James McCurley was a traditional Irish harper in the middle of the 19th century. He played concerts, and he was beaten up in Cootehill. This post is to draw together the information we have about him, so that we can start to tell his life story.
Birth and early years
We don’t have records of James McCurley’s birth or early years, so we don’t know when he was born or where he came from. I have suggested below that he may have entered the Irish Harp Society school in Belfast between about 1827 and the mid 1830s, and when he entered he may have been aged between about 10 and 20 years old, so we can vaguely suggest that he might have been born perhaps between about 1805 and 1825.
We are also told that he was blind when he was a student. A blind boy would not have many opportunities in life, and this may be the reason he was sent to the Belfast harp school, as a way for him to get an education and be able to make a living afterwards.
Learning to play the harp
Later references to James McCurley (see below) tell us that he had learned to play the harp under Valentine Rennie, at the harp school in Cromac Street, Belfast, which was run by the Irish Harp Society.
We have records of the students at the school from its beginning in 1820 through until 1826, but we have virtually nothing for the remainder of the time that the school was running. Valentine Rennie died in September 1837 and the school finally closed in early 1840.
So I think we can say fairly confidently that James McCurley had been a student at the harp school some time between 1827 and 1837. It seems to have been normal for pupils at the school to study full-time there for two or more years; many of them lived in the Harp Society House as boarding pupils.
The pupils did not own their own harps; there were harps owned by the Irish Harp Society that were kept in the house. One of these is preserved in the National Museum of Ireland. (NMI DF:1913.381). It was made by John Egan in the early 1820s; it had 37 wire strings. The photo shows it being modelled by the harp historian Robert Bruce Armstrong who owned it at the beginning of the 20th century.
When each of the pupils had reached a professional standard of playing, they would be examined by the Gentlemen of the management committee, and they would be discharged from the school with a harp given to them by the Society, and with a certificate of musical ability and general good conduct.
James McCurley must have done well in his studies; he must have been discharged with a certificate and a harp, probably in the early to mid 1830s. We have a later reference to the harp that was presented to him.
And after that he was out on his own, as a professional (or “artisan”) traditional musician, making a living by playing the traditional wire strung Irish harp. We only have fragments of information about James McCurley’s professional career.
Drogheda concert, 1840
We first actually meet James McCurley in Drogheda towards the end of 1840.
HARP CONCERTDrogehda Argus and Leinster Journal, Sat 28 Nov 1840 p2
On Wednesday evening, Mr. JAMES M‘CURLEY, the celebrated Irish Bard gave a harp concert at the New Teetotal Society Rooms in this town. The entertainment was very well received. The airs played were “The rising of the Lark” with variations; “Let Erin remember the days of old;” “O’Rourk’s Noble Feast;” “Blame not the Bard;” “Lord Mayo;” “The Exile of Erin;” “The Harmonious Blacksmith;” “The Cooleen;” “Auld Lang Syne;” and a number of Irish Planxties composed by Carolan and other Bards, on the distinguished families of Ireland. – The style in which these various pieces were given by Mr. M‘CURLEY, excited the greatest admiration and drew forth from time to time the most signal applause from every one present, indeed –
“Cold, cold, must the heart be and void of emotion
That loves not the music of Erin go Bragh.”
The talents which Mr. M‘CURLEY possesses as a harper are of the highest order, and we would wish to see the room more crowded than it was.
There is a lot of information here for us to digest. The tune list is fascinating, but we will return to this later on.
I find the teetotal context interesting. Drogheda in the early 1840s was a seething hotbed of radical cultural, religious and teetotal activism, led by Father Burke. In November 1840, as far as I can see, Burke’s scene was up and running. In 1841, the harper Hugh Fraser was in Drogheda performing, and about the beginning of 1842 Frazer was hired full time to teach the wire-strung traditional Irish harp as part of this cultural and religious movement. I like to think that McCurley’s concert in Drogheda in November 1840 may have planted the seed of the idea of having a harp school in Drogheda.
There is a slight poignancy in the note that the event does not seem to have been particularly well attended.
Kilkenny concert, 1842
Just over a year later, James McCurley had hooked up with two other harpers, perhaps his former classmates from his time in the Belfast harp school.
