Waterford CoI Cathedral


Mr O’Connor was a traditional Irish harper in the mid 19th century. He was originally from Limerick; he was blind, and was enrolled into the Irish Harp Society school in Belfast some time in the late 1820s or early 1830s. He had a very good performing career, touring and playing concerts usually with other traditional harpers, and also playing at private functions at the big houses of the nobility. Most of his work was in the South-East of Ireland.

This post is to draw together references and information about him, to try to piece together his life story.

Birth and education

We have no documents that mention O’Connor until he is out performing as a professional, so any information about his birth and early years and education has to be gleaned retrospectively from his adverts and concert reviews. We don’t even know his first name.

We are told a few times that he was from Limerick. We are also told many times that he was blind. Based on the information about his education we might guess he may have been born approximately between 1810 and 1820.

We have almost no information about his education either, but we have clues that he was a full-time student at the Irish Harp Society school in Cromac Street, Belfast, studying the traditional wire-strung Irish harp under Valentine Rainey. Many of O’Connor’s performing companions appear in the Harp Society minutes as pupils of the school, and the advertisements announce them all as “professors of the Irish harp” from the Belfast “institution”.

We can work out the likely dates for O’Connor’s education in Belfast. I think he cannot have been admitted to the School before 1826, because we have lists of admissions, current pupils and discharged pupils for the years 1820, 1821, 1824, and 1826. We also can guess that O’Connor was discharged before 1836, because we find him out performing concerts that summer. We can check my timeline of traditional harpers to see that most of the pupils seem to have studied full time for between three and six years. So I think it is fair to suggest that O’Connor may have been a student there some time between about 1827 and 1835.

Egan wire-strung Irish harp number 2044. Nancy Hurrell suggests that this harp dates from after c.1825. Photo © The Fitzwilliam Museum, used under a Creative Commons License CC-BY-NC
Egan wire-strung Irish harp number 2044. Nancy Hurrell suggests that this harp dates from after c.1825. Photo © The Fitzwilliam Museum, used under a Creative Commons License CC-BY-NC

After studying full-time for a few years, O’Connor would have been discharged with a certificate of competence and good conduct, and with a harp, which would have been one of the floor-standing wire-strung Irish harps made for the Society by John Egan, or by a local Belfast maker copying Egan’s design.

We first meet O’Connor in 1836, when he was touring in the south-west of Ireland. He had obviously already been discharged from the Harp Society school by this point.

Performing with Martin Craney in the South-West, 1836-7

We have already met Martin Craney; he was a student at the Irish Harp Society school until he was discharged maybe in 1828, so he may have been a classmate of O’Connor for a year or so. Anyway, Craney was touring and playing concerts on his own from 1828, until by 1836 he had joined forces with O’Connor to form a successful double-act.

We have already discussed these adverts on my post about Craney but I will copy them here and we will concentrate on what they tell us about O’Connor instead.

Summer has at length opened with all its glory and the sea cost of Clare teems with visitors; Milltown, in particular, exhibits its usual attractions, among which, the brilliant talents of Messrs. Crenny and O’Connor, the celebrated Irish harpers, stand pre-eminent.

Tipperary Free Press, Sat 20 Aug 1836 p1

I think this must refer to Miltown Malbay. Over the next three weeks, the duo made their way south, probably passing through Limerick to get to Tralee:

The concert held on Thursday evening last at Neligan’s Hotel, by these celebrated Irish Harpers, the Messrs. CRENNY and O’CONNOR, was numerously attended by the Gentry of this Town and neighbourhood.
There are so many associations linked with this beautiful instrument, the HARP, blended as it is with every incident that either illumines or darkens the page of Irish history – hung, as it has been neglected upon the willow, for centuries in the land of its nativity – that we hail the revival of the “Melody of yore,” with no small degree of enthusiasm –
“Bring daughter of Toscar, bring the Harp! the light of song rises in Ossian’s soul! It is like the field when darkness covers the hill around, and the shadow grows slowly on the plain of the sun”
It has been said that Ossian wrote about the Second Century; Then what associations does it not awaken – what feelings does it not inspire? – Of the performance, we have seldom heard with such exquisite gratification any thing like the brilliant execution of those Irish Minstrels upon this much admired instrument. In the course of the evening they played several of our most popular Airs, which drew forth the rapturous plaudits of their admiring audience. “The Moments were Sad,” solo, by Mr. Crenny, was loudly applauded, “My Ain Kin’ Deary,” duet, was well executed, “Webber’s Last Waltz,” and that National Air, the “Coolin,” were also performed with exquisite taste and execution. But that beautiful Air, “Come rest on this bosom,” solo, by Mr. Crenny, was rapturously encored – the air, so well adapted to the instrument, the finished execution of this talented young Irishman, his exquisite taste, with the wild swell and the thrilling tone of the instrument in his performance of this delightful Melody, came home to the heart, indeed, and awakened sentiments not to be suppressed. Mr. Crenny was equally brilliant in his performance on the two Harps in accompaniment, and played several Duets with perfect ease, the facility with which his fingers swept through the chords of the two instruments, and his finished execution was truly astonishing. – We are happy to find that in this Town and neighbourhood those Irish Minstrels have met with such deserved encouragement. They will give another Concert here and intend visiting Killarney in a few days; we are sure their trip to that quarter will be appreciated by the Gentry in that vicinity.
We observed among the crowded audience many of our fair Amateurs, also Lord Beresford and the Officers of the 90th Regiment.

Tralee Mercury, 17 Sep 1836, p3

There is a lot packed into this fascinating review. We can see that O’Connor is the less well known of the pair, but then he was very likely younger and less experienced than Craney. I wonder if the Harp Society encouraged its more experienced graduates to take on younger harpers freshly discharged to help them build their careers. But I don’t know.

The tune list is interesting; I already discussed this on my post about Craney. We can see that O’Connor does not get any solo slots in this concert, or if he does they are not noticed by the reviewer.

Four days later, we have a mis-dated advertisement for Craney and O’Connor’s performance every evening at Neligan’s. The advert gives us the context that the Tralee Races were on, which would guarantee a great audience.

DENIS NELIGAN, “CROSBIE ARMS’ HOTEL,” will keep the ORDINARY, this season, at Mr. M’CARTHY’s Lodge, Spa, where BREAKFASTS, SNACKS, DINNERS & SUPPERS will be supplied upon his usual MODERATE TERMS.
N.B. — The Celebrated Irish Harpers, CRENNY and O’CONNOR, will hold a CONCERT each evening during the Races, at the ORDINARY.
☞ CARS & CARRIAGES in readiness at all hours, for the convenience of Passengers to and from the Races.
Tralee, Sept. 21. 1886

Kerry Evening Post, Wed 21 Sep 1836

A month later, an advert announces that they had “revisited” Tralee – were they off for a month somewhere else?

We feel pleasure in announcing that Messrs. Crenny and O’Connor, the celebrated Irish Harpers, have revisited Tralee, and again intend exhibiting their powers before a Kerry audience. We trust they will meet that encouragement which they so eminently deserve.

Tralee Mercury, 22 Oct 1836 p2

They did a couple of concerts:

The Concert held last night at Mr. Mahony’s large rooms, Mall, was numerously and fashionably attended. We observed several of our fair amateurs who seemed to fully appreciate the brilliant exertions of those two talented Irishmen, Messrs. Crenny & O’Connor, upon this National Instrument. Their next Concert is fixed for to-morrow evening (Thursday,) when a large assemblage is expected. We are happy to find that –
“The Harp that once thro’ Tara’s hall,
The soul of music shed,”
has again awaked its witching tone in the land of its nativity.

Kerry Evening Post, Wed 26 Oct 1836 p3

As well as this editorial, an advert was placed on the same page:

MESSRS. CRENNY AND O’CONNOR, Professors of this National Instrument, from the Royal HARP Institution, Belfast, beg leave to announce, that at the request of several highly respectable individuals, they have come to this country, and will give
On To-morrow Evening (THURSDAY, the 27th inst.) at Mr. MAHONY’s Large Room on the Mall, when there will be a rich Selection of Music performed, consisting of a variety of the most popular and National Airs – the two Harps accompanying each other.
Admission, 1s. 6d. – Children, half price.
☞ Tickets to be had at the Office of this Paper.
Tralee. Oct. 26.

