Shamrocks in the woods at Luggala, August 2015

Alexander Jackson

Alexander (or James) Jackson (or Jack) was a traditional Irish harper and teacher of the traditional wire-strung Irish harp in Belfast in the mid 19th century. This post is to gather all the information I have about him, to try to begin to tell his life story.

We have a lot of very different information about Alexander Jackson, some from contemporary records, and some from later reminiscence, or anecdote or hearsay. Some of it seems contradictory, and some of it may be plain wrong. It seems very hard to untangle what actually happened, and we may never be able to straighten everything out, so I am trying to explore the possibilities and perhaps suggest what I think is the most likely story.

Birth and upbringing

We don’t have any records of Alexander Jackson’s birth or childhood. All we have is later anecdotes.

The harper and tradition-bearer George Jackson (no relation I don’t think) told a snippet of traditionary information about Alexander Jackson, to the Gaelic revivalist William Savage in about 1908. Savage wrote down the anecdote:

Alex Jackson good harper taught in Belfast
born in Ballinderry lost his sight when a child
playing Smoking cane sticks

National Museum of Ireland archive, Arts & Industry Division, File AI.80.019

In Alexander Jackson’s obituary, we have other information:

Mr. Jackson was born in Lisburn, and continued to reside in that town till he was sixteen years of age.

Banner of Ulster, Sat 18 Jul 1857 p2

Ballinderry, County Antrim is on the East side of Lough Neagh, very close to Portmore. It is the place referred to in the well-know traditional song “it’s pretty to be in Ballinderry”. It is about 7 or 8 miles West of Lisburn town. So perhaps Jackson was born in Ballinderry, near Lisburn. Or it is possible that his family moved from Ballinderry into the town at some point.

We can work out when he was born, if we trust the age given in his death notice (see below); we can calculate that he would have been born in the second half of 1810 or the first half of 1811.

The most enigmatic thing about his childhood is how he became blind. George Jackson tells us that he “lost his sight when a child playing Smoking cane sticks”. I don’t really know what this refers to. My best guess is what was told me by an elderly gentleman from County Tyrone, that country people used lengths of cane (i.e. reed) dipped in rosin; they would light the end, which would smoulder, and then could produce a flame to light a fire or lamp by blowing through the cane. He also told me that some people would then smoke the cane like a cigarette. Perhaps inhaling the rosin fumes would make you go blind. I don’t really know.

Going to Belfast to learn the harp

In the Irish Harp Society minutes, we have a record of a person called Alex Jack entering the Harp School. This is a report presented to the Gentlemen of the Committee by the teacher, Valentine Rennie:

Present pupils on the Society’s Books, as reported by Mr. Rainey; viz.

3. 1822, March 11, Alex Jack, Lambeg . . . . . . . . . . . . . 12

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

He appears again in the next minutes which survive, from two years later:

Present Pupils on the Society’s Books, as reported by Mr. Rainy.
1st March 1822, Alexander Jack, Blind . . . . . . . . . . 13½

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

The “1st” is not the date, it is the list numbering of the pupils. This report also contains a second list of day pupils, who walked in every day for their lessons, which confirms that Alexander Jack was living as a boarding pupil in the Harp Society House.

So this Alex Jack was from Lambeg, near Lisburn; he was said to be 12 in June 1824, and 13½ in August 1826, which doesn’t add up. We can suggest that he may have been born some time in 1811 or 1812.

One person or two?

So basically we have Alexander Jack from near Lisburn, who enrolled in the harp school on 11th March 1822, and who was still there studying over four years later in August 1826, but who I have no further references to after that.

And we have Alexander Jackson who we have loads of contemporary references to from about 1838-9 onwards, but only anecdotes or memories referring to before then.

So are these the same person?

Or are these two different people who just coincidentally were born at around the same time, were both from near Lisburn, have very similar names, were both blind, and who both learned the traditional Irish wire-strung harp in Belfast from the harp teacher Valentine Rennie?

If they are different people then it is just a curious co-incidence. But if this is all referring to the one person then we have to explain the discrepancies in the traditionary stories about Alexander Jackson’s youth before 1838-9

Valentine Rennie’s report to the Gentlemen of the Irish Harp Society says Alex Jack entered the school in 1822, at the age of about 10 years. However, Alexander Jackson’s obituary says that he “continued to reside in [Lisburn] till he was sixteen years of age”, i.e. in the late 1820s. How do we explain that? Could a handwritten draft of the obituary have read “10 years” but the “0” be misread by the editor or typesetter as a “6”? Or, could he have gone to the harp school aged about 10 in 1822, studied until perhaps 1826-7 when he was perhaps 14 or 15, and then returned to live in Lisburn with his parents for a year or two until he was 16?

Also, the obituary tell us that “Alexander Jackson was one of the last of the pupils that had been taught at the Belfast Harp Society”. I used to take this literally, and assume that he would have been at the school in the mid 1830s, not the early to mid 1820s. But we don’t know the source of the obituary statements; the whole thing reads a bit impressionistically; this statement comes after a gushing description of the founding of the original harp school (which it mis-dates to the end of the 18th century) and talks about a poem composed on the death of Arthur O’Neil. So by “one of the last” we could merely understand “one of the boys from the 1820s and 1830s”.

Learning the harp

We know that Alexander Jackson studied the traditional wire-strung Irish harp full-time under the teacher Valentine Rennie.

We have an amazing anecdote about how Jackson was brought to the Harp Society House on Cromac Street, to be enrolled at the school as a pupil. We can’t take this literally; Darby Fagan is a fictional culchie character and this occasional column in the Belfast Commercial Chronicle is always framed as a letter home to his wife in Armagh, which spoofs and satirises 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…

‘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.

The description of Jackson as “a young chap”, and “my brave little fellow” might make us wonder if the Darby Fegan author was thinking of Jackson as a 10-year old boy, rather than a man in his early 20s.

Anyway, from this point on, Jackson would have been living in the Harp Society House, and studying the traditional wire-strung Irish harp full-time under the master Valentine Rennie, who had learned the harp around 1810 from Arthur O’Neil, who had learned the harp in the 1740s from Owen Keenan in County Tyrone.

You can read my post about the teacher, Valentine Rennie, to get a sense of how the teaching worked. I see it as a kind of craft apprenticeship, where the pupils would study full time, learning the playing techniques, the repertory, and how to tune and maintain the harp, and how to earn a living as a professional musician. My understanding is that the focus of the Harp Society school was to fast-track the pupils so that at the end of a few years study they could be presented with a large traditional wire-strung Irish harp, and be sent off to make a living as a professional (or “artisan”) traditional musician.

Jackson’s harp

Harp made for the Irish Harp Society by John Egan, early 1820s. Photo from Armstrong 1904
Wire-strung traditional Irish harp made for the Irish Harp Society by John Egan, early 1820s. Photo from Armstrong 1904

We don’t have any information about Jackson’s harp. But we can talk generally about the kinds of harps that were being used.

The pupils did not have their own harps while they were studying. They were presented with a traditional wire-strung Irish harp when they had completed their education. In the 1820s the harps were paid for by the Harp Society, with a contribution from a Gentleman to help with the cost. But we don’t have records after about 1826.

We know that in the 1820s, harps were made for the Irish Harp Society, by John Egan in Dublin. These were the big floor-standing traditional Irish wire-strung harps with 37 brass wire strings. Nancy Hurrell in her book The Egan Irish Harps has listed six of these harps by or attributed to John Egan, and has dated them all to the 1820s. One of these six has an inscription saying it was made for the Irish Harp Society, and has less decoration than the others; I assume it was used as a schoolroom harp in the Harp Society House and so it seems likely that Alexander Jackson may have practised on this harp.

