Portrait of Valentine Rennie. Courtesy of National Museums NI (BELUM.U139)

Valentine Rennie

Valentine Rennie was a traditional Irish harper and tradition-bearer in the first half of the 19th century. He taught the harp in Belfast for fifteen years, passing on the inherited tradition to perhaps twenty or more young harpers in the next generation. We have loads of information about him including two different portraits (header image courtesy of National Museums NI)

In this post I am going to try and cover everything so it will be very long. We will start by going through his life in order, and then after that we will look at things like his harps and his portaits.

Early years (1795-1808)
Learning the harp (1809-c.1812)
Early performing career (c.1812-1821)
Teaching in Belfast (1822-1837)

Sources and previous writings

I first became aware of Valentine Rennie over twenty years ago, when Keith Sanger wrote a brief biography of Rennie for the long-defunct website clarsach.net (archived version). Sanger’s pen-portrait draws on Rennie’s obituary in the Belfast News Letter 26 Sep 1837, and on the main published sources: R.B. Armstrong, C. M. Fox, the Ulster Journal of Archaeology, and John Bell’s notebook, as well as the Irish Harp Society minute book (1808-10) in the Linen Hall Library (Beath Collection box 5.1). In this post I am going to combine these sources with other things I have found mentioning Rennie, to try and tell his life story. These include the Irish Harp Society minutes from the 1820s, other newspaper reports and articles, and the traditionary information written down by William Savage in about 1908 from George Jackson who was a pupil of Patrick Murney who was a pupil of Valentine Rennie.

Birth and family

According to our sources, Valentine Rennie was born in 1795. He was from from Cushendall in the Glens of Antrim, on the north east corner of Ireland facing across to Scotland.

Obviously this is too long ago to have proper birth records, but we can calculate when he was likely born. The Irish Harp Society minute for 2nd January 1810 says that Valentine Rennie was aged 14, implying that he was born between 3 Jan 1795 and 2 Jan 1796. The obituary says that he died on 23 September 1837 aged 42, which implies that he was born between 24 Sep 1794 and 23 Sep 1795. So I think we can be fairly confident in saying that Valentine Rennie was born between January and September 1795.

The obituary says that Valentine Rennie was a second cousin of the Scottish poet Robert Burns. I don’t know if any genealogists have found the connection – Burns’s grandmother was called Rainie, so her parents Rainie could possibly be Valentine Rennie’s great-grandparents, but I don’t know. The obituary says that it was through Valentine Rennie’s father, i.e. that Rennie’s father was first cousin to one of Robert Burns’s parents. I am sure more work could be done on this.

Early musical memories

We have a rare anecdote from Valentine Rennie’s youth. This was written and published in 1858, by someone who had met him in 1824, and is part of a discussion of the tune “Lochaber” (Limerick’s Lamentation)

… he mentioned hearing his grandfather “croon” over the music, the old Hibernian never having been out of Ireland.

Tower Hamlets Mail, Sat 18 Sep 1858 p7

This grandfather was obviously from the other side of the family from Robert Burns’s ancestors, if he had never been out of Ireland. We will look at the entire anecdote later on in this post.

Learning the fiddle

The obituary tells us that Valentine Rennie had an “innate” taste for music, and learned the violin as a child. The obituary says “he was almost blind, and had no opportunity of acquiring scientific instruction”, which I think means that he learned traditional Irish fiddle rather than classical violin. The obituary says that he was a good player of Irish tunes by the time he was 11.

The Traditionary information from George Jackson tells us that Rennie was “more a Fiddler than a Harper”, implying that Rennie continued to be known as a fiddle player later in his life.


It seems that Rennie was partially sighted (though it is hard to be specific about exactly how much sight a person 200 years ago did or did not have). The obituary mentions his “defective sight”. But I don’t think Rennie was blind, because I think we have his signature (more later on this) implying that he could read and write.

I wonder if Rennie became partially sighted as a boy, between the ages of 11 and 13, which could explain why he was sent to the Irish Harp Society school in Belfast.

It is also possible that his sight came and went over time; the 19th century was a time that eye-doctors could sometimes be successful in undoing damage to eyesight.

Learning the Irish harp

Valentine Rennie was admitted as a student in the Irish Harp Society in Belfast in February 1809, at the age of 13 years old. He is listed in the minutes of a later meeting:

Valnte Rainey of the Glen’s County of Antrim
aged 14. Entered February 1809.
Recommended by the Vice

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

We see a number of interesting things on this entry. His first name is misspelled and re-written, with the “l” and the “te” over-written in darker ink. I am pretty sure that the age 14 is not the age he was when he entered (as some recent scholars have assumed), but records his present age on the date the minutes were written, 2 Jan 1810.

James McDonnell

Every pupil at the Harp Society school had to have a recommendation from a gentleman or someone of social standing. Rennie’s recommendation came from “the Vice President” of the Irish Harp Society, who was Dr. James McDonnell. He was a very interesting Gentleman and was also from Cushendall, so he may have had some personal connection with Rennie’s family. You can read a great biography of James MacDonnell by Peter Froggatt from The Glynns, 1981, reprinted online at the Glens of Antrim Historical Society website.

I have not properly collated where the Harp Society was based at this time, but I have a reference to “the school-room of the society” at 8, Pottinger’s Entry. It is possible that this was where the school ran from its inception in 1808 until it closed down in about 1812. (Belfast Commercial Chronicle, 20 May 1811) I don’t know if Arthur O’Neill and all the boys lived at this same address or if this was only where the school room was.

Anyway, in February 1809, Valentine Rennie came to Belfast to the Harp Society house to start his study full-time under the harper and tradition-bearer Arthur O’Neil. There were already five pupils there when Rennie arrived; William Gorman had been there 8 months already, since June 1808. The others were Patrick McGrath (entered in Sep 08), Edward McBride (Nov 08), Patrick O’Neil (Jan 09), and James O’Neil (entered Feb 09 the same month as Rennie). The others were aged between 13 and 19 years old.

I have written elsewhere (on my posts on some of his classmates) how the school was run. The boys studied full time at the school, and were boarded, fed, and clothed by the Society. The Gentlemen of the Harp Society committee mostly focussed on their own committee business, organising their meetings and especially trying to raise money – they always seemed to be running out. I think they left Arthur O’Neil to get on with the job of teaching the boys to play the harp.

Arthur O’Neil

So Rennie started his education to learn the traditional wire-strung Irish harp. His teacher, Arthur O’Neil, was an elderly harper and tradition-bearer, and so I think that all the boys were learning in the old inherited tradition, the tunes, the fingering techniques, the style and idiom, as well as the lore, traditions and stories, and also the practicalities of maintaining and tuning the harp, and the business aspects to making a living as a professional harper. I think the language of the school was English – for most of the boys we have no information whether or not they spoke Irish.

I think that at first there were no harps in the Society school, except presumably Arthur O’Neil’s old harp. We have to imagine the boys learning the traditional music theory, tunes, and fingering techniques all sharing the one harp with the teacher. The Gentlemen had made enquiries to have harps made during 1808, but the minutes don’t record them actually being purchased until August and September 1809. It looks like the Society bought two harps from White, and one from McCabe, but really we have very little idea what these harps were like. We know that the Gentlemen left the choice of harps to Arthur O’Neil, so we can imagine that they were floor-standing wire-strung traditional Irish harps with about 36 wire strings. It would have been a big step up for the boys for there to be three classroom harps for them to use in their studies.

Two more new boys entered later in 1809 to join Valentine Rennie and his classmates. They were Abraham Wilkinson and James McMonagle. There were also three day pupils but we have much less information about them: Edward O’Neil, Hugh Dornan and John Wallace. So now there were eleven boys, including Valentine Rennie.

In September 1809 Bridget O’Reilly entered the Society school, but I think she was already a professional harper by then, having learned from Arthur O’Neil in the 1790s. The records are coy about her but at the moment I am guessing that she may have acted as a kind of senior student or even more like a classroom assistant or second teacher, assisting Arthur O’Neil with the tuition of the boys.

On 5th September 1809, the minutes of the Gentlemen’s meeting resolved “that one of the committee inspect the school weekly”. This shows how hands-off the Gentlemen were. For the rest of the week, Valentine Rennie and the other boys would be on their own with Arthur O’Neil and Bridget O’Reilly.

Valentine Rennie’s obituary says: “such was his proficiency, that in the course of a few years he far surpassed his venerable preceptor”.

In-house performances, 1809-10

From the beginning, the Gentlemen of the Harp Society expected to get something back from their financial subscriptions or their time volunteering on the Committee, and so they organised dinners for themselves where the harpers would play to entertain them. The Society had been formed on St Patrick’s day 1808, when the Gentlemen met at Linn’s Hotel in Belfast. On the first anniversary of that inaugural meeting, the Gentlemen had an annual dinner. After the dinner, Arthur O’Neil played some tunes to entertain the Gentlemen, and then the Gentlemen sang some patriotic songs, and James Cody the piper played some tunes on the pipes. The Gentlemen drank more, and became more enthusiastic, the boys were paraded in:

…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

As I mentioned above, I am not sure that the Society had any harps yet at this stage. So perhaps one or two of the most senior boys took turns to play a tune on Arthur O’Neil’s harp. William Gorman had been there the longest; he had been learning for nine months. Valentine Rennie had been learning for only about one month at this stage.

I also should clarify that when I say “in-house” I don’t mean literally in the Harp Society house. These private events for the Gentlemen would be at hotels or similar venues.

The Society got the two harps made by White in September 1809, and planned an event:

…public examination of their pupils’ proficiency some time in November. Six blind children performing on a difficult instrument, under an aged and blind instructor, will be a most interesting exhibition…

Belfast News letter, 8 Sep 1809 p2

I haven’t seen another reference to his public examination, though the Dublin paper Freeman’s Journal (Mon 11 Sep 1809 p3) reprinted the story, but very confusingly muddled it up with the Dublin Harp Society concert planned for 20th September.

The next time we can get a glimpse of Valentine Rennie performing with his classmates is at the end of that year. The Belfast Irish Harp Society held a “splendid entertainment” in honour of Edward Bunting, at O’Neill’s Hotel in Belfast, on Wednesday 20th December 1809. This was a formal gentlemen’s dinner, with the great and good treated to a lavish dinner, after which were the usual toasts, songs and speeches. After the gentlemen had drunk their fill of toasts, there was a musical entertainment:

…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 some trios, duets &c. they were followed by the most enthusiastic applause. Among other admired airs were the following: Patrick’s Day – The Green Wood Tringha – Ullighan dubh O! or the Song of Sorrow – Bumper Squire Jones – Planxty Plunkett – Planxty Reilly, &c. &c. Their performances gave much satisfaction, and it was very gratifying to behold this youthful groupe, the objects of the Society’s care, thus surrounded by their patrons, delighting their ears with the music of ancient times.

Belfast Commercial Chronicle, 23 December 1809, p2

Most of these tunes feature in my list of the most popular Irish harp tunes of the 19th century.

As I have said before, on my post about Edward McBride, I think that the two youths who played with Bridget O’Reilly may have been Edward McBride and Valentine Rennie. By December 1809, Rennie had been studying full time for 10 months.

The second anniversary dinner for the Society Gentlemen took place on St Patrick’s day 1810. The dinner was held in a room lavishly decorated with national emblems, and the band of the Westmeath Regiment played “some of the finest national airs with great taste and sweetness”. After dinner, Dr. James MacDonnell chaired the proceedings, with toasts proposed, a specially written song for the Gentlemen to sing, and a letter from Viscount O’Neil, the President of the Society, who was unable to attend. Then the next entertainment for the Gentlemen was to have the pupils brought in:

After reading this letter, which was received with the utmost applause, 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. After their departure, the toasts recommenced with…

Belfast News Letter, Tue 20 March 1810 p2

We can see here very vividly the yawning social and cultural chasm between the Gentlemen and the pupils. I assume Val Rennie would have played a bit on this occasion.

Almost discharged, May 1810

On Tuesday 8th May 1810, the Gentlemen held their half-yearly meeting. The Irish Harp Society minute book in the Linen Hall Library has a single page of minutes from this meeting (p49), but it only lists the election of officers. To see the discussions and resolutions we have to look at newspaper reports:

On Tuesday evening last, the Society for the Preservation of our National Instrument and Melodies held their half yearly general meeting at Belfast. It appears from the statement then laid before them, that there are at present eight blind pupils in the house, all of whom are clothed, fed, lodged and taught by the Society; and also that from the improvement displayed by them on the harp, there is every prospect of the full attainment of the object aimed at by this Institution. Two of the pupils have made such a progress in the space of about two years, that they intend shortly to claim the harps which are to be presented by the Society to every one of them who appear qualified to play without further instruction; and in effecting this, much praise is due to their venerable instructor, whose exertions have fully kept pace with the wishes of his patrons. The institution is also gaining every day in the public opinion, as is evident from the number of Subscribers added to its list on every night of meeting, and from the voluntary and unsolicited donations sent in from different parts of the country. They are not without hopes of being soon able to furnish teachers to other parts of the kingdom, where societies for the same benevolent and national purposes shall be formed.

Freemans Journal 14 May 1810 p3

What a fascinating report. And what a pity that we don’t have the full minutes of this meeting, with the list of eight pupils. I am also very interested to see the discussion of the gift harps, and that we have two boys about to be discharged.

We can guess that these two were McBride and Rennie, because they are named in the minutes a week later:

Resolved – That the sub: Com for the superinten<dence> of the musical department be fully authorized and empower’d to provide for and despatch Ed Mc Bride & Val Rainey to the country for for three months in such a a manner as shall [??st] contribute to the b[enefit] & [????] of the institution.

Committee meeting Tuesday 15th May 1810, minute book of the Irish Harp Society (Linen Hall Library, Beath Collection, box 5.1 p53)

This is a very curious resolution, because we might expect to see the two boys discharged, with the gift of a harp each, and a certificate of musical accomplishment and good conduct. Instead, what seems to be happening is that they are to be sent to the country for “three months” only.

Anyway the next week the report came back.

