Hamilton Gillespie

Hamilton Gillespie was a traditional Irish harper in the first half of the 19th century. This post draws together information about his life.

According to what records we have, Hamilton Gillespie was born in the second half of 1802 or the first half of 1803. He was said to be “from Belfast”.


We have a reprinted extract of the minutes of a meeting of the Gentlemen of the Irish Harp Society in Belfast on 8th August 1820.

…The number of Pupils at present learning the Harp, are Seven, viz.
Admitted Feb. 21, 1820, Pat Burns, aged 21 years, blind, from Kings Court, Co. Meath.
Admitted March 7, . . . H. Frazer, . . . . . . 12 . . . Ballymacarrett
Admitted April 8, . . . . Pat. McCloskey . . 12 . . . Banbridge
Admitted Feb 21, . . . . Thos. Hanna, . . . 17 . . . Belfast
Admitted Feb 21, . . . . H. Dornan, . . . . 29, . . . Belfast
Admitted ” ” . . . . . Ham. Gillespie, . . . 17, . . . Ditto.
Admitted ” ” . . . . . John McCotter, . . 26, . . . Ditto

Minutes of meeting, 8th August 1820, printed in Calcutta Journal vol 2 no 75 p188

The harper and tradition-bearer Edward McBride had been appointed the teacher at the beginning of 1820, and an advertisement had been placed in the newspaper, stating that candidates should present themselves at at the Society’s House, 21 Cromac Street, Belfast, at 10am on 21st February 1820. (Belfast News Letter, 11 Jan 1820, p3). We can see that Hamilton Gillespie showed up on that day and was admitted as a pupil, alongside John McCotter, Hugh Dornan, Thomas Hannah, and Patrick Byrne. The five boys were later joined by two more pupils, Hugh Frazer and Patrick McCloskey.

Hamilton Gillespie and his six classmates were all studying the traditional wire-strung Irish harp full-time under Edward McBride. They attended the school at the Harp Society House every day, but they had to organise their own accommodation. This was not necessarily a problem for Hamilton Gillespie who was from Belfast, but it was a big problem for the boys from out of town, and so from 26th May, the Committee agreed that Byrne, McCloskey and Hanna were to become boarding pupils, living in the Harp Society house with the teacher Edward McBride. The others including Hamilton Gillespie would continue to live in the town and to walk in every day for their lessons.

The next information we have comes from one year later, when Edward McBride presented his report to the Gentlemen at their committee meeting:

EDWARD MCBRIDE, Teacher, reports that the present number of Pupils, Boarded and Lodged at the Society’s Expense, is Four, viz.
1820, Feb 21 – Patrick Byrnn. (blind) Meath, 23, … 60
——————–Thomas Hanna, Antrim, . . . . . 18, … 58
—–, April 8 – Patrick McClusky, (blind), Banbridge, … 12, … 40
1821 May 10 – Jane McArthur, (blind), Ballycastle, … 17, … 9
1820, Feb. 21 – Hamilton Graham, Belfast, 18, … 40
——-, May 7 – Heugh Frazer, Ballymacarret, … 13, … 40
Number of Tunes,, Irish, Scotch and Welch, at present taught in the House . . . . . 60

Minutes of meeting, 20th August 1821, in Irish Harp Society Calcutta 1828 (Penn Libraries ML1015.C3I7) p.27

Here we see that two of Hamilton Gillespie’s old classmates, Dornan and McCotter, have dropped out, but a new girl has been admitted, Jane McArthur.

We have a big problem here, because this document lists “Hamilton Graham”. Yet this is obviously our man; everything is consistent (he is from Belfast, admitted 21 Feb 1820, age is one year older one year later, first name Hamilton, second name begins with G…) except for the surname. What is going on here?