This concert features James McCurley alongside Mr. O’Connor, and John McMullan. I have already written up O’Connor; he seems to have been a flamboyant showman who usually performed alongside other harpers – I get the impression he liked to be the lead performer, but he liked to have some of his old classmates alongside him as support.
John McMullan was born at the end of 1815 or the beginning of 1816. He was blind, and he was enrolled in the Irish Harp Society School to study under Valentine Rainey in August 1824 when he was eight-and-a-half years old, which I think was unusually young. He was still a pupil in August 1826; I don’t know when he was discharged. (Irish Harp Society Calcutta 1828 p.44).
NATIONALKilkenny Journal, and Leinster Commercial and Literary Advertiser, Wed 5 Jan 1842 p3
M‘MULLEN, O’CONOR, & M‘CURLEY,
PROFESSORS OF THE HARP,
(From the Royal Institution, Belfast,)
BEG leave most respectfully to announce to the Nobility, Gentry, and Inhabitants of Kilkenny, and its Vicinity, that they will give,
A MORNING CONCERT,
In the Assembly Rooms, Tholsel,
ON FRIDAY, JANUARY 7, 1842, AT ONE O’CLOCK.
The novelty and interest of the Entertainment will, they hope, draw forth public attention; as few towns in the Kingdom have witnessed such a performance since the days of the honored Minstrels of old.
Doors to open at half-past Twelve. Performance commences at One.
Admission to Morning Concert, 2s. – Children half-price.
ALSO, AN EVENING CONCERT, ON THE SAME DAY.
Doors to open at 7. Performance commences at half-past 7. Admission to Evening Concert –
Front Seats. 2s. Back do. 1s.
Tickets to be had at the Offices of the KILKENNY JOURNAL and MODERATOR, and by private distribution of friends.
☞ For particulars of Performances, see Programme in Bills.
We also have a review of the concerts a few days later:
NATIONAL MUSIC – CONCERTS IN KILKENNYKilkenny Journal, and Leinster Commercial and Literary Advertiser, Sat 8 Jan 1842 p2
Messrs. O’Connor, M‘Mullen, and M‘Curley, performers on the Irish Harp, and pupils of the Royal Institution, Belfast, whose advertisement appeared in our last, gave a morning and an evening concert at the Tholsel, yesterday. – Both were numerously and respectably attended, and the performances of the representatives of our ancient minstrels is pronounced by all capable of forming a judgement to be first rate. – Their execution of the most difficult pieces evinced the hand of a master and the heart of an enthusiast, and the performance on the instruments was in no wise superior to the singing. We understand that their stay will be prolonged, and we would earnestly recommend all who appreciate the beauties of the ancient music of Ireland to avail themselves of the opportunity which may not again readily present itself, for enjoying them in all their perfection. The performers bear with them testimonials to their high skill and exquisite performance from distinguished personages in different parts of Ireland.
By reference to the advertisement, which appears elsewhere, it will be seen that the entertainments are to be repeated on Tuesday.
The Tholsel is the prominent arcaded town hall on Kilkenny High Street.
I am also interested in the reference to the testimonials. It seems that this was a normal part of the way that the harpers got jobs in the 19th century; they would receive their certificate and harp when they left the school, and they they would collect letters of recommendation or testimonials as they travelled. Patrick Byrne’s collection of testimonials are preserved along with his certificate, in his papers in the Public Record Office in Belfast (PRONI D3531/G/1). This review shows us how these documents may have been used in practice by the blind boys.
I don’t have any information about the concert on the following Tuesday, but we do have the advert and review for a subsequent concert two weeks later. It is possible that the three were playing private events in Kilkenny during the time inbetween, as hinted in the review above.
NATIONALKilkenny Journal, and Leinster Commercial and Literary Advertiser, Wed 19 Jan 1842 p3
MUSIC OF IRELAND.
M‘MULLEN, O’CONOR, & M‘CURLEY
PROFESSORS OF THE IRISH HARP,
BEG to apprise the Public, that the Members of the
KILKENNY CITIZEN’S CLUB.
have kindly promised them their Support and Patronage,
On THURSDAY Evening next, Jan. 20, 1842.
In the ASSEMBLY ROOM, Tholsel
Upon which occasion, they will perform some of the most celebrated pieces of
the particulars of which will be specified in the bills o[ ] the day.
AN AMATEUR BAND WILL ATTEND.
Doors to open at half-past seven, performance to begin precisely at Eight o’Clock.