The subcommittee appointed last meeting for the purpose of fitting out McBryde & Rainey for their intended journey, not being prepared to report satisfa[??] on the subject in consequence of a deficiency in Harps.
it is as resolved –
That the said sub comittee be fully authorized to have three Harps made soon as possible for the use of the Society

Committee meeting Tuesday 22nd May 1810, minute book of the Irish Harp Society (Linen Hall Library, Beath Collection, box 5.1 p54)

Once again, the shortage of harps is a big issue. The minutes only report the purchase of two harps for the Society, from White in September 1809. There had been discussion about buying or renting a harp from McCabe in August 1809 but nothing seems to have come of it. So it is possible that the Society only actually owned two harps still at that stage, and couldn’t allow Rennie and McBride to take one away with them. Hence resolving to have more made as a matter of urgency.

At this stage, Valentine Rennie had been learning the harp for a year and three months, and he would have been about 15 years old.

Public concert

Rennie and McBride remained in Belfast, and so would have played at a fundraising event on Friday 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 kind of variety show at Mr Talbot’s Theatre. 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

A review of the concert was printed a few days later:

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 (thanks to Belfast Central Library Cultural Heritage staff for sending me this)

The boys must have enjoyed wearing their new blue uniforms, because at the next meeting of the Gentlemen on Tuesday 19th June 1810, there was a resolution:

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. This was the same meeting that James O’Neil and William Gorman were expelled – perhaps they had disgraced themselves by bad behaviour after the concert?

Finally sent out to perform

A month later, Rennie and McBride were still in Belfast. It is not clear if the three harps had been ordered, or delivered, or what. There obviously still was a great shortage of harps, and the discussion seems to have shifted to whether the pair should be allowed to take two harps with them, or if they would have to travel together, sharing one harp between them.

In consequence of a report from the sub comm. appointed to <send out> Val. Rainey & Edwd M’Bryde. concerning the propriety of allowing th [e]ach of them a Harp during the time they should remain absent
Resolved – that the Comm. be authorised to use their discretion with regard to that subject

Committee meeting Wednesday 4 July 1810, minute book of the Irish Harp Society (Linen Hall Library, Beath Collection, box 5.1 p57)

This was fifteen months after Valentine Rennie had first started his full-time study at the school.

Anyway, at some point between July and September 1810, the two boys left Belfast and set off on tour. Valentine Rennie was about 15 years old. I don’t have any more information about the tour until September, when a correspondent from Newtownlimavady sent a romantic poem in to the newspaper:

(For the Belfast Commercial Chronicle.)
Impromptu, on hearing Rainey and M’Bride, the two Lads lately sent out by the Belfast Harp Society, play.

Sweet harp of Erin! once again
is heard thy sadly-pleasing strain;
Again, thy chords to rapture strung,
Warble thy native hills among;
Again, o’er ev’ry hearth they steal,
Struck, by the Pupils of O’NEIL.

And shall no shamrock wreath be twined,
The hoary Minstrel’s brow to bind?
Yes, Erin’s Genius shall prepare
A chaplet for his silver’d hair;
That, long as Erin’s soul can feel,
Shall crown the talents of O’NEIL.

Newtownlimavady, Sept. 1810

Belfast Commercial Chronicle, Monday 1st October 1810 p4

So were McBride and Rennie only out on tour for three months in the summer of 1810? Did they return to Belfast to rejoin their classmates at the Harp Society House? or were they out on their own from this point onwards?

I don’t have any clear references for what Valentine Rennie was doing during 1811 and 1812. It is possible Rennie and McBride were back in Belfast continuing to study with Arthur O’Neil. But I don’t know.

Some of the pupils played in a benefit concert for the Society in June 1811; “Two of the pupils, who are to appear before the public to-morrow evening, have made such a progress, that they are now enabled to gratify the admirers of our antient melodies by some native strains, in a style highly creditable to the young performers, and thus procure the means of a comfortable subsistence.” (Belfast News Letter 18 June 1811 p2). These two may have been Valentine Rennie and Edward McBride, but they may already have left, and new students recruited to take their place in the school. This may be the next two to finish their education. It is impossible at this stage to know because we are missing the records.

The Irish Harp Society seems to have dribbled to a halt over the course of 1812, desperately short of cash and being unable to even pay the harp teacher Arthur O’Neill his salary. (Belfast Commercial Chronicle 7 & 25 Nov 1812). There were no pupils in the Society house by November 1812; they had all been sent to the country to make a living for themselves (Belfast News Letter 22 June 1813).

On Tour 1812-1819

Valentine Rennie and Edward McBride did a lot of work together over the next seven or eight years. It almost seems as if they worked together all the time, as a kind of double-act.

I have already discussed these notices in my post on Edward McBride, but I am copying them here because they are an important part of Valentine Rennie’s life-story as well.

I am pretty sure that these all refer to Valentine Rennie. In the 1840s, there was a second harper also called Rennie, but I think at this early stage in the 1810s we are just dealing with our man Valentine Rennie

In the summer of 1813, McBride and Rennie were in Limerick. Presumably they were playing many concerts in many different towns and cities that summer, but this is the only notice I have found so far.

The inhabitants of this city and its vicinity are respectfully informed that a number of exquisite Irish Airs will be performed on the IRISH HARP, at the Assembly Rooms, Charlotte’s-Quay, by Messrs. M’BRIDE and REANY, on Monday 5th July.
The revival of our national music on this delightful instrument is become an object of warm interest in the North of Ireland, and in the Metropolis; nor is this predeliction for the Ancient Harmonies of ERIN unmerited. In remote periods, the Irish were unrivaled in the tenderness of their plaintive airs and in the sweet vivacity of their more rapid melodies. The choicest of these melodies have been transmitted to us by our ancestors; and the BELFAST Society has at once been instrumental in reviving the national taste of Irish Music, and is enabling a number of young men to procure their livelihood by amusing the Public with a delightful performance of the strains that have pleased the world through a long series of ages. – M’BRIDE and REANY, come forth under the approbation of that respectable society as appears by their Certificates, to solicit the generous inhabitants of this city for patronage – They feel an humble hope that they will be found competent to gratify the Public with an amusement at once national and pleasing.
Performance commences at half past Seven O’Clock,
Admittance, [2]s. 6d. – Children, half price.
Tickets to be had at the several Newspaper Offices in this city.

Limerick Gazette, Tuesday 29 June 1813 p3

This notice incidentally mentions that the two boys have their Certificates from the Irish Harp Society. I am very interested in the Certificates that the Irish Harp Society issued to its students. And the Students seem to have used them as we see in this Limerick advert.

Two-and-a-half years later they were making their Dublin debut, as part of a much bigger concert.

On Friday, February 2, at One o’Clock
Will be performed
of Sacred and Vocal and Instrumental Music,
Under the Direction of
To liquidate the vast expenditure incurred in the repairs of,
and improving the avenues leading to the Chapel.
OVERTURE . . . . Dr. Cogan.
Recitative and Song, Mr. Spray, from the Messiah, “Comfort ye my People,” and “Every valley.” } Handel.
Chorus, Messiah and the Glory of the Lord. Handel.
Solo Violin – Mr. Fallon (in which he will introduce “O Salutaris,” with accompaniments, by Mr. Fallon, for the occasion, } Rode.
Song, Mr. Weyman. “For behold darkness shall cover the Earth,” &c.
Recitative, Mr. Jager, “Behold a Virgin,” Air, “O thou that T[e]llest,” } Handel.
Quartetto, “Benedictus,” Messrs. Spray, Smith, Jager, and Weymann, } Mozart.
Song, Mr. Smith, “Total Eclipse,” Handel.
Chorus, “Lift up your Heads,” Handel.
Concerto, Grand Piano Forte; Miss Fallon, (Pupil of Mr. Fallon) } Dussek.
Song, Mr. Jager, “Return, O God of Hosts,” Handel
Quartetto; “When the ear heard him, it blessed him;”Messrs. Spray, Smith, Jager, and Weyman } Handel.
Song; Mr. Weyman, “The Trumpet shall sound;” accompanied by Mr. H. Willman } Handel.
Recitative and Song; Mr. Spray, “Deeper and Deeper Still;” and Air, “Waft her Angels,” }
Chorus; “From the Mount of Olives,”
Grand Symphony . . . Finale
Between the Parts
by Messrs. RENNIE and M’BRIDE
From the Belfast Irish Harp Society, being their first appearance in Dublin.
Leader of the Band, Mr. FALON
Violins – Messrs. Barrett, Miller, Glover, Gayne, Nelson, Hall, &c.
Violencellos – Messrs. Boden and Glover, sen.
Double Basses – Messrs Grey and Smith.
Tenors – Messrs. Kelly and Saunders.
Flutes – Messrs. B. Cook and Kavanagh.
Horns – Messrs. Mulligan and Burgess.
Trumpet – Mr. H. Willman.
Double Drums – Mr. Mulligan.
Several Gentlemen Amateurs have kindly volunteered to perform on the occasion.
Tickets of admission to be had at Mr. Coyne’s, 16, Parliament-street; Mr. Fitzpatrick, 4, Capel-street; at the Bar of the Commercial Buildings; at the principal Music Shops, and at the Lodge in the Chapel Yard.
Red Tickets, admitting to the Pews through the New Passage, 5s.
Red Tickets, admitting to the Aisle, through the iron gate, 3s. 4d.

Freeman’s Journal, 2 Feb 1816, p1. See also Dublin Evening Post, Tuesday 30 Jan 1816 p2 for variant readings especially “Blue Tickets admitting to the Pews…”

Incidentally, I assume the singer here must be the same Mr. Spray who was rude about William Carr.

We also have a review of the event:

We were exceedingly well pleased to perceive that there was a very full and respectable attendance at the Concert at Clarendon-street Chapel, yesterday. Indeed the attractions in the way of performance, leaving all motives of duty or religion out of view, were in themselves sufficient to ensure a crowded auditory. Mr. Fallon was the leader of the band – Dr. Cogan presided at the piano-forte – Messrs Spray, Jager, Weyman and Smith, lent all the aid of their extraordinary vocal powers. – Miss Fallon (a pupil of the Leader) gave us the best specimens of her skill (and no doubt they were admirable) at the piano – and two Irish harpers, who reminded one of “the days of other years,” co-operated on the national instrument, it being their first public appearance in this quarter of the island. When those were the performers, and the best compositions of Handel the music it is little surprising that every expectation of those who instituted the concert should be realized.

Freemans Journal, 3 Feb 1816 p4

This is a very interesting concert for lots of reasons. It is very interesting to see our two harpers in this context with lots of Handel vocal music. At first I thought our two lads were also playing Handel, but this was because of typesetting errors in the Dublin Evening Post advert. I assume they were playing their usual Irish tunes. And it is also significant that they were not part of the programme proper – they were only to play “between the parts” (i.e. in the interval, the usual place for the harpers in the 19th century).

Four months later they are performing sacred music in John’s Lane Catholic church.

ON MONDAY, 24th JUNE, 1816, the PANEGYRIC of St John the Baptist, the glorious precursor of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ (Titular and Patron of JOHN’S LANE CHAPEL) will be Preached
By the Rev. M. B. KEOGH,
At One O’Clock in said Chapel.
After which a Collection will be made, to defray the Expense to be incurred by the Repairs, and building an additional Staircase to the large Gallery.
Antecedent to which there will be a GRAND CONCERT of Sacred Music, both Vocal and Instrumental, in which Mr. INCLEDON and Master TAYLOR have kindly promised their assistance, in conjunction with other Gentlemen Amateurs of this City.
N. B. The Gentlemen and Ladies are respectfully informed, that they will be accommodated to their satisfaction.
And at Seven o’Clock on the Evening of the same Day, a Second Sermon will be preached on the same Subject,
By the Rev. JOHN MADDEN,
And a Collection made for the above laudable purport
Previous to the Sermon, certain Sacred Pieces will be performed by Messrs. M’BRIDE and R[EN]NEY, the two celebrated Performers on the Irish Harp, from the Belfast Harp Society.
“Praise him with the sound of Trumpet, praise him,
“With the Psalt[e]ry and Harp – Psalm 10[4].
Donations will be thankfully received by the Rev. Preachers, and the Rev. Gentlemen of John’s Lane Chapel.

Freemans Journal Sat 22 June 1816 p1

This is an interesting addition to our tune-lists, though we aren’t given titles, but “certain sacred pieces” expands the type of repertory that the traditional harpers were playing.

In November 1817 we find the two of them working in a tavern, in the Temple Bar area of Dublin. Again the Certificates are mentioned.

Messrs. Rainey and M’Bride, who have obtained Certificates from the Belfast Institution, established for the revival of
Continue to perform a Selection of of the most popular and admired Airs on the
At the Shamrock Tavern, Fownes’s-street,
corner of Cope-street.
THOMAS LEE, (Late of the Theatre Royal, the Proprietor,) in submitting a continuance of the above Amusement, feels highly gratified that his Endeavours in this respect have obtained the most general approval from those respectable Characters who honor the SHAMROCK TAVERN by their resort. Arrangements have been made for accommodating the accumulation of Visitors, and the same satisfaction which the Public have heretofore so liberally acknowledged, shall serve as a stimulus for future exertions.
*⁎* Select Dinner Parties can be accommodated in the Upper Rooms with the Performance of the Minstrels until Eight o’clock, at which hour they commence each Evening in the Box Room.
☞ Fresh Soups, &c. every day, with London and Dublin Newspapers.

Freemans Journal, Tuesday 18 Nov 1817 p2

Its very curious that they stuck together, whether doing concert tours, or religious ceremonies, or playing every evening in the tavern.

However, Valentine Rennie’s partnership with Edward McBride came to an end at the end of 1819, and they split up.

The partnership with McBride comes to an end

The Irish Harp Society in Belfast had basically been defunct between 1813 and 1818. In 1818 a huge amount of money arrived in Belfast, sent by a group of gentlemen in India, specifically to be used to fund the Society. And so the Gentlemen in Belfast started to organise again. Arthur O’Neill, the master, was dead; the pupils were long-scattered, and so the Gentlemen had to start again pretty much from scratch. They held their inaugural meeting in April 1819, and they placed an advert in the newspapers in October:

For the Irish Harp Society, at Belfast:
(Founded on the liberal subscriptions of a number of Friends of the Ancient Music of Ireland, in India)
HE must bear a good character, and be competent to the TUITION of a number of PUPILS. – It is necessary that he be conversant with the Ancient Melodies of this Country, and the Compositions of CONNOLLAN, CAROLAN, &c.
An adequate Annual Salary will be given; and a convenient Dwelling-House, with School-Rooms, provided.
Applications in person, or by post, from Harpers in the different Provinces of Ireland, to be made to EDWARD BUNTING, Esq. now settled in Dublin (Leeson-street, No. 18); and to the Secretary of the Irish Harp Society, at Belfast…

Belfast Newsletter, 8 Oct 1819 p3

I imagine Valentine Rennie and Edward McBride both saw this advert (or had it read to them). We don’t seem to have any information from the Society minutes from the end of 1819 about the recruitment process; when the Harp Society records start we see that Edward McBride had got the job and started at the beginning of 1820, receiving his first pupils in February 1820. So we know that from that point, Valentine Rennie was out working on his own.

