious to particularise where all was equally good – – – the duets, however, seemed to elicit a more marked approbation: and the song, “The days when we were gypsying” was most enthusiastically encored.Caernarvon and Denbigh Herald, Sat 3 Oct 1840 p3
Things that strike me about this review is how it can divide into four parts. The first and most prominent is the list of the people of quality who were in the audience (including a mention of two people who were not there!). Then we have a lavish description of Richard Roberts. It is interesting how he attracts similar praise to how the Irish harpers were regarded in Ireland; Roberts was described as an “aged minstrel” even though he was about 44 years old; and he plays the “national instrument”. In the fourth section praising the “amateurs” and their singing, the reviewer seems to be very comfortable with their performances, and indeed this is the only section where he directly mentions the audience reaction (which seems to have been very favourable)
The third section about Mr Wilkinson is very interesting to me, since the reviewer only says “Of the Irish harp we do not profess to be competent judges, and therefore we have little to remark as to the performances of Mr. Wilkinson.” I think this must tell us something about the style and sound of the Irish harp – it was obviously very different from Roberts’s Welsh harp playing, and it may have sounded quite alien and different to the reviewer’s ears, so that he was not able to say anything constructive about Mr. Wilkinson’s playing.
I should repeat that I am not entirely sure if this was Abraham Wilkinson performing at this concert. We only know that it was a Mr. Wilkinson who is said to be playing the “Irish harp”. It is possible that this was a different Mr. Wilkinson, perhaps a classical pedal harp player who was marketing himself as Irish, though I do think that is less likely because of how he is described in the review. I think it is more likely that this was our Abraham Wilkinson, playing his traditional wire-strung Irish harp, using the traditional playing techniques and repertory that he had learned in Belfast from his teacher, Arthur O’Neil. But we need to find more references to see how plausible this all is. For now, I have nothing more.