Jane McArthur

There are quite a few traditional Irish harpers in the first half of the 19th century, whose names appear in the lists of harp students, but who disappear from the record after they finish their education and become professional harpers. However I think I still want to do a post about each of them. That way we have a place to add any further references that we might find. And it also helps us to start to get to know them as individuals.

According to the records, Jane McArthur was born in the second half of 1803 or the first half of 1804. She was from Ballycastle, which is on the North coast of Ireland, at the northern edge of the Glens of Antrim, and facing out towards Rathlin Island.

She was blind, but we have no information about how or why. Maybe she was blinded by smallpox, but I don’t know. I think it is possible that she was sighted when she was a child; she was not sent to the harp school until she was 16 or 17, so we are missing her entire growing up, early education, and plans for life.

Learning the harp

Jane McArthur was enrolled at harp school on 10th May 1821. She would have been about 17 years old at that point.

She became a full-time boarding pupil at the Harp Society House on Cromac Street, Belfast, under the tuition of the harper and tradition-bearer, Edward McBride.

This information all comes from the minutes of a meeting of the Irish Harp Society, held on 20th August 1821.

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

This gives us a huge amount of information about Jane McArthur and her classmates. We can see that she was living at the Harp Society House with the teacher, Edward McBride, and also with three other boarding pupils: Patrick Byrne, Thomas Hannah, and Patrick McCloskey. There were also two day pupils, Hamilton Graham and Hugh Frazer, who lived elsewhere in Belfast and who walked in every day for their harp lessons. I assume there was also a housekeeper who would light the fires, cook the meals, and generally run the house.

It is interesting to look at the ages of the pupils – Hugh Frazer and Pat McCloskey were younger at 12 and 13; Hamilton Graham and Tom Hanna both 18, a similar age to Jane. Pat Byrne was older, aged 23 (if we believe the minutes). And the teacher Edward McBride was in his mid to late 30s.

Edward MacBride had learned the harp ten years before under Arthur O’Neil, at the first Irish Harp Society school. However that school had closed in about 1812 or 1813, because the Society had run out of money. The Irish Harp Society was reformed in 1819 after a huge amount of money arrived, sent by fundraisers in India. The Belfast Gentlemen received the money and set up a new committee, bought harps, hired Edward McBride as teacher, rented the house in Cromac Street, and advertised for pupils. We can see that on the advertised day, 21 Feb 1820, Byrne, Hanna and Graham had walked up to sign up as students (Hugh Dornan and John McCotter also signed up on that day but both seem to have dropped out some time between Aug 1820 and Aug 1821). A couple of months later, Frazer and McCloskey also signed up.

So it looks like Jane McArthur came into an established school. The minutes for 20th August 1821 also show us the number of tunes learned by each pupil. This is very interesting because it can give us a clue as to how the teaching was organised. I find it interesting that this list is presented in the minutes as if it were a report that Edward McBride had presented for the Committee Meeting – the impression I get is that most of the Committee business was not concerned with the pupils, but was more about things like organising the date of the next meeting, and the rules for the Gentlemen subscribers, and election of officers, and fundraising, and that kind of thing.

Anyway we can look at the number of tunes that each pupil had, and look at how long they had been studying:

NameEnteredmonthsdaysNo. of TunesTunes per month
ByrneTue 1 Feb 201819603.2
HannaTue 1 Feb 201819583.1
McArthurThu 10 May 2131092.7
FrazerSun 7 May 201513402.6
McCloskeySat 8 Apr 201612402.4
GrahamTue 1 Feb 201819402.1

So Jane McArthur had learned 9 tunes over the course of three months and 10 days, which puts her rate of tune learning about in the middle of the boys. We should remember that Frazer and Graham were both day students, so perhaps they did not work as hard in the evenings as the boarding pupils; there was a rule that the house was to be locked every evening at 8pm in the winter and 9pm in the summer, and that harps were not permitted to be taken out of the house (minutes of meeting on 8th August 1820, printed in Calcutta Journal vol 2 no 75 p188)

Should we imagine Edward McBride keeping track of the number to tunes, and what he had taught to each pupil? Did he teach the pupils purely through the medium of tunes, or was there also theory classes? I presume there were also practical classes such as how to tune the harp, how to replace a broken string, how to get gigs and negotiate with agents, promoters, or patrons, etc.

Anyway to return to the minutes of the meeting of 20th August 1821. After the list of Gentlemen members present, and then Edward McBride’s report on the pupils and tunes, there is a presentation of the accounts to date, and then there is an interesting budget which sets out the Gentlemen’s plans for running the society. The budget includes the teacher’s salary, the rent for the house and coals for heating. There is a large amount for the diet of the pupils, and then there is a line for “Donation of harps to finished pupils, say average two in each year … £12 0 0”. But more on that later.

