William Gorman

William Gorman was a traditional Irish harper at the beginning of the 19th century. He learned the harp from Arthur O’Neil, at the Belfast harp school, but he was expelled before he had completed his eduction. This post is to try and say something useful about him.

All of our information about William Gorman comes from the minutes of the Irish Harp Society in Belfast. The Society was started in 1808 by Gentlemen in Belfast, as a charitable project to have blind children taught to play the traditional wire-strung Irish harp. The Gentlemen’s project would combine charity (giving the poor blind children a way of making a living) and patriotism (promoting the harp which was a symbol of Ireland) and also cultural good work (ensuring the continuation of the living inherited tradition).

The Society employed the elderly traditional harper Arthur O’Neil to be teacher, and they recruited blind children to live in the Harp Society house, and to study full-time under Arthur O’Neil.

The minutes of a meeting of the Gentlemen on 2nd January 1810 list the pupils then at the school. First on the list is William Gorman, because he had been the first pupil to enrol:

Wm Gorman from Ballymena County Antrim
aged 15. Entered Society June 1808 –
Recommended by Revd. John Fitzsimmons
of Ballymena –

Irish Harp Society minutes for 2nd January 1810, Belfast Linen Hall Library, Beath Collection 5.1 p.39

This entry gives us a lot of information. If Gorman was aged 15 on 2nd Jan 1810, then he must have been born in 1794. We are told he was from Ballymena.

Each of the pupils had to have a gentleman to make a formal recommendation to the Harp Society; that is what Rev. John Fitzsimmons is mentioned for. My guess would be that William Gorman may have become blind, perhaps from smallpox or similar, and so Rev. Fitzsimmons may have made the recommendation as a way of helping Gorman to get an education and learn a trade.

At the harp school

I have already written at length about how the harp school worked. The school room is later referred to as being at 8, Pottinger’s Entry in Belfast. Arthur O’Neil was the harp teacher. William Gorman was the first pupil, starting in June 1808, and so for the first three months of his living at the Harp Society house he would have had full-time one-to-one access to Arthur O’Neil’s teaching.

(actually there were three day pupils listed in January 1810, who lived in Belfast and walked in every day for their lessons. But we don’t know when any of them started. They were Edward O’Neil, Hugh Dornan, and John Wallace. So it is possible that they were starting their lessons as early as William Gorman. I just don’t know.)

After three months as the only boarding pupil, William Gorman was joined by Patrick McGrath in Sep 1808, and then two months later by Edward McBride in November 1808. Patrick O’Neil joined in Jan 1809; James O’Neil and Valentine Rennie both joined in Feb 1809. Now there were six blind or partially sighted boys at the boarding school, studying the harp full time under Arthur O’Neil.

We see these six boys, plus presumably two of the day pupils, being exhibited to the Gentlemen who bankrolled the school. This is at the Gentlemen’s St Patricks Day dinner in March 1809:

…the meeting was gratified with an exhibition of a different and interesting, nature: – Eight Blind Boys, supported, clothed and instructed on the Harp, by the Society, were admitted. This living proof of the good already resulting from their patriotic exertions, excited universal interest. They were received with bursts of applause! After playing some airs, as a specimen of their progress, highly flattering to their aged teacher, they retired…

Belfast News Letter, 21 March 1809 p2

William Gorman must have been there, paraded in, standing in a line while the Gentlemen clapped and cheered. Did he play the harp for the Gentlemen? He had been studying the harp for nine months by this stage, longer than any of the other boys.

Abraham Wilkinson joined in Sep 1809; and James McMonagle in Oct 1809. Now there were eight blind or partially sighted boys at the boarding school, studying the harp full time under Arthur O’Neil, plus the three day pupils: eleven boys in total.

In September 1809 the boys had been joined by Bridget O’Reilly. She is a bit of an enigma – she is often talked about as if she was just another pupil at the school, but I think she was already a professional performer when she joined. I think she had learned the harp in about 1793 from Arthur O’Neil, and so I think she may have joined as a kind of advanced student or classroom assistant or even perhaps as a kind of deputy teacher. It is not very clear to me still.

