an 1848 Bury, Curtis and Kennedy steam railway engine, similar to those used by the Belfast and Ballymena Railway.

Tom Hardy

Tom Hardy was a traditional Irish harper in Belfast in the second half of the 19th century. We don’t have a lot of information about him; we have only a few scattered sources. This means that any attempt to tell his life story will have more speculation and guesswork than hard facts. But I think there is enough to try. We can always come back later to add new information or to correct wrong guesses.

Birth and early years

We don’t know where or when Tom Hardy was born, or raised, or anything about his education at all. But we can make a few guesses.

I mentioned in my post on Roger Begley, that there was a possible reference to Tom Hardy attending a school for the blind in Belfast in 1846, run by the Ulster Society for Promoting the Education of the Deaf and Dumb and the Blind. In the Tyrone Constitution for Friday 5th June 1846 p.3, there is a list of the newly admitted blind boarding pupils. One of the ten is “Thomas Harding, Belfast, Antrim, 333”. Now, I don’t know if “Harding” is a sensible suggestion of a mis-spelling or alternative form for “Hardy”.

The reason I think that this might be our Tom Hardy is because another of the names on the list is “Roger Begley, Belfast, Antrim, 521”. And we have a later connection between the two harpers Roger Begley and Tom Hardy, because we have information from a third harper George Jackson, who says that he “knew” personally both Begley and Hardy.

This is thin stuff but I am trying to imagine connections between these people.

Anyway, blind pupils spent 3 years in the Society school; they would learn to read from books with raised printed lettering, and they would learn some kind of trade. I do not know what the typical ages of the pupils were; I suggested that Begley may have been aged between 10 and 14 when he started in 1846; I think Hardy may have been a similar age, and so they may both have left the school in 1849 aged between 13 and 17.

But this is very speculative and may not be our man Tom Hardy at all.

Learning to play the harp

We don’t have any information about where and when Tom Hardy learned to play the harp. But I imagine from the contexts we do find him in, that he was a professional or “artisan” traditional harper, playing on a floor-standing wire-strung Irish harp. These harpers were professionally trained, studying full-time for a few years with a master, some time between the ages of about 10 and 20.

We can speculate upon speculations by thinking about the implied connection between Tom Hardy, Roger Begley, and George Jackson. We are told in the information from Jackson, that he knew personally both Begley and Hardy. And the information says that Jackson learned to play the harp from Pat Murney. So I wonder if Hardy, Begley and Jackson knew each other because they were classmates studying together under Murney?

Patrick Murney had a house at 38 Little Donegall Street, Belfast, where he worked from as a professional or “artisan” Irish harper; we have information that he was based there in August 1849 and in 1852. (John Bell’s notebook, Glasgow University Library MS Farmer 332 f56v, quoted in H.G. Farmer, ‘Some notes on the Irish Harp’, Music and Letters 24, 1943 p 106; also the 1852 Belfast street directory)

If Hardy was at the blind school from 1846 to 1849, aged perhaps around 10 to 15 years old, then he may have gone to study full time with Patrick Murney from about 1850 for a few years, when he was aged between about 15 and 20 years.

But this is totally speculative and I have no idea if this is anything like true.

Rail excursion to Antrim

We first actually meet Tom Hardy in 1858. By this time he was a professional harper.

PLEASURE EXCURSION – The operatives employed in the Belfast Foundry left this town, for Antrim, on Saturday morning, by the half-past nine o’clock train, for the purpose of enjoying themselves on the pleasure-grounds so kindly thrown open to the public by Lord Massareene. Upwards of 30 cars conveyed the excursionists to the railway. The expenses of the apprentices were kindly paid by the proprietor of the foundry, Samuel Boyd, Esq. The day was delightful, and the party, taking advantage of it, had dancing on the green sward. Lord and Lady Massareene and several ladies and gentlemen remained a considerable time spectators of the amusements, and listened to several airs on the harp, among others, “Erin, My Country,” which the harper, Mr. Hardy, accompanied with his voice. The noble proprietor and his party were evidently pleased to see so many of the working classes enjoying themselves, and all returned home without any accident, having spent a most delightful day. Too much cannot be said in praise of those employed about the railway for the readiness and activity they displayed in getting up the arrangements, and carrying them out to the satisfaction of all concerned.

