Thomas Hanna

Thomas Hanna was a traditional Irish harper in the middle of the 19th century. He held a coveted position as harper to an old aristocratic family. This post is to gather together different references to him, his life and his music.

We have a few different records that we can use to reconstruct his life. We have a very brief biographical note published in 1914; we have the fragmentary records from the harp school in Belfast; we have occasional newspaper reports, including a death notice; we have a later reminiscence that mentions him; and we have the letter that he wrote.

Birth and early years

According to the records, it looks like Thomas Hanna was born in the Autumn of 1802. We have three mentions of his age; on 8th Aug 1820 he was said to be 17; on 20 Aug 1821 he was said to be 18, and on 3 Nov 1869 he was said to be 67. His official death record says he was older but I am sure this is an error.

I am less certain where he was from. The Irish Harp Society record from 1820 says he was from Belfast; the IHS record from 1821 says he was from Antrim. The anecdote from Henry McBride says he was from Castledawson, which is a few miles west of the border between County Derry and County Antrim. Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin says on her Oriel Arts website that Hanna was from Ballymoney, but I don’t know where this information comes from.

Learning the harp

Thomas Hanna was apparently already living in Belfast by 1820, when the newly re-started Irish Harp Society placed an advertisement in the newspapers. I imagine Thomas Hanna reading this notice (or having it read out to him). He was 17 years old at this time.

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

Belfast News Letter, 11 Jan 1820, p3

And so, on Monday 21st February, 1820, presumably at 10am sharp, Thomas Hanna walked down Cromac Street to the door of the Harp Society House at no.21.

He was admitted to be a student, and so he started his full time study of the traditional Irish harp under the teacher, Edward McBride.

At first, all of the boys were day pupils, living in Belfast, and paying for their own board and lodgings. They would walk in every day to the Harp Society House for their classes. I am trying to imagine what they were learning, and how the classes worked. Edward McBride had learned the harp ten years previously from the elderly harper and tradition-bearer Arthur O’Neil. McBride had been one of O’Neill’s star pupils, and had gone on to have a performing career as a double-act with Valentine Rennie through the eighteen-teens, before McBride was recruited to be the teacher or Master at the new school from the start of 1820. McBride lived in the Harp Society House, and did the lessons there.

The full time tuition was free for all the boys, subsidised by the Irish Harp Society. But I can see that if the boys were studying full time they would not have any income, and so their savings would start to run out. We have an interesting resolution from the Gentlemen of the Irish Harp Society, retrospectively reported in the minutes of their first half-yearly meeting, on 8 August 1820. The first item on the Gentlemen’s agenda was:

Messrs. Robert Williamson, and Henry Joy, having informed the Society that three Pupils, the most forward in Tuition, and who had ceased to have any means of supporting themselves, have been boarded with the Master, at the expense of this Institution, from the 26th of May last, at seven shillings per week, each, viz. Patrick Burns, Patrick McCloskey, and Thomas Hanna.
Resolved – That we approve of the same, and that it be continued.

Minutes of meeting, 8th August 1820, reprinted in Calcutta Journal vol 2 no 75 p188

The minutes of this meeting continue, giving a full list of the ages of all the pupils.

The number of Pupils at present learning the Harp, are Seven, viz.
Admitted Feb. 21, 1820, Pat Burns, aged 21 years, blind, from Kings Court, Co. Meath
Admitted March 7, . . . H. Frazer, . . . . . . 12 . . . Ballymacarrett
Admitted April 8, . . . . Pat. McCloskey . . 12 . . . Banbridge
Admitted Feb 21, . . . . Thos. Hanna, . . . 17 . . . Belfast
Admitted Feb 21, . . . . H. Dornan, . . . . 29, . . . Belfast
Admitted ” ” . . . . . Ham. Gillespie, . . . 17, . . . Ditto.
Admitted ” ” . . . . . John McCotter, . . 26, . . . Ditto

Minutes of meeting, 8th August 1820, reprinted in Calcutta Journal vol 2 no 75 p188

We can see that Patrick Byrne, Hugh Dornan, Hamilton Gillespie and John McCotter had all walked up on 21st Feb along with Thomas Hanna, and they had later been joined by the two younger lads, Hugh Frazer and Patrick McCloskey.

I am interested to see that the three most advanced pupils were Thomas Hanna, Patrick Byrne, and the youngest Pat McCloskey.

One year later, the Master, Edward McBride, presented his report to the Gentlemen of the Irish Harp Society, at their meeting on 20th August 1821 in the Harp Society House.