Kerry Evening Post, Wed 26 Oct 1836 p3

After that there is a gap of nine months, until the summer of 1837 when we find them giving concerts in Clonmel:

Messrs. Crenny and O’Connor,
BEG leave to announce, that at the request of several highly respected individuals, they have come to this Town, and will give
At the ASSEMBLY-ROOM, COURT-HOUSE, on THURSDAY EVENING, JULY 27th, when there will be a rich selection of Vocal and Instrumental Music performed.
The two Harps accompanying each other.
Performance to commence at 8 o’Clock
Front Seats, 2s. each; Back Seats and Children half price.
Tickets to be had at the FREE PRESS Office.

Tipperary Free Press, Wed 26 July 1837 p3

The paper followed up with a brief review:

The lovers of our national instrument were much gratified on Thursday evening, by the performance of its professors, Messrs. CRENNY and O’CONNOR. — The music was excellent, well performed, and duly appreciated by a numerous and highly respectable audience; indeed the sweet and solemn tones of the Harp of Erin could not but awaken the most dormant feelings. On Monday night, we understand, another concert will be given, which, we have no doubt, will be well attended.

Tipperary Free Press, Sat 29 July 1837 p2

Martin Craney died in Limerick in October 1837, three months after this concert. He was only 25 years old. Why was Craney in Limerick? I wonder if they might have went there there perhaps to stay with O’Connor’s family?

I think this collaboration (perhaps just for one year) would have given O’Connor a great deal of experience of performing and touring, which he would put to good use in the next stage of his career.

Performing for Daniel O’Connell, in Mayo, 1840

I have already discussed Daniel O’Connell (“The Liberator”) and his grand theatrical political processions, in my post about Joseph Craven who performed in one of the processions in Dublin. Daniel O’Connell often used traditional harpers as props in his public appearances; he had them dressed up in “bardic” costume, which meant a long white robe, and some kind of head-dress, either a laurel wreath (like we see in Patrick Byrne’s blanket photos), or a rounded pointed hat, like we see in the drawings probably of Craven, or a wig of long grey horsehair, like Roger Begley wore in the Diorama stage show.

Anyway we have what seems to be a reference to our man O’Connor performing for the Liberator, at a big formal dinner in Castlebar on Tuesday 28th July 1840.

The Repeal meeting in Mayo was held in the green of Castlebar, on Monday. It was attended by a vast concourse of people, and by several of the gentry and Catholic clergy of the country. Sir Samuel O’Malley, Bart., presided. Mr. O’Connell was present, and was most warmly received. He spoke at some length. The meeting was also addressed by several other gentlemen.
On Tuesday an entertainment was given to Mr. O’Connell, in connexion with the great demonstration of Monday, in favour of Repeal. The dinner was laid in Sheridan’s great rooms, and covers were placed for 150, but the number present so greatly exceeded the expectations of the stewards, that more accommodation was required, and considerably over the number were present on this glorious occasion.
About eight o’clock the honourable and learned gentleman entered the room, accompanied by his Grace the Archbishop of Tuam and the Chairman, and was received with the loudest and most reiterated peals of applause; – and immediately afterwards the chair was taken by Sir Samuel O’Malley, Bart., of Kilboyne-house, D. L., J. P.
The dinner was most abundant, the meats excellent, and the wines, including champaigne, were in great quantity, and their flavour of the richest kind.
After the cloth had been withdrawn, the Archbishop said grace, immediately after which
“Our beloved Sovereign, the Queen; may every happiness attend her” [nine times nine, and one cheer more.]
God Save the Queen was played with considerable effect by the Irish harpers, the Messrs. O’Connor, of Limerick.
The next toast, which was proposed without any preface, was responded to with enthusiasm. It was,
Prince Albert, the noble minded and illustrious consort of her Majesty. [Air – Willie came to woo.]
The Chairman then said – I have to offer to you a toast which I am sure will be responded to by those warm feelings which have always characterised the Irish people –
The Duchess of Kent, the Duke of Sussex, and the other branches of the royal family resident in England…

Tipperary Free Press, Sat 1 Aug 1840, p2

And so the loyal toasts continued. I assume that the harper(s) played the appropriate air after each toast. Here we have the National Anthem, and then the air of “Willie came to woo” which I think is a line of the song Muirland Willie. After a long speech by O’Connell, there is another toast:

The Chairman next gave –
“The People, the only true source of legitimate power”
(three times three). Air, “Sprig of Shillela.”

Tipperary Free Press, Sat 1 Aug 1840, p2

We have a problem here though, because the newspaper reports that the music was provided by “the Irish harpers, the Messrs. O’Connor, of Limerick”. I can think of a few possibilities. One is that this is a typo or error, and it should say “the Irish harper, Mr. O’Connor, of Limerick”. Or it could have omitted the name of a second harper, and perhaps it should say something like “the Irish harpers, the Messrs. O’Connor and Someone, of Limerick”. Or most worryingly of all, there may have been two different traditional harpers called O’Connor, both from Limerick, in which case we are lost because we would have no way of telling them apart, and this entire post would be conflating the stories of two individuals. I truly don’t know.

Sheridan’s is now the Imperial Hotel. As an aside, this may be the earliest reference I have seen to drinking champagne at an Irish harp event.

One or two weeks later, on either Thursday 6th or Thursday 13th August 1840, O’Connell was in Tuam where he attended a very similar dinner. The news report is very similar, using the same turns of phrase:

Pursuant to the invitation addressed to the Liberator, and which will be found in another column, that distinguished man dined with the patriotic gentlemen assembled in Tuam on Thursday evening last. At seven o’Clock a really sumptuous banquet was laid out in Daly’s great rooms, which form a figure resembling the letter L. At the centre or angle formed by the two conveying lines of tables were placed the seats of the Chairman, and the illustrious guest. The room was tastefully decorated with evergreens and splendidly lit up with wax. Two capital Irish Harpers were placed in the orchestra, and contributed a pleasing variety and cheering excitement by their performance of appropriate airs during the evening….

Tuam Herald, Sat 15 Aug 1840 p2

The article continues at great length to describe some of the attendees, and promises to print the speeches at length in next week’s edition. I wonder if “the Messrs. O’Connor” had travelled with Daniel O’Connell from Castlebar to Tuam as part of his entourage? I think Daly’s is now Corralea Court on The Square in Tuam.

There are plenty of other references to un-named harpers playing for O’Connell at different times and places but I would not like to hazard a guess if any were our man O’Connor.

Performing with McMullen and McAuley in Kilkenny, 1842

We next find O’Connor a year and a half later, when he has joined up with two other harpers. John McMullan was born at the end of 1815 or the beginning of 1816. He was blind, and he was enrolled in the Irish Harp Society School to study under Valentine Rainey in August 1824 when he was eight-and-a-half years old, which I think was unusually young. He was still a pupil in August 1826; I don’t know when he was discharged. (Irish Harp Society Calcutta 1828 p.44). James McAuley was also blind; we know he was a student of the school but his name does not appear in the Irish Harp Society minutes, so presumably he joined the school to study under Rainey in about 1827 or later. Both of these boys may have been classmates of O’Connor. I haven’t yet written either of them up but I will eventually.

(From the Royal Institution, Belfast,)
BEG leave most respectfully to announce to the Nobility, Gentry, and Inhabitants of Kilkenny, and its Vicinity, that they will give,
In the Assembly Rooms, Tholsel,
The novelty and interest of the Entertainment will, they hope, draw forth public attention; as few towns in the Kingdom have witnessed such a performance since the days of the honored Minstrels of old.
Doors to open at half-past Twelve. Performance commences at One.
Admission to Morning Concert, 2s. – Children half-price.
Doors to open at 7. Performance commences at half-past 7. Admission to Evening Concert –
Front Seats. 2s. Back do. 1s.
Tickets to be had at the Offices of the KILKENNY JOURNAL and MODERATOR, and by private distribution of friends.
☞ For particulars of Performances, see Programme in Bills.

Kilkenny Journal, and Leinster Commercial and Literary Advertiser, Wed 5 Jan 1842 p3

We also have a review of the concert a few days later:

Messrs. O’Connor, M’Mullen, and M’Curley, performers on the Irish Harp, and pupils of the Royal Institution, Belfast, whose advertisement appeared in our last, gave a morning and an evening concert at the Tholsel, yesterday. – Both were numerously and respectably attended, and the performances of the representatives of our ancient minstrels is pronounced by all capable of forming a judgement to be first rate. – Their execution of the most difficult pieces evinced the hand of a master and the heart of an enthusiast, and the performance on the instruments was in no wise superior to the singing. We understand that their stay will be prolonged, and we would earnestly recommend all who appreciate the beauties of the ancient music of Ireland to avail themselves of the opportunity which may not again readily present itself, for enjoying them in all their perfection. The performers bear with them testimonials to their high skill and exquisite performance from distinguished personages in different parts of Ireland.
By reference to the advertisement, which appears elsewhere, it will be seen that the entertainments are to be repeated on Tuesday.