Tickets same as last Concert.
We also have a review of this concert:
IRISH MUSIC. CONCERT UNDER THE PATRONAGE OF THE CITIZEN’S CLUB.Kilkenny Journal, and Leinster Commercial and Literary Advertiser, Sat 22 Jan 1842 p3
On Thursday night, pursuant to the advertisement which appeared in our paper, Messrs. M‘Mullen, O’Connor, and M‘Curly, the performers on the Irish Harp, for some time resident in our city, gave their concert, under the patronage and support of the Citizens’ Club; and a demonstration so effective had not for years, been witnessed in Kilkenny. The Assembly Rooms were thronged to suffocation. There were upwards of 500 persons in attendance, comprising the respectability, taste, and intelligence, of all parties in our city. In calling for a “bumper” for our minstrel friends, we had no idea that we should be gratified with one so overflowing.
After the concert, about fifty members of the Citizens’ Club sat down to an excellent supper prepared for them at their rooms in William-street. Mr. Tidmarsh was in the chair. Mr. T. Cody occupied the vice-chair. Both gentlemen discharged their duties to the high satisfaction of all assembled. The harpers were in attendance, and contributed to render the scene one of real and thorough entertainment.
On the subject of national music, and the encouragement to be afforded to it, we shall have something to say hereafter. For the present we can only recommend to general imitation the example of the Kilkenny Citizens’ Club.
I think the comment at the very end is relating to some ideas to set up a harp society in Kilkenny, modelled on Father Burke’s in Drogheda. However nothing seems to have ever come of these ideas.
Newry concert, 1842
Ten months later, we find our man James McCurley in Newry.
THE IRISH HARP. – A pupil of the celebrated Rennie, late of the Belfast Harp Institution, is to perform in our Assembly Rooms on Friday evening. Mr. M‘Curley deserves encouragement, being a blind man, and a very good performer. Let it be shewn, by a full house, that the people of Newry are not destitute of musical taste, or of a disposition to spend a shilling usefully. We refer to the advertisement in a preceeding columnNewry Telegraph, Tue 15 Nov 1842 p3
And here is the advertisement:
THE IRISH HARP.Newry Telegraph, Tue 15 Nov 1842 p3, also Newry Examiner, Wed 16 Nov 1842 p3
MR. JAMES M‘CURLEY,
Pupil of the late Mr. RENNIE, Principal of the Belfast Harp Society.
BEGS leave to inform the respectable inhabitants of NEWRY that, in the ASSEMBLY-ROOMS, on the evening of FRIDAY next, the 18th instant, he will Perform a variety of Airs on THE IRISH HARP; when, he hopes to be honoured with the presence of the Patrons of that National Instrument. The following Irish, Scottish, and Welsh Airs, will be played on the occasion:
The Rising of the Lark – with variations
Song – The Land of the West.
Bryan, the Brave.
The Exile of Erin.
Blame not the Bard.
Song – The Harp that once through Tara’s Hall.
Sweet Vale of Avoca.
The Harmonious Blacksmith.
Nora Criena – in Six Variations
Auld Lang Syne – with Running Chords and Variations.
Mr. M‘CURLEY will, during the evening, perform a Spanish Overture, with Variations; besides a great number of IRISH PLANXTIES, composed by CAROLAN, and other Bards, on the Distinguished Families of Ireland.
Front Seats, 1s. 6d.; Back Seats, 1s. Children, Half Price. Doors Open at SEVEN, Performance to begin at Half-past SEVEN.
Tickets of Admission to be had at the Offices of THE TELEGRAPH and EXAMINER Newspapers.
☞ During his stay he will be happy, for a moderate recompense, to wait on any Gentleman, or Private Family, who may honor him with their commands, at no.32, WILLIAM-STREET.
Again the tune list is the most fascinating thing here, and we will discuss this in the next section along with the earlier tune list from Drogheda.
The note at the bottom of the advert reminds us of what I think may have been James McCurley’s bread-and-butter; he would be engaged by a wealthy person or family to go to their house, and to play either as a kind of house-concert, or as background music for them. Obviously this kind of work doesn’t usually get reported in the newspapers.
We also get the address where he was staying. Unfortunately, William Street has become a four-lane dual-carriageway so there is no trace of the houses where James McCurley had his lodgings.