Then next on the minutes is a series of resolutions connected to the pupils and the day to day work of the tuition of the pupils.

Resolved – That JANE MACARTHUR (blind) be retained as a pupil, and her Board paid from the time of her entrance, 10th May 1821, and continued

Minutes of meeting, 20th August 1821, in Irish Harp Society Calcutta 1828 (Penn Libraries ML1015.C3I7) p.28

So reading behind the lines, the Gentlemen must have had a discussion about whether or not to accept Jane as a continuing pupil. I don’t know if this would have been on the advice of the teacher, Edward McBride, or if the Gentlemen would have listened to her play some of her tunes and made their own decision.

And how does this payment of board work? Did Jane have to put down a deposit? Or would she have been sent the bill if she had been dismissed at this early point? I don’t think any of the pupils were dismissed so early on so I don’t think the question ever arose, but it is curious anyway.

This shows us one of the problems with the Society; at the end of the day the Gentlemen were in charge. But the flip side of that is that the Gentlemen did bankroll the whole thing and make it feasible for the tradition to be passed on to a new generation of young harpers, and the Gentlemen paid for the harps, and I do think that by and large the Gentlemen took a hands-off approach to the actual teaching, and let the tradition-bearer that they had hired, get on with the job.

The minutes continue:

Resolved – That the general term for which Pupils inmate and extern shall be taught, be two years unless where they may be earlier prepared to procure their livelihood as Harpers.

Resolved – That where a Pupil of at least eighteen months standing, shall have signalized him or herself by proficiency on the Harp, and general good conduct in every respect, the Society may make the gift of a Harp to such Pupil; with the name of the Pupil and of the Society engraved on a brass plate thereon.

Resolved – That three Harps, of the same size as Egan’s at present in the possession of the Society, shall be ordered by the Secretary to be made in Belfast, and the price not to exceed Six Guineas each.

Resolved – That an examination of the pupils shall be regularly held by the Society at its meetings in May and November; and more frequent examinations by the Committee of Management.

Minutes of meeting, 20th August 1821, in Irish Harp Society Calcutta 1828 (Penn Libraries ML1015.C3I7) p.29

The minutes continue after that with some resolutions about committee business.

We can see here the Gentlemen of the committee making up the rules as they go along. The school had been running for a year and a half by this point, and the Gentlemen are obviously trying to work out on the hoof how to deal with the pupils, and how to provide them with harps.

Their suggestion that a pupil could graduate after 18 months seems very ambitious; most pupils seem to have stayed for more like three to six years.

The school harps

We also see the Gentlemen trying to sort out the harps for the pupils. I think getting harps is a big part of keeping the inherited tradition going. I see two big things that are needed; one is the intense master-to-pupil teaching of playing techniques from a tradition-bearer, and the second is access to instruments that work in the inherited tradition. I think this was one of the ways in which the first Irish Harp Society school struggled, because there was not enough money to buy harps for the pupils. I think this was a priority for the second school from 1819 onwards. Obviously there were issues with what the harps should be like; I think the Gentlemen in some ways had no idea, but had a vague idea of them being modernised and improved. But the teacher (Edward McBride) and the pupils would surely have had their own ideas about what kind of harp would be and would not be appropriate for the traditional playing techniques. And so (after what looks like a false start in 1819, when harps were ordered before a teacher had been recruited) we see the Irish Harp Society commissioning and buying floor-standing wire-strung Irish harps to be kept in the Harp Society House for the pupils to use to learn on.

Harp made for the Irish Harp Society by John Egan, early 1820s. Photo from Armstrong 1904
Egan harp no.1933. Photo from Armstrong 1904

I think that the pupils did not generally have their own harps; I assume Edward McBride had a harp, and It is possible that Pat Byrne might already have had a harp, but the others would have had to use the harps belonging to the Harp Society, which were kept at the House for their use. The sequence of ordering and delivering harps is not entirely clear to me, but in the National Museum in Dublin there is a floor-standing 27-string wire-strung Irish harp that was made for the Society by John Egan; this harp was most likely delivered in the early 1820s, and Jane MacArthur probably used it in her lessons and for her practice. The photo shows it being demonstrated by the harp historian Robert Bruce Armstrong, who bought it secondhand in the late 19th century and later gave it to the Museum.

Change of teacher

So Jane MacArthur studied full time under Edward McBride for about 7 months, from 10th May 1821 until the end of the year. From the beginning of 1822 she had a new teacher, Valentine Rennie.