Kilkenny Journal, and Leinster Commercial and Literary Advertiser, Sat 8 Jan 1842 p2

The Tholsel is the prominent arcaded town hall on Kilkenny High Street. I think this is the first reference I have seen to O’Connor singing (assuming he sang rather than just the others). The reference to the testimonials is interesting; we have Patrick Byrne’s collection of testimonials which are preserved along with his certificate from the Irish Harp Society, in his papers in the Public Record Office in Belfast (PRONI D3531/G/1). This review shows us how these documents may have been used in practice by the blind boys.

BEG to apprise the Public, that the Members of the
have kindly promised them their Support and Patronage,
On THURSDAY Evening next, Jan. 20, 1842.
In the ASSEMBLY ROOM, Tholsel
Upon which occasion, they will perform some of the most celebrated pieces of
the particulars of which will be specified in the bills o[ ] the day.
Doors to open at half-past seven, performance to begin precisely at Eight o’Clock.
Tickets same as last Concert.

Kilkenny Journal, and Leinster Commercial and Literary Advertiser, Wed 19 Jan 1842 p3

We also have a review of this concert:

On Thursday night, pursuant to the advertisement which appeared in our paper, Messrs. M’Mullen, O’Connor, and M’Curly, the performers on the Irish Harp, for some time resident in our city, gave their concert, under the patronage and support of the Citizens’ Club; and a demonstration so effective had not for years, been witnessed in Kilkenny. The Assembly Rooms were thronged to suffocation. There were upwards of 500 persons in attendance, comprising the respectability, taste, and intelligence, of all parties in our city. In calling for a “bumper” for our minstrel friends, we had no idea that we should be gratified with one so overflowing.
After the concert, about fifty members of the Citizens’ Club sat down to an excellent supper prepared for them at their rooms in William-street. Mr. Tidmarsh was in the chair. Mr. T. Cody occupied the vice-chair. Both gentlemen discharged their duties to the high satisfaction of all assembled. The harpers were in attendance, and contributed to render the scene one of real and thorough entertainment.
On the subject of national music, and the encouragement to be afforded to it, we shall have something to say hereafter. For the present we can only recommend to general imitation the example of the Kilkenny Citizens’ Club.

Kilkenny Journal, and Leinster Commercial and Literary Advertiser, Sat 22 Jan 1842 p3

I think the comment at the very end is to do with Fr. Burke’s temperance and harp society in Drogheda, which was founded on 15th Jan 1842, a week before this news report in Kilkenny. There seems to have been a keen interest in Burke’s work in Drogheda from certain people in the south of Ireland, and I think they hoped to set up their own Irish Harp Society in Kilkenny, but nothing seems to have ever come of it. You can read more about Burke’s Society in Drogheda in my post on Hugh Fraser.

After this the three harpers seem to have split up and they all went their own ways.

Performing with Renny in the South-West, 1844

Two and a half years later, we find O’Connor in Killarney, performing during the Killarney Races. We know this is our man O’Connor because one of the news articles mentions his previous collaboration with Martin Craney. I think this ball was on Wednesday 14th August 1844.

A very elegant ball, got up, by the energetic Stewards, at this quiet and comfortable hotel, at a few hour’s notice, terminated the amusements of this day. In the twirling of an ancle, the commodious ball-room was tastefully fitted up for the occasion, and an admirable and abundant supper was served up. The party consisted of about ninety, who kept up the merry dance, to the excellent music of the Assembly Room Temperance Band, till morning. A very agreeable feature in this ball was, the presence of the celebrated Irish Harpists Connor and Renny; the former known to many of our readers as the brother in song of the exquisite Crenny, whose harp is now silent in the grave. Ireland’s sweetest songs, on Ireland’s own harp, were listened to with delight, and if the eyes whose power of vision, by one of these strange phenomena which sometimes exhibit themselves in our moral and physical constitution, has merged in a more transcendant and intense faculty of the ear, could have opened for a moment to perception, they would have seen many a fair bosom beat high, and many an eye grow brighter, as those matchless strains came speaking from the strings.

Southern Reporter and Cork Commercial Courier, Tue 20 Aug 1844 p4

This is the mysterious second Renny. We know it is not Valentine Rainey the teacher at the Irish Harp Society School in Belfast, because he died in 1837. There was obviously a second Belfast harper called Renny but at the moment I know nothing at all about him. At some point I will write up what we have about him. It looks like Renny was blind as well.

South-East Ireland, 1845

The following year, we find the duo touring around the south-east, starting in Clonmel.

BEG respectfully to to return their sincere thanks to the Ladies and Gentlemen of Clonmel and its Vicinity, for the kind patronage bestowed on them at their recent Concert, and to announce that by particular desire they intend to give another Concert on FRIDAY EVENING next.
The time, place and Programme will be announced in the Bills of the day.

Tipperary Free Press, Wed 6 Aug 1845 p3

We are missing so much of the story because I have only found these occasional articles. I am sure there are more news clippings I have not seen. But it is also clear that a lot of information never got as far as the newspapers. It is possible that they never advertised their first concert, but just had handbills printed and distributed in the town. These kind of printed ephemera almost never survive; I only know of one single surviving handbill advertising a harp concert (one of Patrick Byrne’s).

Anyway, a couple of weeks later they performed in Tramore. I haven’t an advert for this one, only a brief editorial notice, but the description seems very vivid and genuine. I think the Tramore concert was on 25th August 1845.

We had the great pleasure of hearing Messrs. O’CONNOR and RENNY, the celebrated harpists from the Belfast Institution, on last Monday night, in the Court-house of Tramore. We have never heard men deprived of sight, so accurate in musical performance. They perform sweetly, indeed, and sublime. Mr. O’CONNOR has a strong mellifluous voice, deep and powerful. We rejoice to find that these gentlemen intend visiting Waterford on Friday next, when their arrival will, we are sure, be hailed with a cead mille faltha. – (See Advertisement).

Waterford Chronicle, Wed 27 Aug 1845, p2

The advertisement for the Waterford concert is printed on the next page:

By permission and under the patronage of the Right Worshipful Sir Benjamin Morris Wall
PROFESSORS of the Irish Harp, from the Belfast Institution, beg respectfully to inform the Nobility, Clergy, Gentry, and other inhabitants of Waterford and its Vicinity that they will give a Concert at the Town Hall on Friday Evening, August 29, when there will be performed a rich selection of Music, consisting of Irish, Scotch, and Welch Airs, both Harps accompanying each other.
Messrs. O’Connor and Renny, who are endeavouring to re[cusi]tate and revive the National Music of their Country, confidentl[y] appeal to the lovers of the national instrument in Clonmel, for their patronage and support.
Reserved Seats .. .. 2s.
Back Seats .. .. 1s.
Children half price.
Doors open at Eight, to commence at half-past Eight o’clock.
An Amateur Band will be in attendance.
Tickets to be had at the Bar of the Commercial Hotel, at Mr. Howards Music Warehouse, and at the CHRONICLE OFFICE.

Waterford Chronicle, Wed 27 Aug 1845, p3

There is an interesting error in this advert which gives us a clue to how the blind harpers organised their tours. Given that they have come from doing concerts in Clonmel, and are advertising to the people of Waterford, I assume they meant to “appeal to the lovers of the national instrument in Waterford”. However it looks like they just re-used a press release from the Clonmel concert! It would be easy to just use the same text, and change the date and venue at the top, and the ticket sales info at the bottom, and completely miss the mention of the town in the middle. Perhaps this advert shows us what the text of the Clonmel handbills may have been.

Actually this is a very interesting text for many reasons. The way they talk about reviving the national music is interesting. We also recognise the “Irish Scotch and Welch Airs” as a stock phrase which I think first appears in teacher Edward McBride‘s report to the Irish Harp Society committee in August 1821, before these boys’ time.

The day after this concert in Waterford, there was a brief review in the newspaper:

These gentlemen acquitted themselves in the most exquisite manner last night, at the Town Hall. It is a pity that in consequence of the shortness of the notice, these worthy followers of CAROLAN were not supported by the nationalists of the city. We understand they are to remain for another night – would it not be even prudent for those who run after all foreign and foolish amusement, to go and listen to the sounds of the harp, and learn how Irish harpers
—- “Once played and sung.”