We also know that the Harp Society tried to get harps made locally in Belfast, copying Egan’s design, but I don’t know how successful this was.

Anyway, Alexander Jackson would have been discharged from the school after he had attained a professional standard of playing; he would have been presented with one of the big 37-string traditional wire-strung Irish harps, and also a certificate signed by the Gentlemen of the committee, to attest to his musical ability and his good character.

Violin, pedal harp, and piano-tuning

We have references to other musical skills that Alexander Jackson is said to have had. In his two concert adverts from 1841 and 1842, Alexander Jackson announces that as well as the Irish harp, he will play the violin and the pedal harp. And the obituary tells us that he was a piano-tuner.

It is possible that he learned the violin as a child. Some of the other traditional harpers also learned violin or fiddle when they were young. In the 18th century, Patrick Quin is said to have learned fiddle in Armagh town before being sent to his father’s cousin Pádraig Óg Mac Giolla Fhiondáin (Patrick Linden) of the Fews in south Armagh to learn the harp (see Sylvia Crawford’s MA thesis). And in the 19th century, other harpers who had learned fiddle before they went to Belfast to be enrolled in the harp school include Edward McBride, and Jackson’s own teacher, Valentine Rennie.

I am less sure about the pedal harp, however. Pedal harp at this time was very much a wealthy middle class and upper class thing; there were pedal harp teachers in Ireland from the 1790s onwards (for more on this see Clare McCague’s 2021 PhD thesis at TUD), but the scene was very literate and classical and from a different world than what blind traditional harper Alexander Jackson seems to have been moving in. My suspicion here is that he may have simply been loaned a pedal harp specifically for these two events, and that he played it using his traditional Irish harp playing techniques and idiom. I also think that a pedal harp at this time would have been much more expensive than a traditional wire-strung Irish harp, and so I doubt that he would have been able to buy one. We will discuss this more when we get to his concert adverts.

The obituary tells us

During his long residence in Belfast he sustained an excellent character, and was well known, not only as a harpist, but as a piano-tuner. So accurate had his ear become, by continued training and great natural ability, that he could have detected the slightest shadow of discordance, whether in the tones of the harp or the notes of the piano.

Banner of Ulster, Sat 18 Jul 1857 p2

Of course, being a piano-tuner is a stereotypical profession for a blind person down to the present day, and so I imagine it is likely that Alexander Jackson may have been apprenticed to a piano-tuner to learn the art of piano-tuning and piano servicing. This would be a sensible way for his parents to ensure that he received a solid vocational training in a profession that could give him a way of making a living as a blind person.

When could such an apprenticeship have been? If we are going to ignore the Alexander Jack thing and suppose that Alexander Jackson didn’t go to harp school until the mid-1830s, then he could have gone to Belfast in the late 1820s and apprenticed as a piano tuner before he switched and went into the harp school in the early to mid 1830s. But if we believe that the records of Alexander Jack are referring to our man, then he may have been discharged from harp school in the mid to late 20s, at the age of about 14, but perhaps he or his parents thought this was a bit young to go professional, and so he may have apprenticed to a piano tuner after he had completed his traditional training to be a professional Irish harper, around the late 1820s and early 1830s.

I don’t have any other references to Jackson being a piano-tuner. But I have not studied the history of piano-tuning in Lisburn or in Belfast so it is possible that something may turn up. It is of course possible that the obituary is completely wrong and was written by someone who got terribly mixed up, and maybe Alexander Jackson never touched a piano in his life. But for the moment I think we have to accept what it says.

Recruited as harp teacher

The teacher of the harp school in Belfast, Valentine Rennie, died on Saturday 23 September 1837. This must have been a great blow to the school, and basically cut short the education of his pupils. The Gentlemen of the Committee held a meeting in Belfast 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 by the Secretary after that meeting to all the Gentlemen subscribers says:

…At the late meeting of Committee it was suggested, that this was a favourable opportunity for regenerating the Society, by giving the management to a new and younger class of our citizens; and as there are several harpers in the country who have acquired great proficiency by experience and travelling, the Society cannot be at a loss for a Teacher…

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

If we look at my timeline of 19th century harpers, we can see that there were about 20 traditional harpers at that time that we know the names of; there were probably a few more that we don’t have records of.

The Gentlemen resolved to have another meeting on Friday 13th October 1837, to decide how to best continue with the work of the Society. Unfortunately we don’t seem to have any more records of what happened at that, or any subsequent meetings. But we can continue the story by looking at published listings and entries in the Belfast street directories and almanacs.

Late in 1837, the Secretary of the Harp Society sent in a listing to the publishers of Smyth’s Almanac, for the section of the Almanac which lists Belfast Societies and Institutions:

Irish Harp Society – 43, Cromac-street, supported by donations, and the annual subscriptions of British and Irish gentlemen resident in India. The object is to revive the Harp and music of Ireland, and to enable poor blind pupils to earn a livelihood. Mr. ________________________ master. Managed by a committee. Secretary, Mr. John M’Adam; Treasurer, Mr. Samuel Bruce. Society meet twice a year, May and November; committee more frequently.

The Belfast Almanac for the year 1838… (Belfast: Joseph Smyth, printer and publisher)

Generally the same text was submitted each year, but for the 1838 Almanac Valentine Rennie’s name has been removed and left blank. I think the Almanac would have been printed and published at the end of December to be ready for the beginning of the year, and so I think it is most likely that this information was submitted perhaps at the end of November or the beginning of December, but I am not sure.

We can list the name of the teacher and the address of the school in different publications:

PublicationDate of submission or compilationName of teacherAddress of school
Smyth’s Almanac for the year 1838end of 1837[blank]43 Cromac Street
Martin 1839 street directoryperhaps Autumn 1838“Mr. James Jack, master”43 Cromac Street
Smyth’s Almanac for the year 1839end of 1838“Mr. Jack Master”15 Talbot Street (I am pretty sure this is a typo for 16).
Smyth’s Almanac for the year 1840end of 1839“Mr. Jackson, master”16 Talbot Street
Martin 1840 street directory (published end of March 1840)end of 1839 and beginning of 1840“Alexander Jackson, teacher”
“Jackson, Alex., harp”
“Jackson, Alexander, teacher of the Irish harp”
“Mr Alexander Jackson, master”
16 Talbot-street

So at some point in 1838 (quite possibly from 1 Jan) a new teacher was in post, to replace Valentine Rennie. The contemporary records call him James Jack, but we have traditionary information that tells us that the teacher in Cromac Street in 1838 was Jackson.

The engraver Thomas Smythe lived opposite the Harp Society House on Cromac Street; he was about 18 years old in 1837. Towards the end of his life he gave some useful information to the antiquarian Francis Joseph Bigger, who paraphrased it in an article. The article says:

Rennie died in the late thirties, and was succeeded by Jackson, his pupil.

Francis Joseph Bigger, ‘Arthur O’Neill, the Irish Harper’, in the Ulster journal of Archaeology vol VII no. 1, 1901 p6

Smythe apparently also said that “Rainie was almost totally blind and Jackson slightly so” (Armstrong 1904 p52) but I really think either Smythe or Armstrong has got the information back to front – everyone else implies that Rennie could see, and Jackson was blind.

The Harp Society school moved out of the house in Cromac Street at the end of 1838, and moved to Talbot Street. I think Thomas Smythe’s memories must date to before the move; it seems he may have assumed when he saw the school vacating the house in Cromac Street towards the end of 1838, that this was its final closure. He may not have realised that it continued for another year and a bit in Talbot Street.