Living and working in Dublin

So from the start of 1820, while Rennie’s old classmate and travelling companion, Edward McBride, was teaching the harp full time in Belfast, Valentine Rennie seems to have stayed in Dublin, working on his own as an “artisan” traditional Irish harper. His obituary says “For some years Mr. Rennie resided in Dublin…”. But we don’t have much information about this period of his life.

I have already mentioned him playing in the Shamrock Tavern in Temple Bar when he was still working with McBride. Now we have another snapshot of Rennie (on his own now) playing in a tavern, in July 1821:

JOHN CONROY respectfully acquaints his Friends and the Public, that he has fitted up the extensive House, No. 20, UPPER ORMOND-QUAY, corner of EAST ARRAN-STREET, and stocked it with the best Wines, Spirits, Malts, &c.
Breakfasts, Dinners, Soups, &c. with excellent Beds, on the most reasonable Terms.
N.B. Mr. RENNY, the celebrated Performer on the Irish Harp, attends every evening.
Dublin, July, 1821.

Dublin Evening Post, Sat 21 Jul 1821

Playing for the King

Valentine Rennie played before King George IV in Dublin on on 23rd August 1821. The obituary says

For some years Mr. Rennie resided in Dublin, where his exquisite taste and unrivalled execution were the theme of universal admiration, so that on the visit of Geo. IV to this country he was selected to perform in his presence in the character and appropriate costume of an ancient Bard of Erin.

Obituary in the Belfast News Letter 26 Sep 1837

We have a printed programme from the event which names four harpers who played that evening.

Robert Bruce Armstrong, The Irish and Highland Harps, 1904, plate between p.52-3

Irish Harpers.

I have discussed this event before, on my posts about the other three harpers who also performed, Edward McBride, James McMonagle, and John MacLoughlin. I think all four had been classmates together under Arthur O’Neil at the Irish harp Society school in Belfast ten years previously. It is interesting to see Rennie and MacBride back together again, even if only for one event.

The event was very important; this was the first Royal visit to Ireland for a long time, and George IV was given a huge welcome. The Dublin civic authorities organised this amazing banquet for the King; they built a special new circular building for the banquetting hall, which still exists, though the inside has been changed and redone.

On Thursday the 23rd August, the Corporation of Dublin gave the “City Banquet” to the King, in a magnificent room specially erected for the occasion. The decorations were in an elegant and classic style. The musical arrangements, in which the celebrated Miss Stephens, afterwards the Countess of Essex, was one of the vocalists, presented an interesting national peculiarity in the performance of a number of Irish harpers, two of whom were sent by the Lord of Shane’s Castle, dressed in the ancient costume of the O’Neills, made first familiar to the English reader by the chronicler of the famous visit of Shane O’Neill to Queen Elizabeth.

Hubert Burke, Ireland Sixty Years Ago, London, 1885 p20

An eyewitness describes the event:

August 23rd – The City Dinner, extremely splendid, and what is more wonderful, good and well regulated and well served. About 400 dined. The room built for the occasion in less than six weeks, and for less than 5000l., represented the interior circular court of a Moorish palace open to the sky; the battlements were a gallery filled with ladies, music, and a company of halberdiers, in Spanish dresses of light blue silk as a guard of honour to the King. It was lighted by a vast circle of lamps, hung by invisible wires, which had a wonderfully fine and curious effect. Foster pleasantly and forcefully called it Saturn’s ring. The whole was gay, graceful, and grand, and went off with à souhait, except the music, which was bad – poor and scattered. The finest incident was that after the loud cheers of the company on drinking the King’s health had subsided, the distant cheering of the of the people from the surrounding streets burst in (from the invisible windows of the ceiling), and gave an air of reality to the whole pageant.

John Wilson Croker (ed. L.J. Jennings), The Croker Papers vol 1 (1884) p205

So Valentine Rennie and his three old classmates, presumably all dressed in costume, played their set of tunes, but they were not the only musicians; there were also classical musicians including classical singing. At the moment I have not found out more detail about exactly how the four harpers were organised or seated or how the evening went. Croker’s review suggests the different performers were not well programmed. But I am fascinated by the list of the harpers’ tunes, with the titles printed bilingually in Irish and English. I wonder who provided the Irish titles – was Rennie or one of the other harpers an Irish speaker? (we know McMonagal was not). Or were they done by a scholarly Gentleman? I discuss some of these tunes on my post about 19th century Irish harp tune lists. This gives us a great insight into the kind of music that Valentine Rennie was playing.

The next day, the King visited the Royal Dublin Society in Leinster House. Three harpers played out on the lawn, but we are not told their names. I don’t know if Valentine Rennie was playing outside that morning or not.

On Friday, the 24th, the king visited the Royal Dublin Society, at Leinster House, the lawn of which was covered with beautiful tents, ranged in semi-circular form round a magnificent marquee, where his majesty was entertained. Three harpers, robed in the antique garb of Irish minstrels, were stationed at the entrance of the tent. He was received by the members, about one hundred and fifty in number, all decorated with the insignia of welcome. The price of admission to this féte champétre was five guineas for a member and two ladies.

Cassel’s illustrated history of England… vol III (being the seventh volume of the entire history) from the accession of George IV to the Irish famine, 1847 (London, 1863) p51

We have a nice description of the costume worn by these three harpers:

Three Irish harpers, dressed in the ancient costume of their order, attended with their harps. They wore wreaths of laurel, and velvet robes, which gave them an antique appearance. But they did not favour us with many exhibitions of their skill. Their harps seemed to be out of order.

London Morning Herald, Tue 28 Aug 1821 p1

I think it was a very hot sunny day, so presumably the harps were going wildly out of tune in the heat.

A few decades later, in about 1849, it seems that the harper and tradition-bearer Patrick Byrne reported the names of the harpers who had played for the King. The information was written down by the antiquarian John Bell:

Edward McBride }
Vallentine Rainnie }
James Mc.Mannigal } were the three / who played before / George the 4th / in Dublin
Rainney <then> played on the old harp I expect to get as / Mr Byrne could depose of oath.

John Bell’s notebook (Glasgow University Library, MS Farmer 332 f89v)

We will discuss this information about Rennie’s harp later on.

Teaching at the Irish Harp Society from 1822

On my post about Edward McBride, I talk a lot about his time teaching at the newly-restarted Irish Harp Society school from February 1820 through to the end of 1821. We have two reports that McBride presented to the Gentlemen of the Committee, in August 1820 and in August 1821. McBride seems to have been doing well, teaching his pupils full time. By the middle of 1821 McBride had six pupils who he was teaching full time.

But at the very end of 1821, after almost two years as the teacher, Edward McBride lost the job. I don’t know if he resigned, or was fired, or what. Valentine Rennie became teacher instead.

THE COMMITTEE of MANAGEMENT for the IRISH HARP SOCIETY, at Belfast, beg leave to inform the Members of the Society at large, that they have supplied the place of their former Teacher, by the appointment of Mr. VAL RAINEY, as a person highly qualified for the situation.
He has permission, out of the hours of duty, to attend Ladies and Gentlemen for TUITION on the Irish and Pedal Harp; and also to play in Genteel Families in the Evenings.
The IRISH HARP, in his hands, will be found so superior to what Musical Persons have been accustomed to that the Committee take the liberty to recommend him to the notice of Musical Amateurs.
Signed by Order
JOHN WARD, Secretary
Cromac-street, Dec 29, 1821. } 871

Belfast Newsletter, 8 Jan 1822 p3

We are missing the minutes of the committee meetings for this period, so I really don’t know what was going on; but McBride was gone, and Rennie was in post, and was now employed full-time as a harp teacher for the Society.

This notice is interesting for a couple of other reasons as well. The information about him offering private tuition and performance in the evenings is interesting. Even more interesting is that he can offer tuition on the pedal harp as well as the Irish harp. I have seen a couple of the other traditional Irish harpers in the inherited tradition also mentioned in connection with pedal harp; Roger Begley is one. I wonder if Rennie was actually playing classical pedal harp as well as traditional wire-strung Irish harp (and violin)? Perhaps we should see him as a multi-instrumentalist. However we have no other references to him performing or playing pedal harp; if Rennie actually was playing classical pedal harp we would expect to find him advertising this in his concerts, since pedal harp was much more high status and fashionable than the traditional wire-strung Irish harp at that time (see Clare McCague’s thesis for an in-depth look at the pedal harp in Ireland at this time). Was Rennie trying it on, advertising the fashionable instrument of the day amongst the wealthy Anglo middle classes as a way to try and get more bookings? Or did someone else write the advert and just assumed or got it wrong? I don’t know. In the absence of any other references, I am guessing this last may be the most likely explanation.

Rennie is also praised in this advert as being exceptionally good performer on the Irish harp. This is a theme that we will see again in the future. I get the impression that he really was a good musician and a good performer.

When Valentine Rennie was appointed teacher at the Irish Harp Society in Belfast, it looks like there were perhaps three harps in the House which belonged to the Society, and which the pupils would have used in their lessons. The way things worked back then in the inherited tradition is that pupils would not own their own harps. We see this right back through the 18th and 17th century, that the pupil would use the teacher’s harp to practice on, and would get their own harp only when they finished their studies and left the school to become a professional.

Harp made for the Irish Harp Society by John Egan, early 1820s. Photo from Armstrong 1904
Robert Bruce Armstrong posing with Egan harp no.1933, before it went to the Museum. Photo from R. B. Armstrong, 1904.

There is a floor-standing wire-strung Irish harp in the National Museum of Ireland (NMI DF:1913.381), which has very faint red lettering on its soundboard:


by I. EGAN,
[and the] ROYAL [FAMILY]

Nancy Hurrell suggests in her book that this harp likely dates to the early 1820s, and so it may well be one of the three harps that were owned by the Society and kept in the Harp Society House in 1822 when Rennie started teaching.

Anyway so at the start of January 1822, Rennie was in post as teacher of traditional wire-strung Irish harp at the Harp Society House in Cromac Street, Belfast. He had inherited Edward McBride’s pupils; we can look at Edward McBride’s report from six months earlier to see who Rennie was now teaching. You can see McBride’s reports on my post about him; here I will try and work out who Rennie inherited and how long they had been learning for by the start of January 1822 when Rennie became teacher.

There were four boarding pupils living in the Harp Society house:

  • Patrick Byrne – I think he was the most advanced pupil. He had started on the very first day, 21 Feb 1820, so he had been learning for one year and 10 months. He would have been 23 or 24 years old (if we believe the age on the minutes).
  • Thomas Hanna – He was about the same level as Byrne, and had started on the same day. He would have been aged 18 or 19 when Rennie took over.
  • Patrick McCloskey – He had started about 6 weeks after the other two, so he had been learning for about 1 year and 9 months. He was younger, only 12 or 13 when Rennie became teacher.
  • Jane MacArthur – she had only been learning for 8 months when Rennie took over. She was aged 17 or 18.

There were also two day pupils who lived elsewhere in Belfast, and who walked in every day for their lessons:

  • Hamilton Gillespie – he had started on the same day as Byrne and Hanna, so he had also been learning for a year and 10 months, but he was not so advanced in his study. He was about 18 or 19 years old when Rennie started as teacher.
  • Hugh Frazer – he had started in May 1820, so he had been learning for a year and 8 months. He was about 13 or 14 years old, and at a similar level to Gillespie.

Valentine Rennie would have lived in the Harp Society House on Cromac Street. The four boarding pupils also lived in the house. There was a school-room in the house, with harps for the pupils to use in their classes. The pupils were fed and clothed at the Society’s expense, and Rennie was paid a salary as teacher. I assume there was also a housekeeper to run the house, light the fires, prepare the food, etc.

The Gentlemen of the Committee would have their meetings in the House; they inspected the pupils, but it is not clear exactly how or how often. I think they wanted to make sure the pupils were progressing with their studies and behaving well, but I also think the Gentlemen were quite hands-off in running the school, I think they let the teacher get on with the job of teaching the pupils in the inherited tradition of playing the wire-strung traditional Irish harp.

There is a lot for us to think about here. Rennie had taken over from McBride; they had been classmates together ten years before, and so presumably they both had the same repertory and techniques and method of playing and teaching that they had been taught by Arthur O’Neil. So perhaps it was not too hard for Rennie to pick up from where McBride had left off with the tuition of the students.

Discharge of pupils from the school

I think that the pupils inherited by Rennie from the previous teacher, Edward McBride, must have been making pretty good progress. The first pupil that we know to finish his education was Patrick Byrne. We do not have minutes of the Harp Society Committee discussing the examination and discharge of any of the pupils in 1822-3. However, we do have Patrick Byrne’s certificate, which dates his discharge to Tuesday 14th May 1822. This is only four-and-a-half months after Rennie took over from McBride.

The certificate is in the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland, along with Patrick Byrne’s other papers. I think it was Keith Sanger who found the papers there a decade or two ago. PRONI D3531.G.1 is a large envelope which contains a pile of Patrick Byrne’s certificates and testimonials. The certificate is hand-written on vellum by the Harp Society Secretary John Ward. At the bottom it is signed by the Gentlemen of the Committee, and in the space above the date, Valentine Rennie has signed the certificate. I am pretty sure this is Valentine Rennie’s own hand: it is a different hand from the Secretary John Ward who wrote the certificate text and date, and also different from all the other Gentlemen who signed at the bottom. This would show us he was literate, and sighted enough to write his own name. The signature reads “Valentine Rennie, Professor”.

Patrick Byrne’s certificate (detail) (PRONI D3531.G.1) Reproduced by permission of the Shirley Estate and The Deputy Keeper of the Records, Public Record Office of Northern Ireland.
Patrick Byrne’s certificate (detail) (PRONI D3531.G.1) Reproduced by permission of the Shirley Estate and The Deputy Keeper of the Records, Public Record Office of Northern Ireland.

I don’t know when Tom Hanna was discharged. It may have been at the same time, or it may have been later.

