Arthur Morgan

Arthur Morgan was a traditional Irish harper in the early 19th century. This post is to draw together the references to him so that we can start to say something useful about him.

Actually we have almost nothing about Arthur Morgan, except for the references to him in the minutes of the Irish Harp Society. We don’t know where he was from. We can calculate that he must have been born in the first few months of 1815. We are also told that he was sighted.

We first come across Arthur Morgan in the minutes of the meeting of the Gentlemen of the management committee, on 29 June 1824. The teacher, Valentine Rennie, presents a report to the Gentlemen:

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

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

I have already written up Arthur Morgan’s classmates Hugh Frazer, Patrick McCloskey, and Martin Craney. I haven’t done Alex Jack yet.

The Gentlemen go on to discuss the pupils; they resolve to discharge Patrick McCloskey “on the 1st day of August, with a certificate of good conduct and proficiency, and also with a harp, value 9 guineas, (cover and strap), one third of which to be paid by private subscription, agreeable to rule”. They also agree to admit two new pupils to the school, though they don’t tell us their names.

This is a fascinating snapshot into the workings of the harp school, though obviously we are missing some key information. We are not told about the day pupils at this time; I am pretty sure Hamilton Gillespie was still a day pupil in 1824 and there may have been others we have no records of.

We don’t have the full run of minutes from these meetings, only occasional excerpts, so we have to jump forward two years to see what was going on. We have a printed excerpt of the minutes of the meeting of Thu 24 Aug 1826. Again, the teacher Valentine Rennie presents his report to the Gentlemen of the Management Committee:

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

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

Now this gives us a lot more to get our teeth into. We can see that Arthur Morgan, Alex Jack and Martin Craney have been joined by the two un-named boys from the 1824 discussions, John McMullan and Matt Wall. We also see that there are four external pupils who live at their own expense in Belfast and walk in every day for their classes, though we aren’t told who these four are.

We can see that all of the boarding pupils are fairly young. All of them are blind or partially sighted except for Arthur Morgan who is listed as “has sight”.

The way I understand this working is that the Management Committee ran the Harp Society house in Cromac Street basically as a small boarding school. The teacher, Valentine Rennie, and his wife, lived in the house, and so too did the boarding pupils, five boys in 1826.

Everything was paid for by the Irish Harp Society, using the enormous amount of money that had been sent by Gentlemen in India. Rennie got a salary; the pupils got their beds and clothes and food provided for them, and they could all spend all day basically working on learning the traditional old Irish harp traditions. The idea of the school was to fast-track the pupils from total beginners to being professional performers, able to graduate from the school with a harp (paid for by the Gentlemen) and be able to go out and make their living as a full time professional traditional Irish harper.

It’s my suspicion that Mrs Rennie may have had an unofficial or perhaps even an official role as housekeeper, to run the house and cook the food for the boys.

I think the Gentlemen of the Management Committee had a pretty hands-off role; I think they might come in every week to check things were OK, and they would have meetings perhaps twice a year to inspect the progress of the pupils and to make decisions about new admissions and discharging completed pupils.

The harps

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

The pupils did not own their own harps; but the Harp Society owned I think three harps which were kept in the Harp Society House and used for the classes. The harps were designed and made by John Egan in Dublin, and were designed from the ground up as traditional wire-strung Irish harps. They had 37 brass wire strings and as far as I can see they functioned exactly how a traditional musician in the inherited tradition would expect. The photo here shows one of the harps owned by the Society in the 1820s. I am sure Arthur Morgan would have practiced on this harp during his classes. This harp was later owned by the historian Robert Bruce Armstrong, who is modelling it here; it is now in the National Museum of Ireland (registration number DF:1913.381)

Arthur Morgan and his classmates were learning to play the harp from Valentine Rennie, who himself had learned to play the harp between 1809 and about 1812 from the famous and well-respected traditional Irish harper Arthur O’Neil, who had learned in the 1740s from the traditional harper Owen Keenan. They all played on brass wire strings, holding the harp on the left side, with the left hand in the treble and the right hand in the bass, and using the traditional fingering techniques that they were taught in the oral tradition.

The Harp Society did make enquiries to have cheaper copies of Egan’s design made locally in Belfast, but I don’t know if anything came of that.

Arthur Morgan’s discharge and professional career

We don’t have the minutes of any meetings after 1826, so we have no record of when Arthur Morgan finished his studies. But we can imagine what may have been likely, based on what we know about his classmates.

If Arthur Morgan was aged 11½ in August 1826, then we can calculate that he must have been born at the beginning of 1815. He entered the school in April 1824, aged nine. He would have been a pupil for at least two and a half years – he is still there in August 1826 with no hint that he is about to be discharged at that stage. So we can speculate that Arthur Morgan may most likely have spent between three and five years as a pupil, and we might imagine him being discharged some time around 1827 to 1829.

As part of his discharge, the Gentlemen would inspect him, to see if he was competent enough at playing the harp, and also to check whether he was of good character, well-behaved and capable of behaving himself in polite society. If the Gentlemen were satisfied, they would recommend his discharge. They would give him a harp, presumably one of Egan’s ones with 37 brass wire strings, the same as what he had learned on in the Harp School. The harp would be worth £9, and the Society would put up £6 of this cost and would solicit the other £3 as a private donation from one of the Gentlemen. They would also write him a formal certificate.

There were a few different career paths open to a traditional Irish harper in the mid 19th century. The prize job was the kind of thing Thomas Hanna managed in the 1850s and 1860s, working full time as the private harper to a top aristocrat, living with the family in the castle. Another possible career path was to tour, performing public concerts in theatres and town halls, like O’Connor did around the south of Ireland. Another possible career path was to play every evening in a hotel or tavern as the resident musician, playing background music for diners and guests, like Joseph Craven’s residency in the Ship Hotel. It was also possible to get a full time job as a traditional harp teacher, like Valentine Rennie did; but this was probably the rarest job of all at this time.

Most of the harpers combined these different ways of earning a living. I think most of them would have used the patronage system, starting from the Gentlemen of the Harp Society, and getting letters of introduction from wealthy people. Victorian Ireland was an incredibly stratified and hierarchical society with massive class differences, and as “artisans” the harpers were generally lower down the class pile.

The blind harpers of course had no option, their blindness meant they had to make a living with their harp or they would quickly become destitute and die of disease or starvation. Perhaps Arthur Morgan had more options, perhaps he decided that life as a travelling harper was too fragile, perhaps he gave up and re-trained as a clerk or tradesman or something. But we have no more information about him so at present we can’t say any more.

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