A footnote to Bigger’s article, apparently from information given to him by I. W. Ward, lists the teachers, including “…1838, 1839, James Jackson…” (Bigger 1901 p6)

Charlotte Milligan Fox also gives a brief history of the Harp Society school in 1911. She says:

…The teacher Rennie, dying in 1837, was succeeded by James Jackson, who taught harp classes in Cromac Street for one year more, when the society finally expired.

Charlotte Milligan Fox, Annals of the Irish Harpers, 1911, p.58

Perhaps this information also comes from Thomas Smythe, because it too seems to assume the school closed for good at the end of 1838. But apart from that, it seems to be a very clear statement that Jackson took over from Rennie and taught through 1838 until the school vacated the house in Cromac Street towards the end of 1838.

So, the traditionary information is consistent that the new teacher for 1838 was Jackson. But the 1838 directories call him “Jack”. I am taking this as a confirmation of my idea that “Jack” and “Jackson” were variants of the same name. Does it make sense for a young man to be informally called “Mr. Jack”, and then when he got married or something, family records would be consulted and the formal correct form of the name “Jackson” used instead? Or would it be a deliberate change of surname to sound more professional or something?

And what about the first name? Both the 1839 street directory, and some of the traditionary information, say his first name is “James”. I am wondering if our man’s full name may have been James Alexander Jackson, and perhaps all his friends and business associates called him by his middle name.

But this is all a bit desperate trying to make up explanations for these inconsistencies. Perhaps there is a better or more coherent way of explaining the divergent historical and traditionary references.

Teaching at the Harp Society school

Anyway we can see that Alexander Jackson seems to have been recruited perhaps at the end of 1837, perhaps early in 1838, to be the master and teacher of the harp school. I think he would have been in his late twenties at this time. And from the next year, the references to him settle down and become consistent, so that from 1839 onwards we can be sure we are dealing with our man.

Alexander Jackson would have lived and taught full time in the house in Cromac Street for about one year. Then at the end of 1838 the school moved to the house Talbot Street, and he continued to live and teach there for a bit over a year, until the school was closed some time in the first half of 1840.

We don’t have lists of pupils or any information about the running of the school under Jackson. Bigger tells us about Thomas Smythe’s memory: “The last pupil he remembers was Samuel Patrick” (Bigger 1901). Smythe would only have remembered things he saw across the road in Cromac Street down to the end of 1838, so it’s my guess that Sam Patrick may have been discharged at the end of 1838 when the school moved to Talbot Street, or he may have stayed on into 1839.

We also have the letter written to Edward Bunting by the Secretary of the Irish Harp Society on 30th July 1839. This is the pessimistic letter that recommends defunding and closing the school and giving up on the inherited tradition, and I think Bunting’s publication of this letter in 1840 was the single thing that did most to kill off the inherited tradition. I discuss this further on my post on two letters to Edward Bunting.

Anyway the Secretary tells us:

…the funds will be exhausted about the first of February next. After the first of August, we shall have only two boys; we are anxious to prolong the time, that one of the boys (William Murphy) may have as much instruction as can be afforded, he having his eyesight perfect, and a natural taste for music…

Bunting, Ancient Music of Ireland, p.66-67

This gives us a valuable snapshot into what was happening in the house in Talbot Street. The Gentlemen were running out of money, but they could not be bothered to do any fundraising, and they frankly say that they think it would be a waste of money to continue to fund the teaching of the inherited tradition. Because of this, they project that the school would close in February 1840. In the meantime they seem to be about to discharge some students who had completed their education, on 1st August 1839. Perhaps Samuel Patrick was one of these, as mentioned above. Other possibilities on my timeline are Craven, Fitzpatrick, McCurley, Rennie, Bell, or O’Hagan. These names are just speculation because I don’t have dates or records for when any of these people completed their education.

After the discharge of one or more pupils on 1st August 1839, Alexander Jackson would have been left with just two pupils in the harp school. One of them was William Murphy who was sighted and literate and could read and speak Irish. I have not yet written him up.

Who was the other pupil? Could it have been Paul Smith, who got his harp in 1840? I don’t know.

Alexander Jackson had learned the traditional wire-strung Irish harp from Valentine Rennie, who had learned from Arthur O’Neill. Therefore it seems obvious that Jackson must have been teaching the traditional fingering techniques and system of playing the traditional wire-strung Irish harp, teaching orally in the inherited tradition. But we can also bear in mind the possibility that the Gentlemen were starting to meddle. The Secretary’s comment about Murphy being sighted, and that “We were most desirous to have one Irish harper who could read music…” shows us that the priorities of the Gentlemen were far removed from the way that the inherited tradition was traditionally taught. There is also the worrying possibility that they may have specifically chosen Alexander Jackson over other candidates because as well as being a traditional Irish harper on wire-strung harp, he is also said to have had classical music skills in the form of his piano tuning.

Playing events while Master of the school

As well as taking over Valentine Rennie’s role as the teacher at the harp school, Alexander Jackson also took over Rennie’s role as a provider of music for society events around Belfast. It is possible that this kind of work came via the Gentlemen of the Harp Society committee.

The Newtownards Debating Society, and a few of his friends, gave a Soirée to Mr. Robert Cassidy, in the Assembly Rooms, Newtownards, on the 8th inst. previously to his going to London to finish his education as a Barrister-at-law….
…upwards of 300 [people], among whom were many of the most respectable and influential persons in Newtownards and the surrounding country…
…The musical entertainments of the evening were ably conducted by Mr. Jackson, of Belfast, at the Irish harp; by Mr. Dornan, of Belfast, on the violin; and by Mr. Taylor, professor of music in Belfast, who presided at the piano-forte. Mr. John M’Cullough, piano-forte maker, Newtownards, kindly lent a most elegant new piano-forte, of his own manufacture, which Mr. Taylor, and all who examined it, considered an instrument of the first quality…
…[at the end, the Chairman said he would] call on the musicians to conclude the proceedings of the evening by performing an appropriate piece of music. After “God save the Queen” was performed, the company, at half-past twelve o’clock, separated…

Belfast Commercial Chronicle, Mon 12 Nov 1838 p2, also in Belfast News-Letter, Fri 16 Nov 1838 p2

It sounds like the event finished with “God Save the Queen” being played by a trio of musicians: John Dornan on the violin, Alexander Jackson on the traditional wire-strung Irish harp, and Thomas Taylor on the piano-forte.

Dismissed as teacher

At some point in the first half of 1840, the Harp School was closed, and so Alexander Jackson lost his salaried job as full-time teacher of the Irish harp. Now he had to earn a living as a freelance musician.

We have another mention of Jackson in the humorous exploits of the fictional character Darby Fegan. This passage seems more “straight” than the one about Jackson being taken to meet Rennie at the school, so I think we can take it more literally.

…This causes me to write a few lines to let you know how very pleasant a day I have just been after spending at the Grand Fete held in the Botanic Gardens here. We had the best of all sorts of diversion for three shillings, and the best of good company into the bargain, and meat and drink for a trifle more, in a tent. We had riding at the ring by the young gentlemen – I thought the young ladies looked as if they would like to try it too – and we had dancing that beat the world, and bagpiping and fiddling, and the band of course, standing on a round table; but what was beyont all the rest, was Mr. Alexander Jackson, who is dark, and more is the pity, playing the real old Irish musick upon his harp; it would have brought tears to your eyes to have heard him at “The Eagle’s Whistle,” “The Step at the Glen,” “It’s pretty to be in Ballinderry,” “The parting of friends,” and “The land of the West,” and many other beautiful national airs.

