Patrick Byrne part 1: 1790s to 1822

Patrick Byrne is perhaps the best-known of the 19th century Irish harpers. We have a huge amount of information about him, too much for a single post. So I thought I would deal with sections of his life in turn. This first post in a series on Patrick Byrne will gather together all the information I can find about his birth, his family, his place, his early years, and his education up to the point where he was discharged from the harp school with his certificate and harp.

Patrick Byrne is almost certainly the best known and most studied of the 19th century traditional Irish harpers. Keith Sanger has done a lot of work on Patrick Byrne over a long period of time. I think his first article on Byrne was in the Folk Harp Journal no.45, June 1984; his most recent full write-up is an online article dated 2006. Some of my account here will naturally duplicate or refer to Keith Sanger’s research, but I will also refer to other material that I have found which helps to fill some of the gaps, and I will try to line everything up to try and tell a coherent story, and I will try to indicate what is known for sure and what is ambiguous, contradictory or unreliable information.

Year of Birth

We have a number of different statements in the records of Byrne’s age or his birth year.

We have traditionary information given to us by W. H. Grattan Flood (Journal of the County Louth Archaeological Society Vol V no. 1, December 1921 p25-7), which says that Byrne was born “about the year 1786 or 1787” but I think this can’t be right. Grattan Flood is very unreliable and often gets things mixed up, or invents things that seem plausible to him based on incomplete evidence. And he rarely cites his sources. So in the absence of anything else confirming this, I think we should ignore it and move on.

Patrick Byrne’s gravestone records that he died on 8th April 1863 “in the 69th year of his age”, i.e. that he was 68 years old. We can calculate, then, that according to this he would have been born between 9 Apr 1794 and 8 Apr 1795.

Patrick wrote a letter to his half-brother James Byrne and his half-sister Catharine Deutsch in Norwalk, Ohio, USA, in October 1861, enclosing a copy of his photographic portrait. We don’t have his letter, but we do have the reply which Catharine wrote to Patrick in January 1862, which Patrick kept with his other letters (PRONI D3531/G/5). Catharine writes “I am glad to see that you look so young and healthy at 64 years”. But what is this age referring to? Is Catharine calculating his age in January 1862, which would mean he was born in 1797? Or did Patrick tell her what his age was when the photo was taken? I think this is not one of the 1845 calotypes, but the later photo, with a rounded top. There are four other letters from different people thanking Byrne for sending his photo; one is undated, two are dated May 1862, and one is September 1862; the copy sent to America seems to be earliest, posted in October 1861. So perhaps the photo was taken in 1860 or 1861, and if Patrick Byrne was aged 64 then, we can calculate he would have been born between 1795 and 1797. This is all a bit vague though.

In the Irish Harp Society minutes of Tue 8 Aug 1820, Patrick Byrne’s age is given as 21, which means we can calculate he would have been born between 9 August 1798 and 8 August 1799. In the Irish Harp Society minutes of Mon 20 Aug 1821, Byrne’s age is given as 23, which works out that he was born between 21 Aug 1797 and 20 Aug 1798. So these two could be consistent if his birthday was between 9 and 20 Aug 1798.

I often prefer to rely on the earliest evidence for people’s ages, with the idea that a 20 year old has a better knowledge of their age than the bereaved relatives of a 70 year old. So I would be tempted to believe the Harp School records and think that Patrick Byrne may have been born in August 1798. But it is possible that he lied about his age when he went to the school, and was four years older.

So in conclusion at this stage I would be hesitant to say more than that Patrick Byrne appears to have been born between 1794 and 1798.


To work out where Patrick Byrne was from, we need to deal with later records and reminiscences from family members, because we don’t have direct records from the time of his childhood, and he doesn’t tell us very precisely where he was from. So before looking at places, we should talk a bit about Patrick Byrne’s extended family. I don’t want to get too bogged down in this because there are a lot of them and there is a lot of information about some of them!

We have a fair bit of information about Patrick Byrne’s extended family. Some of the information comes from the Shirley Papers (PRONI D3531/G/6), because Evelyn Shirley, as the executor of Patrick Byrne’s will, made a summary family tree to try and work out who was owed what. He also made all the siblings and nephews and nieces sign receipts for their cash payments from the legacy, which very helpfully show the husband and wife couples signing together for their payments.

According to Shirley’s sketch, Patrick Byrne’s parents were Thomas Byrne and Mary Fitzpatrick. Shirley has written “McMahon” underneath “Fitzpatrick”; I don’t know why it is struck through or what this means. Thomas and Mary had two children, Patrick the harper, and Alice his sister. We have a fair bit of information about Alice, and her family and descendants. She seems to have been close to Patrick, he bought a farm for her and her husband to live on, and she had a correspondence with Evelyn Shirley after her brother had died. I hope to write more about Alice and her family in a subsequent post.

I assume Mary his mother died, because Thomas married a second wife, whose name is written by Shirley as Anne McEneneny. Shirley lists two daughters, half-sisters of Patrick Byrne: Anne who married Michael Freeman and had seven children, and Ellen who married Jocelyn Lamb.

That’s all that Shirley wrote, because that is the limit of who got cash legacies in the will. But it looks like Anne may have died, and Thomas married for a third time, according to information from Patrick Byrne’s much younger half-brother Christopher Byrne (1834-1916). In his published biography (in G.A. Ogle, Memorial and Biographical Record… 1898), Christopher’s parents are named as Thomas Byrne and Agnes Connolly.