The Chronicle and Munster Advertiser, Fri 30 Aug 1845

On Monday 8th September we catch a glimpse of them performing at a religious and temperance function in the town hall. A very long article about the evening was printed in the newspapers. It is a very interesting insight into how an evening like this was run. There are a lot of toasts – but no champagne, because it was a teetotal event. However, let us just concentrate on the sections that describe our harpers.

On Monday evening a Soiree was held in the Town Hall by the friends of Temperance to celebrate the occasion of the laying of the foundation stone of the Rice Testimonial as well as to encourage teetotalism in this city …
… [After a long list of the people who were there, starting with the mayor, the report continues] …
… The greatest attraction of the evening was the performance of the celebrated Irish harpers, Messrs. O’Connor and Rennie, who enlivened the house with the sweet sounds of Erin’s harp, carrying the mind back to the days of ancient chivalry and song…
… [next there were letters sent in by people who could not be there, and then a speech by the chairman, who continued with toasts:] …
…The Irish have always been a loyal people – history proclaims it – and their loyalty has not been conditional, but settled and disinterested, as can be proved by their loss of life and property in sustainment of legitimate succession. I give you the health of “her Majesty Queen Victoria.”
Next toast –
“Prince Albert, the Prince of Wales, and the rest of the Royal Family.”
CHAIRMAN – The next toast on the list is that of the Bishop and Clergy of this diocese (cheers) … [a short speech in praise of the Catholic clergy] … Allow me, then, to propose the health and happiness of the Right Rev. Dr. Foran, and the Clergy of this diocese.
Drunk with great appla[u]se, the harps playing Venite Adoremus, in most exquisite style.
… [a very long speech on religion which covers almost two columns of the newspaper] …
… CHAIRMAN. – I will now give you the opportunity of hearing Mr. Meagher. The next toast is calculated to elicit the most enthusiastic reception – our native land – Ireland as she ought to be, great, glorious and free.
Harp – “Patrick’s Day.” – Loud applause.
Mr. T. F. Meagher rose to respond to the toast …
… [after a long speech by Meagher, the next toast was to Daniel O’Connell, the Liberator, and the band played “the conquering hero”. Then the chairman continued:] …
… The teetotallers of Waterford, notwithstanding the snares which are laid to take the weak and vacillating, are firm, and their cause is still progressing. I, therefore, give you the health of our best friend and benefactor, “The Very Rev. Theobald Matthew, and success to the temperance cause.”
Received with great honour.
Mr. O’CONNOR, the harper, then sang in deep feeling and Irish style a temperance song to the tune of “The Humours of Glynn,” which took the house by surprise. A general acclaim followed each chorus – in fact, all was one scene of eager enthusiasm at the real, genuine singing of Mr. O’Connor, accompanied as he was by Mr. Rennie, who is a first rate performer.
… [then there was another speech, and a toast to the Mayor and Corporation of Waterford, and the Mayor gave a short speech, ending with:] …
… I assure you that the improvement of my native city is the warmest wish of my heart (loud cheers).
A tune from the harp, and a song by Mr. O’Connor – “Come, Freedom, come!” the followed; loud cheers succeeded Mr O’Connor’s song.
The CHAIRMAN – I am sure, ladies and gentlemen, that you are all grateful to Mr. O’Connor for his very eminent services here this evening (cheers). On Wednesday evening those gentlemen are to take their benefit, and I hope the teetotallers whom they have complimented, and enlivened will be at their post here on Wednesday evening. …
… [ next was a toast to “the ladies”, when they were addressed as “the insect queen” which I think was supposed to be a compliment. Then a toast to the organisers and stewards, and to the chairman, and the evening came to a close.]

Waterford Chronicle, Wed 10 Sep 1845 p2-3

The song “Venite Adoremus” is of course “O Come All Ye Faithful”, And we have that perennial favourite, the set-dance tune Patrick’s Day, which had been “set” for the harp over 50 years previously by the traditional harper Patrick Quin. We also get two songs sung by O’Connor; one is titled “Come, Freedom, come!” which I have not yet tracked down. We also have a temperance song which was sung to the air of The Humours of Glynn. I don’t know what the song might have been, but you can listen to the tune:

I don’t have any other references to their “benefit” on Wednesday 10th September in Waterford Town Hall; presumably this was just another concert.

After these events in Waterford, the two blind lads moved on to the next town, New Ross, for events in mid-September. Actually I am sure these blanks between the notices were filled with work; they would likely have been engaged by wealthy people in the town or in country houses to play for private parties or dinners. We just don’t see any of that kind of stuff in the public record.

I have not found any adverts or reviews of their concerts in New Ross at the Tholsel. What we do have is a letter written in to the Wexford newspaper mentioning the New Ross performances.

SIR – Permit me through the medium of your able and truly Irish journal to announce to the intrepid and patriotic Men of Wexford, and also to the fair and lovely daughters of your distinguished town, that the people of Ross were really delighted – nay, charmed, for the last few days by the performance of two Gentlemen, in our Tholsel, on that enchanting instrument of heavenly music and melody – The Irish Harp. One of these Gentlemen – Mr. O’Connor – is from the City of the Violated Treaty, and a first rate performer; and in my humble judgement , his soul is as pure as a faithful son of Ireland, as the sounds and notes of his Harp are delightful and charming to the ear and heart of the patriotic sons and daughters of the Green Isle. And could the unequalled and soul-stirring music of this matchless instrument be anything but pleasing to to the Irish ear, and gratifying to the Irish heart, when it never fails to bring home to the found recollection of every man versed in Irish History, the days of Ireland’s greatness and glory. The Men of Ross and their virtuous wives and daughters patronised the Gentlemen in question for three successive nights, and may they not anticipate the same favour and encouragement from the Gentlemen and Ladies of your far-famed town; and believe me, that they will feel equally gratified, as were the people here at the performance. Mr. O’Connor will sing several Irish Melodies in a beautiful strain, and in a peculiar style in company with the Harp.
I am, Mr. Editor, your obedient servant,
Ross, September, 26th, 1845

Wexford Independent, Sat 27 Sep 1845 p2

On the same page, is an editorial referencing the letter and promoting their next concert, which was in Wexford on Monday 29th September 1845.

The lovers of national music, and of the national instrument associated with all our dreams of ancient glory, cannot fail to feel pleasure in the anticipation of the enjoyment awaiting them on Monday evening, in the concert to be given by Messrs. O’CONNOR and RENNY, whose advertisement appears in another column. We have reason to know that the performances of these gentlemen, particularly of Mr. O’CONNOR, is exquisite. The letter of our warm-hearted and patriotic friend, “A Ross Man,” shows that the attendance upon their concerts in New Ross was numerous and respectable. The concerts previously given by them in Waterford drew great numbers of the respectable and intelligent citizens. We hope that in Wexford they are destined to meet with success equally signal.

Wexford Independent, Sat 27 Sep 1845 p2

The advert on the following page is their usual text:

By permission of Sheppard Jeffares, Esq., Mayor of Wexford
PROFESSORS of the Irish Harp, from the Belfast Institution, beg respectfully to inform the Nobility, Clergy, Gentry, and other inhabitants of Wexford and its Vicinity, that they will give a Concert at the ASSEMBLY ROOMS, on MONDAY evening, SEPTEMBER 29, when there will be performed a rich selection of Music, consisting of Irish, Scotch, and Welch Airs, both Harps accompanying each other.
Messrs. O’CONNOR & RENNY, who are endeavouring to rescusitate and revive the National Music of their Country, confidently appeal to the lovers of the national instrument in Wexford for their patronage and support.
Reserved Seats, 2s.; Back Seats, 1s.; Children half-price.
Doors open at Half-past Seven, to commence at Eight o’clock.
☞ An Amateur Band will be in attendance
Tickets to be had at the “INDEPENDENT” Office, and at the Door.

Wexford Independent, Sat 27 Sep 1845 p3

After the concert on Monday 29th Sept, there was a review:

Pursuant to the announcement in our last, Messrs. O’Connor and Renny gave their first concert at the Assembly-rooms on Monday evening. We are happy to state that the attendance was highly respectable, and that the performance of the several pieces named in the programme was to the entire satisfaction of the assembly, and called forth loud and repeated applause. The “Paustheen Fieun” and the “Land of the West,” as sung by Mr. O’Connor, elicited enthusiastic applause; and the former was rapturously encored. His singing of “Kate Kearney”, with accompaniment on the harp, also elicited hearty and continued applause. It will be seen that “Kate Kearney” and the “Paustheen Fieun” are, by particular desire, to be repeated at the second concert, to be given to-night. We have reason to believe that the attendance will be equally respectable as on Monday night, and much more numerous.