Belfast Literary Society, April 1822

Because Rennie was employed by the Harp Society Gentlemen, they could get him jobs in Belfast playing for events. The first we see is with Henry Joy, one of the Gentlemen of the Harp Society Committee.

On Monday 1st April 1822, Henry Joy read a paper to the Belfast Literary Society. Joy’s title was

Portion of a preface intended for the second volume of Edward Bunting’s Collecion of Ancient Irish Music. (Illustrated by Valentine Rainey on the Irish harp.)

Belfast Literary Society 1902 p.170

I am not sure if Joy’s paper would have been part of the introduction printed in 1840.

After the close of the business of the night, Valentine Rainy, preceptor in the Irish Harp Society, exemplified the capabilities of the instrument, by playing several airs on it, Irish and others, chiefly with relation to the paper of the night.

Belfast Literary Society 1801-1901: Historical Sketch (Linenhall Press 1902) p.13-14

A cordial vote of approbation, Jan 1823

There is a curious newspaper article in the Belfast Newsletter, 28th Jan 1823. It starts by reprinting “from the London Newspapers”, a piece about the Harp Society with information about the Gentlemen in India and Belfast, and a call for London Gentlemen to subscribe and send money. Then the article continues with a praise of Rennie, apparently paraphrased from the (lost) minutes of a meeting of the Irish harp Society in Belfast:

We have now to state, that a cordial vote of approbation, as to the conduct and talents of Mr. Rainey, the Musical Teacher, was lately passed by the Society here. Those who witness the eminent qualifications of this performer, pay their tribute of admiration to them, and to his brilliancy of touch and expression.

Belfast Newsletter, 28th Jan 1823 p2

I imagine that this was a kind of report by the Gentlemen on Valentine Rennie’s work, after he had been in position as teacher for one year. They seem well satisfied with him.

The article then continues with a rather florid and slightly confused account of the work of the Society, and about the “improved” harps made by Egan for the Society, and about Edward Bunting’s piano arrangements. This is all very garbled and I think that the Gentlemen and the newspapers often didn’t have a clue about the traditional harp music and what Rennie and his pupils were doing.

Tour through Munster, summer 1823

Valentine Rennie seems to have had breaks from his teaching duties, when he would go travelling. Perhaps all the boys were glad to have a holiday from their intensive full-time tuition at the school.

I haven’t found any notices of public concerts on this tour; I suppose it is possible that Valentine Rennie only did private events at big houses. But we do have a couple of notices in the Society Gossip columns of the Dublin newspapers.

Mr Valentine Rennie, (nephew to the immortal Burns) the celebrated performer on the Irish harp, and harper to the Belfast Irish Harp Society, who is at present on a professional tour through Munster, is shortly expected in Belfast, to renew his exertions for the preservation of our national music from that destruction which unfortunately threatens any remnant of nationality that we yet possess

Dublin Journal, 18 Aug 1823 p2, and Freemans Journal, 18 Aug1823 p1

We can see here some of the wider cultural strands that Rennie was swimming in – whether he himself was aware of them and working them, or whether they were projected onto him by outsiders.

Gushing praise

Three weeks later is a rather scrambled news article praising Rennie by comparing him with Giraldus Cambrensis’s medieval description of Irish musicians. This is very much a projection; I think it tells us much more about attitudes in learned Irish society to an imagined medieval past, than it does to contemporary performance practice in the inherited tradition.

We have often perused with pleasure Giraldus Cambrensis’s animated description of the musical powers of the Irish Harp in the hands of skilful performers, the contemporaries of that author. Till lately, however, we never fully comprehended the extreme accuracy of that description, because until these few years modern harpers produced a kind of jarring and confused sound by the contact of their nails with the strings of the instrument, and thus interrupted and frequently destroyed the harmony. They were deficient, also, in drawing forth occasionally from the harp those soft and silvery tones, which seem to float upon the ear like an echo mellowed by distance. To Mr. Rainey, of Belfast, we are indebted for a restoration of our national instrument to its true character. In his hands it is capable of giving full scope to the sweetest and most tender air, as well as to the boldest and most rapid strains. In grand and martial music, the tones are full and spirited beyond conception – in the piano, almost inimitable. Well may we apply to his performance the following descriptive words of Cambrensis: –
“The sounds are rapid and precipitate, yet sweet and pleasing. It is wonderful that the musical proportion is preserved amidst such precipitate velocity of the fingers, and that the melody is rendered full and perfect, by an undeviating art, amidst such trembling modulations – such organic tones, so infinitely intricate – possessed of such pleasing swiftness – such unequal parity – such discordant concord. whether the chord of the diatesseron or diapente be struck together, they begin and terminate in dulce, that all may be perfectly completed in delightful, sonorous melody. They commence and close their modulations with so much subtlety, and the tinklings of the slender strings sport so freely with the deep tones of the bass chords – so delicately pleasing – so softly soothing – that the perfection of their art lies in concealing art,” &c &c.

Belfast Newsletter 29 Aug 1823 p2

Really I think this can tell us almost nothing, except that the writer is an over-the-top romantic, and that Rennie was a better musician than other harpers that the writer had previously heard play. However I think we can doubt such an outsider’s ability to judge one traditional musician as “better” than another, and the description is so vague and exaggerated that I don’t think we can get any technical or realistic information from this piece.

The following year we get another different angle on Rennie’s growing fame as a musician and tradition-bearer. This anecdote was remembered and written over 30 years later.

In 1824, we dropped in one evening on a few friends, in Belfast, whom we found in a hot debate concerning this same air of “Lochaber”, one party affirming it was Irish, the other Scotch. We had been taught to believe it Scotch, and took that side; but our opponents were pertinacious, and eventually the question was referred to Valentine Rennie, one of the oldest, best, and most learned musicians connected with the Irish Harp Society, and principal teacher, under the society, of blind pupils in the province of Ulster. Mr. Rennie at once stated that the air was Irish, and that it was composed by Miles Reilly, of Cavan. Rennie was an aged man in 1824, and he mentioned hearing his grandfather “croon” over the music, the old Hibernian never having been out of Ireland.

Tower Hamlets Mail, Sat 18 Sep 1858 p7

Rennie was only 29 in 1824 so I’m not sure what this “aged man” thing is about. This grandfather was obviously from the other side of the family from Robert Burns’s ancestors.

But I think this anecdote is very interesting in showing us the kind of traditionary information that Rennie had learned, presumably from his teacher Arthur O’Neil as well as from his childhood upbringing and family lore.

Not going to India

We have information about Rennie perhaps being invited to go to India, but either refusing to, or being forbidden to by the Gentlemen.

So well established and so extensive was his fame, that a Society of Irishmen resident in the East Indies had fixed upon him to go out to that country on liberal terms, for the purpose of introducing the Irish Harp into the East; but this flattering offer he ultimately declined, preferring to remain in his native country…

Obituary, in Belfast News Letter 26 Sep 1837 p2

I think this part of the obituary may be slightly garbled. The “Society of Irishmen” is obviously the Gentlemen living in India who raised the subscription of money which they sent to Belfast in 1818 which was used to re-start the Irish Harp Society school from Feb 1820 (see Mary Louise O’Donnell, ‘The Bengal Subscription…’ in Joyce & Lawlor (eds) Harp Studies, Four Courts 2016, for a discussion of the Gentlemen in India).

The obituary makes it seem as if this episode happened after Rennie played for the King in 1821 and before he took up the job of teacher at the end of 1822, but I don’t think this can be right. We have a story printed by Edward Bunting 20 years later, which I discussed in a comment on my post on James O’Neil, the old classmate of Rennie who seems to have gone to India as an army harper.

Odd as it may appear, a warm admirer of Irish music was found in those remote parts, in the late King of Oude. This potentate had contracted a partiality for our harp and music, from the resemblance they bore to the music and to some of the instruments of his own country, which were, like the Irish harp, strung with wire. In consequence, he caused application to be made through the late John Williamson Fulton, Esq., of Lisburn, (then a principal of the mercantile house of Macintosh and Co., at Calcutta,) to the Editor, at that time one of the managers of the Harp Society at Belfast, requesting that the society would send him a harper and piper, for whom he purposed to make a splendid provision. The society were unwilling to part with Rainey, then master of the school, and there was no other harper who could be deemed sufficiently master of his instrument to support the musical pretensions of the country with credit at a foreign court. However, not to treat his Highness’s commands with disrespect, the society forwarded him a very good piper, provided with an excellent pair of Irish union bag- pipes…

Edward Bunting, The Ancient Music of Ireland, 1840, intro p.66

I discussed the possible dating of this episode on the James O’Neil comment. I think that the request likely dates from 1820, and the decision not to send Rennie (or perhaps Rennie’s decision not to go) would date from about 1822.

Staying with the Indian theme, we have a description of the Irish Harp Society school and of Rennie. It is in a Belfast newspaper in April 1828, but it is reprinted from the Bengal Hurkaru in Calcutta, which itself is reprinted from the previous week’s India Gazette in Calcutta, which quotes from a report sent in by a Gentleman who had travelled to Belfast to see the school in action. It is very hard to date this episode; I have not managed to find the reports in either of the Calcutta newspapers. I understand that travel from Ireland to India could take between six months and one year, and that goes for letters and newspapers as well as people. The information in this report had to travel from Belfast to Calcutta, and then the newspaper had to return from Calcutta to Belfast by April 1828, so I imagine that the Gentleman’s visit to the school would likely have been perhaps in 1826 or even 1825. This article addresses readers in Calcutta, and describes how the Subscribers in India are helping the Harp Society in Belfast to educate the young harpers:

…Already do we find their bewitching performances held out in public advertisements as allurements to the gay assemblies of mirth and beauty, to the convivial meetings of patriots and sages. Nothing, we understand, can exceed the efficiency of this little establishment, – the attentions of the Trustees and Members of the Committee are unremitting and praiseworthy. Pupils are recommended and received from all parts of Ireland, so that the object of the institution may be more generally experienced. A gentleman, who came out a short time ago, assures us of his having gone to Belfast from Dublin in order to satisfy himself fully on all points connected with the Institution in which he had from the commencement taken a lively interest. The establishment was found to be economical and efficient. The pupils were plain and comfortably clothed. Never can he forget, he says, his sensations on hearing the scholars go through, in masterly style, some of the most sublime native Irish pieces. But when Rainey, the inimitable Rainey, the head master of the institution, enthusiastically swept the chords, or plaintively dwelt in simple melody on Erin’s devoted heroes of mouldering halls – ages since gone by, scenes of festive hospitality and of faithful love, known to us but in song under the magic spell – he boasted, in the honest pride of his heart, of his connection with that country to which Ireland was so deeply indebted for the revival of her Harp, and for the relief of her suffering poor in the days of sickness and wide-extended deep distress.

Belfast Newsletter, 15 Apr 1828 p1

It is not clear at the end if the person who “boasted in the honest pride of his heart” of his connection to India, was the Gentleman, or Rennie. It could have been Rennie, proudly telling the Gentleman of how much he and his pupils valued the Indian subscribers, for enabling the school to run.

Getting married

Valentine Rennie married on Saturday 13th September 1823, in the Catholic Chapel in Belfast.


On Saturday, at the Chapel of St Patrick, Belfast, Mr. Valentine Rennie, Teacher of the Irish Harp Society of Belfast, to Miss Lord, of Anglesea-street, Dublin.

Freemans Journal, Thur 18 Sep 1823 p3

I am not finding anyone called Lord in the Dublin street directories. Anglesea Street is in the Temple Bar area of Dublin, running between Fleet Street and College Green. I imagine they might have met when Rennie was working in Dublin in or before 1821, but waited to get married until he was settled into his new job, with an annual salary, and a permanent residence in the Harp Society House in Belfast.

Rennie’s reports to the Irish Harp Society, 1824 and 1826

I think the Gentlemen of the Irish Harp Society, who were Rennie’s employers as teacher at the school, had a meeting every six months where they would discuss the running of the school and the progress of the pupils. We are missing the minutes of most of these meetings but we have the odd one which was extracted and printed either in pamphlets or in the newspapers.

We have the minutes for the meeting of Tuesday 29th June 1824, and it contains Valentine Rennie’s report to the Gentlemen.

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.

Present Pupils on the Society’s Books, as reported by Mr. Rainey; viz.
1. 1820, May 7. Hugh Frazer, Ballymacarrett . . . . . 16
2. ——, April 8, Pat. McClosky, Bainbridge . . . . . . 15
3. 1822, March 11, Alex. Jack, Lambeg . . . . . . . . . . . . 12
4. ——, November 1, Martin Crenny, near Larchfield
5. Arthur Morgan . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Minutes of meeting, 29th June 1824, in Irish Harp Society Calcutta 1828 (Penn Libraries ML1015.C3I7) p.41-42

The minutes of this meeting also include resolutions by the Gentlemen to discharge Patrick McCloskey “with a certificate of good conduct and proficiency; and also with a Harp, value 9 Guineas, (cover and strap)”, and also to admit new pupils who are not named, but we can work out that they are Matthew Wall and John McMullan.

I am trying to work out who Rennie was teaching at what stage, when each of his pupils began and ended their education.

As I discussed in my post on Hamilton Gillespie, I think that that this 1824 report from Rennie only lists the boarding pupils; I am pretty sure that Ham Gillespie was still attending as a day pupil at this stage. We can see that Hugh Fraser is still at the school; he had been a day pupil back in 1821 before Rennie started and it looks like he was now a boarder living in the House. Jane McArthur has been discharged already not too long before this meeting.

We can also see that a new boy, Alex Jack, joined the school on 11th March 1822. This was the first new pupil that Rennie took on after starting in the job at the end of 1821. Pat Byrne’s certificate is dated 14th May 1822, but perhaps Byrne was considered finished already by March and so Alex Jack might have taken his place? We also see another new boy, Martin Crenny, started on 1st November 1822. Was this around the time that Tom Hanna was discharged?

The gentlemen also resolve to give Rennie some time off:

Resolved – That Mr. Rainy be permitted to give a vacation of three weeks in July or August.

Minutes of meeting, 29th June 1824, in Irish Harp Society Calcutta 1828 (Penn Libraries ML1015.C3I7) p.42

Two years later there is another set of minutes, for the meeting of 24th August 1826, and again Rennie’s report is included in the minutes.