‘Darby Fegan’s visit to the Grand Fete Champetre…’ Belfast Commercial Chronicle, Mon 10 Aug 1840 p2

The article continues by lamenting the lack of support for the harp, which implies that the school had closed by the summer of 1840.

The Grand Féte Champetre was on Saturday 8th August 1840; the famous Palm House had just been completed earlier that year. The advertisements announce that “…a Harper, and Piper, will be in attendance” (Vindicator, Wed 5 Aug 1840 p3). A review of the day describes Alexander Jackson’s performance (though none of the adverts or reviews name the harper):

…in the prettiest tent on the lawn, a harper had taken his station, and performed a number of national and other airs, in good style. In the latter part of the day, he removed to a smaller tent, on the opposite side of the grounds, where we had the pleasure of hearing him play “The Gipsy King” and several other popular tunes, to which he gave the words, with considerable taste. A piper was also in attendance; but most of the company, like ourselves, seemed to disrelish the warlike music of the Highlands, and his audience was, consequently, but limited.

Northern Whig, Tue 11 Aug 1840 p2

So it was not an Irish piper, but a Scottish piper on the great Highland pipes. I assume that when it says Jackson “gave the words” it means he was singing with the harp. There were lots of other quite unusual and interesting things going on during the day, including a display of underwater explosions, and a demonstration of Daguerrotype photography (Vindicator, Wed 12 Aug 1840 p2). “Riding at the ring” seems to have been a game played on a carousel, where the riders sat on the wooden horses and carried lances, which they used to try and catch rings hanging from poles standing around the edge of the roundabout.

Samuel Patrick was perhaps the best known harper to play in the Botanic Gardens, but that was a long time later, in the 1860s.

Concerts in Belfast, 1841

In 1841, Alexander Jackson organised a concert for himself. Perhaps he intended this as a one-off, or perhaps he already was thinking this could become an annual thing.

Mr. Jackson’s Concert. – Performance on the Irish and Pedal Harp.
THE PUBLIC of Belfast are most respectfully informed, that Mr. JACKSON (late Master of the BELFAST IRISH HARP SOCIETY, and the popular Professor of the Irish and Pedal Harp), will give his CONCERT, in the ASSEMBLY-ROOM of the COMMERCIAL BUILDINGS,
On TUESDAY Evening, 16th inst., at Half-past Seven o’clock.
Besides Mr. Jackson’s varied performances on the Harp and Violin, there will be several Overtures on the Piano-Forte, with Violin accompaniments, and a variety of Singing.
The Programme will be found in the Bills of the day. Tickets, One Shilling each, may be had at the Booksellers’; and at No. 5, Arthur Street.
March 10, 1841

Northern Whig, Thur 11 March 1841 p3

The Commercial Buildings are still standing on Waring Street, opposite the Belfast Assembly Rooms.

No. 5 Arthur Street was the residence of John Cinnamond. I don’t normally pay much attention to the Gentlemen, but this one struck me because the name Cinnamond is particularly associated with the Ballinderry area, as you can see on Barry Griffin’s maps – and George Jackson tells us that Alexander Jackson was born in Ballinderry.

I checked the Street Directories, and there are references to John Cinnamond, boot and shoe maker, in Corn Market, Belfast, in 1819; In 1843 we find John Cinnamond at 5 Arthur Street; by 1852 John and Henry Cinnamond are living in Arthur Street and their boot and shoe factory and shop is in Castle Place; later the business is called John Cinnamond and son. I found John Cinnamond’s death record; he died on 19 May 1873 aged 84 and is listed as a “Gentleman”. Miss Mary Cinnamond (presumably a relative) was with him when he died, and she later proved his will (which describes him as a “boot and shoe manufacturer”). So John Cinnamond would have been about 20 years older than Alex Jackson.

Anyway, back to Alexander Jackson’s newspaper advert for his concert in March 1841. An editorial notice on the same page as the advert has a line tagged onto the bottom. The editorial is mainly promoting Mr Howard’s benefit concert, on Friday (presumably 12th March), but the extra line seems to refer to the concert on Tue 16th March:

Mr. JACKSON, the Irish harpist, has announced an attractive Concert. We call public attention to it; and trust, this talented native bard will be extensively patronised.

Northern Whig, Thur 11 March 1841 p3

This is a very interesting concert. We see Alexander Jackson announcing that he will play the harp and the violin, while un-named collaborators will play the piano, and sing.

The advert confidently announces that Jackson is a “popular Professor of the Irish and Pedal Harp”. We know where Jackson learned the traditional wire-strung Irish harp in Cromac Street with Valentine Rennie. I note that two other traditional Irish harpers mention offering lessons on pedal harp in their adverts, Jackson’s own teacher Valentine Rennie, and later Roger Begley. For both of these two I suspect the mention in their adverts is most likely a mistake or an exaggeration; perhaps they were just fishing for as many paying students as possible and had a notion that they could bluff it with a wealthy amateur pupil who had a pedal harp in their house. But Jackson’s adverts are much more explicit, stating very clearly that he is going to play tunes on the pedal harp in his concert. As I mention above, I think that perhaps some patron had loaned him a pedal harp for this concert, and that he could have played it as a novelty act, using his traditional Irish harp playing techniques and style.

I did this a few years ago, when I was asked to play an antique (Erard Grecian) pedal harp for a wedding. I did not put any effort whatsoever into learning even a fragment of classical harp technique; I just played it exactly how I was playing traditional Irish wire-strung harp at the time, and it worked just fine. Though I should also add that that’s not how I would play now! I need to get hold of a Grecian pedal harp to try my new understanding of the fingering techniques on it!

Jackson’s advert was reprinted in the Belfast Commercial Chronicle two days later, and an editorial note on the same page says

Mr. Jackson’s concert. – We beg to direct attention to the advertisement of this gentleman, announcing a concert on Tuesday evening next. The musical talents of Mr. Jackson are, we understand, of a high order, and the character of his performances, on the harp particularly, we have heard to be first-rate. Besides the attraction of his own skill, he has provided a variety of other musical assistance, which will, we doubt not, render his concert a very agreeable one. – (See Advt.)

Belfast Commercial Chronicle Sat 13 Mar 1841 p3,

A similar editorial note was in the Northern Whig for the same day, along with a reprint of the advert.

I have not found any reviews or other descriptions of this concert. The reference in the advert to the concert programme being printed on handbills is most tantalising. It would be wonderful to see what music was being played.

Another soirée

Jackson continued to perform on the dinner circuit. I am sure he was doing lots of gigs like this, but we only get the occasional glimpse.

MEDICAL JURISPRUDENCE – SOIREE AND TESTIMONIAL TO DR. HURST. – On Thursday evening, 8th instant, the students (23 in number) attending Dr Hurst’s lectures on Medical Jurisprudence, in the Common Hall of the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, invited that gentleman to a soirée, in the Victoria Hotel, York-street, at which a number of medical and literary gentlemen were present…
…Altogether, the evening was spent with the utmost harmony and good feeling, which was not a little promoted by Mr. Jackson’s admirable and enlivening performance on the Irish harp…

Northern Whig, Sat 17 Apr 1841 p4

St Patrick’s Day in Glasgow, 1842

We have a number of articles which describe how Alexander Jackson was brought over to Glasgow especially to play on St Patrick’s Day. I don’t have any references to him going over in 1841, so perhaps this 1842 visit was the first.