Wexford Independent, Wed 1 Oct 1845 p2

It is great to have the titles of some of the pieces which O’Connor performed. Here we are told about three songs, one of which has harp accompaniment – does that mean the other two were sung unaccompanied?

Kate Kearney is an English-language comic song, sung to the traditional tune Giolla Na Scríob. There are other songs to the same tune including “Kate Martin” (no connection to the 18th century harper Catherine Martin from county Cavan as far as I know)

The Irish language song “An Páistín Fionn” (The Little Fair Child) is well enough known in the tradition. Was O’Connor singing it in Irish here? I think that is possible given that he is using the Irish title.

“The Land of the West” is a song written by Samuel Lover. I am not finding a recording of this song for you to listen to. Lover’s songs were popular at the time but I don’t think anyone sings them or has even heard of them nowadays.

The duo stayed on in Wexford and performed concert after concert. Their fifth concert was on Monday 6th October, so they had basically done four in a week. I wonder if the same people went back every night to hear the same tunes?

The fifth concert of Messrs. O’CONNOR and RENNY will be given at the Assembly Rooms on Monday evening. We have reason to anticipate that the attendance will be respectable, and numerous beyond precedent – in short that the true-hearted sons and lovely daughters of Old Wexford will show what they are able and willing to do in honour of the ancient music of their country, and in support and encouragement of those who still call forth the tones of the Harp of Old Erin, and seek to transmit them to following generations.

Wexford Independent, Sat 11 October 1845 p3

Later in the same month the boys seem to have gone to Enniscorthy, where they played four public concerts as well as private events:


THE IRISH HARP. – Messrs. O’Connor and Renny, Professors of the Irish Harp, have given four concerts in this town, and their performance on the national instrument gave unbounded satisfaction to several lovers of Irish music in this locality. On Tuesday evening they performed before a distinguished company at the residence of John Maher, Esq., Ballinkeele.

Wexford Independent, Sat 1 Nov 1845 p2

So on Tuesday 28th October 1845 they went to Ballinkeele House which is about half way between Enniscorthy and Wexford, to perform for the house guests of John Maher. I am sure they were doing a lot more private events than this one, but we are not usually told about this kind of thing.

Cork, 1846

After that I don’t have any more information for the six months over the winter. We find our boys again in May 1846, in Cork.

PROFESSORS of the Irish Harp, from the Belfast Institution, beg respectfully to inform the Nobility, Clergy, Gentry, and other inhabitants of Cork, and its Vicinity, that they will give a MORNING CONCERT, at M’DOWELL’s GREAT ROOMS, IMPERIAL CLARENCE HOTEL, on SATURDAY Morning, May 2nd, and an EVENING CONCERT, on MONDAY, May the 4th, when there will be performed a rich selection of Music consisting of Irish, Scotch, and Welch Airs, both Harps accompanying each other.
In the course of the Entertainment, Mr. O’CONNOR will sing several of the Irish Melodies with Harp accompaniment.
MESSRS. O’CONNOR and RENNY, who are endeavouring to resuscitate and revive the National Music of their Country, confidently appeal to the lovers of the national instrument in Cork for their patronage and support.
Doors open to Morning Concert, at ½ past 12, to commence at 1; for Evening Concert at half-past 7, to commence at Eight.
A Full Band will be in attendance.
Tickets 2s each; Children half-price, to be had at Mr. A. D. ROCHE’S Musical Repository; Mr. BOWDEN’S, South Mall, and Mrs. GILLESPIE’S, Grand Parde.

Irish Examiner, Friday 1 May 1846, p1, also Cork Examiner the same day.

I think we can see that this is basically the same text as what they sent in to the Waterford Chronicle the year before. We can see the emphasis on their patronage, though as usual we are not told who the patrons were or how much private work the boys were givenby their patrons. I think the band playing in the concert is also interesting; this is quite a common feature of traditional harp concerts through the mid 19th century. And I note that O’Connor will sing “several of the Irish Melodies with Harp accompaniment” – I think this must be referring to Thomas Moore’s songs.

A couple of weeks later, the lads appear in a much more unusual show, which paired their harp music and song with a Shakespeare play.

THIS Evening Mr. PAUMIER will make his last appearance but one this season. The celebrated National Harpers, Messrs. O’CONNOR and RENNY will also appear, on which occasion the Reduced Prices will be taken. The entertainments will commence with
Shylock …….. Mr. Paumier. Antonio ………. Mr. Seymour.
A Russian Pas Suel by Madlle Floretta Camille.
The whole to conclude with a Grand MISCELLANEOUS CONCERT, in which Messrs. O’CONNOR and RENNY, Professors of the Irish Harp will make their second appearance, and, assisted by Mrs BARROWCLIFFE, perform and sing a variety of National and other airs.
Mr. PAUMIER’S Benefit under the Immediate Patronage of Col. MARKHAM, 22d Regt. and the Officers in general of the Garrison.

Cork Examiner, Wed 13 May 1846 p3

The advert continued with details of another appearance by Mr. Paumier the following night. I think this Paumier was a Shakespearian actor who was born in Whitehaven in 1805, and died in 1876, and is buried in Egremont cemetery (Sillard 1901 p37-8)

After that extravaganza, I don’t have another reference for the next four months, but in September 1846 O’Connor and Renny are still in Cork. This brief reference is in the middle of a column of other miscellaneous news. There are references to the price of food; imported American potatoes were selling on Dublin Quays for 10d a stone, and in Clonmel the price of maize had risen from 1s. to 1s. 8d., and wheat from1s. 8d. to 2s. 2d., to remind us that in September 1846 the harvest had failed and an gorta mór was starting to bite.

Messrs. O’Connor (Limerick,) and Rennie (of Belfast,), professors of the Irish Harp, had a Concert yesterday (Tuesday) evening, at the People’s Hall, Cork, which was most respectably attended.

Limerick and Clare Examiner, Wed 23 Sept 1846 p2

I suppose we have to imagine that O’Connor was working in between these flashes of information. They could have been touring together, or they could have split up. Perhaps they were doing concerts, but advertising by handbills instead of in the newspapers (and probably there are newspaper adverts I have missed). Perhaps also they were playing for private patrons in big houses.

Solo concert in Inistioge, 1847

Eight months later, in May 1847, we find O’Connor, apparently touring on his own, in County Kilkenny.

A Correspondent, writing from Innistioge, county Kilkenny, says: – “Perhaps it may be gratifying to you and many of your patriotic readers to hear that your distinguished townsman, Mr. O’Connor, the Irish harpist and vocalist, on his present tour through Leinster, is receiving unprecedented patronage and applause. In this town, where he has successfully performed during the past week, his concerts have been most respectably patronised and supported by the Right Hon. William Fownes Tighe, of Woodstock, Lady Tighe, the Clergy of all denominations, and the principal elite of the town and surrounding county. Indeed, his manner, habits, actions, and appearance seem to merit the universal eclat which he so generally receives. Mr. Eugene O’Cavanagh, having been announced in the concert-room, O’Connor, in his usual manly and national style, played and sang some of the most favourite Irish Melodies, which elicited from the entire audience three hearty cheers for Limerick, three more for O’Connor, and Erin’s Harp and Gaelic National Bard, Eugene O’Cavanagh, G.T.B., the talented translator of ALL “Moore’s Melodies”.

Limerick Reporter, Tue 4 May 1847 p2

This is a very interesting letter, giving an unsolicited audience reaction to O’Connor’s playing. The letter is sent to the newspaper in Limerick, where there was obviously a pride and interest in O’Connor’s career. Again we see O’Connor managing to get patronage from high-ranking aristocracy; here his patron is the Lord Lieutenant of County Kilkenny. There probably was not much shortage of food in these circles.

The reference to Eugene O’Cavanagh being in the audience, and O’Connor singing some of Moore’s Melodies for him, makes us again wonder if O’Connor was singing in Irish here.

O’Connor and Renny return to Wexford, 1847

The following month, O’Connor and Renny were back together and were back in Wexford, presumably hoping to reprise the success of their concert series there the year before.