Christopher’s biography says he was born in Carrickmacross in November 1834; it says he “remained under the parental roof” until November 1852, when he emigrated, arriving in New York two months later, and then went to join one of his sisters (Elizabeth Finnegan I think) who was already in America. His biography lists four other siblings who had also emigrated: James (Norwalk, Ohio, dead by 1898); Margaret (New York City, dead); Elizabeth (Taberg, Oneida, New York); Catharine (Norwalk, Ohio). Christopher’s biography also refers to Patrick, Alice, Anne, Ellen and Mary. In his letter (see below), Christopher mentions “sister Mary lives in England”. An article by Patrick Duffy, ‘Assisted emigration from the Shirley Estate 1843-54’ (Clogher Record 1992) gives a lot of information about people from Farney emigrating at this time, but I don’t see any of Patrick Byrne’s family in the excerpts given. Ruth-Ann M. Harris & Sally K. Sommers Smith, ‘The eagle and the harp: the enterprising Byrne Brothers of County Monaghan’ Irish Studies Review vol 18 no.2, May 2010 deals with Christopher’s life story in America and also gives more information about the family including about a letter from Christopher to Patrick which we will deal with below.

We can also collate this information with the letter that Patrick Byrne’s half-sister Catharine Deutsch wrote to him in January 1861 (mentioned above). She gives information about the marriages and addresses of some of the siblings in America and also lists the sisters and their husbands who stayed in Ireland.

Where he was born

We have different confused and vague statements about where Patrick Byrne was born, or where he was from. We can start broad and try to narrow it down.


The most common statement about where Patrick Byrne was from, which is repeated a number of times, is that Patrick Byrne was a native of the Barony of Farney. I think this is what he himself said, since it appears in contexts where he seems to have had input, such as the emendation to his Harp Society certificate, or his speech at Carrickmacross in 1855. The barony of Farney is centred on the town of Carrickmacross, and is something like 10 miles across in each direction. Farney sits at the very south-eastern corner of County Monaghan, bordering onto County Cavan to the south-west, county Meath to the south, county Louth to the east, and county Armagh to the north-east.


In his first will, in 1846, Patrick Byrne mentions his native parish of Magheracloone (see transcription online by Keith Sanger). The parish of Magheracloone is south of Carrickmacross, forming the south-western edge of the Barony of Farney. I think we can be fairly certain that Patrick Byrne was born and brought up somewhere in the parish of Magheracloone.


In March 1863 Christopher wrote a letter to his half-brother Patrick the harper. Patrick never got the letter because he died before it arrived, but the letter is preserved in the Shirley papers, in the packet containing all the paperwork connected to the will (PRONI D3531/G/6).

…I assure you dear Brother when memory recalls the childhood of my days when sporting around the hills of Greaghlone when Father and Mother Sisters and Brother friends and relations and in fact all that was near and dear to me was there, then was the happiest moments of my life…

Letter from Christopher Byrne (1834-1916) to Patrick Byrne, March 1863 (PRONI D3531/G/5)

The townland of Greaghlone is at the far Western end of the parish of Magheracloone, right on the border with County Cavan.

We can wonder how much contact Christopher and Patrick had when Christopher was young. In 1834, when Christopher was born, Patrick was already travelling in England working as a professional harper. While Christopher was growing up, until he emigrated in 1852, Patrick Byrne was travelling back and forth for work between England, Scotland and Ireland, so he likely came back to Farney to visit or stay with his family at various times.

When Christopher refers to “Father and Mother” in the letter, he is referring to his own parents. His father, Thomas Byrne, was also Patrick Byrne’s father, and that is how they are half-brothers. But according to his biography, Christopher’s mother was Agnes Byrne née Connolly, and so she must have been Thomas’s third wife. I assume Patrick’s mother (Thomas’s first wife, Mary Byrne née Fitzpatrick), was dead long before Christopher was born.

Anyway it is pretty clear that Christopher Byrne himself grew up in Greaghlone in the late 1830s and 1840s, and lived there at his parents house until he emigrated in 1852. Whether or not the father Thomas had always lived in Greaghlone, or had moved there later in life before the 1830s, we are not told.

We can try to collate all this traditionary information from Evelyn Shirley and from Christopher Byrne, with the records of Greaghlone residents in the 19th century.

Because the 19th century Irish census returns are lost, we have to look at other sources. I have checked three main sources which give names and other details. The Tithe Applotment Books list the heads of households and the acreage of their holdings in 1832. We have a list of cottiers on the Shirley estate which was compiled in 1840 and edited through to 1847. And we have the Griffiths valuation which lists all the heads of households and shows on a map exactly where their holdings were in 1861.

I wanted to know how complete the coverage of these records were, so I checked the published census records. the Tithe Books show 38 households in Greaghlone in 1832. If we add on the list of 7 households in the cottiers list from the early 1840s we can see 45 households in total. We can compare this with the published census statistics which show that in 1841 there were 45 houses, and 285 people, in Greaghlone. So I am thinking that these records basically give us all of the heads of households in Greaghlone.

Thos Byrne is listed in the 1832 Tithe Applotment Books; he holds 5 acres 13 roods 15 perches (about 3.4 hectares) of land in Greaghlone. This is a pretty small farm.

There are four other heads of households called Byrne holding lands in the townland: Gerald, Christn, Patrick, and Bryan. I think it would be fairly safe to assume that Thos Byrne listed here is the father of Christopher and of Patrick the harper. I don’t think the Patrick listed in the tithe book is our harper, because Patrick the harper was away working as a professional musician in England by 1832 (Leamington Spa Courier, Sat 22 Sep 1832 p2), not running a farm in Greaghlone.