Present Pupils on the Society’s Books, as reported by Mr. Rainy.
1st March 1822, Alexander Jack, Blind . . . . . . . . . . 13½
2d November ——, Martin Crenny, ditto . . . . . . . . . 14
3d April 1824, Arthur Morgan, has sight . . . . . . . . 11½
4th August ——, John McMullan, blind . . . . . . . . . . 10½
5th August —–, Matthew Wall, nearly blind . . . . . . 14½
Independently of four extern who receive, at present, daily tuition gratis.

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

These later minutes show us that Arthur Morgan had joined on 3rd April 1824 – perhaps this was about the time that Jane McArthur was discharged. They also tell us that John McMullan joined on 4th August 1824, and Matthew Wall joined on 5th August 1824 – these are the two boys who are not named in the June 1824 minutes.

The Aug 1826 minutes also include a list of six former pupils now working professionally; and there are resolutions about future admissions; Michael McClosky, Thomas Williamson, and Tom Brown, “provided Mr. Rainy approves of his abilities” – it is nice to see Rennie having the authority to take on a pupil or not.

Rennie continued as teacher of the Society school right through until 1837 but we don’t have any more of his reports, because we don’t have any more minutes of the Gentlemen’s meetings.

Out performing at events

During this period from 1822 through to 1837, Rennie was simultaneously having two different types of career. On the one hand he was employed full time as the teacher in the Irish Harp Society school. We see him teaching a whole series of young people, mostly boys, often blind, to play the traditional wire-strung Irish harp in the inherited tradition, preparing them for a life as professional musicians. And on the other hand we also see Rennie having his own performing career.

I think there is a lot to think about how these two worlds interacted. On the one hand we know that Rennie had learned in the inherited tradition from Arthur O’Neil, and that he passed that inherited tradition on as a teacher to two further generations of pupils. I assume that Rennie was teaching the boys the fingering techniques and repertory that he himself had learned from O’Neil in what we know was a strict conservative tradition, a bit like playing the Uillean pipes today.

Yet in his performances, he seems to be moving away from the conservative tradition, and playing more popular types of tunes, and seeking the praises of outsiders for his virtuoso performances.

Anyway we will have a look at some reports and try to get an impression of the kind of events he was playing at, and how his playing was seen by the general public and the press, remembering that these published reports are very much biased towards the crowd-pleasing novelty end of his work.

On Thursday 2nd March 1826, Rennie had performed at a dinner in the old Corporation Hotel in Hillsborough, after a ploughing match in the grounds of Carleton House, near Lisburn. (As an aside, Kilwarlin is the setting of the traditional ballad of Mailí Bhán).

On Thursday last, the Tenth Anniversary Ploughing Match of this Society took place on the grounds of Mr Carleton, of Carleton House, where 39 ploughs mustered on the field…
[description of competitors and competition]
The business of the field being finished, the Society and their friends adjourned to Waring’s, of the Corporation Arms, Hillsborough, who had provided a most substantial dinner for the party, to which about 60 sat down. – The Marquis of DOWNSHIRE, the Patron of the Society, took the Chair, under a handsome transparency, executed for the occasion by Mr. Poole – the design, the plough at sunrise in a rich and highly cultivated country, with a scroll and the words – “Success to the Plough, and health and long life to the Noble Patron of Blaris.”
The cloth being removed, the Noble Chairman announced the King’s health, which was received and drank with rapturous applause, which on ceasing, the doors of the adjoining room were unfolded, and to the inexpressable delight of the company, the enchanting strains of the Harp of Erin, tuned to the national anthem of “God save the King,” and sent forth by that venerable Minstrel, Renny, struck upon the ear.
… [the judges announce the winners and the cash prizes for the ploughing]…
Among the many patriotic toasts drank during the evening with appropriate airs from Mr. RENNY, were
“The Duke of York and the Army.” – Duke of York’s March.
“Duke of Clarence and the Navy.” – Rule Britannia.
“Lord Leitenant and Prosperity to Ireland.” – Patrick’s Day.
“Duke of Wellington.” – Conquering Hero.
…[The Marquis of Downshire gave a long speech]…
In conclusion, the Marquis of Downshire proposed
“The Blaris, or First Kilwarlin Society, and success to its endeavours for the general good.”
His Lordship sat down amidst loud and continued cheering, which only ceased by the commanding influence of the harp in the lively tune of “Speed the Plough.”
“Marquis of Hertford” – Air, Bumper Squire Jones.
“Marchioness of Downshire” – Song, by Mr. Renny, (accompanied by the harp), Rich & Rare, &c.
The Rev. Mr. BEATTY (an honourary member of the Society) begged leave to propose the health of one of the members for Down,
“Lord Arthur Hill,”
…[and gave a speech of Arthur Hill’s military career]…
– Tune, Garrey Owen.
The health of “Lord Hillsborough” was proposed by Major Waddell, and marked attention paid to it. – Air, Molly Astore.
On which Lord DOWNSHIRE returned thanks… [and commented on Lord Hillsborough]…
“Mr. Reilly, our very efficient and kind agent.” Tune – Carolan'[s] Receipt.
That conviviality and good humour which has invariably prevailed at the Blaris meetings, continued during the entire of the evening; many excellent songs and glees were sung in find style by some amateur gentlemen of the town and neighbourhood, which contributed much in cementing those kindly feelings of good will and good neighbourhood under which the company reluctantly separated.

Belfast Commercial Chronicle, Sat 4 March 1826 p4

This is an extremely interesting report, with a lot of detail for us to think about. First of all we should bear in mind (as usual) the yawning social gulf between the aristocratic Gentlemen at the dinner and the traditional musician Rennie. We also see the intensely loyal and class-based colonial context of early 19th century Ulster society. We also see Rennie in action – the dramatic opening of the doors to reveal him playing is quite a special moment for the Gentlemen I think. And we have a really quite detailed tune-list here to think about. Some of these tunes including Garryowen and Patrick’s Day had become standards of the harpers, as you can see on my old Tune List post. The National Anthem was also played by the harpers. Some of the other tunes are very much British national and military anthems, appropriate for this event but not apparently standards in the harp repertory, such as Rule Britannia, the Duke of York‘s March, and The Conquering Hero. We also have Speed the Plough, though there are lots of tunes with this title. I also find it interesting that Rennie was playing traditional old harp tunes for some of these toasts, such as Bumper Squire Jones, Molly Astore or Carolan’s Receipt; and yet we can also understand these as being chosen from the more “classical” sounding strand of the inherited harp tradition. We have a very clear view here of the inherited harp tradition being brought into the colonial cultural and social space.

And most interestingly, we see Rennie singing with the harp. “Rich and Rare” is a song by Tom Moore, but the tune Moore set the song to is a traditional old harp tune, Tá an Samhradh ag teacht.

Valentine Rennie’s performance that evening obviously made a big impression on the Gentlemen.

We understand that the Marquis of DOWNSHIRE was so gratified by the execution of Mr RENNY on the harp, at the Blaris Agricultural Dinner, that he was pleased to intimate his intention of becoming a contributor to the funds of the Harp Society.

Belfast Commercial Chronicle, Mon 6 Mar 1826 p2

Four months later, in July 1826, we see Rennie playing at a charitable event. I think it is harder to understand what Rennie might have done at a mixed variety-type show like this. Playing “some delightful airs” could just mean he played traditional harp standards that washed over the audience.

William Jackson’s Benefit. – The entertainment intended for the relief of this meritorious individual, takes place we understand, on Monday next. Several amateurs have kindly offered their assistance on the occasion. Mr. Weekes has obligingly consented to enliven the evening, by acting two of his principal parts, and singing several of his most favourite songs. Mr. Rennie, of the Belfast Harp Society, will play some delightful airs on the national instrument. We are persuaded, that the public will cheerfully patronize a fellow townsman, who is in great distress, and who has a numerous family, without the means of support.

Belfast Commercial Chronicle, Sat 29 July 1826 p3

And then at the end of the year we see Rennie planning to organise a concert:

We understand that Mr. RENNIE, Master of the Irish Harp Society, is making arrangements to give a Miscellaneous Concert, early in January next, on such a scale of respectability, as must secure attraction from the Patrons of Musical talent. Several vocal and instrumental performers, of celebrity , have promised their aid; and we have no doubt that the esteem of Mr. RENNIE’s own professional reputation, besides the merits of the entertainment he is about to furnish, will guarantee him public support.

Belfast Commercial Chronicle, Wed 20 Dec 1826 p3

I am not sure what this was for. I am not finding any other adverts or reviews for this proposed concert. Maybe it never got off the ground. But it is interesting to see him taking on the concert organiser role on top of his performing and his full time job as teacher at the Harp Society.

Raising a family

As well as teaching full time at the Irish Harp Society school, and performing professionally, there was a third strand to Valentine Rennie’s life at this time. He had married Miss Lord on Saturday 13th September 1823 (see above), and had children in the mid or late 1820s and the early 1830s.

It seems that Valentine Rennie and his wife lived in the Harp Society house. She may even have had some kind of semi-official role as housekeeper there. I don’t know; I am guessing. Perhaps in time we might come across more information about her.

We have references to three children, but I don’t have much information about them. Two of them died young. We have a notice in the newspaper when his daughter died, but I don’t know if she was new-born, or already a few years old:


On Sunday, the 1st June, MARY ANN, daughter of Mr. Val. Rennie, Harp Society, Belfast.

Belfast News Letter, Friday 5 June 1829 p3

I have not read through the births, marriages and deaths columns of the Belfast newspapers for the entire 1820s; if we did we might find a birth notice.

I did find the notice for the birth of two sons. This was their older son, who is mentioned in the obituary:

On Monday last, of a son, Mrs. Renny, Harp Society House, Cromac-street, Belfast

Belfast Commercial Chronicle, Sat 9 Apr 1831 p2

This son would have been born on Monday 4th April 1831. We’ll look at the second son’s birth later.

Performing at events in 1832

We have a series of reports of Rennie playing at functions and dinners. The first is April 1832.

BELFAST CO-OPERATIVE SOCIETY. – On Monday evening last, the Second Social, or Anniversary Meeting of this Society, was held in the Exchange Rooms – the use of which was kindly granted for the purpose, by the Marchioness of Donegall. The object of this Society, as is now generally known, is to promote knowledge, and secure the means of a comfortable independence among all classes of the community, without distinction of sect or party. The assembly presented a pleasing and most respectable appearance: it consisted of nearly two hundred persons, about one-half of which were females, and, with the exception of probably six or seven, they were all of the working or mechanical classes. Every one present was remarkably well dressed; the ladies (many of them exceedingly handsome) appearing in even fashionable and tasteful attire; and good breeding, good sense, and the utmost courtesy, distinguished the proceedings of the entire evening. Mr. SAMUEL ARCHER, the highly respectable and well-known bookseller of this town, presided; and, as customary with him, gave his best endeavours to promote a spirit of confidence, kindliness, and good will, among the different branches of society of which the meeting was composed. At nine o-clock, tea and coffee were served out to the party. – Soon afterwards, the Secretary read a letter from Mr. James Grimshaw, apologizing for his absence, in consequence of the indisposition of a relative; and a member of the Society read an address on the advantages of Co-operation. The following sentiments were next given from the Chair; although they certainly were not toasted in bumpers: –
“The Working People – the producers of all wealth.” Air, – A man’s a man, for a’ that.
“Knowledge and Co-operation – may they extend their influence, till ignorance, poverty, and crime, are banished from the face of the earth.” Air, – Begone, dull care.
“All institutions, having for their object the improvement of the Working Classes.” Air, – O, think not my spirits are always as light.
“The more general Education of the Female Sex, by which they will be elevated to their proper rank in society.” Air, – Green grow the rushes.
“May a more charitable feeling prevail among those who are opposed to each other in religion and politics.” Air, – Tullochgorum.
“The Marquis and Marchioness of Donegall, who have ever been distinguished for their support of useful institutions.” Air, – Donegall March.
“Our Female Friends, who have favoured us with their company this evening.” Air, – Believe me, of all those endearing young charms.
Dancing then commenced, a very good band (under the direction of Mr. Devlin,) having been engaged; and we were truly delighted with the elegance, ease, and decorum, with which the party conducted themselves in the execution of the most fashionable and difficult dances of modern assemblies. Refreshments were handed round during the night; but nothing stronger than wine negus was introduced – the members thus proving themselves not morose, but true advocates of a rational system of temperance. Mr. RENNIE, the eminent professor of the Irish Harp, honoured the assembly, and delighted every one present, with his performance of a great number of fine old Irish melodies. This gentleman’s great services to the music of his native country, through the vast improvement he has made on the Irish Harp, by which he has increased both its compass and melody, are well known; and his good nature in lending, at all times, his services to increase the attractions and promote the happiness of any useful meeting, entitles him to public gratitude. The “Co-operators” tript it lightly till an early hour, their amusements being interspersed with some admirably well executed songs; and they separated with an increased desire for the social happiness of all mankind.

Northern Whig, Thur 5 April 1832 p2

This is a very good account of the event and the people, but there are puzzles about what Rennie’s role here was. Did he play for the toasts, like he had at the dinner in Hillsborough? And the praise of Rennie again raises more questions than it answers. What is “the vast improvement he has made on the Irish Harp, by which he has increased both its compass and melody”? I am not aware of technical harp design improvements associated specifically with Rennie. I tend to think that perhaps this is referring more to his virtuosic playing style, that perhaps Rennie was able to use his traditional wire-strung Irish harp, and the traditional playing techniques and fingerings that he had learned from Arthur O’Neil, to be able to push the instrument towards its “classicalesque” limits. It is hard to really know though and I think the journalist may not have known either, but was just trying to shower Rennie with gushing technical-sounding praise.

A couple of months later, at the end of May 1832, we have another dinner. The event was I think on Tuesday 29th May 1832, and was a public dinner in Wallace’s Inn, Newtownards. It was organised by the “friends of reform” in honour of Peter Johnston The newspaper report of this dinner is extremely long, filling about three-quarters of a page.