Banner of Ulster, Tue 27 July 1858 p2

There is a whole load of fascinating information in here, about Hardy, and about the event he played for, and about the social context of his time.

Antrim Castle was an amazing stately home, but the house was burned by the IRA in 1922. The gardens are still there and are open to the public. I suppose it is possible that Hardy was working for Lord Massereene at Antrim Castle, but I think it is much more likely given the description that he was based in Belfast and went out to Antrim on the train with the rest of the excursionists.

The Belfast Foundry was owned and run by Boyd, Rider & Co, at 110 Donegall St. in Belfast; I think they made big stationary steam engines.

The railway line from Belfast to Antrim and on to Ballymena was opened in 1848 by the Belfast and Ballymena Railway. The excursionists (and probably Hardy with his harp as well) would have caught their train at York Road station. My header photo shows a similar train to what they would have travelled on. It looks like horse-drawn carriages were laid on perhaps to take the people from Donegal Street to York Road, though it is only 10 minutes walk from Donegall Street to the railway station. Perhaps different cars went out to different suburbs to collect people from their homes.

There is clearly a big class divide here between the foundry workers and apprentices who rode on the train out from Belfast for their excursion and danced on the lawns, and Lord and Lady Massereene and their lady and gentlemen guests who watched the scene and listened to Tom Hardy playing the harp.

Other newspapers also run the same story, but one or two also give additional information about what Hardy played and sang:

…several national airs on the harp; among others, “Erin my Country,” “The Harp that once through Tara’s Halls,” which the harper, Mr. Hardy, accompanied with his voice in excellent style…

The Ulsterman, Wed 28 Jul 1858 p2; The Irishman, 31 Jul 1858 p7

It is not clear to me how these reports were put together. We can easily understand that Hardy was singing the Tom Moore song and tune of “The Harp that Once through Tara’s Halls”, but “Erin my Country” is more enigmatic. There are a few tunes of this title, and a few lyrics as well. I am not having much luck untangling these different versions. Sometimes I wonder if these two titles might be referring to the same song.

Concert in Armagh

In 1861, Hardy the blind Irish harper played two concerts in Armagh. I assume this is our man.

CONCERT. – We understand that Mr. Wainright, principal tenor of St Mark’s, assisted by Mr. Hardy, a celebrated Irish harper and vocalist, intends giving two concerts in the Market-house, on the evenings of the 11th and 13th instant. It is perhaps the first instance on record where two men wanting sight have ventured on such a speculation, and it is not too much for us to hope that they will be well patronised. The programme contains an excellent selection of vocal and instrumental pieces. Mr. Wainwright also purposes to give a series of concerts in the neighbouring towns, in many of which he is well known as a vocalist.

Armagh Guardian, Fri 12 July 1861 p4

St. Mark’s is the church just along the road from here. It was built in 1811 and acted as a chapel of ease for St Patrick’s CoI cathedral in Armagh. I haven’t researched the singers and musicians associated with the cathedral or St Mark’s, so I don’t know who William Wainwright was, except that he was “principal tenor” at St Mark’s.

The concerts were held upstairs in the Market House, a handsome building standing in Armagh Market Place which now houses the city library. We have a couple of interesting reviews of the concerts. The Armagh Guardian concentrated on William Wainright:

CONCERTS. – Mr. Wainwright gave two concerts in the market house, on the evenings of 11th and 13th instant, assisted by Mr. Hardy, of Belfast, whose efforts as a harpist gave satisfaction. The vocal performance of Mr. Wainwright sustained his character as a first class tenor, and earned him a warm reception. He was encored several times. The audience was large, considering the very unfavourable state of the weather. We understand that Mr. Wainwright proposes to give a concert in Portadown next week.

Armagh Guardian, Fri 19 July 1861 p4

Meanwhile, the Ulster Gazette (also an Armagh local newspaper) concentrated on Hardy. The writing has a hint of a placed press release from Hardy’s agent perhaps?