I am interested in the possibility that this is Edward McBride’s report, rather than the Secretary’s. We would expect the Secretary to keep good written records, but we might imagine McBride working more from memory. Or we might wonder if McBride uses a different form for some social class reason? Both “Graham” and “Gillespie” can also be forenames, and so perhaps his full name was Hamilton Gillespie Graham, or Hamilton Graham Gillespie.

Anyway I can’t explain this at all at this stage. But I have no doubt that this is our man and so let us continue.

On my post about Jane MacArthur I discussed the number of tunes learned by each of the pupils and the time they had been studying. Poor Hamilton is bottom of the list, with 2.1 tunes per month under his belt, only ⅔ of the rate of Tom Hanna and Pat Byrne.

At the beginning of 1822 Edward McBride left the school, and Valentine Rennie became the teacher.


The Rules of the Irish Harp Society say that when a pupil reached a professional standard of playing, they would be discharged from the school, and they would be given a harp, so that they could set off and make their living as a professional or “artisan” traditional harper. (Minutes of meeting, 20th August 1821, in Irish Harp Society Calcutta 1828 p.29)

We are missing the majority of the minutes for the Committee meetings, so we don’t have a record of Hamilton Gillespie’s discharge. But we can try and work out when it was.

After 1821, the next minutes we have are from three years later, for the meeting of 29th June 1824. The new teacher, Valentine Rennie presented the list of the five current pupils; but Hamilton Gillespie is not on this 1824 list. (Irish Harp Society Calcutta 1828 p.42).

Rennie also told the meeting that Jane McArthur had recently been discharged. And then the Gentlemen resolved that Patrick McCloskey should be discharged on 1st August 1824, with a certificate of good conduct and proficiency, and also with a harp, value 9 Guineas, with a cover and strap, of which 1/3 was to be paid by private subscription. And the Gentlemen also resolved to admit one new student straight away, and another when a vacancy would arise.

But Hamilton Gillespie is not mentioned; not listed as a pupil, not listed as recently discharged, not listed as about to be discharged.

Actually, the 1824 minutes only lists five names, and I think it is likely that only the boarding pupils are named. I think there may well have been other un-mentioned day pupils attending at that time. So it seems likely to me that Hamilton Gillespie may have been still attending as a day pupil at this time.

The next minutes we have are from two years later, on 24th August 1826. Rennie presented his usual report with the names and details of five boarding pupils at the School; he adds that there were also “four extern who receive, at present, daily tuition gratis”. But the minutes don’t tell us the name of these four day pupils.

Then immediately below in the minutes, we find Hamilton Gillespie’s name in a list of former pupils:

Pupils gaining their bread throughout the Kingdom; Harp being given to them by the Society.
Patrick Burns, blind. | Patrick McClosky, blind.
Thomas Hanna, do. | Hamilton Gillespie, nearly do.
Jane McCarter, do. | Hugh Fraser, sees indistinctly.

Minutes of meeting, 24th August 1826, in Irish Harp Society Calcutta 1828 (Penn Libraries ML1015.C3I7) p.44
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

Here we see the six pupils who have been examined, and found to be playing at a professional standard, and who have been formally discharged and given one of the gift harps, and sent off to make their living playing professionally. This list also gives us the snippet of information that Hamilton Gillespie was “nearly” blind; though I am suspicious about the details of this list because I don’t believe Tom Hanna was blind, and we see Jane McArthur’s name spelled wrong.

So what happened? Can we try and work out when Hamilton Gillespie was discharged?

We know Pat Byrne was discharged on 14th May 1822. Tom Hanna must have been discharged some time between late 1821 and early 1824, most likely in 1822-23. We have Jane McArthur discharged in early 1824. We have Patrick McCloskey discharged on 1st Aug 1824. Hugh Fraser must have been discharged between late 1824 and early 1826.

On the list of six professionals in 1826, only Hamilton Gillespie had been a day pupil. The other five had all been boarders, living in the Harp Society House. I think the cost of housing and feeding the boarding pupils was a big expense for the Society and so perhaps they were more important to the Gentlemen of the Committee.