EDWARD MCBRIDE, Teacher, reports that the present number of Pupils, Boarded and Lodged at the Society’s Expense, is Four, viz.
1820, Feb 21 – Patrick Byrnn. (blind) Meath, 23, … 60
——————–Thomas Hanna, Antrim, . . . . . 18, … 58
—–, April 8 – Patrick McClusky, (blind), Banbridge, … 12, … 40
1821 May 10 – Jane McArthur, (blind), Ballycastle, … 17, … 9
1820, Feb. 21 – Hamilton Graham, Belfast, 18, … 40
——-, May 7 – Heugh Frazer, Ballymacarret, … 13, … 40
Number of Tunes,, Irish, Scotch and Welch, at present taught in the House . . . . . 60

Minutes of meeting, 20th August 1821, reprinted in Irish Harp Society Calcutta 1828 (Penn Libraries ML1015.C3I7) p.27

We see some changes over the year between August 1820 and August 1821 – we don’t have any minutes or internal records to cover the period between these dates. Both Hugh Dornan and John McCotter have disappeared from the records, apparently dropping out after about one year of study. They have been replaced by a new girl, Jane McArthur. And for some unknown reason, Hamilton Gillespie is called Graham in this list.

We can see that this report is more comprehensive than the previous year’s. We see that the three boys who were taken into the House back in May 1820 are still living in as full-time boarding pupils, and that Jane McArthur has joined them. We see that Byrne, McCloskey and McArthur are all listed as “blind”, but Thomas Hanna is not.

We also see the very interesting listing of tunes that each pupil has learned. I made a chart of this data so that we can see how fast each pupil is learning.

NameEnteredTime since enteredNo. of TunesTunes per month
Patrick ByrneTue 1 Feb 2018 months & 19 days603.2
Thomas HannaTue 1 Feb 2018 months & 19 days583.1
Jane McArthurThu 10 May 213 months & 10 days92.7
Hugh FrazerSun 7 May 2015 months & 13 days402.6
Patrick McCloskeySat 8 Apr 2016 months & 12 days402.4
Hamilton GillespieTue 1 Feb 2018 months & 19 days402.1

Thomas Hanna and Patrick Byrne are clearly at the top of the class. Interestingly, McCloskey (who was said to have been one of the top three a year ago) is not doing so well here.

I think this is the first mention of the stock phrase “Irish, Scotch and Welsh” tunes used in relation to the harpers. It gives us a sense of the kind of repertory that Edward McBride was teaching at the school. We can see from my Tune Lists post that Byrne especially had quite a lot of Scottish repertory, though he later also worked in Scotland. I am finding fewer Welsh tunes in the tune lists.

Change of teacher

We don’t have much detail about what happened or why, but at the end of 1821, after almost two years as Master, Edward McBride was replaced by his old classmate and travelling companion, Valentine Rennie. So, Thomas Hanna and the others would have continued their education from the start of 1822 under the new Master. I imagine that they would continue learning in the same way, since Rennie and McBride had learned together from Arthur O’Neil ten years before, and then had travelled and performed together all through the eighteen-teens.

Discharge from the Society

That same August 1821 meeting of the Gentlemen of the Irish Harp Society also contains some interesting rules and regulations which have a relevance to understanding what happened next in Thomas Hanna’s life.

Resolved. – That the general term for which Pupils inmate and extern shall be taught, be two years unless where they may be earlier prepared to procure their livelihood as Harpers.
Resolved. – That where a Pupil of at least eighteen months standing, shall have signalized him or herself by proficiency on the Harp, and general good conduct in every respect, the Society may make a gift of a Harp to such Pupil; with the name of the Pupil and of the Society engraved on a brass plate thereon.
Resolved. – That three Harps, of the same size as Egan’s, at present in the possession of the Society, shall be ordered by the Secretary to be made in Belfast, and the price not to exceed Six Guineas each.
Resolved. – That an examination of the Pupils shall be regularly held by the Society at its meetings in May and November; and more frequent examinations by the Committee of Management.

Minutes of meeting, 20th August 1821, reprinted in Irish Harp Society Calcutta 1828 (Penn Libraries ML1015.C3I7) p.29

We can see that the main focus of the Harp School was to fast-track the pupils to a level where they could go out and make their living as professional traditional musicians (or “artisan musicians” as Reg Hall says in his thesis).

We don’t have any records of Thomas Hanna’s discharge. But I would think that he may have been discharged not long after, or even at the same time, as his classmate Patrick Byrne.

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

We know that Patrick Byrne was discharged and given his certificate on 14th May 1822. The certificate is hand-written on vellum by the Secretary of the Irish Harp Society, and signed by the Gentlemen and also signed by “Valentine Rennie, Professor”. Byrne was also presented with a gift harp from the Society, which I think may be the same harp that he later toured professionally with and which is shown in his photographs.