CONCERT. – On Thursday evening Mr. Hardy harper and vocalist, and Mr. Wainright gave the first of two concerts in the Markethouse-room. The extreme severity of the evening prevented many from attending; yet, notwithstanding, the programme – in which were some excellent songs – was faithfully gone through. Mr Hardy’s performance proved that he has given much time and attention to the production of “sweet sounds” from the Irish harp. He played Brian Boroihme’s March, the Battle of the Nile, Blame Not the Bard, Rule Britannia, and other solos in an exquisite style, and his singing of “The Harp that Once” was deservedly applauded, and recalled. He also sang – “May the Queen live for ever,” The Irish Oak and several of Moore’s Melodies with much taste and sweetness; his singing and playing has been heard to great advantage, and proving that he has made the Irish Melodies and the Irish harp the objects of much study and attention. Mr. Wainright, who is better known than Mr. Hardy to the people of Armagh, sang some beautiful songs – viz., the Minstrel Boy, “Woodman,” &c. A second concert will be given this (Saturday) evening, when the programme will be considerably changed and when we hope to see a much better attendance.

Ulster Gazette, Sat 13 July 1861 p3

We are given the titles of four instrumental pieces that Hardy played, and the titles of three songs as well.

Brian Boru’s march is obvious enough. The Battle of the Nile is less clear to me. There is a ballad called the Banks of the Nile which you can listen to at Itma being sung by Niamh Parsons or Rosie Stewart. There are different tunes or variants that this song is sung to but I don’t think this is what Tom Hardy was playing. You can see sources and scores for the march and song air of the Battle of the Nile at Tunearch, and you can listen to Matt Quinn playing it. The words are patriotic, beginning “Arise, arise, Britannia’s sons, arise” which might fit with Hardy also playing the tune of Rule Britannia later in the concert, though both the Battle of the Nile and Rule Britannia are listed as instrumental harp performances.

The other tune that Hardy plays as an instrumental performance is titled “Blame not the Bard”. This is the title of the Thomas Moore song which is set to the traditional harp tune of Caitlín Triall – an interesting example of a traditional harper playing a traditional harp tune, but titling it with the title of the popular Moore song instead of with its traditional title.

Hardy also sang three songs. The first is the same song that he sung in Antrim; “The Harp that Once” was often sung by the 19th century traditional harpers, and it seems to have been a crowd-pleaser. “May the Queen live for ever” is a ballad addressed to or in praise of Queen Victoria. You can see a 19th century printing of the song lyrics (beginning “Whilst the bright star of glory in Liberty’s rays…”) online at the Bodleian Library. However I have seen no references to what tune this ballad might sing to. I am having trouble working out what song “The Irish Oak” might be. We have a reference to the traditional harper Patrick Murney (who may have been Hardy’s teacher) singing “Hail to the Oak”, a song by W Kertland. But I don’t know if this is the same as “The Irish Oak” and I don’t know the tune.

The Panorama

Tom Hardy also performed on stage, perhaps dressed in costume. Over the Easter holidays in 1863, there were loads of entertainments in Belfast. There were news paper columns in the week before Easter, announcing or previewing the various events that were to happen around the city over the Easter weekend. I think this summary gives a flavour of what was going on:

THE EASTER HOLIDAYS. – From the advertisements which appear in the newspapers, and the announcements on the dead walls of the town, it will be seen that there will be no want of amusements during the Easter holidays. The caterers for public amusement and relaxation have made ample provision for enabling the inhabitants of our town to enjoy themselves in a variety of ways. Athletic sports, mental enjoyment, and sight-seeing will be placed within the reach of all. The Queen’s Island, as on previous occasions, will be the scene of a grand gala on Monday, consisting of acrobatic performances, punt and tub-races, climbing the greased pole, &c. M’Carthy, the Irish boy, and Professor Horman,with his marionettes, will also attend. The charge is very moderate – only threepence – and the public will be admitted either by the embankment or ferry-boats. The Botanic Gardens and Museum will be open at a nominal charge. Edwards’s magnificent Panorama of America and the American War will be on exhibition in the Ulster Hall during next week. On Monday Dr. Chipp will enhance the entertainment by performing on the grand organ. Another panorama will be exhibited in the Corn Exchange in which the various points of Irish scenery will be exhibited. Illustrative songs, by Tom Moore, will be given with each view – Mr. T. Hardy playing on the Irish harp. The three railway companies having their termini in Belfast have advertised excursion trains at an exceedingly low scale of fairs, which will enable the confined and toil-worn operatives and others to breathe the invigorating air of the country. The Ulster Railway Company will carry passengers to Enniskillen and back for 3s 6d each, to Londonderry and back for 3s 6d, and to Dublin and back for 10s 6d. The Northern Counties Railway issue excursion tickets to Portrush and return for 3s 6d, and to Larne and return for 1s 6d; while the Belfast and County Down Railway Company will convey passengers to and from any station on the line at single fares. The steamers Hero and Heroine will make several trips between Belfast and Bangor on Monday. We have no doubt that many person will avail themselves of a trip to that beautiful watering-place on the occasion.