Thomas is also mentioned in the 1840-47 list of cottiers on the Shirley estate. These are people who sub-let a small cottage from one of the farmers. There are 10 cottiers listed in Greaghlone (p.265-6), including Francis Byrne and his family (7 people) who are renting a “house, garden and bog” for £3 a year from Thomas Byrne. I assume this is the same Thomas Byrne.

In his 2006 online article, Keith Sanger reported information that he had got from Christopher’s grandson Maurice Edward Byrne, about a gravestone in the Catholic Church of St Peter & Paul, Knocknacran, in Magheracloone. There is a photo and transcription of the gravestone online; the stone records the death of Thomas Byrne who died in Greaghlone in December 1843 aged 74 years; it says he was “born and reared” in Greaghlone, and that his ancestors had held lands there for over 200 years. I went to check the stone. I didn’t have much success photographing the whole stone, because the sun was right behind the stone, but I did manage to take enough close-up pictures of the half-buried lettering at the bottom to stretch and stitch together into a composite view of the text for you:

Composite mosaic showing the half-buried bottom of Thomas Byrne’s gravestone
this humble tribute of regard
was Erected by his eldest

Anyway I think this seems to be our Patrick the harper, paying for a spectacular memorial for his father. The unusual size and quality of the stone seems to me to fit with the idea that Patrick had gone to Britain and made his money playing for the aristocracy and royalty, and came back and spent it on his poor family.

Between Annahean and Carrickmacross

An obituary says:

he was born… on a farm between Anahean and Carrickmacross

Belfast Newsletter, Mon 13 Apr 1863 p3

Annahean is just outside of Magheracloone. It is in the parish of Killanny, in the barony of Farney, right on the Monaghan-Louth county border, about five miles south-east of Carrickmacross. (there is another townland called Annagheane at the other end of County Monaghan but I don’t think this is it)

The problem really is that Greaghlone is pretty much as far away at the opposite end of the parish of Magheracloone as you can get, and it seems an extreme stretch to think that Greaghlone is “between Anahean and Carrickmacross”. You may as well say Galway is between Belfast and Dublin.

I checked through the Tithe Applotment Books from 1832 for the townlands in the west of Magheracloon which could be said to be “between Annahean and Carrickmacross”. There are three Byrne household listed in that area: Richard Byrne in “Leons North or Green” (probably Leonsgarbh); James Byrn[e] in “Clonminon” (Clonmeenan); and Thomas Byrne in Mullaghgarve. So there is a some context, there were Byrnes in the far east of Magheracloone parish between Annahean and Carrickmacross in the 1830s and 1840s, including a Thomas Byrne.

But I don’t know how much weight we should put on the newspaper anecdote. And I think the main reason that Annahean is mentioned in the newspaper is because the obituary also mentions a patron of Byrne who was from Annahean (see below). So I don’t know how literally we need to take this “between”. But there is definitely a question mark hanging over this.

So where was Patrick Byrne born and raised?

At this stage, if I was being cautious, I would not like to say more than that Patrick Byrne was born and raised in the parish of Magheracloone.

If I was being optimistic, I would say that it seems that Patrick Byrne may well have been born and raised in the townland of Greaghlone.

Hopefully further research in the archives, and more genealogical research on Patrick Byrne’s ancestors, can help us narrow down where he was born and raised. There may well be further references to the father, Thomas Byrne, in the Shirley papers. The Magheracloone Catholic Parish Registers are online at the NLI, but they seem to miss the times when we would be interested (Patrick’s parents’ wedding and his birth in the 1790s). I am not sure what other records there might be which could be useful.

My map shows in bold red the outline of the parish of Magheracloone, and the thin red line shows the Barony of Farney. The red shaded area is Greaghlone townland. You can touch the markers to see what they are, or open the map full screen.

I am also adding other places associated with Patrick Byrne to this map, with other colours for other aspects of his life. The red colour is for things connected to his birth, upbringing, and family. The lilac things are his patrons – I have marked Lough Fea house and Annahean townland.

Going blind

…he lost his sight from small pox, while he was an infant of two years of age…

Belfast Newsletter, Friday 3 Oct 1856 p4

Keith Sanger refers to this very interesting news clipping about a benefit concert that Byrne did, where a speech at the end by one of the organisers gives a summary biography of him. Sanger very reasonably supposes that “as the news–letter reports statements made in the presence of the harper, it can be relied on as factual” (though I have done concerts where the person introducing me in my presence has made glaring errors of fact about me, so it is not as clear cut as that). Anyway, we know from plenty of other references that he was blind, and we can see from his portraits that his face was scarred from the smallpox, so the age is the interesting thing here.

Gaeilgeoir a bhí ann; ní raibh Bearla aige

The same article also tells us:

…he spoke his native language till he was seventeen years of age, until which time he had no knowledge of English.

Belfast Newsletter, Friday 3 Oct 1856 p4
E.G. Ravenstein, "On the Celtic Languages of the British Isles: A Statistical Survey", in Journal of the Statistical Society of London, vol. 42, no. 3, (September, 1879), p. 583.
Irish speakers in 1871

One of the questions I have been thinking about with my research into the traditional Irish harpers through the 19th century, is how many of them spoke Irish. I think that most of them were from the north-east of Ireland. In general, the Irish language was in decline through the 18th and 19th century in the East of Ireland, until the Gaelic revival in the 1890s and 1900s in Dublin and Belfast re-invigorated the language. The best general overview I have seen is Aidan Doyle, A History of the Irish Language (OUP 2015). Doyle shows some interesting maps of the distribution of the Irish language; his map of c.1800 (fig 6.1, p130) shows the East of Ireland mostly English-speaking, with the exceptions of the Glens of Antrim, and the broad area of south Ulster and North Leinster which is basically the area of Oriel that Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin’s work has focussed on, and which Farney is part of. In the 1871 map shown here, the white areas have less than 10% of people speaking Irish. The only place in the east of Ireland over 10% is the area from Farney to Dundalk and up to Newry.