We feel pleasure in directing attention to an advertisement in another place, by which it will be seen that Messrs. O’CONNOR and RENNY, the eminent Performers on the Irish Harp, will give a Concert on Monday Evening, at the Assembly Rooms. We can anticipate a full and fashionable attendance, confident as we are that those who had the gratification of hearing these delightful performers on our national instrument upon a former occasion will feel happy in enjoying a similar gratification again.

Wexford Independent, Saturday 12 June 1847 p3

The advert contains a surprise announcement:

By Permission of the worshipful Robert Cardiff, M.D., Mayor of Wexford.
Professors of the Irish Harp, from the Belfast Institution,
BEING on their way to Dublin, whence they intend proceeding to America, beg leave respectfully to inform the Ladies and Gentlemen of Wexford and its vicinity, that they will give
A C O N C E R T ,
When they hope to receive a further share of that patronage and support, which have been heretofore so kindly extended to them, and for which they have ever felt grateful.
For particulars of performance, see BILLS of the Day.
Doors open at 8 o’clock. – Performance to commence at half-past Eight.
Tickets to be had at the “INDEPENDENT” office, and at the Assembly-Rooms.

Wexford Independent, Sat 12 Jun 1847 p3

We also have a review, which talks (in very over-the-top and florid language) about their New World plans:

The admirers of the National Instrument in this town, received a delectable treat at Messrs. O’CONNOR & RENNY’s Concert, on Monday evening, in the Assembly-rooms. Each piece was given with a brilliancy of execution and delicacy of touch that carried us back captive to our ancient days of “bards and bravery” – but the “Coolin” seemed the very soul of inspiration, and should have been heard to be appreciated. It drew forth an actual hurricane of plausive admiration from the auditory; and we sincerely hope that it may occupy a place in the next programme. We heartily wish these distinguished Harpists every success in this and the Young Empire beyond the Western Main, whither they purport wending their pilgrimage within a very short period.

Wexford Independent, Wed 16 June 1847 p2

The Coolin is one of the big harp tunes that comes down from the 18th century Irish harpers. You can read my commentary on some of the 18th century sources, and you can listen to this traditional performance:

So what happened? Did they set off for Dublin, with serious plans for a tour in the States? Or was it all a pipe-dream? 1847 was the worst year of the famine, and talk of emigration would be all around them for the lower classes at least. But it seems to me that they stayed in County Wexford, because they were hanging around four months later, having apparently got a lot of work playing for the upper classes in the area. I found a clipping about O’Connor doing private events for the Grogan family at their country house, Johnstown Castle which is just a few km south-west of Wexford.

Mr. O’CONNOR, the celebrated Irish Harpist, officially attended some of the recent entertainments at Johnstown Castle, and drew forth undivided admiration of his abilities as a musician, and the overpowering sweetness of our national instrument. How delighted we should be, to witness the complete resuscitation of our ancient minstrelsy – a desideratum, which we can scarcely hope ever to see fully realised; but then, all can contribute, in one way or other to keep alive that sacred flame, which Mr. O’CONNOR satisfactorily demonstrates still burns with pristine effulgence.

Wexford Independent, Wed 6 Oct 1847 p2

The next clipping announcing their “farewell concert”, and the advert in the same issue, gives us an impression of them having spent the entire summer out and about in County Wexford, playing for fashionable society events with no thought either for an Drochshaol out West, nor for sailing to America to make their fortunes. The references to the “kind and lengthened patronage” of the Ladies and Gentlemen suggests to me that they had a busy summer playing at private parties in the big houses and town houses of the area.

By reference to an advertisement in another column it will be seen that Messrs. O’CONNOR and RENNY, whose exquisite performance on the Irish Harp has afforded so much enjoyment to the lovers of national music in the town and County of Wexford, will give their Farewell Concert at the Assembly Rooms on Friday Evening. From the high satisfaction they afforded on former occasions, we can anticipate, as we earnestly desire to witness, a full and fashionable attendance. The worthy representatives of our ancient Bards have given a series of concerts at our sprightly and distinguished model of watering places, Kilmore; and their performance was, on the several occasions, hailed with enthusiasm by the numerous and respectable assemblies attracted by the name and fame of our national instrument and the minstrels who called forth its magic tones.

Wexford Independent, Wed 13 Oct 1847 p2

And the advert in the same issue:

And under the Patronage of his Worship and of several Ladies and Gentlemen of high respectability in the town and neighbourhood.
(Professors of the Irish Harp),
BEG respectfully and most gratefully to tender their warmest thanks to the Ladies and Gentlemen of the Town and County of Wexford to whom they are indebted for a kind and lengthened patronage which they shall ever bear in vivid recollection, and to announce that, at the kindly and earnestly expressed request of many of their generous friends of the highest respectability in the Town of Wexford and the surrounding localities, and with the permission of his Worship the Mayor to whom they feel under peculiar obligations of gratitude, they will give
On Friday Evening, the 15th Inst.
The performance will consist of the usual variety of the most approved National and Popular Airs.
will be in attendance, and play at intervals the fashionable airs of the day.
Doors open at half-past Seven. Performance to commence at Eight.
Tickets to be had at the Independent Office.
Wexford, Oct, 13, 1847.

Wexford Independent, Wed 13 Oct 1847 p3

I think the typesetter got very tangled up trying to write “an amateur string band”… but we do have a review of this concert.

We are happy to state that, according to our anticipation, or we should say far beyond any anticipation we could form or express, the Grand Harp Concert given by Messrs. O’CONNOR and RENNY at the Assembly Rooms, on Friday evening, drew an unprecedentedly numerous and most respectable attendance. The rank, fashion, and taste of our town and the surrounding localities were amply represented. No stronger proof could be afforded of the high appreciation in which the talents and acquirements of the enthusiastic and accomplished votaries of Irish song were held from former experience, and from the fair representations of fame. The favourable opinion generally entertained of them was evinced by the warm and prolonged applause with which they were received on taking their seats for the performance, and which were repeated and carried to the the highest pitch of enthusiasm at frequent intervals during the night. The “Coolin” by Mr. O’Connnor, and the “Mountain’s Brow” by Mr. Renny, were among the first pieces which called forth the most vivid demonstrations of approval; and many of those which followed were received with equal favour. Upon the whole, the distinguished Harpists exceeded, if possible, all their efforts on previous occasions, and the applause bestowed formed only the tribute justly due to their exhibitions of genius and skill. We heartily wish them a continuance of such encouragement; and we have no doubt but they shall meet it as the reward of their continued application to the honourable task of developing the inexpressible beauties of the too much neglected music of our country.

Wexford Independent, Wed 20 Oct 1847 p2

After that there is a gap of two and a half years in the records I have found so far. Perhaps they did go to America after all! Or perhaps Renny did, because we hear no more about him.

With Bell in Dublin, 1850

O’Connor got together with another harper, Mr. Bell. I don’t have very much information about Bell, but I will try and write him up at some point. He was a blind traditional harper, and is mentioned in George Jackson’s account of the Irish harpers active in Belfast.

In 1850, O’Connor was in Dublin, and played a concert there with Mr. Bell on 10th April 1850.

On this evening the Irish harpists, Messrs. O’Connor and Bell, to whose admirable execution on the harp Miss Catherine Hayes has borne testimony, are to give a concert in the Rotundo. We trust our fellow-citizens will encourage this effort to revive our national music. We believe there is a growing taste for the harp; it is now to be seen in the most fashionable drawing-rooms of the city. The young ladies whose taste inclines them to cultivate this noble music will, consequently, do well to avail themselves of this opportunity of catching from these performers the spirit which made Irish music a thing of life and power in the days that are over.

Freeman’s Journal, Wed 10 April 1850 p2

I think the Dublin press are more off-beam than usual; they obviously have no idea of the different worlds occupied by the fashionable city ladies interested in classical pedal harp music, and our two boys trained in Belfast in the traditional music of the wire-strung Irish harp. On the other hand the testimonial from Catherine Hayes was surely worth something.