Glasgow, March 18th, 1842.
I beg to enclose you an account of a dinner which took place in this city yesterday, in honour of St. Patrick’s Day. It was attended by many warm-hearted Irishmen, who, though absent from their native soil, forget not the land which gave them birth, and fondly cherish the hope, that while they yield in fealty to none, their country may yet rank amongst the greatest nations. It was also attended by several Scotchmen, who are connected with Ireland by marriage.
The dinner, which was quite a first-rate one, took place at the London Hotel, consisting of all the delicacies of the season, and wines of the most delicious vintage.
ROBERT GILMORE, Esq., filled the chair, and James Pollock, Esq., acted as vice-chair, supported by Professors Reid and Thompson, of Glasgow College, and a number of the principal merchants and professional gentlemen of the city. Amongst the many present we noticed John Stephens, Esq., Dr. Hannay, S. R. Brown, Esq., George W. Rai[ney], Esq., treasurer of the society; James Hamilton, James Muirhead, James Robertson, and James Reid, of Glasgow, Esqrs.
Jackson, of the late Irish Harp Society, was brought over for the occasion, and delighted the company with his performance.
Among the toasts were –
“The Queen.” Anthem.
“Prince Albert and the young Prince and Princess.” – Nora Criena.
“The Duke of Sussex (the Patron of the London St Patrick’s Club) and the other members of the Royal Family.” Tyrone Quick Step.
“The Army and General Wallace.” British Grenadiers.
“The Navy.” Rule Britannia.
“Ireland.” St. Patrick’s Day.
“The Irish Benevolent Society.” Garry Owen.
“Scotland, and may each day tend the more strongly to cement the union between the two countries.” Rob Roy.
“The Directors of the Society.” Fly not yet.
“The Trade of Glasgow.” Lord of the Isles.
“The College of Glasgow.” Go where glory waits thee.
“The other Seminaries of learning and science in Glasgow.” Coolin.
“The Chairman.” Sprig of Shillelagh.
“The Literature of Ireland.” Savourneen Deelish.
“The Croupier.” Ye Mariners of England.
“The Honorary Directors.” Carolan’s Receipt.
“The Gentlemen (not natives of Ireland) who have so kindly joined our infant Institution.” Molly Cameron.
“The Ladies.” Believe me if at all.
“The Treasurer of the Society and his Fireside.” Rory O’More.
“The absent members and friends of the Society who have been unavoidably prevented joining us this evening.” – There’s na good luck.

Freeman’s Journal, Tue 22 Mar 1842 p3

According to the 1839-40 Glasgow Directory, George Bridges ran the London Hotel at 29 Maxwell Street, Glasgow. It might be this building, but I am not entirely sure.

There is another very similar report on the dinner in the Dublin Morning Register, Tue 22 Mar 1842 p4. The list of toasts also tells us the Gentleman who proposed each one. The only difference in the list of toasts is that the tune for “The Gentlemen (not natives…)” is listed as Auld Lang Syne. Summaries of the report were reprinted in regional newspapers over the next week or two.

Now, none of the reports states explicitly that Jackson played all these tunes on his wire-strung Irish harp; but in the absence of any mention of other musicians, I think it seems likely. Many of these tunes appear in my list of the most popular tunes of the 19th century Irish harpers.

Jackson’s annual concert in 1842

Alexander Jackson must have come straight back from Glasgow to Belfast, because we find him promoting his second annual concert later in the same month.

Mr. JACKSON, the Irish harper, has announced his annual concert; and we trust to find our fellow-citizens coming forward to support one of the few Irish bards now remaining in our country. Mr. Jackson is a man of talent, and he touches the chords of our national instrument with an inspired hand.

Northern Whig, Thur 24 Mar 1842 p2

On the next page is the paid advertisement:

MR. A. JACKSON, Professor of the Irish Harp, has the honour of announcing to the Ladies and Gentlemen of Belfast, that he purposes giving his ANNUAL CONCERT, in the COMMERCIAL BUILDINGS,
On Tuesday Evening next, 29th March;
On which occasion he will have the aid of several musical friends; who will assist in the performance of some of the most fashionable modern Overtures, Glees, Duets, &c.
Mr. A. JACKSON will himself perform a number of National Airs, both on the Irish and Pedal Harps.
He respectfully trusts, that lovers of Irish Melody will, on this occasion, step forward to patronise one of the ancient, and now few, remaining Harpers of our native country.
The programme of the evening’s performance will be issued in hand-bills; and tickets may be had of Mr. A. JACKSON, 27, Great Edward-Street; of Mr. CINNAMOND, 5, Arthur-Street; at Mr. FLETCHER’S, Castle-Place; and at the Northern Whig Office.
Performance will commence at EIGHT o’clock. Tickets, One Shilling each.
Belfast, March 24, 1842.

Northern Whig, Thur 24 Mar 1842 p3

Now this is very interesting because as well as Mr. Cinnamond’s address, we are also given Alexander Jackson’s address. He was at 27 Great Edward Street. I checked the 1843 Belfast street directory, and 27 Great Edward Street is listed as “David McIlveen, Tallow Chandler”. But presumably, Jackson was living in a room or an apartment upstairs in the building. No.27 is listed on (I think) the northern corner of Great Edward Street (now Victoria Street) and Gloucester Street. There is now a big tower block on this site.

As before, the advert was reprinted, in the Belfast Commercial Chronicle Sat 26 Mar 1842 p3; and the Northern Whig of the same day, p3. The advert was also reprinted on the day of the concert itself. Under the strapline “CONCERT, THIS EVENING”, the advert is the same as before except a paragraph has been added just before the line about the programmes:

By the kind permission of Lieut.-Col. the Honourable C. WROTTESLEY, the splendid BAND of the 29th Regiment (under the direction of Signor CAVALINI), will attend. This will be the last opportunity the public will have of hearing this fine BAND, as the Regiment leaves town this week.

Northern Whig, Tue 29 Mar 1842 p3

Two days later we have a brief review of the concert:

MR. JACKSON’S CONCERT, on Tuesday evening, was remarkably well attended, by a very respectable audience. His performances on the Harp elicited universal admirations; while the solos, duets, and glees, were much applauded. The fine Band of the 29th Regiment executed a number of pieces, in admirable style.

Northern Whig, Thur 31 Mar 1842 p2, reprinted in Belfast Commercial Chronicle, Mon 4 Apr 1842 p4

Again, here he is playing a pedal harp as well as his traditional wire-strung Irish harp. This is the exact same context as the other time pedal harp is mentioned, at his last concert, one year previously. I have not found any subsequent references to it and so I think it likely that he did not continue down this direction. I have not found any references to a concert in subsequent years.

Private events, 1842

Our old friend the fictitious Darby Fegan spent some time with Jackson in November 1842, and gives us a little insight into the kind of private event that Alexander Jackson would do. I think this kind of thing would be an important part of the work of a traditional Irish harper, even though it is much harder to find references to it than the public concerts advertised in the newspapers.

My time has passed very pleasantly here, much of it in company with Mr. A. Jackson, the Irish Harper, who delighted me with many of our old national airs, every note of which he plays in Irish. He is taken much by the hand by the nobility and gentry of the town and the neighbourhood, who invite his Harp and himself to their mansions. – Last week he spent at Portavo and Belvoir Castles. – If any neighbour wishes to see him he will be found at 27 Great Edward-street.

‘Darby Fegan’s third and last letter on the Northen Irish Art Union Exhibition’, Belfast Commercial Chronicle, Sat 19 Nov 1842 p4

I think the comment about “every note of which he plays in Irish” is not to do with Jackson speaking the Irish language, but is a comic way of saying he had traditional Irish style.