We see all twelve being exhibited to the Gentlemen at a dinner on Wednesday 20th December 1809.

…After dinner, he [Arthur O’Neil] led into the room his twelve blind pupils, one of whom is a female, Miss O’Reilly. Their entrance exhibited a scene peculiarly impressive; but when Miss O’Reilly, and two of the youths, strung their harps, and played …

Belfast Commercial Chronicle, 23 December 1809, p2

I think the two who played were Valentine Rennie and Edward McBride, because they seem to have been the two star pupils.

William Gorman and some of his classmates were also paraded before the Gentlemen at their St Patrick’s Day dinner in March 1810. Perhaps this is just the boarding pupils?

the Pupils of the Society, consisting of one female, Miss O’Reilly, and eight boys, all blind, and neatly, though plainly and uniformly dressed, were introduced into the room, and convinced the Gentlemen present by their improved performance, that the attention of their venerable tutor O’Neill, had not been bestowed in vain on the rising talents of his scholars, some of whom promise fair to attain the highest eminence in their profession.

Belfast News Letter, Tue 20 March 1810 p2

All seems to be going well in the school!

Benefit concert

I am pretty sure that William Gorman would have appeared in public at a fundraising event on 15th June 1810. The Society was always short of money, and so tried novel ideas to raise funds. I think the first of these was a concert at Mr Talbot’s Theatre in Belfast. First of all, a new Donegal tweed uniform was ordered for all the pupils:

Resolved that in case Mr Talbot consents to give a Benefit – Mr Radcliffe A Barr and R McAdam be appointed to have each of ye scholars provided with a suit of Innisowen Blue Cloth.

Minutes of Committee Meeting, Tue 29 May 1810, minute book of the Irish Harp Society (Linen Hall Library, Beath Collection, box 5.1 p55)

A newspaper editorial promotes the event:

The Theatre closes on Friday evening, with a Play for the benefit of the Irish Harp Society. – From the degree of favour always extended towards that institution, assisted by the attractive display of Entertainments, we have no doubt that a large sum will be collected in aid of their funds. The public will, on that night, be gratified with the singular exhibition of blind pupils taught by a blind instructor, performing some of our most admired national melodies, and the surprise will be considerably increased by the consideration that none of them are more than two years under the care of the Society. The dancers, in the ancient dress (and we have reason to believe, that considerable pains have been taken to ascertain the costume with the utmost accuracy), may also be considered as perfectly novel. If to this we add the attraction of Miss HARDING, a young lady whose vocal powers are highly extolled by those who have been witnesses to her exertions in other parts of the kingdom, we may safely venture to assert, that the audience will quit the house perfectly satisfied with their evening’s entertainment, even independently of the sensation arising from having contributed to the support of an Institution so truly charitable.

Belfast Commercial Chronicle, Wed 13 Jun 1810 p2

The reference to two years reminds us that William Gorman had been the first pupil to enter, and that had been two years before, in June 1808.

I don’t know what happened at this concert. I don’t know how many harps the harp society owned by this stage – almost certainly not enough for one each, and so I don’t think we can imagine all 11 boys and Arthur O’Neil and Bridget O’Reilly all playing together. Perhaps there were five or six harps and they took it in turns to play together.

A review of the concert was printed (Belfast Commercial Chronicle, Monday 18 June 1810) but I can’t read it, because the copy I have is missing too many letters either from the reproduction being washed out or possibly because the original print is very poor quality. I will try to find a better copy of this newspaper.

Something unfortunate happens

Something must have happened, that reflected very badly on two of the boys, because after the benefit concert, William Gorman and his classmate James O’Neil were basically expelled from the school.

The very next committee meeting after the concert, the Gentlemen had to sort out the takings from the concert. The minutes included just three resolutions. The first was for the Treasurer to deal with the money. The other two are more serious:

Ordered – that Jas O Neill and Wm Gorman (agreeing to a former resolution) be immediately dismissed the Society as incapable by nature of Learning the Harp.