Banner of Ulster, Sat 4 April 1863 p3

As a quick aside, the events on the Queen’s Island are mentioned. We know that the traditional harper Samuel Patrick was playing in the crystal palace on Queen’s Island in the summer of 1863. Perhaps he had not started yet by the beginning of April.

A Panorama was a new kind of indoor theatrical show. I suppose it was in some ways the fore-runner of the cinema. Huge painted scenes were mounted on rollers, and were wound into position as kind of stage backdrops; they would be illuminated with lime-lights, and the different lighting effects could make the scenes come to life dramatically, so that the audience could believe they were actually looking at the real-life scene. There would also be live entertainers who might play music, sing songs, or give descriptive commentary on the scenes.

A couple of years later, Dr Corry started his “Diorama” in Belfast, which was perhaps the best known of these panorama shows. He employed Roger Begley to play the harp, and I discussed the show in some detail in my write-up of Begley.

What seems to be happening here in Belfast at Easter 1863 is that there was already a panorama show running regularly in the Ulster Hall; the adverts promote Edwards’s Panorama of America and the American War. But for just a few days, over the Easter weekend, a competitor panorama of Irish scenery was advertised in the Corn Exchange. We are not told who the organiser was. I think this was before Dr Corry started, but the descriptive reviews of this new Irish panorama seem very similar to what Corry was doing two years later.

The Panorama of Irish scenery, now being exhibited in the Corn Exchange, was extensively patronised. Some of the best known views, such as those of Dunluce Castle, Shane’s Castle, the Giant’s Causeway, Carrickarede Bridge, and the Lakes of Killarney, are well executed. The music with which the entertainment is interspersed is excellent. The songs are chiefly by Moore and other national poets, and are always warmly encored.

Belfast News Letter, Tue 7 Apr 1863 p3

McCullough’s Free and Easy

I already mentioned the traditionary information from the traditional harper George Jackson. This information was taken down from Jackson’s dictation in about 1908 by the Gaelic revivalist, William Savage, and is preserved in photocopied sheets in the archive of the National Museum of Ireland. I transcribed and discussed this document a few years ago.

The rough draft version, perhaps the live transcription from 1908, says:

Tom Hardy (Knew this Tom Hardy –
                                          (Hardy played in McCulloghs
                                          (corner of Shankhill Rd
                                          (and Townsend St.

NMI archive File AI.80.019

The neat version which may have been written by Savage in 1911, says

Tom Hardy – George Jackson knew this Tom Hardy
Hardy played in McCulloughs Free and easy
Corner Townsend St. and Shankill rd
                                                            Tom Hardy was
                                                            [buried i]n Sh[ankill]

NMI archive File AI.80.019

Unfortunately Savage’s handwriting is very cramped on this sheet, and I can’t properly make out these words in the right margin. This is my best guess, and suggests that after Hardy died he may have been buried in Old Shankill Graveyard. But I could be mis-reading this section.

We can find McCullough’s pub in the street directories. It is not in the 1852 directory, but in 1861, we find J. McCullough, Vulcan Tavern, at 89 Peter’s Hill. In 1868 we see James McCullough and the Vulcan Tavern at 91 & 93 Peter’s Hill. If we look at the 1877 Belfast street directory, we find Mrs. McCullough, a spirit dealer, running the Vulcan Tavern at 87 Peter’s Hill, on the corner of Upper Townsend Street, on the north-east corner of the intersection between Townsend Street and Peter’s Hill. In 1880, Jane McCullough, spirit dealer, is at no. 87 on the same corner, and William McCullough, confectioner, is next door at no. 85. In 1890, the pub on the corner has been taken over by Murray Bros., publicans, and the confectioners at no.85 is being run by Mrs McDowell.