We also have records of the two boys who were admitted to the Society, presumably to take up the places vacated by Byrne and Hanna. Alex Jack from Lambeg joined the school on 11 March 1822, and Martin Crenny joined on 1 Nov 1822. Did Alex Jack replace Pat Byrne, and if so why was he admitted two months before Byrne got his certificate? And did Martin Crenny replace Thomas Hanna, and if so does that imply that Tom Hanna was discharged with his certificate and harp at the end of 1822 or the start of 1823?

Thomas Hanna’s harp

His harp is still at Castle Forbes.

Association for the preservation of the memorials of the dead, Ireland, vol IX no. 2, 1914 p.121

At the moment I have no information at all about what Thomas Hanna’s harp was like. After he died it was left at Castle Forbes, and is seems that it was still there in 1914, but the house was damaged by an IRA bomb on 26th February 1923 (Lincolnshire Echo, Wed 28 Feb 1923 p2) and I don’t know if the harp may have been destroyed then.

However in the mean time we can speculate based on what we know in general about the wider scene.

In 1819, even before hiring a teacher, the first thing the Gentlemen of the Irish Harp Society did (after organising themselves into a committee and setting up rules for meetings and money and that kind of meeting business) was to order three harps from Egan in Dublin. Now I think there might have been a mix-up, and the wrong harps might have been delivered, but as soon as Edward McBride was in position as teacher, he would have sorted things out and may have liased with Egan to make sure that the Society owned harps that were suitable for traditional Irish harp players. The harps that the Society eventually got in 1820 or soon after were big floor-standing Irish harps, with 37 brass wire strings. They were built using the most up-to-date workshop practices used by John Egan who was a commercial maker of classical harps, but Egan incorporated a number of subtle design features which indicate that these harps he made for the Belfast Society and for the harpers educated at the school were clearly designed from the ground up as traditional wire-strung Irish harps. They were designed without any kind of semitone mechanism; they were fitted with large (1/4 inch) tuning pin drives; their soundboards were curved, and their soundboxes were made thicker to tame the resonance of the metal strings.

Egan wire-strung Irish harp number 2044. Nancy Hurrell suggests that this harp dates from after c.1825. Photo © The Fitzwilliam Museum, used under a Creative Commons License CC-BY-NC
Egan wire-strung Irish harp number 2044. Nancy Hurrell suggests that this harp dates from after c.1825. Photo © The Fitzwilliam Museum, used under a Creative Commons License CC-BY-NC

A number of these wire-strung Egan Irish harps which were made for the Society or for its pupils still exist. For example, Patrick Byrne’s harp is in a private collection in America, and a harp used in the Harp Society House for teaching purposes is now in the National Museum of Ireland. The harp illustrated here is in the Fitzwilliam Museum at the University of Cambridge.

As far as I can tell, Egan never advertised these large wire-strung traditional Irish harps; his adverts only refer to his classical-style harps, both the full size pedal harps and the miniature “portable” harps. The portable harps were designed, strung and set up as classical harps, with a semitone system like on pedal harps; both the pedal harps and the little portable harps were marketed as “Irish” even though neither type had any connection to the inherited tradition of Irish harping that Thomas Hanna was working in. This deliberate blurring of categories has caused a lot of confusion ever since.

Professional performing career

Anyway we have got distracted. By 1824 (if not earlier), Thomas Hanna had finished his intensive education and training, and he was now out on the road as a traditional Irish harper, looking for paid work.

We see his name listed in the minutes of a meeting of the Irish Harp Society Gentlemen:

Pupils gaining their bread throughout the Kingdom; Harp being given to them by the Society.
Patrick Burns, blind. | Patrick McClosky, blind.
Thomas Hanna, do. | Hamilton Gillespie, nearly do.
Jane McCarter, do. | Hugh Fraser, sees indistinctly.

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

This is the only reference I have seen that states that Thomas Hanna is blind; I think it might be an error. We also see that Jane McArthur’s name is spelled wrong.

Actually at this stage I have no information about Thomas Hanna’s early career in the 1820s and 30s.

The Monster Meeting, 1843

He was one of the harpers who played at O’Connell’s Monster Meeting at Tara in 1843.

Association for the preservation of the memorials of the dead, Ireland, vol IX no. 2, 1914 p.121

Daniel O’Connell was known as “the Liberator” because of his political campaigning to “repeal” the 1800 Act of Union. In 1843 and 1845 O’Connell organised a series of over fifty “monster meetings” all across the south and middle of Ireland (see Gary Owens’s article in History Ireland vol 2 no 1 Spring 1994 for a good overview). The biggest of all was the Monster Meeting on the Hill of Tara on 15th August 1843, where one million people were said to have gathered. We have a drawing of this meeting, with a harper seated in a carriage and wearing a long robe, a false beard, a long wig and a pointy hat.