At the end of 1821 and the start of 1822, Edward MacBride was replaced as teacher of the school by his old classmate and travelling companion, Valentine Rennie. I don’t know what the reason for this was. McBride and Rennie had been together since their school-days under Arthur O’Neil; they had been the two star students; they were sent out together from the school; they toured together doing concerts and playing in taverns together. I have wondered if McBride and Rennie might have seen the advertisement in Autumn 1819 looking for a teacher for the newly re-formed harp school, and I like to imagine that they might have done a deal with each other at the beginning of 1820, agreeing to take it in turns to be master, a bit like Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin in 2020. Perhaps they had intended to continue taking turn about every two years or so, but poor Edward McBride died in about 1824. Or maybe there was deadly competition and jealousy between them. I really don’t know.

We also see from later minutes that there were some changes to Jane MacArthur’s classmates. Alex Jack from Lambeg joined the school on 11 March 1822; Martin Crenny joined on 1 Nov 1822, and Arthur Morgan joined on 3rd April 1824. And some of Jane’s classmates were discharged in 1822.

Jane MacArthur’s discharge

We saw from the rules above, that when a student had finished their education and demonstrated “proficiency on the Harp, and general good conduct in every respect” (presumably at an examination or inspection by the Gentlemen) then the pupil would be discharged from the school and given a harp, and also a certificate, and sent out on the road to make their living as a professional harper. (I like Reg Hall’s use of the term “artisan musicians” to describe this kind of professional work; see his thesis p.29).

Jane MacArthur was not the first to be discharged; I think that was Patrick Byrne who was discharged with a harp and a certificate on 14 May 1822. Tom Hanna was apparently also discharged at some point before 1824. I am not sure about Hamilton Graham, he is a bit enigmatic and I haven’t studied him yet.

We have the minutes of a meeting of the Irish Harp Society committee on 29th June 1824, three years after Jane McArthur had been admitted to the school:

Mr. RAINY reports, that since last meeting, Jane McArthur has been discharged, having been furnished with a harp, cost 9 Guineas, three pounds of which sum have been paid by private subscription to the Treasurer, to reduce the cost of Society.

Minutes of meeting, 29th June 1824, in Irish Harp Society Calcutta 1828 (Penn Libraries ML1015.C3I7) p.41

I don’t know when the “last meeting” may have been, perhaps the previous month, or perhaps in the Spring of that year. But we do see that Jane MacArthur was given a harp by the Society. We can see that it cost more than the six Guineas budgeted by the Society, and so a new system has been set up whereby a Gentleman has to stump up £3 to cover the extra. Of course it doesn’t quite add up; a Guinea is £1 1s (at 20 shillings to a pound). We can get a bit of an understanding of what this represents by looking on Measuring Worth: they suggest that £1 in 1824 might convert to £100 or £1000 nowadays depending on how you convert it. So £9 9s might convert to a few grand nowadays which seems about right for a harp. We can also note that the teacher’s salary in 1820 was £40 for the year as a full time live-in job.

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

We don’t have any information about whether Jane MacArthur’s harp was supplied by John Egan in Dublin, or by a Belfast maker. But we can be pretty confident that her harp was either one of the Egan 27-string floor standing wire-strung Irish harps, or a Belfast-made copy.

We also don’t have any information about who the private gentleman was who contributed £3 towards the cost of Jane’s harp. We do have some accounts for the following years that mentions this kind of thing for other pupils, but nothing for Jane. The records are very gappy.

Jane MacArthur’s performing career

We come across Jane again, two years after her discharge. At a meeting of the Gentlemen Committee of the Irish Harp Society in Belfast on 24th August 1826, we have the usual report from Rennie on the current students, but we also have a new section, listing the former pupils who are out working professionally. There are six names on this list, but the information seems a bit erratic and contradicts slightly some details given in the lists when the same people were students. For example Tom Hanna is listed as blind, though he never was listed as blind in the pupil lists and we have a letter apparently written and signed by him. I think Hamilton Gillespie must be the same person as Hamilton Graham. I assume “McCarter” is just a similar mistake or mis-spelling for “McArthur”.

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

This meeting also contains an interesting resolution

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.

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

Presumably one of the former pupils was behaving themselves in a way that did not reflect well on the Society… I wonder who it might have been? The minute for Jane’s discharge did not mention a certificate. Did she get one then? Or later?

Sin é adrásta, níl a fhios eile agam. If we find an other references to Jane MacArthur, any descriptions of her playing in public, or anything else, we can add them below in the comments.

6 thoughts on “Jane McArthur”

    1. So now we have two women — Jane McArthur and Bridget O’Reilly. I so hope to hear more about these two.

      And dare I ask — are there others? Please let there be more!

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