Portavo House is near Donaghadee; it burned in 1844, but a new country house has been built on the site. Belvoir Park is near Newtownbreda, very close to Belfast. The house was demolished in 1961.

St Patrick’s Day in Glasgow, 1843

Alexander Jackson’s visit to Glasgow for St Patrick’s Day 1842 was obviously well-received, because he was invited back the following year. However, compared to the lavish reports from 1842, I have only a brief notice for 1843:

Lieut.-Col. Dames, 66th, attended the anniversary dinner of the Irish Benevolent Society at Glasgow, on Patrick’s Day, Professor Reid in the chair, and John Stiven, Esq., croupier. Mr. Jackson, of the Irish Harp Society, performed during the festive evening.

Limerick Chronicle, Sat 25 Mar 1843 p2

Private events, 1843-4

I found a couple more reports of Alexander Jackson playing at private events in Belfast.

On Tuesday evening last, the mechanics and others in the employment of the respectable firm of Thomson & co., of Brown Square Foundry and Machine-making Establishment, met together in the Oddfellow’s Hall, St. Anne’s Buildings, to partake of their annual supper. This rational and agreeable mode of promoting harmony and amongst themselves, and cementing those relations of natural good-will and attachment which should ever subsist between employer and employed, was established by Messrs. Thomson & co.’s workmen some years since, and the occasion of their yearly convivial meeting has since been one affording unmixed satisfaction to all who enjoyed it. On the present occasion, the company numbered upwards of 130, nearly one-half of whom were ladies. We have seldom witnessed, in Belfast, so respectable an assembly of the operative classes…
…The following toasts were then given – each being introduced with appropriate observations from the chair – and were received with marked applause: – “The Queen” – (Air – The National Anthem – sung by Messrs. Scott, Dugan, and Burns, and accompanied by Mr. Jackson on the Irish harp) – “Prince Albert, Albert, Prince of Wales, and the rest of the Royal Family” – (Song – “The Stout Old Oak,” by Mr. Smith) – “The Army and the Navy” – (Song – “Rule Britannia,”, by Mr. M’Pherson) – “The Ladies” – (Glee – “All Good Lasses,” by Messrs. Scott, Dugan, and Burns).
…[long description of speeches, and a few more toasts but without music]

Banner of Ulster, Fri 29 Dec 1843 p3

This is a rare detail, to find these singers (who seem to be classical-style, perhaps Gentlemen amateurs) being accompanied by Jackson on the traditional wire-strung Irish harp. I am not sure if Jackson would also have accompanied Mr. Smith singing “The Stout Old Oak” and Mr. McPherson singing “Rule Britannia”; I assume that the glee was sung unaccompanied by the three singers.

The Oddfellows Hall is listed in St Ann’s Buildings at 27 North Street in the 1843 Belfast Directory. St Anns Buildings is still there, derelict, but it looks like it was rebuilt in 1912.

Six months later we have another private dinner. I am sure Jackson was playing a lot of events that don’t get reported; we are just seeing occasional snapshots of his work. They may not even be representative.

BELFAST PRINTERS’ AND BOOKBINDERS’ FRIENDLY SOCIETY. – On Wednesday last, the members of this excellent society, to the number of forty, gave their twenty-third anniversary supper in Mr. Watkins’ hotel (the Shakespeare), Castle-lane. Mr. Wm. Wheatcroft, the president, occupied the chair, and Mr. J. R. Tinsdale, secretary, acted as croupier. After the cloth had been removed, the usual loyal and patriotic toasts were given and responded to. “The Belfast Printers’ and Bookbinders’ Friendly Society” having been given, the Secretary returned thanks, and, in the course of his remarks, adverted to the present prosperous condition of the society. He stated that, since its commencement, it had disbursed upwards of £200 for the relief of members during sickness and in paying funeral expenses, and added that there still remained in bank, to the society’s credit, a sum of £180. Mr. Jackson, the celebrated Irish harper, enlivened the entertainment by playing a number of beautiful airs in exquisite style. Several excellent songs were sung at intervals, and after an evening spent in the utmost harmony and hilarity, the company separated highly gratified. In justice to Mr. Watkins, it must be observed, that his supper and arrangements gave general satisfaction.

Vindicator, Wed 3 Jul 1844 p2

The Shakespeare Hotel on Castle Street is listed in the 1843 Belfast Directory at no.21 which I think is on the south side of Castle Street, behind the theatre, which was on the corner of Arthur Street..

Living on Little May Street

Inspired by the two references to Jackson being at 27 Great Edward Street in 1842, I looked in the Belfast Street Directories. But I am not finding Alexander Jackson listed until Henderson’s 1846 directory, where he is listed as “Jackson, Alex., musician, 3, Little May street” (p275). This is on the north side of Little May Street, the second house in from the East end of the street. Little May Street does not really exist any more as a street, it is the entrance to the yard beside Telephone House. This street view shows where Jackson’s house was.

St Patrick’s Day in Glasgow, 1846

Perhaps Alexander Jackson went to Glasgow every year to play for the St Patrick’s Day dinner. I have not found any references for 1844 or 1845, but here he is again in 1846. Jackson is the only musician named, but the article implies there were others:

On Tuesday, the members and friends of this excellent Society held their Sixth Anniversary Dinner (it being St. Patrick’s Day), in the Royal Hotel (Carrick’s), George Square….
…[long list of the gentlemen present]…
…The dinner was excellent, and highly creditable to Mr. Carrick. “The Queen,” and all the usual standing toasts having been introduced by the Chairman with concise and appropriate remarks, he gave – ” The Magistrates and Town Council of Glasgow,” which was replied to by Bailie Mitchell. Next followed “Ireland,” which was received with immense applause, the famous Irish harper, Jackson, following it up with a tune on the Irish harp…
…[long list of other toasts and who proposed them]…
…Many excellent songs were sung during the entertainment. The romantic music of the celebrated harper imparted an uncommon charm, along with other contributions.

Glasgow Courier, Thur 19 Mar 1846 p4

The article was reprinted the next day by the Glasgow Herald, but with a few extra details. The most unfortunate is that Jackson is described as a piper (I don’t think he was a piper, but there was a famous Irish piper called Jackson, so presumably the editor or journalist just made a simple error). The article says “…the famous Irish piper, Jackson, following it up with a tune on the Irish harp…” and “…The romantic music of the celebrated Piper imparted an uncommon charm…”

More interestingly, there is extra paragraph at the end of the article:

As an incident on the occasion, we may mention that every one of the company was decorated with a sprig of the shamrock, pulled in the “gem of the sea,” on the morning of St Patrick’s Day, the day on which the dinner took place – thanks to Steam – the Irish Piper – and the forethought of the excellent Secretary for this.

Glasgow Herald, Fri 20 March 1846 p4

What this seems to be saying is that a whole load of shamrocks were gathered in Ireland early on the morning of 17th March 1846; they were brought to Alexander Jackson, who left Belfast docks that morning on a steam ship bound for Glasgow, carrying the package of shamrocks with him, as well as his harp; that he arrived in Glasgow docks on the steam ship perhaps in the afternoon, and went to the Royal Hotel on George Square, where the package of shamrocks were unwrapped ready to be given one sprig each to all the guests. Meanwhile Jackson would have been tuning his harp before the dinner began.

Presumably Jackson would have arranged beforehand to meet up with a street shamrock seller early on the morning of the 17th, to get the box of fresh shamrocks, before boarding his steamer in the docks.