Illustrated London News, Sat 26 Aug 1843 p8

Gary Owens mentions how the theatrical parades to the meeting ground were a big part of these events. There were feeder parades from different towns, which met up with the main procession led by O’Connell from Dublin. We have a nice description of the parade from Trim:

THE INHABITANTS OF TRIM, AND THE ADJOINING PARISHES, will go in Procession to TARA on the 15th instant.
Trumpeter on Horseback.
Harper in open Carriage, Four Horses.
Trim Band in open Carriage, Six Grey Horses.
Members of the Commitee in open Carriage, Four Horses.
Footmen, Six Deep.
Carriages, Cars and Gigs
Horsemen, Four Deep
The Mounted Marshalls will be distinguished by White Rosettes, worn on the left breast.
The Repeal Commitee of each Parish will carry white wands along the line of Procession, to preserve order.
The Procession to form on the FAIR-GREEN of TRIM, precisely at EIGHT o’Clock, starting from the Wellington Testimonial, down through the Main-street of the Town, out Navan-gate, by Rathnally, Bective, Kilmesson, to Tara.
By order of the Trim Repeal Committee,

Dublin Weekly Nation, Sat 12 Aug 1843 p1

You can follow the approximate route on the map; it is about 4 hours walk.

Daniel O’Connell himself led the main parade out from Dublin.

…Previous to the departure of Mr O’Connell for Tara he was entertained at breakfast by Mr. M’Garry, 141 Lower Baggot-street. Over the door of Mr. M’Garry’s house, in a gallery in front of the breakfast room, was placed a harper clothed in antique Irish costume who continued during the repast to play the beautiful airs of our country.
Mr. O’Connell then proceeded to his residence at Merrion-square, the other guests upon the occasion closely following to their carriages, to join the procession to the place of meeting.
At a quarter-before nine the Liberator’s procession moved from Merrion-square, the Liberator’s carriage in front, followed by Mr. M’Garry’s, which was drawn by four horses, on the box-seat of which was sat an Irish harper, attired in the ancient bardic costume, playing “The harp that once through Tara’s hall;”…

Dublin Evening Mail, Wed 16 Aug 1843 p4

The Freeman’s Journal gives a long account of the progress of the enormous procession and the crowds of people all along the way, until:

…at Belpir, about a mile and a half from the hill, the Liberator was met by the men of Kells, and Trim, and Navan…

…a turn in the road disclosed to view the side of the Hill of Tara, with it countless thousands spread over it, and the long road leading to it filled with one dense mass of human beings. As the carriage of the Liberator reached this spot a shout was raised that rent the air for miles; and the shout passed along that line until it reached the hill where all “Temora of the Kings” took up the echo, and returned it back with a long, hoarse murmur, like “the sound of many waters”. Mr. O’Connell rose in his seat, profoundly affected, and there were few who beheld the scene at that moment that did not feel deep emotion. The old Harper touched the chords of his harp, but the sounds died upon the strings themselves, and the drums and horns of the numerous bands were dumb; the voice of half a million shouting welcome to their Liberator, and Hurrah! for Ireland, could alone be heard…

Freeman’s Journal, Wed 16 Aug 1843 p2

After the meeting, and the speeches, a dinner was held for over a thousand people. After the dinner, letters of apologies were read from people who could not be there.

…During the reading of the various letters of apology six harpers entered the pavilion, and subsequently gave an interest to the proceedings by their strains, recalling the days of old, and giving promise that the music of the olden days would again awaken the echo of Tara. When the secretary concluded the president rose, and having given the usual toasts, proposed “Daniel O’Connell, and the repeal of the legislative union.” (Tremendous cheers)…

Evening Mail, Fri 18 Aug 1843 p7

Part of the problem for us is that the harpers at these events are almost never named; they are wearing their costumes and they are often not even heard. So I don’t think we can work out which of these different harpers was Thomas Hanna. There is a comment by Patrick Cooney (‘Drogheda Harp Society’, Journal of the Old Drogheda Society 1976 p. 39) who says “Five of Father Burke’s harpists played before O’Connell at that memorable Repeal meeting…” but he doesn’t say where this information comes from. He is referring to the students of Thomas Hanna’s old classmate Hugh Frazer at the Drogheda Harp Society in the early 1840s. Nancy Hurrell wrote a brief study of a Drogheda harp that had been owned by Cooney, which she says was played at Tara by one of the Drogheda boys, William Griffith.