Ordered, – that Mrs. Rankin shall have the boy’s uniform locked up and only given out on public occasions

Committee meeting Tuesday 19th June 1810, minute book of the Irish Harp Society (Linen Hall Library, Beath Collection, box 5.1 p56)

I assume Mrs Rankin was the housekeeper who ran the Harp Society house.

“Incapable by nature of learning the harp” has usually been understood to mean that they were musically incompetent, or were no good at playing. But I am very dubious about this reading of the Gentlemen’s resolution. William Gorman had been studying the traditional Irish harp playing techniques and repertory under the highly regarded tradition-bearer and experienced teacher Arthur O’Neil for two years full time. His classmate and fellow-reject, James O’Neil, had been studying full time for sixteen months. We know James was capable of playing the harp because we find him with a harp, as a harper, when he joined the army two years later in October 1812.

So what was the real reason? Is it connected to locking up the uniforms? Did William Gorman and James O’Neil behave in a way that the Gentlemen thought was not suitable or which lowered the reputation of the school? Were they “incapable by nature” not from a musical point of view, but from their bad behaviour and disgraceful conduct?

We know that reputation and behaviour was important because it is often mentioned; the certificates issued to the students when they finished their education are to certify their musical ability, and their good conduct and diligence.

I have not found any more references to William Gorman so I don’t know what happened next.

6 thoughts on “William Gorman”

  1. The staff at Belfast Central Library Cultural Heritage Department managed to find a legible copy of the Theatre review which they sent me.

    On Friday last, the Theatre closed for the season. The performances were for the benefit of the Belfast Harp Society; a circumstance which speaks abundantly for the liberality of Mr. TALBOT, the Manager. The house was well filled, and the entertainments, among which was an exhibition of the Pupils of the Society, and a specimen of their proficiency in the music of their country, went off with some eclat…
    [the article continues with a farewell speech by the regular theatre performer Mr. Gordon]
    Belfast Commercial Chronicle, Monday 18 June 1810 p2

    Nothing bad seems to have happened at the event, so presumably whatever Gorman and O’Neil got up to was between the concert on Friday 15th and the meeting on Tuesday 19th. I imagine the two lads out on the razz over the weekend in their smart new blue Harp Society uniforms, and word getting back to the Gentlemen…

  2. There ya go. It’s all about the outfits. Fits in nice with our recurring fancy dress theme. But I was honestly relieved to hear that nothing terrible happened during the performance. Well done, Simon.

    Now if the reviewer was honest about the show being a success, then yes, that would be yet another contradiction of the gentlemens’ decree of “incapable by nature.” But I find myself thinking, what reviewer would want to be pubicly mean to the blind? And doesn’t that make all reviews here a little bit unreliable by nature? Have you run across any mean ones?

    How I wish we had a picture of them in their little blue suits! I do savor all these little details about the Harp Society boys.

    And lastly, there was a blind girl in my latin class at Columbia and she was once seen kicking her seing-eye dog. Now saying such a thing might seem a bit tangential but for the fact that a malicious sense of humor is almost certainly an Irish trait. Don’t you think?

    1. I don’t really know how these reviews and notices worked, did the harpers have agents who placed puff pieces?

      One negative review off the top of my head is for the three who played in the garden for the King on Fri 24 Aug 1821, the review describes their costumes and then says “But they did not favour us with many exhibitions of their skill. Their harps seemed to be out of order.” (see my post on James McMonagle).

      I think they were probably more likely just to be ignored….

  3. I doubt they had press agents. I think it’s more likely that the gentlemen had useful friends.

    That reviewer at the second day of the king’s visit was dismissive in tone but at least polite. William Camden, on the other hand is a good example of a gleefully mean reviewer describing the harper’s outfit as being died with saffron “or steeped in urine.” Hah! I remember now also a mean spirited and comical description of one the harpers who played on M’Connel’s triumphal car having to get off and take a cab. But those seemed politically motivated — englishmen making fun of irishmen or opposing Irish political parties. (Am I imagining that? I couldn’t actually find that one in your blog.)

    Anyway I’m sure you have a more nuanced view. And in the end even blindness and that built-in patriotism can’t protect against being ignored!

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