With Bell in Wexford, 1851

In the autumn of 1851, we find O’Connor performing in Wexford with Mr. Bell. I haven’t found the advert or information about their first concert in Wexford, but their second concert advertisement is superb, printing the full programme for their two performances on Wednesday 1st October 1851:


By Permission of Robert Stafford, Esq., Mayor.
Under the most Distinguished Patronage.
Who have distinguished themselves as Performers upon
and have been received with much eclat in the first Families of Ireland, beg leave respectfully to inform the Nobility, Clergy, Gentry, and Inhabitants of Wexford and its Vicinity, that they will (by desire) give a Second
when they hope to be again honoured with the kind influence of all lovers of the Classical Art in Wexford and its Neighbourhood.
P R O G R A M M E :
DUET – Harps, “Brian Boroughme.”
SOLO – Harp, “The Coolin.”
DUET – Harps, “Annen Polka.”
SOLO – Harp, “The Mountain’s Brow.”
DUET – Harps, “Captain Taylor’s March.”
SONG – “I saw from the beach.” – Mr. O’CONNOR.
SOLO – Harp, “Lord Moira’s Welcome to Scotland.”
DUET – Harps, “The Marquis of Huntley’s Farewell.”
SOLO – Harp, (by desire) “Ye Banks and Braes.”
DUET – Harps, “Garryowen” (varied).
SONG – King O’Toole’s Goose,” – Mr. O’CONNOR (Lover.)
DUET – Harps, “Molly Carew.”
SOLO – Harp, (by desire) “My Lodging is on the Cold Cold Ground,” varied – Mr. BELL.
SONG – “The Blarney,” – Mr. O’CONNOR – (Lover.)
DUET – Harps, “Neel Gow’s Farewell to Whiskey.”
SOLO – Harp. (by particular desire) “Kate Kearney,” – Mr. O’CONNOR, in which he will imitate the Musical Snuff Box.
DUET – Harps, “Little Cupid’s Waltz.”
SOLO – Harp, “The rising of the Lark.” – Mr. BELL
SOLO – Harp, “Paddy O’Rafferty,” – Mr. O’CONNOR.
DUET – Harps, “O fly not yet.”
SONG – “To-morrow, Comrade, we,” – Mr. O’CONNOR.
FINALE – “Rule Brittania,” “Patrick’s Day,” and “God Save the Queen.”
Lord and Lady Waterford, Lord and Lady Courtown, Mr. and Mrs Grogan Morgan, Lord and Lady Milton (Coolattin Park), and Lord and Lady Milltown, were happy to certify Messrs. O’Connor and Bell’s wonderful ability on the Harp.
Miss Catherine Hayes (Queen of Song) is happy to bear testimony to Mr. O’Connor’s admirable taste and execution on the Harp.
The Professors of Maynooth College and the neighbouring gentry bear like testimony.
Admission to Morning Concert, 1s. 6d. each.
To Evening Concert – Front Seats, 1s; Back Seats, 6d.
Tickets to be had at the INDEPENDENT Office.
Doors open to Morning Concert at One o’clock – Performance to commence at half-past One. Doors open for Evening Concert at half-past Seven – to commence at Eight.

Wexford Independent, Wed 1 Oct 1851 p3

There is so much information in this advertisement. The list of nobility and gentry at the end gives us a clue as to where O’Connor might have spent time, playing for private events in the big country houses.

The list of tunes is just amazing, and I am not going to go through them all here. I already discussed some of these in my post about 19th century Irish harp tune lists. There are some very interesting items here. I suppose the one that jumps out at me is O’Connor’s harp solo of Kate Kearney “in which he will imitate the Musical Snuff Box” – I struggle to imagine O’Connor, seated on stage at his big floor-standing wire-strung Egan-style Irish harp, playing the jaunty tune of Giolla Na Scríob perhaps very high, to sound like a miniature music-box.

That’s all I have for 1851.

At Kilmacthomas, 1852

I have just one very short and almost illegible news clipping for 1852. Kilmacthomas is a town in County Waterford.

Messrs. O’Connor and Bell gave an ev[ening ???] on the Irish Harp in Kilmacthomas on W[ednesday] night.

Limerick Reporter, Tue 31 Aug 1852 p2

Sometimes we get a hint like this, that O’Connor’s exploits elsewhere are being followed by the Limerick press, that the people of Limerick were interested in the career of “one of their own”.

At Villierstown, 1853

I have just one news clipping for 1853. The lads were in Villierstown which is a village in the West of county Waterford. It looks like they were playing in the open air outside the old School house.

Friday last a scene of rural felicity presented itself in the village of Villierstown, owing to the liberality of Lord and Lady Stuart de Decies, who re[gale]d over two hundred of the children attending his lordship’s school, which he maintains at his private expense, to a sumptuous and substantial dinner. The tables were laid out in the open air, before the school-house; several of the neighbouring gentry were present on the gratifying occasion, and the youthful recipients of Lord de Decies’ bounty seemed highly gratified at the fete which had been so liberally afforded them. To add to the pleasures of the day, the celebrated blind Irish harpers, O’Connor and Bell, who were then in the village, united their stirring strains, and music and dancing were kept up with spirit for a considerable time, and thus the day closed most joyfully. it is gratifying to find such a nobleman as Lord Stuart de Decies resident among his people, and contributing all in his power to render them happy. – Waterford Mail.

Saunders’s News-Letter, Friday 3 Jun 1853 p2

I assume that the reason that O’Connor (and his trusty sidekick Bell) were in Villierstown, was that they may have been staying at Dromana with Henry Villiers-Stuart, 1st Baron de Decies.

I am sure that there must be documentation or papers related to these noble families that could give us more information about O’Connor and Bell. We just need to start digging to try and find it.

Concerts in Waterford, 1854

In June 1854, O’Conner was in Waterford town with Bell. It seems that they spent a week or so probably doing private events, but they also gave an evening concert on Monday 12th June 1854.

THE HARPERS. – We learn that Messrs. O’Connor and Bell, who perform admirably on the Irish Harp, are to give a concert in the Town Hall on Monday evening, at which they will entertain the audience with “The wild [touc]hing strings of their dear native land” on the national instrument. The programme presents a vast variety of music.

Waterford Mail, Saturday 10 June 1854 p2

Perhaps O’Connor hoped that he could get the same success as what he had got nine years before when he did the concert series in Waterford with Renny. Unfortunately, on Monday evening it was raining, and it seems that the turnout was poor.

Luckily for us a journalist went, and wrote a review of the concert which is one of the most extraordinary descriptions of a traditional Irish harper I have ever read. At the end of the concert, O’Connor basically harangued the people of Waterford for not coming out to support the concert, and the journalist transcribed it for us in his article.

MESSRS. O’CONNOR and BELL, the Irish Harpists, have been stopping for the past week in our City, in order to favour the Citizens with their performances on the Irish Harp. The subject was one which should be at all times most grateful to an Irish breast, tending as it did to revive the glory of former days, when deeds of chivalry were performed in Ireland, and when peace and prosperity gladdened the land. We had imagined that the prestige of those gentlemen’s names was sufficient to bring crowded houses to meet them – not at all to speak of those patriotic feelings that should induce every true-hearted Irishman to give what support he could to the Minstrels of his Country. We regret much – very much, indeed – to say that from what we saw on Monday evening last, it was reserved for the inhabitants of Waterford – for the Citizens of the “Urbs Intacta” – to show to the world that all true Irish feeling was dead amongst them, and that they card nought for the glorious music of their Country. On the evening in question, Messrs. O’CONNOR and BELL had announced a Concert to take place in our Town-hall; and from the placards we saw, we were sure of a rich and varied treat from those truly gifted artistes. We repaired, at an early hour, to the Concert-room, under the full conviction that if we did not do so, we could not get even standing room among the crowds that would be present – but we were greivously, nay, sadly disappointed. At the commencement of the Concert, there were but a solitary few in the front seats – in the gallery was the majority; fully proving that the new-fangled desire for the light and effeminate music of foreign lands among our higher orders, has driven away all wish for their own fine old national music, the working classes alone excepted.
Mr. O’CONNOR, with beautiful effect, and in a most brilliant manner, in which he proved himself perfect master of his beautiful instrument, sang the “Harp that once through Tara’s Hall,” “King O’Toole’s Goose,” and “Terence and Cathleen” – during which, and at the conclusion, he was most rapturously applauded. Mr. O’C. fully sustained his well earned character as a perfect Harpist – his notes were drawn forth with truth, and given with effect, and were most efficiently accompanied by his voice, which is powerful, and seems to be under perfect command. At the finish, Mr. O’C. came forward, and said –