So if Burke sent five harpers, was Thomas Hanna the sixth? Or is that too simple?

Touring in Ulster

We have an interesting anecdote which I think must date from the late 1840s. This comes from Henry McBride, whose uncle Edward McBride had been Thomas Hanna’s old teacher at the harp school. I think Henry was born in 1837-8, after his uncle Edward had died.

…As the pupils he taught always visited my father’s house on their rounds through Ulster, and would stop several days at Mr. J. Conroy’s, Omagh, grandfather to Dr. Todd M.D. I remember three of them, namely:- Mr. Frazer, from Armagh, Mr Hannah, from Castledawson, and Mr. Byrne, from Monaghan…

Henry McBride, in The Herald, Saturday 29 Aug 1903.

I find this very interesting, to find the three harpers visiting the house of Edward McBride’s brother (also called Henry). This may have been the house where Edward McBride and his brother had grown up, in Creevenagh townland to the south-east of Omagh. It is not clear if the three harpers travelled together or not. Either way we see some kind of continuing connection between Hanna and Byrne.

Public concert

We have an interesting review of a concert that Thomas Hanna performed in the Market House in Armagh, apparently on Thursday 25th September 1856. The Market House now houses the city library in the centre of Armagh. I think the concert would have happened upstairs on the first floor, because the ground floor was originally an open arcade and the second floor was not added until 1912.

THE IRISH HARP.- Last evening Mr. Thomas Hanna, Irish Harper, gave a musical entertainment in the Market-house, to a large and respectable audience. The programme contained a choice and very extensive collection of Irish, English and Scotch melodies, marches, and other popular airs, which Mr. Hanna performed in beautiful style, to the utmost satisfaction of the company present, whose feelings were frequently signified in loud applause. On four occasions the performer was encored, especially at “Brian Borombhe’s March,” a fine old piece which few could hear and not admire as well for its own intrinsic merit as the glorious national effort it commemorates. Altogether the entertainment was most successful.

Armagh Guardian, Fri 26 Sep 1856 p5

This is great to have a tune named, that Thomas Hanna was playing; Brian Boru’s March was a standard of the 19th century traditional harpers, and I discuss it a little on my tune lists post. And also it is lovely to see him getting such a positive reaction from the Armagh audience. Pat Murney had previously performed in this venue four and a half years previously in Feb 1852. Two years later, in December 1858, Andrew Bell was playing a concert in the Market House. And a couple of years after that, in July 1861, Tom Hardy was performing there.

As far as I can see there were a few different career options open to a traditional harper in those days (apart of course from the option of making a living doing something else and playing the harp as a hobby – I think the majority of them did not have this option). They could tour and perform public concerts – perhaps Mr. O’Connor is the best example of that, and there were many other ways to do this, such as Begley playing at the Diorama. They could get a regular slot playing every evening in a hotel or tavern – we can see Joseph Craven having a long residency at the Ship Hotel and Tavern in Dublin. The chance to be employed full-time as a harp teacher was also a possibility, but only a very few managed that – Valentine Rennie got the best shot at it from 1822 to 1837, and Thomas Hanna’s old classmate Hugh Frazer was employed for a few years as harp teacher in Drogheda in the 1840s.

But the job that many of the harpers would have aspired to, but hardly any managed, would be to become the retained harper of a noble family, living at the big house and providing music for the household.

Aristocratic patronage

Thomas Hanna was for upwards of fifteen years living as Harper to the family of the Earl and Countess of Granard at Castle Forbes…

Association for the preservation of the memorials of the dead, Ireland, vol IX no. 2, 1914 p.121

At some point perhaps in the late 1850s, Thomas Hanna became the resident Harper to the Earl and Countess of Granard, at Castle Forbes, County Longford.

Castle Forbes, National Library of Ireland via Wikimedia Commons

The 1914 information says he was harper at Castle Forbes for over 15 years, but the earliest reference I have seen to Thomas Hanna being employed by the Earl of Granard is in this report from 1859. The way the harper is mentioned, it seems like it may have been a recent appointment:

A RESIDENT NOBLEMAN. – The Earl of Granard, ever anxious to gratify his friends, gave a day’s coursing at Balanalee, on Monday, the 7th instant. A smart fall of snow the previous night prevented many gentlemen attending with their dogs; yet there was a numerous attendance and capital sport. At the close of the coursing his lordship entertained his friends in splendid style at Reynold’s hotel. A number of his lordship’s servants attended on the guests, amongst whom we observed the following: – Captain Lees, Rev. P. Lee, P.P., Lieutenant Gregory, Rev. P. M’Keon, P.P., Dr. Nicolls, Rev. Mr. Kernon, C.C., Messrs. R. Legg, D. Quinn, M. G. Parker, J. Quinn, T. J. M’Mahon, W. Was[hob], James Kenny, Thomas O’Farrell, T. Wilson, Edward Farrell, G. M’Dermott, G. Prentice, &c. – A considerable number of respectable farmers were entertained in another part of the house; and for the humbler classes, who had come a distance to enjoy the sport, his lordship, with kind consideration, ordered plenty of refreshment. His lordship requested the Rev. Mr. Lee to take the chair, and Dr. Nicolls the vice-chair. The healths of Earl Granard, the Countess of Granard, and Capt. Forbes having been proposed and duly honoured, several patriotic toasts were given and responded to, and many national and convivial songs were sung. To give some idea of his lordship’s nationality, he mentioned that so partial was he to Irish music he had engaged the services of a first-rate Irish harper, and to encourage amusement and promote the breed of good horses, he would give a cup to be run for at the Longford races, of which he kindly proposed to be a steward. The greatest good will and harmony prevailed. His lordship left for Castleforbes at eight o’clock, immediately after the company separated, well pleased with the delightful day and evening they had spent, and not likely soon to forget the social urbanity of their noble entertainer. – Communicated.

Freeman’s Journal, Tue 15 Feb 1859 p2

Thomas Hanna is not named but we can be pretty sure it is him that George Forbes boasts of having engaged.

George Forbes was born on 5 August 1833. He became Earl of Granard in June 1837, as a young child. In 1843, the Trustees of the estate let Castle Forbes for seven years “pending the minority of the Earl of Granard” (Morning Chronicle, Tue 4 Apr 1843 p1) Lord Forbes would not reach his majority until the age of 21, in August 1854. He married in June 1858, which might explain the Wexford Independent in its reprint (Sat 19 Feb 1859 p2) framing the story of the coursing at Ballinalee as him “beginning his career” as a benevolent and good aristocratic landlord.

So if we trust the 1914 information that Thomas Hanna was engaged as harper for over 15 years, he would have started working for George Forbes in (or before) 1854. But I am inclined to think the 1914 information may be exaggerating the length of service, and I wonder if Hanna started work there in about 1858 when George Forbes married and apparently started to run Castle Forbes as the family home.

This story also gives us a keen insight into the aristocratic world that Thomas Hanna was now entering. We see the three classes of people very clearly – the Gentlemen who sit at dinner with his lordship, in the hotel, and are waited on not just by hotel staff but by George Forbes’s personal domestic servants who come to the hotel for the event; then there are the “respectable farmers” who get a dinner in the hotel, but in a different room; and then the ordinary people who we are not told where they were entertained, only that George Forbes ordered and paid for some food and drink for them.

The letter

We get a sudden glimpse of Thomas Hanna’s life at Castle Forbes, and of his work for the family, and of his musical interests, in the letter which he wrote to his old classmate Patrick Byrne on Sunday 5th May 1861.

I think Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin first published Thomas Hanna’s letter in her book A Hidden Ulster (2003) p356-7, and again on her Oriel Arts website in 2020.

The letter is preserved because it was sent to Byrne, and it ended up in bundles of Byrne’s papers which were kept after his death by his patron and executor, Evelyn Shirley of Lough Fea. I went to the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, and looked at the letter, and also managed to find (separately in the same bundle) the envelope it had been sent in.

You can see that the front of the envelope is addressed to “Mr. P. Byrne / Irish Harper / Lough Fay / Carrickmacross” and the back bears three postmarks: Newtown Forbes, 5 May 1861; Longford, 5 May 1861; and Carrickmacross with an illegible date.

Envelope from Thomas Hanna to Patrick Byrne (front and back), (PRONI D3531.G.5) Reproduced by permission of the Shirley Estate and The Deputy Keeper of the Records Public Record Office of Northern Ireland.
Envelope from Thomas Hanna to Patrick Byrne (front and back), (PRONI D3531.G.5) Reproduced by permission of the Shirley Estate and The Deputy Keeper of the Records Public Record Office of Northern Ireland.

Here is the letter which was originally inside:

Letter from Thomas Hanna to Patrick Byrne (PRONI D3531.G.5) Reproduced by permission of the Shirley Estate and The Deputy Keeper of the Records Public Record Office of Northern Ireland.
Letter from Thomas Hanna to Patrick Byrne (PRONI D3531.G.5) Reproduced by permission of the Shirley Estate and The Deputy Keeper of the Records Public Record Office of Northern Ireland.