I am assuming that all these are the same premises on the corner, but that the street was re-numbered. Actually the intersection of Townsend Street and Shankill road is on Peter’s Hill; Shankill Road proper, which is just a continuation of Peter’s Hill, doesn’t start until the next block out of town.We can find where the corner of Upper Townsend Street is on the map; the site is now landscaped and Upper Townsend Street is blocked by the landscaping. I haven’t been able to find any old photos of the buildings that used to be on this corner.

I can’t really say much more about Hardy at the Vulcan Tavern on the Shankill Road. But we can digress to a description of an anonymous harper in 1862 to find out what the role of a harper at a free-and-easy would have looked like. This is a transcript of a court hearing at the Belfast Quarter Sessions when “Mrs Charlotte Skene applied for the transfer of the license from her late husband, for the ‘Stag’s Head’, 72, North Street” (this is a typo, the Stag’s Head was at 2 North Street, opposite the Assembly Rooms). The application should have been approved as a mater of course, except that the application was opposed by John Macnaughtan, minister of the Rosemary Street Presbyterian Church; his lawyer was Mr. Seeds, who is quizzing Charlotte Skene (the “witness”) about the business at her pub. She explains:

Witness, cross-examined by Mr. SEEDS – My house is very much frequented by soldiers, and has been for fifty years. It is not more frequented on Sunday night than on any other night. I have given up the “Free-and-Easy” after the death of my husband. He kept a harper playing in the house, but neither political nor profane songs were sung there.
The CHAIRMAN – What is a free-and-easy? Is a harp a free-and-easy? (Laughter.)
Mr. M’LEAN – That is what they call it.
Witness – We had a man that played the harp. One gentleman sang and he called upon another, and that is what they call a free-and-easy. I have given up that part of the business since my husband’s death.
To Mr. GRIMSHAW – I never was fined in my life.
To the CHAIRMAN – We never had a free-and-easy on a Sunday.
To Mr. M’LEAN – The house is one of those sanctioned by the military authorities for the soldiers to go to. We keep English and Scotch ales.

Belfast News-Letter, Mon 7 Apr 1862 p4, also Belfast Weekly News, Sat 12 Apr 1862 p7.

The chairman was John Hastings Otway Q.C. and I find it interesting that he did not know what a free-and-easy was; again we see the incredibly deep class divisions that ran through society in the 19th century, and we see our traditional harpers very much towards the bottom of the pile. We also see how Otway and the court had a bit of fun at the expense of the poor minister, and the application was granted to Charlotte Skene. I think this is very interesting in showing us the kind of thing Tom Hardy may have been doing at the Vulcan Tavern.

I wonder who this was playing at the Stag’s head in about 1860? Could it have been Tom Hardy, before he got the job at the Vulcan Tavern?

A possible later mention

I think we have another mention of Tom Hardy, though it doesn’t say his name, and doesn’t really give us any more information. This is part of a rather naive discussion in the Belfast newspapers in 1871 about the possibility of organising a revival of Irish music.

Almost as an aside, M.C. says

There are some three or four players on the Irish harp yet in Belfast – Patrick Murney, in Mustard Street; a blind woman, in Academy Street; a player on the Shankhill Road – exclusive of Begley, now in England

Belfast News Letter 15 Jun 1871 p3

We can easily recognise Murney and Begley. I think the blind woman must be Sally Moore. And I think the player on the Shankill Road may well be Hardy.


I found a death record of Thomas Hardy who died in Belfast Workhouse on 8th October 1877. He is listed as male, a bachelor, aged 44 years, and his profession is given as “musician”.

The age given is very plausible; he would have been born in 1833 or 1834, which is about what I was guessing at the top of this post.

We can’t be certain that this is our man. In fact I can’t be sure that any of these different references refer to the same person. New information may turn up which could help us sort the references out. But at this stage I am sticking my neck out and imagining that these all refer to our traditional harper Tom Hardy.

Touch a dot to see what it is, click to read more. You can open the map full screen. You can zoom out to see Antrim and Armagh.

9 thoughts on “Tom Hardy”

  1. So this is a traditional player who learned to play and acquired a harp — after the society was closed? How did that come about? Are there more of these? Or was Hardy a one-off?

    Nice one, Simon!