“Ladies and Gentlemen, I must apologise for thus venturing to detain you for a few moments; but I feel I would be very culpable, indeed, if I allowed you to depart without expressing to you my kind, my warm acknowledgements for your support this night. But I must say that, however influential may be the audience I now address; however great their taste for music – and, above all, for Irish music – and however widely spread their generosity in fostering and supporting Irish talent, yet still the present assemblage is not the one, in point of numbers, I was led to hope for, or expecting on my appearing in Waterford. Apart from myself, I had hoped that the very name of the Irish Harp was of itself sufficient to bring together large numbers of Ireland’s sons and daughters, to hear the strains of our country’s ancient instrument – and believe me, Ladies and Gentlemen, when I assure you that whatever talent I may possess, would be most freely, nay, most gladly brought to bear in affording pleasure, and reviving in the bosoms of my Countrymen, through the aid of our old Harp, those patriotic feelings and love of Country, for which Erin’s sons were so renowned in time of old. But I have been disappointed – sadly mistaken in my hopes – and I must only now come to the conclusion, that the love of Country is all but extinguished among the people of this City. The severity of the evening may, in some degree, account for the few numbers present – some there may be whose patriotic fire could not bear the effect of a slight shower – they feared it might be extinguished; and so for the good of their Country, they have remained at home, leaving us Harpers to play the music, and sing the songs of Ireland, to an almost empty room. I am inclined to think that their absence can be accounted for in another way besides this; and permit me to say not even so creditably. I have heard, and have been told, of the crowds that have filled this room, listening to the Italian Marionettes, the performance of Arthur Napoleon, and other prodigies – how highly they approved of what they saw, and how delighted they were at having gone to see them. These were Italians, Germans, and Frenchmen – they were signors and signoras – and, of course, should be followed and listened to by admiring crowds foremost amongst which must stand the sons of Ireland. Wherever the scraping of of the fiddle is heard, or the blowing of a bugle sounds, provided the performer is a foreigner, he is sure to be surrounded by numbers, while the Irish harper is left neglected and forgotten. I was given to understand that much support and countenance would be given us, on our appearing in Waterford. I was told that many were the lovers of music amongst you, and that those APOLLOS would lead us forth by the hand, and bring us a crowd of hearers. Whatever may be the claim of some of those gentlemen to a proficiency in Italian music, I do not know; but this I do know, that since my arrival here, I have had an opportunity of hearing them in Irish music, and I can say that I have heard one of those performers do nothing but BRAY, and another excel in BLEATING, while everything like the soul of true music was totally obliterated. Before I conclude, I would beg to pay a just debt of gratitude to one gentleman present; and in doing so, I trust he will not be offended. I have an Irish heart, and I must speak out my gratitude. I have been offered an asylum in this City at the hands of DR. JOSEPH MACKESY, whilst having myself cured of the effects of a severe injury I some time ago received; and although not quite decided whether or not I can accept this kind offer, I feel myself called on to tender my humble and truly sincere thanks in this public manner, to Dr. J. MACKESY, now present, for this most considerate act of benevolence.

Mr O’C, having intimated his intention of again appearing, in a few nights, in Waterford, in concluding, expressed his thanks to Dr. CARROLL and the Mayor, the former for procuring, and the latter for granting, the use of the Town-Hall on the occasion.

Waterford Chronicle, 17th June 1854

They did another concert in Waterford a couple of weeks later, apparently on Sunday 25th June 1854.

The friends and admirers of the Messrs. O’Connor and Bell, the talented Irish Harpists, will be afforded a rich treat to-morrow evening by those gentlemen performing choice selections of Irish music on their beautiful and truly national instrument. Mr. Quinn has very kindly placed his Auction Mart, in George’s-street, at their disposal, for which he deserves many thanks; and we trust that an equally patriotic spirit will be evinced by the citizens of Waterford, who we hope to see attend in large numbers. It is a treat they may never again be afforded; and from what we ourselves have seen of those gentlemen, and heard of their performance, we can safely say that no-one, having an Irish heart in their breast, will regret paying them a visit. Their skill as Harpists is unquestioned – they have performed before the highest in the land; and from all have they received the most flattering encomiums. The voice of Mr. O’Connor is rich and harmonious, and a most effective accompaniment to his instrument; and to morrow evening he will sing several Irish Airs to the music of the Harp. The performance will commence at nine o’clock, p.m.

Waterford Chronicle, Sat 24 Jun 1854 p3

Why are they in a different venue? Were they kicked out of the Town Hall for insulting the townspeople? And why is it “a treat [the people of Waterford] may never again be afforded” – were the harpers planning to leave Waterford and never come back?

I don’t have any further information about O’Connor. He would have been around his late 30s or early 40s in 1854. In July 1854 we find Bell performing in Wexford on his own. Was O’Connor blackballed from work? Did he die? Did he go to America?


Before I started my long 19th century project I had never heard of O’Connor. He doesn’t appear in any of the usual histories of harps and harpers in Ireland. But I started finding his name in newspaper clippings. I never realised how much I would find. I am sure there is a lot missing from this post. There will be other news clippings that mention him, but which I haven’t found in my searches. I also think that there will be papers related to him in the private archives of the noble families who patronised him.

I keep thinking of his close contemporary, Patrick Byrne, who had a similar kind of career. Byrne of course got higher up the social ladder, being introduced to the English nobility and getting to perform for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert at Balmoral. But we can see O’Connor doing a similar type of work: performing public concerts in different towns around the country, and visiting the big houses to play for private events. A lot of our information about Byrne comes from the private papers of his patrons, the Shirley family of Lough Fea. I imagine perhaps some family in County Wexford having a similar stash of O’Connor’s papers. Who knows what may turn up in time…

My map shows the places mentioned above, divided by colour into four phases of O’Connor’s life. You can click on a point to read how it fits into the story, or you can open the map full screen.

5 thoughts on “O’Connor”

  1. In November 1842 O’Connor was in Limerick. This fits between his concert in Kilkenny with McMullen and McAuley in Jan 1842, and his performance in Killarney with Renny, in August 1844.

    Saturday evening in the Trades’ Hall, in Thomas-street, was the scene of one of the most magnificent demonstrations we have witnessed in connection with the great cause of temperance…
    [long and lavish description of the decor, the attendees, etc.]
    … Mr. O’Connor, the Irish Harper, occupied an elevated position on a platform at a short distance to the right of the Chair, and threw his whole soul into his ancient national instrument…
    [also describes a singer, a band, and a violinist]

    Limerick Reporter, Tue 22 Nov 1842 p3

    I also see he is performing on a carriage in a Repeal procession in Cork at the end of 1843 (Cork Examiner, Wed 6 Dec 1843 p1)

  2. Wow! That was a proper rant he had in Waterford — never a good idea to vent anger at the people who didn’t come to the gig. And have it published in the local paper? Astonishing!

  3. Here is O’Connor on his own over the winter of 1844-5. He had started working with Rennie in summer ’44, and they did more in summer ’45, but here they obviously have separated for the winter season.

    MR. O’CONNOR, the Irish Harper, is at present at Mallow, where he intends performing, in conjunction with Mr. Barry, pianist. All true Irish hearts should go to hear him perform on
          “The harp that once thro’ Tara’s hall
          The soul of music shed,”
    and which often vibrated to the glories of our departed greatness. Nationality of music knows no sect, and the Repealer and Orangeman may for the nonce forget their feuds, and feel as Irishmen, by sustaining this “Minstrel boy,” in his endeavours to resuscitate the bardic music of old Erin. – R. B. B.
    Cork Examiner, Fri 24 Jan 1845 p2

  4. I missed that the issue of the Tipperary Free Press which included their August 1845 concert advert also included an editorial about them, which included a testimonial.

    We have peculiar pleasure in calling attention to the advertisement in our columns announcing that those celebrated professors of the Irish Harp intend gratifying the lovers of the “National Instrument” by another concert on Friday Evening next. Messrs O’Connor and Renny have strong claims on the support of the Irish public – of all creeds, and classes, and deserve to be encouraged in their patriotic efforts to resuscitate the National Music of Ireland. The former concerts given by those gentlemen were most fashionably and numerously attended, and Mr. O’Connor’s superior style of singing pleased and gratified the most fastidious ear. We subjoin the following testimonial of the talent of Messrs O’Connor and Renny, from the Marquis of Waterford. –
         “Lord and Lady Waterford were much delighted with the masterly manner in which Messrs. O’Connor and Renny played to them upon the Irish Harp.
                        “Curraghmore, July 23rd, 1845”
    Tipperary Free Press Wed 6 Aug 1845 p3

    Now actually this is really very interesting, because the same testimonial from Lord and Lady Waterford, with the same wording and the same date (23 July 1845) was used ten years later by Andrew Bell (Coleraine Chronicle, Sat 1 Sep 1855 p3). There is a story here, maybe connected to O’Connor’s disgrace. But how come the same testimonial is being used by different people? I need to dig more.

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