Green House
Castle Forbes
Dear Patrick /
I am glad to
hear you are very well
and loose no time in
sending the music of
Sir Charles Coote I want the
words of Lord Moira as well
as the Music. When you go
to Scotland look out for the
tune and words and send
them to me and you.ll
your Ever wellwisher
Thomas Hanna
Irish Harper
Castle Forbes
PS / I am for a sail up the Shannon
on Wednesday next in his lordships
yacht the Erin with his brother the
Hon.le Major Forbes May 5h-/ 61

PRONI D3531.G.5

This is such an extraordinary survival. I am sure that this is Thomas Hanna’s own handwriting. He would have been aged 58 by this stage. His handwriting looks a little wobbly. He addresses his old schoolmate Patrick Byrne rather abruptly – it looks like he has enclosed the tune of Sir Charles Coote, though if he did this does not survive in Patrick Byrne’s papers; the papers include a bundle of song texts (PRONI D3531.G.3) but neither Charles Coote nor Lord Moira are among them. In fact I don’t know what the song “Lord Moira” is – all I am finding is the dance tune.

Thomas Hanna gives his address as “Green House Castle Forbes”. I do not know where the Green House is – this would be worth trying to find out.

Perhaps the most informative part of this letter is the PS at the end. Thomas Hanna says that “Wednesday next” (i.e. Wednesday 8th May 1861 I think), he is to go for a cruise along the River Shannon, on George Forbes’s yacht, the Erin, and that George’s brother would be there as well. I assume that the brother must be William Francis Forbes (1836-1899).

The river Shannon passes by the edge of the Castle Forbes demense, where it expands to form Lough Forbes. I have tried to find out more about George Forbes’s yacht.

Irish Waterways History has found a news clipping which must refer to the Erin:

The Earl of Granard has, within the last ten days, placed a neat little steam-boat for pleasure on the Shannon. She is upwards of fifty tons burden, and is, we believe, the first steam-boat for pleasure ever placed on the Upper Shannon.

Longford Journal 8 October 1859 via Irish Waterways History

The Erin was only a couple of years old, then, when Thomas Hanna travelled on her along the river. Fifty tons implies that the yacht was perhaps 15 meters / 50 feet long, which seems on the large size for the Shannon. Yet Erin was clearly a sea-going yacht as well. George Forbes was a member of the Royal St George Yacht Club, which is based at Dun Laoghaire on Dublin Bay. In a report of their regatta on 11th July 1860, there is a reference to “the Erin screw steam yacht belonging to the Earl of Granard” towing another boat into the bay.

The reference to Erin being a “screw steam yacht” is also interesting, showing that she was propeller-driven, rather than being a paddle-steamer. Lists of yachts owned by members of the Royal St George, and their tonnage, include “Erin, Earl Granard, screw schooner, 52” (Penny Despatch Sat 24 Jan 1863 p5) which suggests she may have had two masts for sailing as well.

Irish Waterways History also has a very atmospheric photograph of a steam yacht belonging to George Forbes’s son, Bernard, 8th Earl Granard, in about 1900. I think this is likely not the Erin, since I imagine that a yacht like this would have been scrapped and replaced in less than 40 years, but I think it gives us a wonderful impression of what Thomas Hanna’s trip might have been like.

Can we imagine Hanna sitting playing his harp to the ladies of the party, at the back of the steam-yacht, under the canvas sun-canopy?

Another glimpse

We see a glimpse of Thomas Hanna at an event with George Forbes on 21st June 1864. The town commissioners of Mullingar sent a deputation to Forbes in his quarters in the barracks of the Westmeath Rifles, of which he was commanding colonel. The chairman of the town commissioners read an address to George Forbes, praising him, and he in turn gave a speech back to them thanking them for their kindness. Both speeches were printed in full in the newspaper, and then the description concludes:

…His Lordship then entertained the deputation at a champagne lunch, having invited Mr. William Levinge, Major Nugent, and Captain Gardiner to meet them. His harper was present, and played some beautiful selections from the Irish Melodies during the intervals in conversation.

Westmeath Guardian, Thur 23 June 1864 p4


Thomas Hanna died at Castle Forbes in 1869. We have a death notice in the newspapers, presumably placed by George Forbes:

Nov 3, at Castleforbes, Mr Thomas Hanna, harper to the Earl and Countess of Granard, aged 67 years – R. I. P.

The Evening Freeman, Sat 6 Nov 1869 p4

The 1914 information tells us that he

…was interred in the old graveyard of Clongesh, where the late Lord Granard erected a tablet to his memory…

Association for the preservation of the memorials of the dead, Ireland, vol IX no. 2, 1914 p.121

The old church and graveyard of Clongesh is within the Castle Forbes demesne. The 1914 information includes a transcription of his gravestone:

I. H. S.
Of your charity pray for the soul of Thomas Hanna, for many years Harper to the Earl and Countess of Granard. Died Novr 3rd 1869 aged 67 years.