    1. I think there were three, Hardy, Begley and Jackson. But its very speculative… all three are too young to have been at the Society. Jackson says he learned from Murney, and Jackson also says he knew Hardy and Begley. So I am sticking my neck out and suggesting all three might have learned from Murney.

      Patrick Murney was a Society boy.

      I have no idea where they got harps from… James MacDonnell was a patron for Murney and bought a harp for him, and I wonder if MacDonnell got Murney his house and set him up. But MacDonnell was dead by the time Hardy and Begley and Jackson would have been learning.

      I see it as the crowning success of the Society – even though the Gentlemen fluffed it and let it run out of money and be closed, the boys were doing well enough that they could keep everything going for another generation.

      Jackson is the last that I know of, he died in 1909. He was fitting wire strings onto a harp in 1908.

  2. In 1858 Roger Begley was in “Mrs Skene’s, in North-street” when he was punched in the face. Does this imply that it was Begley who was the harper at the free-and-easy in the Stag’s Head before 1862? You can read about the assault on my post about Begley, and I have added the license transcript as a comment.

  3. I’d forgotten about Begley’s punch in the face.

    Punched in the face at the Free and Easy. That has a nice ring to it. One month’s hard labor for the perpatrator — all in a days work for one of our blind boys. You couldn’t make it up!

  4. “the crowning success of the Society” I couldn’t agree more.

    Of course, they (the gentlemen) would have thought otherwise. They’d point to Byrne and playing for the royals. But it’s such a sweet story here — that the tradition lived on for at least another generation, entirely on its own. God bless the Free and Easy!

  5. We have a description of a harper who I suppose might be Tom Hardy. The things that make me think this is possible is that the man is described in 1895 as “one of the last of the blind harpers”, and that he lived in Peter’s Hill. Of course this could have been one of the others, perhaps Sam Patrick or Pat Murney (we know Murney was a small man). But here it is:

    One of the last of the blind harpers was a wirey little man of some five feet six or so, and who resided in Peter’s Hill. He was of very slight build, and when having arranged to perform in any rural district, he covered his harp with green baize, and, having a lad to lead him, he trudged through streets gazed on with curiosity by the passing people, and, carrying the instrument on his shoulder, he made his way with all the seeming ease of an unburdened pedestrian. Very genial was his disposition, as if Providence had bestowed on him a full share of light-heartedness that balanced the loss of sight, he enjoyed the world him with a zest that to a great extent imparted its spirits to others.
    Belfast Newsletter 16 July 1895 p4

  6. That’s a sweet one. And it’s nice that you can speculate with some reason that it’s Tom Hardy and that you can know for sure at least that it’s one of those three. This stuff makes them all so real. Excellent!

  7. I think on Friday 22nd April 1870, we find Tom Hardy playing at an evening soiree for an Orange lodge on the Shankill Road. This is about ⅓ mile along the road out of town from the Vulcan Tavern where he played.

    THE members of this flourishing lodge held their first annual soiree on Friday evening last in the Orange Hall, Agnes Street. The room was very artistically decorated with evergreens and flags, representing the following lodges…
    …At eight o’clock, Br. Robert Knox, W.M., and Br. Samuel Tipping, D.M., marshalled the brethren, when they formed a procession, and marched round the lawn in front.
    …A blessing having been asked, they all sat down to a sumptuous repast…
    …[the article then describes long speeches, and then a series of loyal toasts, the last of which was:]
    …“The Visting Brethren” and “Our Next Merry Meeting” were duly given and honoured; after which,
    Mr. Thomas Hardy, Irish harper, who attended for the evening, played the National Anthem.
    The meeting then separated.
    Belfast Weekly News, Sat 23 April 1870 p2

    So was Tom Hardy an Orangeman? We know that Patrick Byrne was a Freemason, and would attend and perform for Masonic functions. Or, would Tom Hardy just have been hired to play for the evening as a musician?

    The speeches are actually interesting as well, they are staunchly Protestant and virulently anti-Catholic, but they express solidarity with the Catholic Irish as fellow-Irishmen. “…while they detested their religious tenets, they loved them as their fellow-countrymen, and for whose temporal and spiritual welfare they would always continue to labour. (cheers)…”

    Can we understand the Orange lodge using Hardy and his harp as Irish national symbols as well as background music?

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