On Tuesday last, a number of the friends of Reform entertained PETER JOHNSTON, ESQ., at a public dinner, in Wallace’s Inn, Newtownards. This distinguished mark of respect was paid to that gentleman, in consequence of his independent conduct, and his persevering and strenuous efforts in vindication of the people’s rights: and especially, because his exertions have subjected him to inconvenience and loss. The party consisted of about 120 gentlemen, including many of the more influential and independent Reformers of the County of Down, as well as a considerable number from Belfast, who were anxious to testify their respect for the conduct of Mr. Johnston. ROBERT BRADSHAW, Esq., of Mile cross Lodge, presided; and GUY STONE, Esq., of Barn-hill, acted as Vice-President.
The following toasts were drunk…
[extremely long account of the toasts and speeches]
… During the course of the evening, Mr. Rennie, that distinguished Professor of the Irish harp, delighted the company with various Irish airs…

Northern Whig, Thur 31 May 1832 p2

Four months later, Valentine Rennie was in Newry. We have a very wordy article reprinted from the Newry Examiner, which doesn’t actually tell us very much about the dinner, except that it was held on “Thursday last”, for Morgan and Stevenson, the proprietors of the Newry Examiner. After the romantic scene-setting, the article tells us:

Denis Maguire, Esq. presided; and Mr. John Arthur O’Hagan was Vice-President. Among the company were several gentlemen from Belfast and Armagh. But the favour most fully appreciated by the guests, was the honour done them by the presence of Mr. Rennie, of the Irish Harp Society. – To say how this compliment was felt, would be impossible; but no lover of nationality and of liberty will be at a loss to conceive how sincerely men who prize both the one and the other dearly, were gratified on having their release from confinement hailed by one of the most distinguished of Ireland’s minstrels – who has brought the harp of our country to a perfection that almost “confirms the tales her bards relate” – and whose worth as a man, an Irishman, and a patriot, is not lessened by his being of the kith and kin – the cousin-german of Robert Burns.

Tipperary Free Press, Sat 29 Sep 1832 p2

Again we get this hyperbolic praise of Rennie, and how he has brought the Irish harp “to a perfection”. Does Rennie have an agent who feeds this guff to the press? Is he taken to these events by one of the Harp Society Gentlemen?

Getting the vote

We have a very unusual reference to Rennie in November 1832. He was named in a legal case about voting rights that came before the court in Belfast on Friday 9th November 1832. I am using an article that gives a long and detailed description of the proceedings, in the Northern Whig Thur 15 Nov 1832 p2.

The 1832 Reform Act had passed through the UK parliament in the summer of 1832, extending the franchise to a lot more people who had not been able to vote before, including tenants who paid annual rent of £50 or more.

Basically, there was a man, Mr. Cross, who worked for a bank which provided him with a salary, plus a house to live in as part of his salary. Mr Cross thought he was a tenant, and tried to register on the electoral roll, but this was disputed. So there was a long legal argument about whether getting a house in kind like this, counted as a tenancy, and qualified Mr. Cross to vote, or not. The court decided that he did count as a tenant, and therefore had the right to vote. The news article finishes by saying that the following day, four other people in similar positions were put on the electoral register, including “Mr. Rennie, of the Harp Society” – because Valentine Rennie was living with his wife and their infant son (and the boarding pupils) in the Harp Society House rent free in lieu of part of his salary.

Birth of a second son

On the 21st inst. Mrs Rennie, Harp Society House, Cromac-street, of a son

Belfast News Letter, Fri 28 Dec 1832 p2

This son would have been born on Friday 21st December 1832. I assume this is the son Robert James who died a few months later (see below)

Performing in Limerick, March 1833

The following year we see Rennie on tour in Limerick with “two of his finished pupils”. This is very curious and I wish we knew who these two other harpers were. We don’t have the full records of the Harp Society so we don’t know the names of all the pupils who were discharged from the school; I estimate perhaps two a year from 1822 onwards so there could easily have been up to 20 professional (or “Artisan”) Irish harpists working in Ireland by then.

We have information about three events that they performed at; two of the events were associated with the St. Patrick’s Society in Limerick, who were organising to set up an orphanage in the aftermath of a cholera epidemic. On Monday 18th March 1833, Rennie and his two pupils played at the annual meeting and dinner of the Society. Then three days later, on Thursday 21st, they played at a “grand concert” which was a fund-raiser for the Society. And then four days after that on Monday 25th March they played for free at a different fundraiser, for the Dominical chapel. Then after that Rennie had to return to Belfast.

The Limerick newspapers ran stories about all three events. Here is the dinner on Monday 18th March:

We perceive that the St. Patrick’s Friendly Society hold their annual meeting dinner and meeting on the 18th instant, and that their committee have engaged for the occasion the celebrated Mr. Rennie, Master of the “Irish Harp Society’s School” in Belfast, together with two of his finished pupils, to aid the enjoyments of the evening by their performances on the harp, the long neglected instrument of ‘the land of song.’ …
[The rest of this piece describes the work of the St Patrick’s Friendly Society who were in the process of buying and fitting out a house and opening it as an orphanage in Limerick.]

Limerick Evening Post, Fri 15 Mar 1833 p3, also Limerick Chronicle, Sat 16 Mar 1833 p1

The concert on Thursday 21st March:

The Concert on yesterday evening, at Swinburn’s large rooms, in aid of the funds of this Charity, was numerously and respectably attended – there were nearly 400 in the rooms, all highly delighted with the powerful and heart-touching execution of Mr Rennie and his pupils upon the Irish Harp. This talented and warm-hearted Irishman has been long known and admired as the able representative of our ancient melodists. Beneath the witchery of his touch our ancient Instrument has revered its claims upon the sympathies and nationality of our country, its dulcet notes vibrating from every cord, and dying melodiously in the distance, fill the soul with the tenderest recollections, while the forte of its bolder efforts fires the heart with a glowing admiration of that love of glories, with which the Harp of our old inspired Heroes and Patriots to defend the liberties and freedom of their country. – But his splendid performance is not the only claim this gifted musician has upon the sympathies of his countrymen, as with him it is an honourable ambition to render his profession ancillary to the scared course of charity and religion.
On Monday evening he performs at the Dominican Chapel… [brief description of the debts]

Limerick Evening Post, Fri 22 Mar 1833 p3

The charity concert on Monday 25th:

Towards liquidating the heavy Debts due of the
ON MONDAY EVENING, Mr. RENNIE, the Celebrated Irish Harp Performer, and his Pupils, having benevolently offered their exertions towards the liquidation of the debts due of this Building. The Community with every confidence in the benevolent co-operation of their fellow Citizens, have to announce that there will be a Concert on Monday evening at the Chapel, when Mr. RENNIE will perform his most celebrated pieces of Irish Music on this national instrument. A Military Band will also be in attendance.
Admission to the Gallery …………………… 2s. 6d.
The Aisle, ……………………………………………..1s. 0d.
☞Performan[c]e will Commence at 7 o’Clock.

Limerick Evening Post, Fri 22 Mar 1833 p3

THE CONCERT. – The concert yesterday evening at the Dominican chapel, towards liquidating the debts due of the building was numerously and fashionably attended, the galleries and aisle being crowded to excess. The performance of Mr. RENNIE and his pupils on the Irish Harp, was, as usual, a most effective display of the powers of that splendid instrument; the thrill of its piano notes reaching every part of that spacious edifice and dying on the ear had a most delightful effect, while its rapid transition to the heart-stirring swell carried us back to the days of Tara’s Hall, when the Harpers touch roused the patriot’s heart to deeds of glory – The excellent and talented Choir of St. Michael’s, ever ready to give their powerful assistance on such occasions, added considerably to the object, the Messrs. SHINE having sang some delightful Anthems, and Miss BARDON (who is truly an ornament to the Choir,) gave the solo of “Lord, Remember David,” in a truly sublime and elegant style, displaying a sweet and well cultivated voice. The other accompaniments were respectable – and the assembled audience separated gratified to feel, that in ministering in aid of the laudable object which brought them together, they were rationally and agreeably entertained.

Limerick Evening Post, Tue 26 Mar 1833 p3

The Belfast Newsletter carried a story which gave information about all three events.

We observe, from the Limerick papers, that Mr Rennie, the distinguished professor of the Irish Harp, has been performing in that city with universal applause…
[description of the St Patrick’s society and the orphanage project]
…the charity resolved on having a concert for its benefit, and for this purpose they specially engaged Mr. Rennie to attend it with two of his pupils – it having been found impossible to procure a person adequately skilled in the use of our national instrument in any other quarter than Belfast…
[pride in Belfast’s work on the harp, and a description of the dinner]
…On the following Thursday, the 21st, the grand Concert was held in Swinburne’s Great Rooms, which were so completely filled that numbers had to go away from inability to gain admissions…
[quote from Limerick newspaper describing the concert]
…On the following Monday, Mr. Rennie gave a voluntary concert, the proceeds of which were to be applied in liquidation of a debt contracted by the superintendents of a religious charity in Limerick. – Mr. R. was obliged to leave Limerick almost immediately after, in consequence of the sudden death, in Belfast, of his youngest child, Robert James, and the dangerous illness of another.

Belfast News Letter, Tue 9 Apr 1833 p2

The youngest child Robert James must be the four-month-old son, born on 21 Dec 1832. The other child must be the 2-year-old son, born on 4th April 1831.

Back performing in Belfast, 1833

Later in 1833, we see Rennie performing occasionally at formal dinners in Belfast.

DINNER TO DANIEL M’DONNELL, ESQ. – This Gentleman was sumptuously entertained at dinner, on Wednesday last, by upwards of 60 of his fellow-townsmen, in order to congratulate him on his being appointed an attorney. – The dinner took place in Madame Kennedy’s large room in Castle-lane, and consisted of every delicacy of the season. The wines and other liqueurs were of excellent quality…
[a great list of all the toasts proposed]
…A number of speeches were delivered, several excellent songs sung, and Mr. Rennie added greatly to hilarity of the entertainment by playing some appropriate airs on the Irish Harp, in his usual superior style. At a late hour the company separated, all highly pleased with the proceedings of the evening. – (A Correspondent.)

Belfast Newsletter, Tue 13 Aug 1833 p4

At the end of the year, Rennie played at another dinner in Belfast:

BELFAST MASTER MARINER’S ASSOCIATION. – On Tuesday evening, the 10th instant, the seventeenth anniversary of this valuable institution was celebrated, by the members dining together, at Hall’s Hotel, Waring-street. About 25 members attended; and the evening was spent in that harmonious manner which has always distinguished the meetings of this Society. The dinner and wines were excellent; and the manner in which the entertainment was produced, reflected great credit on Mr. Hall. The pleasure of the evening was no little promoted, by the presence of Mr. Valentine Rennie, an old friend of this Society, who enlivened the meeting by his unrivalled performance on the Harp.

Northern Whig, Thur 12 Dec 1833 p2

Note that Rennie is “an old friend of the Society” implying that he had often played for them but we don’t have reports or records of these other performances. These articles are just glimpses into what was happening.

More dinners

(From the Northern Whig)
On Wednesday, W. S. Crawford, Esq. M.P. was entertained, in Bangor, at a public dinner, by about two hundred and twenty of his friends and admirers. The demand for tickets was so great, that a considerable number of gentlemen were forced to dine in a different apartment, and join their friends, after dinner. An excellent band was in attendance. Mr. Rennie, also, delighted the company by the execution of several pieces on the Irish harp. We never saw a more orderly assembly of the kind…
[two entire columns printing Crawford’s speech]

Belfast Newsletter, 23 Oct 1835 p1

Unusually for a dinner like this, we have a review of Rennie’s performance:

DINNER TO W. S. CRAWFORD, Esq., M.P. – On Wednesday a dinner was given in Bangor to W. S. Crawford, Esq., M.P., by (as we are informed) a number of Whig-Liberals, Radicals, and Repealers; William Pirrie, of Conlig, Esq., in the Chair. Mr. Crawford’s health having been drank, he returned thanks in a speech of considerable length. Other partakers of the repast also performed their parts, in rendering the reign of silence impossible; but our correspondent assures us that Mr. Rennie, the harper, was by far the best performer (or rather the only performer worth listening to) of the whole party. He says it was pleasant to the human ear when his occasional harmony superseded the cacophonous sounds, uttered with knife-grinding effect, by the admirers of Mr. Crawford and friends of Repeal – “Verily,” he says, “Rennie was a nightingale amidst jackdaws and guinea-fowl.” – Belfast Guardian.

Dublin Evening Packet and Correspondent, Sat 24 Oct 1835, p3


With fame, comes scammers trying to use your good name to rip other people off.

We have been called upon by Mr. Rennie, of the Irish Harp Society, to disabuse the public mind, by disavowing any connection, professionally or otherwise, with a person now in this town collecting money under the pretence that it is to be applied for the purchase of a harp.

Belfast Newsletter, 30 Oct 1835 p2

More Belfast dinners

DIOCESAN SEMINARY, BELFAST. – On Tuesday evening last, the Right Rev. Doctor Denvir gave a splendid dinner to the boarders in Vicinage, now, we believe, amounting to 80 boys; to which the Catholic Clergy of the town, the Rev. Dr. Keenan, of Newry, the Rev. Mr. M’Garry, of Lurgan, the Professors and Teachers of the Seminary, &c., were invited. With that kindness of heart, for which the Right Rev. Prelate is remarkable, every delicacy was provided for the young gentlemen. – a delightful evening was spent by all the guests, and, to crown a whole, Mr. Rennie threw the witchery of the Irish harp over the joyous scene. Immediately previous to dinner, the Students presented to their new Bishop a very splendid Chalice, accompanied with an Address. On the following day, the pupils of the English and Mercantile department presented him a rich and beautiful Episcopal ring, a brooch (the harp and shamrock) set in Irish diamonds, with a pin attached by a gold chain, &c., accompanied, also, by an Address. Such scenes are worthy of attention and imitation. – Herald.

Northern Whig, Mon 14 Dec 1835, p3, also Belfast Newsletter, 15 Dec 1835 p4

A couple of weeks later, on Tuesday 5th January 1836, we find Rennie playing at a political dinner for the Belfast Liberal Club. The news articles tell a rather convoluted story of Mr. F. Powell who was a liberal reformist; he got on the electoral register and started to vote for Reform candidates but felt uncomfortable with his job (presumably with a rather conservative firm) and so he resigned and moved to a new job. The dinner was to congratulate him on his Liberal Reform principles. There were lost of toasts, and:

Mr. Rainey, of the Belfast Harp Society, delighted the party by his sweet and splendid execution of a number of Irish melodies…

Dublin Morning Register, Wed 6 Jan 1836 p4; The Pilot, Wed 6 Jan 1836 p3; Dublin Weekly Register, Sat 9 Jan 1836 p7; Wexford Independent, Sat 9 Jan 1836 p1

Valentine Rennie was almost a kind of proto-celebrity, and so minutae of his life occasionally appears in the gossip columns:

Mr. Rennie, the deservedly admire professor of the Irish Harp, returned to his duties in Belfast, on Wednesday last, after an absence of a few days spent in visiting his native hills, in the Glens, and the friends of his boyish days. – A Correspondent.