Association for the preservation of the memorials of the dead, Ireland, vol IX no. 2, 1914 p.121

There is a strange discrepancy with the official death record from the Superintendent Registrar’s District of Longford, year 1870, 1st quarter, vol 3, page 194. The death was not registered until 21st March 1870, and the death was registered by “J. Reilly, in attendance during last illness, Newtownforbes”. On the death record, our man’s name is give as John Hanna, Male, bachelor, age 70, and his occupation is given as “Harper”. The record says he died on 15th November 1869, at Castle Forbes.

I don’t know how to explain this. The record is clearly our man, I doubt there was a second harper called Hanna at Castle Forbes who died the same month. The date Reilly has reported for the death is over a week after the death notice had already been printed in the newspapers. Has Reilly just got the forename, date of death, and age, just plain wrong? Why was there a delay of four months between the death, and the reporting of it to the Registrar?

Thanks to PRONI and the Shirley Estate for permission to reproduce Patrick Byrne’s certificate and Thomas Hanna’s letter

Thanks to Colin Crossey for sending me his great grandfather Henry McBride’s letter to the newspaper.

Thanks for the staff of the General Register Office for thinking laterally and finding the “John Hanna” death entry for me.

6 thoughts on “Thomas Hanna”

  1. This was a real pleasure to read. How nice that he got such a great gig. It’s what all those boys must have dreamt about. I’ll bet even Patrick Byrne was green with envy! Imagine — not having to travel? Except for a nice little cruise up the Shannon?

    You’d think this would have been something for the gentlemen to crow about. Is Hanna a one off? Did anybody else get this lucky?

    Thanks, Simon. Excellent!

  2. I got permission to go to Castle Forbes to view and photograph the gravestone.

    The front of Castle Forbes. I tried to match the viewpoint of the 19th century photo in my header image. You can see there has been a lot of changes to the structure of the castle since Thomas Hanna was there.

    Clonguish old graveyard, in the Castle Forbes demense. You can see the River Shannon in the background, and you can see Thomas Hanna’s gravestone standing tall on the left side of the image. The other smaller headstones and flat slabs are all 18th century in date I think.

    Thomas Hanna’s headstone. If you zoom in you should be able to read the entire inscription on this photograph (you can use the 1914 transcription to help!).

    Sylvia Crawford, Sr. Maeve Brady, and me at Thomas Hanna’s grave.

    Many thanks to Lady Georgina Forbes for permission to visit, take photographs of the gravestone and castle, and to put them on here.

  3. Wow! That’s impressive. They must have adored him. In the link with the inscription it says his harp is still there?

    1. No I don’t think it is, or at least there is no information or knowledge of it being there. I mentioned above that the castle was damaged during the civil war on on 26th February 1923. Looking at the differences between my photo and the 19th century photo gives a clue as to how much of the castle was destroyed and had to be rebuilt. The harp may have been unfortunately in the part of the castle where the bomb went off.

  4. A beautiful and intriguing article, dear Simon! I’m having fun speculations in regards to the questions you raise of the contradictory or incomplete evidences. Such a great story—and I love the photo with you, Sylvia and Maeve!!! Bravo!!!

  5. I have not been paying much attention to the patrons of the harpers. But I think there is potential to find connections between harpers, through the connections between their patrons.

    Lord George Forbes, 7th Earl, married Jane Colclough Grogan Morgan in June 1858. My guess is that it was around then that Thomas Hanna became the harper at Castle Forbes – certainly by Feb 1859.

    Jane died in 1872 (Hanna had already died in 1869), and Lord George re-married. The later Earls of Granard, and the Forbes family, are descended from this second marriage.

    I looked up Jane née Grogan-Morgan, the first wife. She was born in 1834, and brought up at her family’s home, Johnstown Castle in County Wexford.

    I note that two other harpers were patronised by the Grogan-Morgans. The harper Mr. O’Connor visited Johnstown Castle in 1847 (Wexford Independent, Wed 6 Oct 1847 p2). Jane would have been aged 13 at this point.

    We also have a note that “Lord and Lady Grogan Morgan” (Jane’s parents) gave testimonials or recommendations to the harper Andrew Bell. Unfortunately we don’t know when this was; it is mentioned in an advert in 1851 (Wexford Independent, Wed 1 Oct 1851 p3).

    I wonder how much Jane’s familiarity with traditional harpers visiting Johnstown when she was young, would have influenced her to have Thomas Hanna brought to Castle Forbes after her marriage?

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