Doyle references Garret Fitzgerald’s 1984 article; p.130 of the article shows the percentage of Irish speakers in Farney for people born every decade. We see that 76% of the people who had been born in Farney in the 1790s had Irish (this is the decade that Patrick Byrne was born); this proportion continued through to about 1820 but then started to decline (55% of those born in the 20s, 37% in the 30s, 23% in the 40s, 9% in the 50s, 1% of those born in the 1860s. Note that this is counted later, categorised by the decade of their birth). I note that James Ward (I think Patrick Byrne’s nephew or possibly grand-nephew), who I think was born around 1845, and his family, are listed in the 1901 and 1911 census as having no Irish, speaking English only.

So it is no surprise that Byrne should have been an Irish speaker, although many of the other harpers of his and the next generations likely had no Irish. I have put a column on my timeline of harpers to show when we do have information about their language.

But I think that it is more surprising that Patrick Byrne had no English at all until he was a young adult. Admittedly from 50 years later, Fitzgerald’s article includes a table on p152 which says that in the year 1851, only 3% of residents in Farney (of all ages) were monoglot Irish speakers. I think that the norm was to be either bilingual, or monoglot English speaking. We need to think about the social politics of language shift at the time to get a better idea of what was going on here.

We can also think of the implications of this statement for his childhood and upbringing. If he was blinded at the age of two, but only started speaking English at the age of 17, we can wonder what kind of education or upbringing he got before the age of 17. What were the opportunities for a blind boy in Farney in the first decade of the 19th century? Could he have attended a local Irish-medium school, and if so what would he learn? The list of his possessions when he died included books with embossed lettering, but I think the early 1800s is too early for this kind of blind education to have reached the rural parishes. I assume he learned to read the embossed books later in life, like Sam Patrick did in the 1860s.

And there is also the question of whether him starting to speak English aged 17 indicates that this was the point that he went to the city, into an English-speaking context, and so was forced to get up to speed with speaking English.

And finally we have to think whether this age 17 is specifically accurate or whether it is a vague guess for an adolescent boy or young man. I would not like to use the age 17 to try and date his moving from Magheracloone to Belfast.

Learning to play the harp

We have a few slightly garbled traditionary accounts of Patrick Byrne’s education to learn to play the harp, which seem to cover the period before he finally appears in the records in 1820.

But before we look at these anecdotes, let us briefly summarise the possible opportunities for learning to play the traditional wire-strung Irish harp at that time.

I only know of two harpers teaching at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, Arthur O’Neil and Patrick Quin. I suppose it is possible that there were other traditional harpers teaching at that time but I don’t have any references to any.

We know that Quin was teaching William Carr in the early 1790s, and we also know that Quin was in Dublin in 1809, at an Irish Harp Society that was set up there in imitation of the Belfast one, but I don’t think Quin did very much teaching in Dublin at all and I don’t think the Society in Dublin produced any finished harpers. So I don’t think Patrick Byrne would have learned from Quin at all.

Arthur O’Neil (mid 1730s – 1816)

Arthur O’Neil kept trying to set up harp schools. The first school I have any records of was in Virginia, County Cavan, in 1793; the only pupil we know he taught there was Biddy Reilly (i.e. Bridget Reilly). He tried to set up a school at Loughsheelin in county Cavan in 1798, but this seems to have never got off the ground. He advertised that he was starting a school in Benburb, county Tyrone, in 1805, though I have no information about whether this school ran at all. And then from 1808 Arthur O’Neil was teaching in the school run by the Irish Harp Society in Belfast.

We have quite a lot of information about this Belfast school. As far as I can see it ran from a premises in Pottinger’s Entry, from 1808 through until about 1812, when it seems to have fizzled out. The school seems to have run as a full time boarding school, with the intention to fast-track the young pupils to get them up to professional performing standard on the traditional wire-strung Irish harp in a few years of full-time study. We have the minute-book of the Gentlemen who managed the school, from its inception on Thu 17 Mar 1808, through to Tue 20 Nov 1810 (Linen Hall Library Belfast, Beath Collection 5.1), though references to meetings in newspapers indicate that this minute-book is not complete for that period. The minute book contains just one list of current pupils, from the minutes of a meeting of Tue 2 Jan 1810. There are twelve students on the list, but Patrick Byrne is not one of them. You can read my transcription of this list on my page about Bridget O’Reilly. I have already written up many of the students on this list: William Gorman, Edward McBride, James McMolaghan, Valentine Rennie, Patrick O’Neill, James O’Neill, Abraham Wilkinson, and Hugh Dornan.

Two of these pupils, William Gorman and James O’Neil, were dismissed from the school in June 1810, I think because of bad behaviour. The Harp Society rules provide for new students to be admitted if there is a vacancy. You can check my timeline of 19th century harpers to see that I think John MacLoughlin and Patrick Carolan may have studied at the school, and so they may have been admitted in or after the summer of 1810. It is possible that there may have been another vacancy in 1810 or 1811, but we don’t have records after November 1810.

This school seems to have come to an end in 1812 or 1813 because the Gentlemen of the Harp Society ran out of money. The pupils were all discharged, and left to their own devices, to try and make their livings as musicians. Arthur O’Neil died in 1816. There was a second school run by the Irish Harp Society in Belfast from 1820 to 1840, which we will discuss later.