Almost giving it all up, 1847

These reports make it sound like Alexander Jackson was doing well for himself. However, life as a blind self-employed “artisan” traditional Irish harper playing the traditional wire-strung Irish harp in the mid-19th century was pretty precarious, especially after Edward Bunting had published his monumental 1840 book basically declaring to the wealthy potential patrons of the harpers, that the harp tradition was dead, the last of the harpers remaining were too feckless to be worth supporting, and that his classical piano arrangements were the way forward to “save” the Irish music.

An Gorta Mór was at its worst by “black ’47”, and poor Irish people were starving to death – perhaps 1 million people left Ireland for good during those bleak years, more in desperation than in the hope of a better life, heading to America, England and other places. Emigration must have seemed a real option for people who were not starving and destitute, but who were starting to feel the pinch; over the summer of 1847, the harpers Mr. O’Connor and Mr. Rennie were announcing their plans to leave for America, and it is possible that Mr. Rennie did go that autumn (obviously this is not Valentine Rennie who had died 10 years before, but the other Rennie whose first name we don’t know).

Sir – In our laudable anxiety to alleviate the distress prevailing in our town and neighbourhood, may I be allowed to say, that we ought not to overlook those persons who formerly were happy in ministering to our pleasures and rational enjoyments? Misery, Sir, reaches this class, and by some of them is felt most keenly; and by none more so, than by that truly worthy and unassuming individual, Alexander Jackson, the last and best of our Irish harpers.
In consequence of being unable to provide for his wife and family, poor Jackson had determined on emigrating to America, there, amidst strangers, to seek that support which had failed him in the land of his birth. This, I hope, may still be prevented. By the assistance of a benevolent gentleman of Belfast, he was enabled to proceed to London previous to the 17th instant; and I beg to bring under your notice the following extract of a letter, from Lesley Alexander, Esq., of Foyle Park, Londonderry, dated in London, on the 18th instant: –
“Jackson is now at my house, and attended the grand festival of Saint Patrick, yesterday. The greatest enthusiasm prevailed, and he played divinely. The object is to retain this ‘Ultimum Romanorum’ of the ancient harpers of Ireland in his native land, and to get him a small annuity for the support of his wife and family. Considering the times, I am getting on with moderate subscriptions, 5l. and downwards; and I trust that you will all put your shoulders to the wheel, and send me a list of your subscriptions. Mr. Finlay, Proprietor of The Whig, is a good man, and would draw the attention of the Irish public to the destitute state of poor Alexander Jackson, and his family.”
To this I need only add, that I hope the patriotic feeling which dictated the above letter may be suitably responded to by your townsmen and townswomen. It cannot, indeed, be believed, that those numerous assemblages, whose ears have been delighted with the sweet tones of Jackson’s Irish harp, and whose feet have so often beat responsive to his admirable music, will allow Ireland to mourn the loss of her “last minstrel.” They will, I trust, by a timely, though small, subscription, “retain him in his native land.” – I am, Mr. Editor, respectfully yours, A SUBSCRIBER.
20th March, 1847.
(We cordially concur in the feeling and wish so well expressed, in the above letter; and shall have much pleasure in receiving and forwarding subscriptions for so desirable a purpose. – Whig.)

Northern Whig, Tue 23 March 1847 p4

We can check my timeline to see that there were at least 25 traditional Irish harpers that I know about who were still working in 1847. But quite a few of the harpers and their patrons seem to have enjoyed playing on the idea that they were “the last”.

Anyway, there is a lot to deal with in this anonymous letter to the newspaper from “A Subscriber”, and in the letter within it from Lesley Alexander, Esq., of Foyle Park House, near Eglinton, County Derry.

Let us paraphrase the story: in early 1847, Alexander Jackson was destitute, “unable to provide for his wife and family”, and had decided to abandon Ireland and emigrate to America. Perhaps he had to ask his connections for money to pay for the ship ticket, I don’t know. But “a benevolent gentleman of Belfast” paid for him to go to London instead (perhaps thinking that it would get him a break from the obvious lack of work in Ireland, but be less radical and irreversible than sending him to America). Jackson went to London, and he was in London by early March. He performed at a St Patrick’s Day dinner on 17th March 1847. He was staying at the London house of Lesley Alexander, which the street directory lists as 6 York Terrace, Regent’s Park. York Terrace has been split into York Terrace East and York Terrace West, both of which have been re-numbered, but the official Listed Building entry tells us that the old no.6 is now 33, York Terrace West.

Lesley Alexander was busy organising donations from other Gentlemen to effectively provide Jackson with a pension, so that he would have a steady income no matter how little work he managed to get. He says he is getting Gentlemen to contribute “moderate subscriptions, 5l. and downwards”; £5 would be worth perhaps a grand nowadays.

The London St Patrick’s day event that Alexander Jackson played at was organised by the Benevolent Society of St Patrick, a charitable organisation of high ranking noblemen which provided assistance to poor Irish people living in London, and which ran a charity boarding school in London for 550 poor children and orphans. The Society advertised its St Patrick’s Day event in the London newspapers:

Under the Patronage of
The SIXTY-FOURTH ANNIVERSARY of this Society will be celebrated on ST. PATRICK’S DAY (Wednesday, March 17th, 1847), at the FREEMASON’S TAVERN, Great Queen-street.
The Right Hon. the EARL of ST. GERMANS.
The Marquis of Ormonde. | The Archbishop of Dublin.
The Earl of Lincoln, M.P. |The Earl of Listowel.
Lord Viscount Palmerston, | Lord Viscount Templetown.
                          M.P.         | The Right Hon. the Lord Mayor.
Lord Visc. Duncannon, M.P. | Sir Geo. C. Colthurst, Bart.
The Hon. Geo. O’Callaghan | Henry Bainbridge, Esq.
Paul Butler, Esq. | John Kingston, Esq.
W. I. Fitzwilliam, Esq. |Morgan John O’Connell, Esq.,
Mr. Serjeant Murphy |     M.P.
W. W. Simpson, Esq. | Edward Stewart, Esq.
The Hon. Cecil Lawless, M.P. |
Tickets (20s. each) to be had of the Stewards, of Edward Thomas Bainbridge, Esq., Treasurer, 12, St. Paul’s Church-yard; at the bar of the Tavern; and at the Schools, in Stamford-street, Blackfriars-road.
The Children, as usual, dine this day at the Schools, at One o’clock.
Dinner on table at Six o’clock.

Globe, Mon 15 Mar 1847, p1, and Morning Herald, Tue 16 Mar 1847 p1

20 shillings is a lot of money; Jackson’s concert tickets had been 1s each, and Darby Fegan’s day at the Botanic Gardens had been 3s. I am guessing 20s. would be like a few hundred pounds nowadays. I hope Jackson was well paid for his performance.

The Freemason’s Tavern was at 61-65 Great Queen Street; it was demolished in 1909.

We have a number of news reports which describe the dinner. Some don’t mention the music at all (St James’s Chronicle, Thur 18 March 1847 p2). Others do:

A military band was in attendance, and the vocal arrangements were under the direction of Mr. Hobbs, assisted by Misses A. and M. Williams and Miss Mordan, Messrs. Francis, Lockey, Bradbury, Hatton, and J. Kench.

Morning Post, Thur 18 March 1847 p5

Others mention the harper as well:

…a blind Irish harper was also introduced, and his really beautiful performance was encored.

Globe, Thur 18 Mar 1847 p3

…The musical arrangements… were of a very delightful character, and were enhanced towards the end of the evening by the performance on the harp of one of the few remaining Irish minstrels “of other days.”

