John McCotter

John McCotter was a student at the Belfast harp school in 1820. However he seems to have dropped out and I have not seen any trace of him after that.

This post is just to get his name down so that we can tick him off the list and move on.

I have only found one reference to John McCotter, in a report presented to the Gentlemen of the Irish Harp Society on 20th August 1820. The report states that he was then aged 26, I think, though the newspaper is very badly printed and the number 6 is hard to make out. We can calculate that he had been born in late 1793 or early 1794. We are also told that he was from Belfast. And we are told that he had entered the school on 21st February 1820, so he had been learning the traditional Irish harp full time for six months.

The harp school in Belfast started at the very beginning of 1820. Gentlemen in India had sent a huge amount of money to Belfast a couple of years previously, to support the previous harp school; unfortunately the previous school had closed and the previous teacher, Arthur O’Neill, as dead. So the Belfast Gentlemen organised to start a new school. They engaged Edward McBride as their new teacher, they took a lease on a house in Cromac Street, a new suburb to the south east of the city centre, and then in January 1820, they advertised for pupils to come to learn the traditional Irish harp:

NOTICE is given, that a TEACHER of the HARP is ready to enter on the TUITION of SIX PUPILS.
Candidates are immediately to give their Names to the SECRETARY, No.23, POTTINGER’S-ENTRY; and to Attend on MONDAY, 21st February next, at the hour of TEN, at the Society’s House, No. 21 CROMAC-STREET, when Mr. BUNTING has kindly proposed to Assist in the Selection – Blindness will be a recommendation, but is not indispensable.
The Pupils will be taught Gratis: they are to find themselves in Board and Lodging.
Letters Post-paid will be attended to only
JOHN WARD, Secretary

Belfast News Letter, 11 Jan 1820, p3

I suppose this is a very interesting offer to a poor young person; they are being offered free full-time tuition, but they are told that they have to be able to support themselves. A blind young person especially might find this one of the very few ways that they could get an education that would lead to a way of making a living. I think that the Gentlemen specifically intended the school to produce professional musicians who could go out and work full time playing the harp.

And so on 21st February a number of candidates showed up at the Harp Society House on Cromac Street, to be inspected by the Gentlemen, and we are told that six were admitted as pupils, and started their instruction under Edward McBride.

Irish Harp Society. – We understand that this institution, founded on the benevolent contributions of its friends in India, has selected six lads, mostly blind, for tuition under _______ MacBride, a competent teacher. – A commodious house has been taken for the purpose in Cromac-Street. Two or three more pupils will be immediately received, and new ones successively admitted, as the former ones are gradually dismissed. From the opportunity now afforded, it may be hoped that the race of harpers will be revived, and that the ancient melodies of the country may again be heard on their original instrument. – Belfast Chronicle

The Irish Farmers’ Journal and Weekly Intelligencer, Sat 4 Mar 1820 p222

I have not seen the original in the Belfast Chronicle. I notice that they do not seem to know Edward McBride’s first name. The comment about the pupils being dismissed I think refers to the idea that a pupil would enter, would study full time in the house for a couple of years, and then would be discharged with a harp and a certificate of good conduct and musical ability, ready to go out and make a living as a traditional harper.

A few months later the Gentlemen had their twice-yearly meeting, and we have an excerpt from the minutes which lists the pupils then at the house. The minutes for the meeting of 8th August 1820 list the names of seven pupils:

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

Calcutta Journal vol 2 no 75 p188

We can see that Patrick McCloskey was admitted in April, after the publication of the Belfast Chronicle article which mentions six. Hugh Frazer had joined in March, but the other five had all turned up on the very first day, 21 Feb 1820: Patrick Byrne, Thomas Hanna, Hugh Dornan, Hamilton Gillespie, and our man John McCotter.

Byrne is the only one who is listed as “blind”; we know that he was blinded by smallpox as a child. However we have later statements that Patrick McCloskey was also blind, so perhaps we can’t read any significance into this as to whether John McCotter was blind or partially sighted.

I think it is interesting that John McCotter is significantly older than most of the others. We have two twelve year old boys, one seventeen, one 21, and then we have John McCotter aged 26 in August 1820. We see that Hugh Dornan is a couple of years older than him, at 29.

We know that Dornan was already working as a musician before he became a harp student in 1820; but I have no idea what John McCotter’s background might have been. There are no McCotters listed in the 1819 Belfast street directory.

Anyway, from the end of February 1820, John McCotter was studying the harp full time in the Harp Society House in Cromac Street, coming in every day from wherever he was living in Belfast, to learn the traditional Irish harp fingering techniques and repertory under the master, Edward McBride.

The minutes of this same meeting of 8th August 1820 also contain an interesting bit of information, that three of the boys, Byrne, McCloskey and Hannah, were taken into the Society House lodgings to live with McBride from 26th May. So from that date on there were three boarding pupils, living full time in the house, and the other four including John McCotter were still coming in as day pupils for their lessons. I wonder if this changed the dynamic in the house?

Leaving the school

John McCotter left the school some time between August 1820 and August 1821. We don’t have any records between these dates, but at the meeting of the Gentlemen on 20th August 1821, the master Edward McBride presented his report (Irish Harp Society Calcutta 1828, Penn Libraries ML1015.C3I7, p.27). He lists six pupils; there is one new one, a girl, Jane McArthur. But both Hugh Dornan and John McCotter are not mentioned. So what happened? How can we explain this?

I have already written about Hugh Dornan and what became of him; he continued to live in Belfast, apparently working as a professional musician. But what about John McCotter?

That same meeting on 20th August 1821 adopts a set of rules for examining the pupils, and how two years was to be the norm, and how after 18 months a pupil could be examined and if they were ready to go professional they could be discharged, and that harps were to be ordered.

John McCotter entered on 21 Feb 1820, and there is no trace of him by 20th Aug 1821, eighteen months later. The minutes don’t make any mention of McCotter. I suppose it is possible that he had been a star pupil, that he had worked really hard, and that he had been discharged already by 20th August with no trace in the accounts or minutes. But I doubt it; I wonder if he just gave up, or dropped out.

Or did we have a re-run of what had happened to James O’Neil and William Gorman ten years previously? Did Hugh Dornan and John McCotter somehow disgrace themselves by bad behaviour, and did the Gentlemen expel them?

We are missing so many of the detailed records of the Irish harp Society. Perhaps we will never know.

One thought on “John McCotter”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.