We have a bold statement from the ever-unreliable Grattan Flood, about Patrick Byrne’s education:

… He was taught by itinerant harpers and at the Belfast harp school (under Anthony O’Neill) between the years 1804-1811 …

W. H. Grattan Flood (Journal of the County Louth Archaeological Society Vol V no. 1, December 1921 p25-7)

Now we always have to take what Grattan Flood says with a pinch of salt, because he gets things wrong and he invents spurious connections between things, but he also read a lot of source documents some of which are now lost. So I think there may be a kernel of truth obscured beneath his obviously wayward statements. In this case, we can instantly see that he has got the name of the Belfast teacher wrong, and he has also got the date of the starting of the school wrong. If we had nothing else I would just dismiss this account and say no more about it. But we have other fragments of information.

This is from an obituary:

… he was placed at an early age as a pupil in the Irish Harp Society’s Institution in Belfast, under care of the celebrated Arthur O’Neill. After the death of this distinguished harper, he remained for some time under Valentine Rennie…

Belfast Morning News, Fri 17 Apr 1863, p 4

This could refer to a first period of instruction under O’Neill c.1810-12, and a second period at the revived school under Valentine Rennie in the first four or five months of 1822. We will discuss this second school later. It is slightly worrying that this account does not mention Patrick Byrne’s two years under Edward McBride in 1820 and 1821, for which we have good contemporary records, but I think by the 1860s McBride’s two years as tutor at the Irish Harp Society had been eclipsed by Rennie’s subsequent 15 years, and I have seen other summary accounts of the harp school(s) which only mention O’Neil and Rennie.

The list of pupils at the first Belfast school under Arthur O’Neil, in the minutes of 2nd January 1810 (which does not include Patrick Byrne) indicates not only their names, ages, and where they were from, but also states who they were recommended by. It seems that every applicant needed to have a gentleman to recommend them for admittance. We have what looks like a mention of Patrick Byrne’s gentleman sponsor for his entry into the first school in about 1810-11. This is from yet another different obituary:

…having in early life lost his sight, he was through the kindness of Francis, Marquis of Hastings, then Earl Moira, placed in a public institution, where he acquired a good musical education, which through life was the means of gaining him a livelihood …

The Scotsman, Thur 16 April 1863 p2

We can use this information to help us confirm the date of Byrne starting his education. Keith Sanger points out that Francis Rawdon-Hastings was Earl Moira only until 1816, after which he became The Marquess of Hastings. The statement in this obituary that Francis was “then Earl Moira” seems a pretty definitive statement that the recommendation, and Byrne’s entry into the “institution”, was before 1816. It was most likely before 1813 when Francis was sent to India to be Governor-General (and where he contributed handsomely to the Bengal Subscription which re-started the harp school from 1820. But more on that later).

So, suppose this is true, and that Patrick Byrne studied under Arthur O’Neil, how could this fit in with the chronology we already have for Byrne, and for the harp school?

We can try and work out how old Patrick Byrne would have been in the summer of 1810; if the later IHS minutes are correct he would have been 12 years old. If the gravestone is correct, he would have been 15 or 16 years old. Either seems a normal age to be starting a formal full time education as a harper, like a kind of craft apprenticeship.

Arthur O’Neil was an Irish speaker, but I am pretty sure that the language of the school was English, not least because the Gentlemen of the management committee were English speakers, and I think most of the other pupils would have had no Irish. So we can tentatively connect this possibility, that Patrick Byrne entered the school in 1810 or perhaps 1811, and the statement that he had no English until he was aged seventeen. If Byrne was born in 1794, he could have been 17 by the summer of 1811. Or of course the quoted age 17 could be an exaggeration. If he was sent to the school in Belfast at that point in his life, he would have been plucked out of rural Irish-speaking Magheracloone, and suddenly thrown into the English-language world of the city, where he would have had to pick up the language quick. However this can only be speculation.

We have another piece of information which may possibly be relevant. In a letter written by Dr James MacDonnell in 1839, there is a snippet of information which MacDonnell got from Patrick Byrne. James McDonnell had been one of the leading Gentlemen of the management committee of the school from 1808 onwards. MacDonnell says:

I have learned from Pat Byrne, a harper, that all harpers prior to O’Neill, having taught only through the medium of Irish, must have had names for all the strokes or chords on the harp. The strings which are octaves to the sisters he said had others, which he said were called ‘Gilli ni fregragh ni Havlai’, the servants of the answers to the sisters. He says that Miss Reilly of Scarvagh is the only person whom he knows now living who was taught to play through the Irish language, and he will endeavour to collect from her some technical terms…

Charlotte Milligan Fox, Annals of the Irish Harpers (1911) p. 135-6

We can see that Patrick Byrne seems to have a few fragments of technical vocabulary, but he certainly doesn’t have the complete technical terminology in Irish. I think we can infer from this that Patrick Byrne learned to play the harp through the English language.

I think the Miss Reilly in this letter most likely refers to Bridget O’Reilly. She was at the Harp Society school in 1809-10; I think she may have been an advanced student or helper, since I assume she was the same person as Biddy Reilly who Arthur O’Neil taught apparently at his school in Virginia in 1793. I discuss this more on my post about her.