Belfast Commercial Chronicle, Sat 3 Sep 1836 p2

Traditionary anecdotes from the school

We are missing the Harp Society records for the running of the school after the late 1820s, but we have some traditionary accounts of Rennie and the school from the mid to late 1830s. These can give us a different insight into how the school was run.

Alexander (or James) Jackson was one of Valentine Rennie’s final pupils; we don’t know when he started, but he took over as teacher after Rennie died in late 1837, and I assume he was a pupil for longer than two years so presumably he started in 1834 or 1835 or even before then. We have an amazing anecdote about how Jackson was started at the school as a pupil of Rennie. I don’t know how literally we should take this paddywhackery – Darby Fagan is an invented culchie character writing fictional letters home to his wife in Armagh, spoofing and satirising Belfast people and manners.

…I told them the history of Mr. Alexander Jackson of Belfast, the celebrated Irish harper, whom I happened accidentally to meet with, when he was a young chap. Says I to him, What’s your name, if it’s a fair question?” “It’s Jackson,” says he. “What’s wrong with your peepers?” says I. “They’re dark,” says he, with a sigh. “More’s the pity my brave little fellow,” says I. “Have you a taste,” says I. “Oh! not a single drop,” says he. “Have you got a good ear?” says I. “Well then, it’s myself has a couple of very nate ones,” says he, smiling at the question. There seemed to be a goodness in his smile, that won me in an instant. “Can you whistle or sing?” says I. “Both,” says he. “You should go to the Irish Harp Society,” says I. “How could I find my way there,” says he. “It’s myself that will take you there before I sleep,” says I. I then took him by the hand to the Harp Society House in Cromac-street, and introduced him to the late Valentine Rennie, the teacher, who groped his head and ears all over, and remarked that he had the musical bumps on his head. This same Jackson is probably the only Irish harper now in existence, and a credit to the town…

‘Darby Fegan’s account of… the Northern Irish Art Union’, Belfast Commercial Chronicle, Sat 22 Oct 1842 p4

The trouble with fiction like this is that it is hard or impossible to know what is being invented and what is based on reality. The description of Rennie feeling the shape of Jackson’s head may be genuine, or may be an invention for humorous effect.

We also see the usual trope that Jackson was the only harper still living – we can check my timeline to see that Belfast was hoaching with harpers from the Society school – in the early 1840s, there were probably more traditional harpers playing on wire-strung Irish harps, than there had been for centuries. People didn’t realise then, and don’t realise today, how amazingly successful the Belfast Irish Harp Society school, and Rennie as its teacher, had been at passing on the inherited tradition to new generations of professional players.

Patrick Murney was also at the school at the same time as Jackson; he seems to have left about the time that Rennie died, because we have no mention of him studying under Jackson. The traditionary information about Murney comes from him, via his own student George Jackson, and was written down from Jackson in 1908 by William Savage. I have discussed this information before on a blog post about Savage’s notes.

…his mother well known by his Master Rainey. Rainey did not want to teach Pat Murney as he was too well known his excuse was that pat was too small and could not open the octaves. However pat was received and Rainey was his teacher. Pat was so fond of the Harp that it was not long until he exceeded his master who was more a Fiddler than a Harper on one occasion he caught pat lifting a tune he had been teaching an other pupil for which he reprimanded him told him not to attempt the like again Some Gentlemen visiting the School to hear the boys play Rainey called pat first – He played the Harmonious Blacksmith and the Coulin all played it

NMI archive, Arts and Industry division, File AI.80.019

This gives us some great insights into how Rennie ran the school and taught the pupils. We see Rennie having personal reasons as well as technical reasons to accept or reject a pupil from entering. We see Rennie teaching his pupils behind closed doors (perhaps according to the level they were at), and trying to control the learning process, by not wanting Murney to listen in to a class and try to pick up fragments by ear. We also see the Gentlemen visiting and Rennie organising the boys to play for the Gentlemen.

We also see two extremes of repertory – the Harmonious Blacksmith is a composition by Handel, presumably used by the harpers as a classicalesque novelty, whereas the Coolin is core traditional repertory passed straight down from the 18th century harp tradition. Both of these tunes are discussed on my Tune Lists post.

Samuel Patrick was also at the school at the same time as Murney and Jackson. Sam Patrick is said to have entered the school in 1834, and to have stayed there after Rennies death, until the very end of the school in late 1839 or early 1840. The anecdote about him comes via the older harper and tradition-bearer Patrick Byrne, whose information was paraphrased by John Bell in his notebook.

Arthur O Neills <Harp> was burned <by> Samuel Patrick (a bad harper) in the / Harp Society house that harp afterwards belonged to Rainey the harper // Patrick and others had taken umbrage at Rainie’s wife, it was burned as / a bone fire because Rainie’s wife had gone out of the house. The brass / pins were sold pickd out of Rainies harp + o Neils and <they> sold them for drink

Glasgow University Library, MS Farmer 332 f1v-2r

We will discuss this harp below. But this episode hints at so many things. It shows that Mrs. Rennie had some kind of role in the house. I wonder if she was responsible for lighting the fires, cooking, etc. I also wonder if this episode may have been after Rennie died; she and the son may have left the house, leaving the boys in the house on their own. I really don’t know.


Valentine Rennie died on Saturday 23 September 1837.

On Saturday morning last, at the age of 42 years, Mr. V. Rennie, the celebrated Professor of the Irish Harp, expired, after a lingering illness, at the Harp Society’s House in Cromac-street…

…In addition to the numerous friends by whom his early removal will long be regretted, he has left a widow and an only son – a boy aged six years and six months. His funeral took place yesterday morning, and was most numerously, as well as respectably attended. He was interred in Friar’s Bush burying ground.

Obituary, Belfast News Letter, Tue 26 Sep 1837 p2

The obituary gives quite a detailed account of his life which I have quoted or paraphrased at various points earlier in this post. It also includes a gushing description of his qualities as a person and as a musician.

We can see that this is the son who was born on Monday 4th April 1831. I have not traced this son any further, and I don’t know what might have happened to the widow.

Obviusly Rennie’s young death was a blow to the Irish Harp Society; the Gentlemen of the Committee held a meeting in the Harp Society House on Saturday 7th October 1837, two weeks after Rennie’s death, to try and plan a way forward for the Society and the school. The letter sent out to the Gentlemen after that meeting says:

For a number of years back, the state of Mr. Rennie’s health prevented him paying the necessary attention to the musical education of the blind boys under his care, which, to a certain extent, affected the utility of this interesting charitable establishment.

Printed letter from John McAdam, Tue 10 Oct 1837, Linen Hall Library, Belfast, Beath Collection, box 6

I find the references to his illness in both this letter and in the obituary curious. We see him still doing public events through to the beginning of 1836; was he in decline from then on for the next 18 months? The letter implies he was ill for longer. Perhaps it came and went. We just don’t have enough records from the Irish Harp Society through the late 1820s and into the 1830s to know more at this stage.


BELUM.P328.1927. Image used Courtesy of National Museums NI.
Patrick Murney (BELUM.P328.1927. Image used Courtesy of National Museums NI.)

Rennie had a great legacy. Because he was teacher in the Irish Harp Society school, he taught loads of young people to play the harp. He was teacher from 1821/2 through to 1837, about 15 years in total, and so I think it is reasonable to suggest that as many as 30 or 40 people may have been taught by him, most of whom would have gone on to make their living as professional players of the traditional wire-strung Irish harp. As well as Alex Jackson who took over the school after Rennie’s death, we have information about two of Rennie’s other pupils (Hugh Frazer and Pat Murney) going on to teach a further generation of harpers too young to have been taught by Rennie. One of Murney’s pupils (i.e. a second-generation pupil of Rennie), George Jackson, lived right through into the first decade of the 20th century, and so too did Peter Dowdall, who had learned the harp from Frazer.

In 1839, a year or two after Rennie’s death, some of the Gentlemen were turning their backs on the inherited harp tradition and were starting to defund and shut down the school. I discuss this a little on my post about two letters to Edward Bunting. Dr. James McDonnell wrote some (hopelessly naïve) letters to Bunting, trying to promote the interests of the traditional harpers and trying to raise interest in continuing and renewing the Society and the school. On 10th September 1839, Dr. McDonnell wrote:

…as Rainie was better than O’Neill, and as there was yet two persons nearly as good as Rainey, besides the Master, why need one despair that others might not succeed?…

Charlotte Milligan Fox, Annals of the Irish Harpers (1911) p.277

The Master was Alex (James) Jackson, so I wonder who the two others that McDonnell noticed? Presumably one was Murney.

Bunting ignored McDonnell’s pleas, and published his great 1840 book basically declaring that the inherited tradition was dead and gone, in a callous betrayal of the living tradition-bearers. James MacDonnell continued to support the transmission of the inherited tradition through his ongoing patronage of Pat Murney. But the damage done by Bunting’s publication did a lot, not only to suppress support for the inherited tradition of Irish harp playing, but more specifically for us it also suppressed an interest in and a knowledge of Valentine Rennie.

Patrick Byrne

We do have one interesting reference to Valentine Rennie. On Saturday 30th July 1842, the traditional harper Patrick Byrne (who was briefly a student of Rennie in 1832) gave a concert in Newcastle, county Down. “A correspondent” wrote in to the newspaper afterwards, giving a review of the concert. One line is relevant to us:

…The music consisted chiefly of Irish and Scottish airs, with original arrangements and variations by Mr. BYRNE himself; and the exquisite manner in which they were performed elicited continuous bursts of applause from the audience. Since the lamented decease of Arthur O’Neill, and that of his scarcely less distinguished pupil, the late Valentine Rennie, in his better days, there has been no practical harpist in Ireland who at all approaches to P. BYRNE in the delicacy and truth of his musical intonations, combined at the same time with a variety and power of which our national instrument might, by strangers, be supposed incapable…

Newry Telegraph, Thu 4 Aug 1842 p3

The comment about Rennie “in his better days” is very intriguing; is this somehow referring to Rennie’s illness in the mid to late 1830s?

Portraits of Valentine Rennie

Portrait of Valentine Rennie. Courtesy of National Museums NI (BELUM.U139)
Courtesy of National Museums NI (BELUM.U139)

There is an oil portrait which is said to be of Valentine Rennie. The portrait belongs to the National Museums Northern Ireland (thanks to them for giving me permission to reproduce the portrait here). Their catalogue says it is Valentine Rennie; I see no reason to dispute that, though sometimes paintings like this can be given spurious identifications. The catalogue says it is “Irish School” but does not suggest an artist. The size of the painting is given as 38cm high and 28cm wide, so it is not a life-sized painting.

The date given in the Catalogue is 1814, but I don’t believe that, for three reasons. One is the design of the harp shown. This harp is obviously either one of Egan’s wire-strung Irish harps, or a harp by another maker copying the same design. The problem is that I have not seen any evidence for this design of harp before the early 1820s when Egan made the harps for the Irish Harp Society in Belfast.

The second reason I think that 1814 is too early, is that, as Keith Sanger pointed out on a recent Facebook post, Rennie seems to be wearing a wedding ring. It is possible that Rennie had previously married in 1814, when he would have been aged 19 and just finished harp school a couple of years previously; but we know he was touring with Edward McBride at that time, and I think it was normal then to wait and only marry after you had a full time job and reliable income and a house. Rennie had that starting from the very end of 1821, as the full time teacher at the Harp Society. He married Miss Lord from Dublin, in 1823, and his second and third children were born in the early 1830s.

The third reason I think the 1814 date is wrong, is similar, that I think Valentine Rennie’s public profile seemed to grow only after he was employed by the Irish Harp Society at the end of 1821. I think it is possible that the portrait may have been commissioned by the Society, to show off their teacher, or by one of the Gentlemen patrons of the Society. But I have to say I don’t know.

What harp is in the picture? Is this one of the school harps belonging to the Irish Harp Society? Is the speckled effect on the neck and pillar an attempt to show a shamrock decoration scheme, or just damage to the surface of the painting? The head seems to have a forward pointing end, and the neck and pillar are deeper than usual on these harps.

We have a second portrait of Valentine Rennie, drawn from memory after he died. The drawing was done by Thomas Smythe, an engraver who had lived on Cromac Street opposite the Harp Society House. The portrait was published in the Ulster Journal of Archaeology in 1901, along with some reminiscences from Smythe about the Harp Society.

Valentine Rennie’s harps

There are descriptions or references to three different harps said to have been owned by Valentine Rennie.

Information about two of Valentine Rennie’s harps is given by the antiquarian John Bell, writing in his notebook in about 1849, based on his conversations with the harper and tradition-bearer (and one-time student of Rennie), Patrick Byrne.

Rainies Harp was made by James McBride <a wheelwright> near Omagh <so> it is not / an ancient harp, it is the one that Mr Byrne is to get for me. / It was the harp playd upon Rainy playd upon before Georg the 4th. / Arthur O Neills <Harp> was burned <by> Samuel Patrick (a bad harper) in the / Harp Society house that harp afterwards belonged to Rainey the harper // Patrick and others had taken umbrage at Rainie’s wife, it was burned as / a bone fire because Rainie’s wife had gone out of the house. The brass / pins were sold pickd out of Rainies harp + o Neils and <they> sold them for drink / Guinness the porter brewer ??? Frazer. The Harp Mr Byrne will strive / to get for me was Rainies Harp. It [is] the Harp on which he playd / before George the 4th.

John Bell’s notebook (Glasgow University Library, MS Farmer 332 f1v-f2r)

James McBride made the harp[s] at Omagh his son was teacher at Belfast / ie Edward McBride was the t his son & Teacher of Harp at Belfast

John Bell’s notebook (Glasgow University Library, MS Farmer 332 f1v-f2r)

There is lots to unpick here. First of all we need to realise that this passage is talking about two completely different harps that once belonged to Valentine Rennie.

The first one we should think about is the one made by James McBride, father of Rennie’s old classmate Edward McBride. We are told that this harp was made by James McBride in Omagh, that Rennie played on this harp in 1821 before King George IV, and that Patrick Byrne was promising to get this harp for John Bell (Bell was an antiquarian and collecter of old objects). I remember discussing this passage with Keith Sanger many many years ago, and I think the conclusion is that this harp is lost, that we have no other references to it, and that John Bell didn’t ever manage to get hold of it.