London Evening Standard, Thur 18 March 1847 p3

The Evening Chronicle seems a little jaded in its review of the evening, except when it came to the harper.

The attendance was not very numerous…
…The Misses Williams and Mordan, Mr. Hatton,, and other public favourites, sang some glees and songs, of which a few were Irish, in excellent spirit; and an Irish harper played so truly and so touchingly, that we were fain to regard his introduction by the noble chairman as the last of the bards of Ierne, or to believe, with the Earl of St Germans, that we were indeed listening to “the Lay of the Last Minstrel”…

The Evening Chronicle, Friday 19 March 1847 p2

None of the reports I have seen name the harper but this must be Alexander Jackson.

The scheme obviously worked; Alexander Jackson must have got his annuity, and so he could return to Belfast and continue working. He was at 7, Little May Street in Henderson’s 1850 street directory, which was two doors down from where he was four years previously.

By late 1851, he had moved around the corner to 3 Catherine Street North (see the 1852 street directory), where he lived for the rest of his life.

More dinners, 1851 – 1853

We find Alexander Jackson back in Belfast in 1851, doing his usual thing of playing at a dinner.

PUBLIC DINNER TO GENERAL PATRICK SARSFIELD DEVLIN IN BELFAST. – On Thursday, 27th ult., about fifty gentlemen sat down to a sumptuous dinner in the Royal Temperance Hotel, as a mark of respect to a countryman who had distinguished himself as an American volunteer in the Mexican war…
…[list of toasts]…
…we regret that, although furnished with an ample report, want of space compels us to omit the speeches…
…Mr. Jackson, the best of our remaining Irish Harpers, enlivened the proceedings by the sweet and plaintive strains of our native land, which have a charm peculiarly their own for any one who “has music in his soul.” The viands and wines were of the choicest description, and reflected much credit on Mr. Farrell, the spirited proprietor of the hotel. The company did not separate till a late hour.

Weekly Vindicator, Sat 6 Dec 1851 p2

And here he is at a similar type of event in 1853:

The annual cattle show of this old established and flourishing Society took place, yesterday, at Dunmurry, in a field belongng to Mr. M’Connell, of Glenburn….
…[detailed descripption of prize bulls and other cattle, pigs, fowl, etc.]…
In the evening, the members and friends of the Society dined together, to celebrate the occasion of the annual show. The dinner, which was, as usual, provided by Mr. Carmichael, was of a most excellent description, and was served up most creditably to that gentleman’s establishment. The apartment in which the company dined presented a very pleasing appearance; the walls were tastefully adorned with evergreens, studded with flowers; and behind the Chairman’s seat a neat scroll, bearing the date of the formation of the Society – 1818 – was erected.
…[list of attendees]…
Mr. Jackson, the Irish harper, played some exquisite airs during the evening; and Messrs. Tobias, Mulligan, and Craufurd favoured the company with a number of glees, rendered with good effect.
The cloth having been removed, and thanks returned by the Rev. Dr. Montgomery,
The CHAIRMAN rose, and gave, in fitting terms, “The Queen,” “Prince Albert, the Prince of Wales, and the rest of the Royal Family,” each of which was enthusiastically received.
The CHAIRMAN then gave “The Lord Lieutenant and Prosperity to Ireland.” [speech about the Lord Lieutenant]…
The toast was enthusiastically received. Air – “Patrick’s Day.”
The SECRETARY (Mr. James Ireland) then proceeded to read the award of the Judges: –
…[long list of prizes]…

Northern Whig, Thur 25 Aug 1853 p2, also The Ulsterman, Sat 27 Aug 1853 p1

I presume that it was Alexander Jackson who played “Patrick’s Day” after the toast. The dinner was held in Dunmurry (Belfast Commercial Chronicle, Sat 27 Aug 1853); James Carmichael was listed as a publican in Dunmurry in the 1852 directory. I checked the Griffith valuation (1861) but he is not listed so I can’t work out where his pub was.


I found Alexander Jackson’s death notice.


July 12, of consumption, Alexander Jackson, aged 46 years. He was one of the last of an almost extinct class – Ireland’s native minstrels. His remains will be removed from his late residence, 3, Catherine Street North, for interment in Shankill Burying-ground, this (Monday) evening, at 4 o’clock. His numerous friends will please accept this intimation to attend.

Belfast News-Letter, Mon 13 July 1857 p3

Consumption is the old name for Tubercolosis.

His obituary says:

The poor fellow had been ill for nearly twelve months before his death, and during that long period his sufferings would have been still more intense, had it not been for the benevolence of a gentleman in town…

Banner of Ulster, Sat 18 Jul 1857 p2

The obituary has a lot of filler information including about the Harp Society, but it continues:

The late Mr. Jackson was not an improvident man – on the contrary, he acted with great regard to economy; but his long period of ill health brought him to extreme poverty, and, like many others of the “children of song,” he has died poor, and left a wife and two children entirely destitute.

Banner of Ulster, Sat 18 Jul 1857 p2


We know that Alexander Jackson married, and had two children alive at the time of his death in 1857. There is also a reference to his “wife and family” in the emigration letter of 1847 (see above).

The obituary also gives some information about one of the children:

His eldest daughter is well qualified to give lessons on the piano and on the harp.

Banner of Ulster, Sat 18 Jul 1857 p2

Does the reference to the “eldest daughter” mean that the second child is also a daughter?

If the eldest daughter is able to offer music lessons, how old would she have been at that time in 1857? I can imagine a young women aged about 15 being able to offer music lessons, but would it be possible? Or should she be over 21?

I think in the 19th century, a man was meant to have an income and to be able to support a wife and family, before getting married. We know that Valentine Rennie had married in September 1823, a year and a half after he had started working full time as teacher for the Irish Harp Society. Can we imagine a similar scenario for Alexander Jackson? The beginning of 1838 was perhaps the first time in his life he had a salaried full time job, and he had the Harp Society House to live in. Perhaps he married in 1838 or 1839, when he was in his late 20s. Perhaps the older daughter, then, was born about 1839, and would have been about 18 when Alex Jackson died.

This is all wild speculation. I am just trying to work out the vague parameters.

We don’t have the name of his wife or daughters. The birth marriage and death records don’t start until 1864, and Jackson is such a common name that I don’t see any sensible way of searching for their death records. I have looked for Miss Jackson offering piano lessons in Belfast but so far I have found nothing.

And what about her also offering harp lessons? Is this another bit of advertising exaggeration? Had her father taught her to play the traditional Irish wire-strung harp? Or had he paid for her to have a classical music education on piano and pedal harp?


I have tried to work out where all of the different places that have been mentioned were, and put them on the map. You can zoom in to see them all in more detail – I have tried to place most of them on the specific building (or site), but a few are placed more generally in the area. Click here to open the map in a new window.

2 thoughts on “Alexander Jackson”

  1. I love the photo of you at the Erard. I like that you illuminate these grey areas of the time. Traditional players playing pedal harps, Owen Lloyd posing as traditional… I love the messiness!

  2. I found another report of a dinner that Jackson played at.

    A NUMEROUS and respectable assemblage of the gentry of Belfast entertained Robert Burns, Esq., eldest son of the great Scottish bard, by a public breakfast, at the Donegall Arms Hotel, on Wednesday morning, the 4th inst. Cups were set for seventy five persons, and, if our eye did not deceive us, every cup had its man…
    …Not the least interesting personage in the room was Alexander Jackson, the blind harper, who entertained the company with several appropriate Irish and Scottish tunes…
    Vindicator Sat 7 Sep 1844 p1

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