If this is all even vaguely true, then we can imagine Patrick Byrne entering the harp school in Belfast in 1810 or 1811; He would only have had a year or at most two of tuition from the elderly tradition-bearer Arthur O’Neil by the summer of 1812. By November 1812 there were no students at the Harp Society house; they had all been sent to the country to make a living for themselves (Belfast News Letter 22 June 1813). There is a reference to there being twelve finished harpers at a benefit concert in the Belfast Theatre the end of 1812 (Irish Harp Society, QUB SC MS4.37.10) – perhaps Patrick Byrne may have been one of those twelve? There were plans for a big fundraising effort in 1813 but nothing seems to have come of it, and the Belfast Irish Harp Society quietly came to an end over the course of 1813, leaving the young harpers to fend for themselves.

Early career?

Grattan Flood says “…Between the years 1812 and 1820 Byrne acquired a great local reputation as a Harper…” which would fit with this timeline I have sketched out here. But I have not yet found any other references to Patrick Byrne working as a harper during this time period.

We have various references to harpers from the first school out working in this period. There is an extraordinary account of James MacMonagal touring in the summer and autumn of 1812 with another un-named harper, older than him: this could be Byrne. We have a lot of information about the top two pupils, Edward McBride and Valentine Rennie, who toured together from 1810 to 1819.

We also have generic descriptions of the harpers from the school working after the Society came to an end in 1813; a Gentleman reports that he met “five or six Belfast harpers” in county Sligo some time before 1817, and continues, “they were in general excellent performers, and enthusiasts in regard to their national airs; but they were very indifferently furnished with harps” (Irish Harp Society pamphlet, Queen’s University Belfast Special Collections MS4.37.10). It is not clear to me whether this means there were not enough harps, and the boys had to travel in groups sharing one harp between them; or if they had enough harps but they were very poor quality. We have a later anecdote that suggests Patrick Byrne may have had a harp at this time; we will discuss this later.

So far so good; but I have to point out that everything we have discussed so far is speculation based on fragmentary and contradictory later anecdotes. Keith Sanger has pointed out a reference to a manuscript “Autobiography of Patrick Byrne” which was in the library at Lough Fea in 1872 but is now lost. If this manuscript were ever to be found, it could clear up some of the speculation and confusion in these accounts of Patrick Byrne’s early life. Let us hope it is in a private library somewhere, perhaps in America, and that one day it will come to light.

More education, 1820-22

We are on solid ground at last from 1820, because from that year onwards we have contemporary documents which refer to Patrick Byrne and tell us what he was doing.

News of the failure of the Irish Harp Society in 1812-13, of it running out of money and closing the school, and of the Society owing the teacher Arthur O’Neil almost three years back salary, very slowly made its way overseas to India. Irish and British Gentlemen living there read the accounts, and organised money to send back to Ireland to relieve poor Arthur O’Neil’s destitution. Unfortunately the post was so slow in those days (it could take between 6 months and 1 year for anything to travel from Ireland to India), that the money did not arrive in Ireland until 1818, after Arthur O’ Neil had died. However there was now a huge amount of money, over £1,000 (probably equivalent to half a million or so nowadays) specifically for the Irish Harp Society. And so the Gentlemen re-convened the Society in 1819, organising themselves into a committee, and starting the process of ordering harps and enquiring about recruiting a teacher.

The Society recruited Edward McBride to be the teacher, and it seems that he started in January 1820. The Society took a lease on a nice new house on Cromac Street, in a newly developed suburb of Belfast, quiet, surrounded by fields, and with clean air and water. The Society placed a newspaper advertisement:

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

We have a much later reference in an obituary which seems to refer to two Gentlemen helping Patrick Byrne to come to Belfast in February 1820 and to apply to the new school, and perhaps giving him the money to pay for his board and lodging in the town (since the Harp Society advert was only offering free tuition, and expected the pupils to find themselves somewhere to live in town):

By the liberality of the late Nicholas Kelly, Esq., of Anahean, and James Carolan, Esq., of Nobber, he was sent to an institute in Belfast, for the purpose of acquiring a musical education…

obituary in the Dundalk Examiner, reprinted in the Belfast Newsletter, Mon 13 April 1863 p3

I have not managed to track down James Carolan of Nobber, but Nicholas Kelly died in October 1860, aged 62 (death notice Freeman’s Journal Sat 20 Oct 1860 p2, and burial record at Glasnevin cemetery), and so was born about 1798. Kelly was therefore too young to have sponsored Byrne to go to the first school in 1810-11, but he could definitely have sponsored him to go to Belfast to the second harp school in 1820.

Anyway, on Monday 21st February, 1820, presumably at 10am sharp, Patrick Byrne 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 (re-)started his full time study of the traditional wire-strung 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.

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 money 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, Tue 8th August 1820, reprinted in Calcutta Journal vol 2 no 75 p188

So after three months of living in lodgings in the town, from Friday 26th May 1820 Patrick Byrne and two of his classmates were taken in as boarding pupils, living in the Harp Society House with Edward McBride the master.

The minutes of that same meeting, on Tue 8th Aug 1820, includes a full list of 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, Tue 8th August 1820, reprinted in Calcutta Journal vol 2 no 75 p188

We can see that five boys had walked up on 21st Feb and been admitted as pupils: Patrick Byrne, Hugh Dornan, Hamilton Gillespie, John McCotter and Thomas Hanna. They had been joined 2 weeks later by Hugh Frazer, and a month after that on 8th April by Patrick McCloskey. Then two-and-a-half weeks after that, on 26th May 1820, McCloskey, Hanna and Byrne had been taken in as boarding pupils.

We see the list of ages; we suspect that Byrne may actually have been four years older than the age given in the minutes, but to be honest I don’t know.