We have a brief review of this concert in Newry:
THE IRISH HARP. – On Wednesday last, Mr. M‘Curley, the Harper, gave a Concert in the Assembly-Room, when the attendance was large, and very respectable. The performance on the Harp was warmly and deservedly applauded. The brass band of the 60th Rifle Corps, which was kindly granted for the occasion, played some very favorite airs in an exquisite style.Newry Telegraph, Tue 29 Nov 1842 p3
I find the presence of the military band interesting; the harpers’ concerts in the 19th century often seem to have included military band music. A band was on the advert in Kilkenny, though it was not mentioned here.
Between the Drogheda concert tune list and the Newry concert tune list, we have a list of 17 tune titles that McCurley is said to have played. Not all of these titles are familiar today, and so I think it is worth going through them trying to work out what they all are. Some of these I have already done on my old post about 19th century Irish harp tune lists.
“The rising of the Lark” with variations is the first title given on both the Drogheda tune list and the Newry tune list. This tune is on my tune lists post because it seems to have been the most popular Welsh tune played by the Irish harpers. I have no idea how they would have handled it on their big floor-standing wire-strung traditional Irish harps, but we can listen to the traditional Welsh harper and tradition bearer Nansi Richards playing it.
I also don’t know much about what kind of variations McCurley may have played. In the inherited Welsh harp tradition there are ways of improvising or developing variations on a traditional tune, and we have hints of something similar from Edward Bunting’s live transcription notations of an earlier generation of Irish harpers in the 1790s, such as his live transcription notations of Molly Astore or Thugamar fein.
“Let Erin remember the days of old” is on the Drogheda tune list. This is the title of Thomas Moore’s song, but I don’t think James McCurley was singing Tom Moore’s words. He was just playing the tune, which is a traditional Irish song air called An Maidrín Rua (the little red fox). It is supposed to be related to the well-known Uillean pipes exhibition piece, the fox chase. You can listen to Joe Heaney discussing the song and singing it in Irish and English.
“O’Rourk’s Noble Feast” is on the Drogheda tune list. This big Carolan tune was transcribed live from the 18th century harpers by Edward Bunting and also by Sir John Stevenson (though I think Stevenson’s transcription is lost). I imagine McCurley learning this from Rennie, who would have learned it from Arthur O’Neil.
“Blame not the Bard” is on the Drogheda tune list and on the Newry tune list. This is another traditional Irish song air, Kitty Tyrrell, disguised from us because McCurley is using the title of Thomas Moore’s song written to the tune. You can read my old write-up of the 1790s harp transcription, or you can listen to this recording of Máire Ní Shúilleabháin singing the song of Kitty Tyrrell in 1951.
“Lord Mayo” is on the Drogheda tune list. This grand Irish song air was passed down by the traditional harpers.
“The Exile of Erin” is on the Drogheda tune list and on the Newry tune list. I think this is an alternative title for the popular tune Savourneen Deelish.
“The Harmonious Blacksmith;” is on the Drogheda tune list and also on the Newry list. This is an air and variations from Handel’s Suite No. 5 in E major, published in 1720. The tune only seems to have become popular in this extracted form from the 1820s, and it was a bit of a standard of the traditional Irish harpers through the second half of the 19th century.
“The Cooleen” is on the Drogheda tune list and on the Newry tune list. It was a standard of the 18th century harpers, and is still alive in the Irish music tradition today. You can read my writeup of the 18th century sources or you can listen to a traditional fiddle performance:
“Auld Lang Syne;” is on the Drogheda tune list, “with Running Chords and Variations” on the Newry tune list. I am not sure what to make of the variations, but the tune is a well-known Scottish song air.
“Song – The Land of the West” is in the Newry concert list. “The Land of the West” is a song written by Samuel Lover. I am not finding a recording of this song for you to listen to. Lover’s songs were popular at the time but I don’t think anyone sings them or has even heard of them nowadays, though I found an early 20th century traditional version collected by Sam Henry. We are told in the tune list that James McCurley is singing this one, not just playing it as an instrumental air.
“Bryan, the Brave” is on the Newry list. This is another traditional old harp tune which is hidden behind its Thomas Moore song title. It is the tune of Molly MacAlpine. You can listen to Patsy Touhey playing it under its Tom Moore title.