I don’t know when James McBride may have made the harp. I discuss a little on my post on Edward McBride, that there is a reference to James the father accompanying Edward to harp school in Belfast back in 1808, so it is possible that James made one or two harps then. Or he could have made a harp just before the Royal visit. Or some time inbetween. I really don’t know. It is possible that the information is garbled or wrong.

The second harp described in Bell’s notes is the one that was burned in the Harp Society House by Sam Patrick and the other boys. It is said to be Arthur O’Neil’s harp which later belonged to Rennie. This is very interesting because Rennie had learned the harp from Arthur O’Neil at the original Belfast Harp Society school from 1809 to about 1812. We know that Rennie was one of the two top pupils, and so Arthur O’Neil must have bequeathed his old harp to Rennie, perhaps after he died in 1816 or perhaps when he retired to Maydown in about 1812.

Arthur O’Neil

Obviously the harp was destroyed, the pins were pulled out and sold (presumably for the scrap value of the brass), and the wooden frame burned as a bonfire. But we know about a few harps said to have belonged to Arthur O’Neil. One obvious possibility is that this harp might be the one he is depicted as playing in the woodcut portraits of him. Another possibility is that it may have been the harp that O’Neill is shown playing in the 1804 oil portrait which is in the National Gallery in Dublin. Either way we can imagine it being a large 18th century harp with perhaps 36 strings.

Harp in the National Museum

harp said to have belonged to Valentine Rennie (NMI DF:1980.6)

The third harp we should discuss is in the National Museum of Ireland, with the accession number NMI DF:1980.6. This harp looks a bit like the Egan wire-strung harps made for the Society in the 1820s, but it has a base that looks reminiscent of the base of a pedal harp, though I don’t know if this is original or may be a much later repair or modification. The pillar is attached to the bass end of the soundboard with a strange huge metal fitting with big nuts and bolts.

The harp has positions for 37 strings; it has tuning pins and bridge pins but, like all the other traditional wire-strung Irish harps, there is no semitone mechanism. There are an additional two blocked tuning pin and bridge pin positions in the bass end of the neck. The treble end of the neck has a strange added plate to repair or re-position the highest 19 bridge pins. The harp is well finished and varnished, but the inside of the soundboard is very crude and roughly finished. The shape of the harp and the scaling of its strings is not as well-designed as Egan’s wire-strung Irish harps.

The harp came to the National Museum in 1980, purchased by the museum from a lady in Newtownards. In the Museum archive file, there are documents that presumably came from the harp’s owner. There is a letter giving an association with Rennie, though the letter writer does not seem to know who Rennie was; they say he was an Irish harper who was married to Robert Burns’s sister (a kind of garbled genealogy) and they say that the harp was played at the Belfast Harp Festival in 1792 (a kind of garbled history).

It seems that William Savage owned this harp at the beginning of the 20th century. After 1904, the harp historian Robert Bruce Armstrong made a note on a folded slip of paper:

Mr William Savage
of 9 Vicinage Park
Belfast writes to say
that he has in his possession
a fine specimen of an
old Irish harp which
belonged to Valentine
Rainie or Ranney.

RIA Library SR 23 G 35; see Sanger & Billinge handlist
harp said to have belonged to Valentine Rennie (NMI DF:1980.6)
harp said to have belonged to Valentine Rennie (NMI DF:1980.6)

Unfortunately Savage’s original letter is not included in Armstrong’s papers at the RIA, and Armstrong’s note is not dated, though it presumably dates from after the publication of Armstrong’s book in 1904. I wonder if Savage sent more information, or even a photo?

Also in the NMI file is a pile of photocopied sheets which give some more solid provenance for the harp. This includes the traditionary information about Pat Murney and other harpers written down by William Savage (mentioned above). The archive file includes two photocopied sheets which look like the front and back of the same photograph; the front shows the harp standing in a cluttered Edwardian front room, with a mantelpiece, potted plants, and a banjo; the back shows the back of the photo with partly illegible handwriting, along with a type-written transcription:

This photo was taken in 6 Annadale Street by James A Napier now Rev. James Napier P.P. He was at that time in St. Malachy’s College. The harp is the harp played by Rainey at the Irish Harp School, Cromac St. Belfast. The harp made by Goudy of Charlemont St… Back of G.P.O. Belfast

NMI archive, Arts and Industry division, File AI.80.019

William Savage lived at 6 Annadale Street in the early 1900s; he is there in the 1901 census but he had moved out by 1907. So that can help us date the photo and the information.

I think we have to take seriously the traditionary association of this harp with Valentine Rennie. Could this be the harp in the oil portrait? Immediate differences are that the harp in the painting does not have a plinth base, and seems to have a speckled decoration on neck and pillar. But the plinth base on this museum harp could have been added later, and the speckles may be damage to the painting. I don’t think that we can say more at this stage.

I have found a reference to Goudy making a harp in 1833.

NEW HARP. – We, yesterday, at the rooms of the Belfast Harp Society, inspected a new Harp, of elegant workmanship, which has been constructed by an ingenious mechanic named Thomas Gowdy, who, we believe, resides in the neighbourhood of Smithfield. This Harp has been made for a gentleman near Belfast, and it is certainly a most creditable specimen of the skill of a Belfast Artist. In appearance it is elegant, and highly finished, while its intonation is full and rich, and equals in power that of the best instruments of the best Dublin or other Artists. The public ought to encourage the poor man by whom it has been constructed, as his mechanical genius is evidently of a very high order.

Belfast Newsletter, 09 Apr 1833 p2

Now of course this may not be the same harp, but it looks like this is the same maker. Charlemont Street is visible on the old maps, running North-South between the old GPO (which was where the CastleCourt Shopping Centre is now) and Smithfield (which was where the Castlecourt car park is now). It is also not clear if this was a one-off, or if Gowdy made a whole series of harps. On Monday 1st September 1856, “a fine-toned Irish Harp, by T. GOWDY” was offered for sale at an auction by Rodgers at 19 Rosemary Street, Belfast, along with a whole load of other furniture and other luxury household goods. (Belfast Newsletter, Fri 29 Aug 1856 p3). I wonder if this is our harp, or another by the same maker?

So we can’t really say if the harp really belonged to Rainey, or to another Gentleman associated with the Society, and we can’t really say what happened to it during the rest of the 19th century. But once Savage got hold of it we have references to it, with its association with Rennie.

So successful has been the exhibition of Irish harps which has been held for the past fortnight in the Linen Hall Library that it has been decided to keep it open for a week longer. In the meantime several interesting additions have been made to the collection. One of them is an ancient harp lent by Mr. William Savage. It was made by Thomas Goudie, Charlemont Street, Belfast, for Rainey, the nephew of Robert Burns, who succeeded O’Neill, the first Master of the Irish Harp Society. Another is the harp lent by Mr. John McKenna, of Wellington Park, made by Egan of Dublin, which is inscribed Belfast Irish Harp Society, 1819. This was the year in which the Harp Society was resuscitated. So many are the objects that are on view illustrative of the development of Irish music that it is strongly recommended to all who are interested in the subject to pay a visit to the exhibition.

Northern Whig, Tue 19 May 1903 p7

Again we see everything a bit garbled here – Edward McBride is written out of the story; I don’t think Rennie was a nephew of Burns, but a 2nd cousin.

I haven’t tracked how it got from Savage to the lady in Newtownards.

I am not sure what the other harp is. I don’t know of any surviving Egan harp with this inscription. It would be good to track it down and see what it really is, and if the inscription has been copied correctly.

The harp in the NMI has fragments of gut strings on it. It is hard to tell from the bad photocopy, but it may have been fully strung with gut strings in the Annadale Street photograph. Maybe William Savage had it restrung with gut; I presume it was originally designed for wire strings. There is a toggle with what looks like the remains of a wire string on it, loose inside the base of the harp.

Did Rennie own this harp? Or was it delivered to the Harp Society House in 1833, and did Rennie just play it for a bit to humour the Gentlemen who had paid for it, and Gowdy the maker?

Thanks to National Museums Northern Ireland for permission to reproduce Valentine Rennie’s portrait; to the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland for permission to reproduce Patrick Byrne’s certificate; to Belfast Central Library and the National Library of Ireland for assistance with finding some of the newspaper articles; to the National Museum of Ireland for facilitating access to inspect, measure, and photograph Rennie’s harp.

11 thoughts on “Valentine Rennie”

  1. John Conroy’s tavern at 20, Upper Ormond Quay (on the corner of East Arran Street) is the building now number 18 (because the houses on Upper Ormonde Quay have been re-numbered).

    This building is now owned by Dublin Civic Trust, and they have restored it to how it was after major rebuilding works in the early 1840s. However the rear of the present building, as well as the distinctive triple arched front, were not rebuilt and so remain from the time that Rennie was playing there in July 1821.

    You can read about the history of the building on the Dublin Civic Trust’s website, which includes old photos and drawings as well as information about Conroy and a photograph of his lease of the building.

  2. What an impressive carreer he had. He seems to be the hero of the story here doesn’t he? Leaving a whole generation of players after him? Quite the oposite of milking the last bard angle for all it’s worth and quietly going excinct. When he died he left the tradition alive and kicking. Good on him!

    The stories of him disciplining a student for trying to learn a song by listening in on someone else’s lesson made me tend to dislike him. But now he really is looking like the best of the batch.

    Thanks for this one, Simon!

      1. I hadn’t thought of that!

        And if he was alive it might have been less easy to shut down the Society. He seems to have been well loved in Belfast. He obviously must have liked teaching. It was his livelihood, more than any of his predecessors. He had the versatility and the smarts and the social skills to find a way to keep teaching on some level.

        So yes, that could have added another twenty or thirty years on to the lineage. There might even have been a recording! That’s a lot of mights, but it just goes to show how close they came to really succeeding.

        Yes, it was a tragic death on many levels. And to be so utterly forgotten. That really is a shame. So bless you Simon for doing him justice.

  3. Mark Doherty sent me a photograph of Valentine Rennie’s gravestone in Friar’s Bush graveyard.

    Mark is involved with the Cairde na Cille group which is trying to open and restore Friar’s Bush graveyard. He tells me that he has located Valentine Rennie’s entry in the maps and ledgers of the old graveyard, which enabled him to locate the stone. He has a transcription of the inscription when it was less eroded, from Richard Clarke’s book of Gravestone inscriptions. The stone is incredibly eroded away, but you can see the letters “Iri…” in the bottom left, which Clarke recorded in the 1980s as reading “Irish Harp Society, Belfast”.

    Mark tells me that he also has some leads on genealogical information regarding Valentine Rennie’s wife and son, in Dublin.

    1. I finally got hold of a copy of Tony Merrick, ed. R.S.J. Clarke, Gravestone Inscriptions Belfast Volume 2: Friar’s Bush and Milltown Graveyards (Ulster Historical Foundation, 1984). Our entry is on p107, and reads:

      (very badly weathered and looks of c.1820-1835.) Erected … (Re)nn(ie) ………. being ……… to the Irish Harp Society, Belfast.
      (The grave plot was purchased in 1831 by Valentine Rennie…

      There is also a decent paragraph about the Harp Society schools in Pottinger’s Entry and Cromac Street, and Rennie’s role in them as a pupil and teacher.

  4. On Wednesday 5th May 1824, Valentine Rennie played at a theatrical event in Belfast:

    THIS Present Evening (WEDNESDAY,) May 5th, will be performed, for the first time, a new Musical Piece in Two Acts, called the
    In which Miss CLARA FISHER will sustain Ten different Characters,— In the course of the Piece the following Songs of Miss CLARA FISHER — “Holidays again are come” — “Little bo Peep” — “With Ladies fair, en Militaire” — “What a Beauty I did grow” — “A Soldier’s the Man” — “Come Cheer up my Lads” — Incidental to the Piece, Miss CLARA FISHER will Dance a Sailor’s Hornpipe in character.
    A Pas de Deux by the Misses Villars
    After which Mr. RENNY, Master of the Irish Harp Society, will perform on the Stage a variety of English, Irish, and Scotch Airs, on the Harp.
    Incidental to the Farce Miss CLARA FISHER will Sing the favourite Song of “Though I am now but a very little Lad.” in the costume of a Highland Laddie.
    To conclude with a popular Operatic Piece, called
    Moggy M‘Gilpin – Miss CLARA FISCHER
    End of the Piece, a Highland Reel by the Characters.
    TICKETS to be had of Mr. CLARKE, at MRS. ARCHER’S, 63, High-street, and of Mr. THOMPSON, at the Theatre, where places in the Boxes may be taken from 11 [till] 4 o’clock.
    Boxes, 5s. Upper Boxes, 4s. 2d. Pit, 2s. 11d. Gallery, 1s. 8d. Half Price at a Quarter past Nine. Upper Boxes, 2s. 6d. Pit, 1s. 8d.
    To commence at half-past Seven
    Belfast Commercial Chronicle, Wed 5 May 1824 p3

  5. A month after Rennie and McBride’s Dublin concert in early 1816, we find two harpers being invited to play at a rather high class ball in Dublin Castle:

    On Thursday evening, her Grace the Duchess of Dorset’s Ball at the Castle, was attended by a great Assemblage of rank and fashion. The fine band of the Stafford Regiment played in the Great Hall, where it had an excellent effect.
    The Company assembled at an early hour, and dancing commenced at ten o’clock. The Ball was led off by the Honourable Colonel Cavendish and Lady Elinor Howard, and followed by twenty-five couple. Supper was announced before one o’clock. – the Supper-Rooms were splendidly lighted up, and the tables covered with profusion and every delicacy of the season. Her Grace, with that attention and respect which she is so desirous to pay to this country, had ordered two Irish Harpers to attend, in addition to the Music in the Ball-rooms.
    Freemans Journal, Sat 2 Mar 1816 p4

    The Duchess of Dorset was Arabella Diana née Cope (1767–1825). After the death of her husband John Sackville, 3rd Duke of Dorset, she had remarried to Charles Whitworth. He was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland between 1813 to 1817, and so we can see this ball that that Arabella was hosting at Dublin Castle, as part of her social duties as the “First Lady” of Ireland.

    The ball was on Thursday 29th Feb 1816. A long list of the attendees was printed in the Freemans Journal, 5th March 1816 p 3.

    The report does not name the harpers but I think there is no doubt that they must be Edward McBride and Valentine Rennie.

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