We see the list of places. Patrick Byrne is listed as being from Kingscourt. We have already agreed that he was born and raised in Magheracloon, but I think this entry in the Harp Society minutes does not necessarily refer to where he was born and raised, but where he was living when he came up to Belfast. I think we see the same thing with his classmate Thomas Hanna, who is said to have been born and raised in north County Antrim of east County Derry, but who is listed in the minutes as from Belfast.

But what does “from Kings Court County Meath” mean? The town of Kingscourt is in County Cavan, and so in the past, the entry in the minutes has been assumed to be a simple mistake. But I note that the parish of Kingscourt (also known as Enniskeen) straddles the county boundary, being partly in Co Cavan and partly in Co Meath. We discussed earlier how Patrick Byrne referred to his “native parish of Magheracloone”, so perhaps he thought of places in terms of the parish? In which case should we imagine him living in the eastern part of the parish of Kingscourt in late 1819 and the beginning of 1820, before he went up to Belfast? I added the parish to my map above, in two halves; you can see that the Eastern part of the parish of Kingscourt in County Meath is about half way between the places of his two patrons, Nicholas Kelly in Anahean, and James Carolan in Nobber.

We also see Patrick Byrne first in the list of pupils in the minutes, as if he were the most senior student, though he was not the oldest. Perhaps this is in recognition of him having already been a student at the first school in 1810-12. Hugh Dornan was also a pupil at the first school, and had been working as a musician in Belfast between 1812 and 1820. But Dornan was not one of “the most forward in tuition” and seems to have dropped out before the next summer.

The master and teacher, Edward McBride, had also been a pupil at the first school. He had learned the harp from Arthur O’Neil from 1808 through to 1812 or so. Both Patrick Byrne and Hugh Dornan would have known Edward McBride as an old classmate. McBride had been one of the two top pupils at the school; he and Valentine Rennie had been the first pupils sent out from the school to perform professionally, in 1810, probably before Byrne had entered the first school (I’m here assuming that Byrne had attended the first school from 1810-12 though this is not 100% certain).

The next glimpse we have of Patrick Byrne is a year later, in the minutes of the Gentlemen of the management committee from Monday 20th August 1821.

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, Monday 20th August 1821, printed in Irish Harp Society Calcutta 1828 (Penn Libraries ML1015.C3I7) p.27

We see changes over the previous year. A new girl, Jane McArthur, has joined the three boarding boys. Two of the older day pupils have disappeared, John McCotter and Hugh Dornan. The other notable change is that Hamilton Gillespie’s name is given as Hamilton Graham. I’m not sure how to explain this. The ages fluctuate a bit by a year or two as well. We see Byrne listed as from “Meath”, though I am not sure why this information has changed.

I have written before about the number of tunes that each pupil had learned. Patrick Byrne had the most tunes, 60, but Thomas Hanna is only two behind. If we calculate the time each pupil had been studying, with the number of tunes each had, we see that there is an interesting divergence between Hanna and Byrne, and the other boys.

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

How do we explain this? Do we count tunes that Byrne had learned from Arthur O’Neil in 1810-12 as part of his 60? Perhaps not, since Hanna has 58 of them. And the statement from Edward McBride that the “Number of Tunes, Irish, Scotch and Welch, at present taught in the House” is 60, suggests that the report is only counting the tunes that McBride was teaching.

We also must remember that McBride had learned from Arthur O’Neil, and so presumably was teaching repertory that O’Neil had taught in the first school.

And we don’t know how long Byrne had at the first school. Perhaps he was only just getting up to speed when the Society collapsed and shut the school. Perhaps he was making his career as a harper between c.1813 and 1819 with just one or two tunes.

It is also very interesting to see the stock phrase “Irish Scotch and Welch” (i.e. Welsh) tunes which appears much later in Byrne’s and others’s publicity material. We have a number of Scottish tunes in Byrne’s concert tune lists, but only one or two Welsh tunes that I can identify. I wrote up a post on the harpers tune lists though it is rather out of date since I have found many more references since I did that analysis.

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 have to imagine how the school was run. The three boys and one girl lived in the Harp Society House with Edward McBride, studying every day as full time boarding students. Their two out-pupil classmates would walk in every day to join the classes. The pupils did not normally have their own harps; the Irish Harp Society owned three big traditional Irish wire-strung harps which had been made for the Society by the Dublin harpmaker John Egan. This photo shows one of these, which was made by Egan for the Society, was apparently used as a classroom harp, and which later belonged to the harp historian Robert Bruce Armstrong. He gave it to the National Museum of Ireland where it is kept today. I think it is likely that this harp was in the house being used as a classroom harp when Byrne was a pupil there.

However, I think it is likely also that Byrne may have had his own harp, if as we suspect he had previously attended the first Belfast school under Arthur O’Neil in 1810-12, and worked as a harper from 1813 to 1819. We will discuss this below.

Change of teacher

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

Now we come to an episode which I still don’t have any good information about. Edward McBride had been the teacher from January 1820, but from about 1st Jan 1822, after two years in post, McBride was replaced by his old classmate and travelling companion Valentine Rennie.

Whatever the reason, Valentine Rennie was hired as the new master and teacher of the harp school. So, Patrick Byrne and the others would have continued their education from the start of 1822 under the new Master. I imagine that the pupils would have continued 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.