“Song – The Harp that once through Tara’s Hall” is on the Newry tune list. This is clearly James McCurley singing Moore’s famous song and probably accompanying himself on his wire strung traditional harp. “The Harp that Once” was a standard of the traditional harpers through the 19th century, and the tune became associated with the classical-style lever harp in the Gaelic revival in the early 20th century. It seems to have dropped out of favour somewhat now, but the tune (Mailí bheag Ó, or Mailí a stór) goes back into the 18th century harp tradition, before Tom Moore wrote his new lyric to it.
“Sweet Vale of Avoca” is on the Newry tune list. This is the Tom Moore song The Meeting of the Waters. It doesn’t say that James McCurley is singing this one so perhaps he was just playing it as an instrumental tune. But I have only heard it sung.
“Nora Criena – in Six Variations” is on the Newry tune list. There is a Thomas Moore song beginning “Lesbia Hath A Beaming Eye” which is written to this tune, but we see here that James McCurley is not using Tom Moore’s song title, but is using the traditional Irish title of Nóra Chríonna.
“Rule Britannia!” is on the Newry tune list. I think this kind of British national song was played by the harpers at more high-status events depending on the kind of audiences who were attending.
I’m sure James McCurley did not play it in this kind of arrangement, but the military band who were also at the concert may well have played it like this.
We also have two things listed on our tune lists. “A Spanish Overture, with Variations” is on the Newry list, but I don’t really know what this might refer to. “A number of Irish Planxties composed by Carolan and other Bards, on the distinguished families of Ireland” is on both the Drogheda tune list and on the Newry tune list. We do know a lot of these kind of Carolan tunes from the 18th century harp traditions, but obviously we can’t know which specific ones James McCurley was playing. I have seen a similar phrasing used for these Carolan tunes by other harpers – perhaps the harpers played them in their inherited traditional repertory, but audiences were less familiar with them so there was no point in naming them in this kind of publicity?
We also see McCurley using the stock phrase of “Irish, Scottish, and Welsh Airs” in his Newry advertisement. This phrase first appears connected with the traditional harpers, in Edward McBride’s report to the Gentlemen of the Irish Harp Society in August 1821; McBride’s student Patrick Byrne later used it on concert adverts and so I think it is obviously an idea of the harpers as to what they were playing. But if we skim through the list of tunes above we can spot basically one Welsh tune, one Scottish tune, two English tunes, and all the rest are Irish. Were the harpers categorising the tunes differently? Interestingly, the tune of Nóra Chríonna is played in Donegal fiddle tradition as a kind of Scottish bagpipe imitation (see the listings for Mickey Doherty and John Doherty on irishtune.info)
Beaten up in Cootehill
We next meet James McCurley in court eleven years later, in Cootehill. My header photo shows the countryside about a mile south of Cootehill.
COOTEHILL PETTY SESSIONS.Anglo-Celt, Thur 8 Sep 1853 p3, paraphrased in Saunders’s Newsletter, Sat 10 Sep 1853 p3
SATURDAY, AUGUST 27.
ASSAULT UPON A BLIND IRISH HARPER, AND BREAKING HIS HARP.
James M‘Cauley, a blind Irish Harper, v Micheal Keone
The defendant, a blacksmith, was convicted and sentenced to six week’s imprisonment at hard labour, for having, on the 24th August, assaulted complainant, and broken his harp, in Cootehill. It appeared in evidence that the defendant was drunk, and requested the complainant to play some favourite tune of his, which he declined to do, whereupon he assaulted him and broke his harp, which he received from the Belfast Irish Harp Institution, in which he was taught as a dark or blind pupil. The defendant was fined one pound for the assault and one pound for the injury done to the harp, with costs.
The spelling of the name seems slightly garbled here; everywhere else it is spelled M‘Curley (for McCurley) but here we have M‘Cauley (McCauley) which may be the clerk understanding it to be perhaps related to McAuley. But as far as I can see McCurley and McAuley are two different unrelated names.
I presume the £1 damages for the breaking of the harp was a realistic estimate for the repair. The original purchase costs for these harps in the 1820s (according to the Harp Society budgets) was £9. Some of the old harps preserved in museums (most notably Hugh Hagan’s) are broken, and repaired with iron plates screwed or bolted through the fractured woodwork.
That’s it for now, I don’t have any more info about James McCurley at the moment. If more turns up we can add it below.