Anyway we see that Hamilton Gillespie had been discharged and presented with a harp before 24th August 1826; he is listed as earning his living playing on the harp that had been given to him by the Society, and he is also mentioned as “late a external pupil”. I don’t know if “late” implies “recently” which would suggest his discharge was a few months previously, or if “late” just means “in the past”, which means his discharge could have been anywhen before then.


But although he had been given a harp, we can see that he had not yet been given a certificate, because the final resolution of that day’s minutes is to write him a certificate “in the usual manner”.

Resolved – That no certificate shall in future be granted to any Pupil leaving the establishment, until one year after he shall have been discharged, in order that his conduct may be ascertained.

Ordered – That Hamilton Gillespie, (late an extern Pupil) do receive a certificate from the Secretary in the usual manner.

Minutes of meeting, 24th August 1826, in Irish Harp Society Calcutta 1828 (Penn Libraries ML1015.C3I7) p.44

I only know of one surviving certificate from the many students who came through the Irish Harp Society (I have about 40 on my list but there were probably a few more than that). Patrick Byrne’s certificate is with his papers in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI D531.G.1). It is a little over A5 size, hand-written on ruled vellum by the secretary John Ward, and signed by the Gentlemen of the Committee as well as by “Valentine Rennie, Professor”. As well as certifying “his musical proficiency” the certificate also acknowledges his “good deportment and diligence”, i.e. that he was well-behaved and could handle himself in polite Gentlemanly society. I think that both the gentlemen and the pupils took these certificates very seriously, and we have references to alumni of the school using their certificates as testimonials when advertising concerts and events (e.g. Martin Craney)

So why was Hamilton Gillespie not given a certificate at the same time as he was discharged and given a harp? Was he a bit of a ne’er-do-well? Were the Committee happy to discharge him and give him a harp, perhaps in 1825 or early 1826, but were they unhapy with his behaviour and character, and therefore reluctant to write him a certificate attesting to his good deportment and diligence? They were clearly making the rules up as they went along, because at the same meeting that they wrote a retrospective certificate for Hamilton Gillespie, we see them creating a new rule about waiting a year before writing a certificate so as to check on the pupils’ good conduct.

Or is the new rule an unfortunate co-incidence, and was he not give a certificate at first because he was only a day pupil, and not a boarder? I really think the Gentlemen were making it up as they went along.

Either way, he could obviously play, he was out working professionally earning a living, and even if he was a bit wayward at first, he had pulled himself together enough by August 1826 to be worthy of getting the coveted certificate of musical ability and good deportment and diligence.

Performing career

So, by 1826 Hamilton Gillespie was a professional or “artisan” harper, travelling with his big wire-strung Irish harp, making a living playing the harp. But at present I have no information about this. He spent about 10 years working as an itinerant harper, from 1826 (or before) through to 1835.

Fell overboard

On Friday se’ennight, a blind man, named Hamilton Gillespie, an itinerant harper, lately residing in Belfast, fell overboard from a steamer at Glasgow. He was taken out of the water in about 20 minutes, and the usual measures of resuscitation were resorted to with beneficial effect; he was removed to the infirmary, but died a few days after. He has left a widow, who acted as his guide on his travels.

Belfast News Letter, Tue 27 Oct 1835 p2, also Belfast Commercial Chronicle Wed 28 Oct 1835 p2; Londonderry Sentinel Sat 31 Oct 1835 p4; Newry Examiner Sat 31 Oct 1835 p4; The Pilot Mon 2 Nov 1835 p6

“Friday se’ennight” means a week before Friday, so presumably Friday 16th October 1835 was when he fell in the water, and he died “a few days after” apparently in Glasgow Royal Infirmary. He was aged about 32.

4 thoughts on “Hamilton Gillespie”

  1. Oh how sad. Had training, an instrument and a wife and fell overboard on a steamer! Wow.

    Interesting that they should learn about two -three new pieces a month while at the school!

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