The rules of the Irish Harp Society only survive as resolutions in the excerpted minutes. But we have resolutions from the two meetings we know about, on Tue 8 Aug 1820 and Mon 20 Aug 1821, which set out the rules for discharging a student who had completed their studies:

Resolved, that a Harp, not exceeding the value of Four Guineas, shall be given to the first Pupil who shall have made the greatest proficiency on the Instrument, and been reported by the Master as qualified to enter on the profession of a Harper; Such gift be made conditionally that the Society on a public Examination shall think the Pupil in all respects worthy of it

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

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 the gift of a Harp to such Pupil; with the name of the Pupil and of the Society engraved on a brass plate thereon

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

These minutes extracts show us how the Gentlemen were making up the rules as they went along, trying to work out how the School should discharge a finished pupil and send them on their way as a newly-accredited professional traditional musician.

Because we don’t have any minutes from between August 1821 and June 1824, we don’t have any record of Patrick Byrne’s discharge in the minutes. However we do have a brief newspaper report:

We understand that Patrick Byrne (of the county of Meath), a blind young man, pupil in the Irish Harp Society of Belfast, since 20th February, 1820, has received his discharge, having made considerable proficiency on the instrument. The Society has presented a harp to him, as an acknowledgement of his diligence and good deportment as a scholar of the house.

Belfast Commercial Chronicle, Mon 20 May 1822 p3

We also have his certificate, dated Tuesday 14th May, 1822. The certificate was kept by Patrick Byrne for the whole of his life, and after his death it was kept with his papers in the Shirley family archives which are now in the 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
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

Irish Harp Society
This is to certify that the bearer Patrick
Byrne from Kings Court in the County Cavan,
<and a native of the Barony of Farney in the County Monaghan>
was admitted a pupil of the Irish Harp Society
of Belfast on the 21st february 1820., and that
upon examination of his musical proficiency, he
is deemed qualified to play in public; and he
is therefore recommended to all lovers of our
national instrument and music.
As an acknowledgement of his good deportment
and diligence as a Scholar of the House, The
Society has presented him a Harp.
Signed by order of the Committee
John Ward, Secretary.
Belfast 14 May 1822.

And then the Gentlemen have added their signatures. In the right column under John Ward’s name:

Henry Joy [Trustee]
Saml Bruce Jnr auditor
Jas McDonnell MD
John Fulton
Jn McCracken
Wm Sloane
S S Thomson MD

And in the left column, under the date:

Thos Vance Sovereign
Robt Williamson Trustee
Henry Bell
Edwd Cupples

And finally, squeezed into the space above the date:

Valentine Rennie, Professor

The certificate is hand-written on vellum by the Secretary, John Ward. The information “from Kings Court in the County Cavan” has most likely been compiled from the minutes or Harp Society records, though the minutes said “Kings Court County Meath” and so the Secretary must have silently corrected that thinking of the town of Kingscourt in County Cavan. It is interesting then that the newspaper report says “County Meath”. In any case, presumably when the completed certificate was read aloud to Byrne, he would have asked for the extra line to be inserted that he was actually originally from Farney.

The back of the certificate is blank except for the date “1822”. You can see how the vellum certificate was folded tightly into 6 to make a small packet that could be carried in a pocket, and how the two outside faces of the folded packet (bottom right in the photo below) are dirty and rubbed from being carried around. The certificate has been flattened by the PRONI staff so now it is kept opened out.

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

I think this is a spectacular survival. I don’t know of any other certificate still existing, though we know that every pupil was meant to get one on their discharge from the Harp Society. We can see that Patrick Byrne treasured this certificate. We have references to other harpers using their certificates to help them get work, e.g. Martin Craney.

Patrick Byrne’s harps

We have information about two harps that belonged to Patrick Byrne. We will discuss the second one first, because it is well known from appearing in his portrait photographs, and because it still exists, in a private collection in America.

Patrick Byrne's harp (photo: Baby Dee)
Patrick Byrne’s harp (photo: Baby Dee)

Patrick Byrne’s second harp is one of the 37-string traditional wire-strung Irish harps made in the 1820s by John Egan. I have written about this harp before, on my old archived website which includes a very nice account sent to me by Baby Dee, who owned Patrick Byrne’s harp for many years.

The harp can be compared with other examples of this model made by Egan in the 1820s; it is more highly decorated than the one owned by the Irish Harp Society and now in the National Museum of Ireland (mentioned above), but it is not so lavish as the one now in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

Patrick Byrne’s Egan harp is very clearly illustrated in the 8 different Calotype photographs of him, which were taken in Edinburgh in 1845. My header image shows a detail close up of image g, which I reconstructed from a reversed negative (Preus Museum via Flickr, no known copyright restrictions). It clearly shows the gilded shamrock decorations, and the wide-headed traditional tuning pin drives.

Ulster Journal of Archaeology Vol. 17, No. 1/4, February - November 1911 p2
Ulster Journal of Archaeology Vol. 17, No. 1/4, February – November 1911 p2

Patrick Byrne’s Egan harp is also shown in the other, later, photographic portrait of him, which may have been taken in England in 1860 or 1861. You can read more about these nine different portrait photos on my archived website.

I have also written before trying to work out the tuning and setup of Patrick Byrne’s Egan harp, but I don’t think my previous conclusions were correct. My more recent work on the sources for Byrne’s stringing and tuning, and on these Egan wire-strung harps in general, suggests to me that Patrick Byrne had this harp tuned with the unison “na comhluighe” strings and the short bass octave. For more on these thoughts see my stringcharts page.

So much for the Egan harp, apparently his second harp which he owned and used right through to his death. What about his first harp?

In about June 1861, when Patrick Byrne was still performing professionally, presumably using the Egan harp, a tourist was being shown around Lough Fea House, the Irish house of the Shirley family who had been Byrne’s patrons for many years. The tourist was in the “baronial hall”, and was looking up at a gallery which ran high along the east side of the hall.

…it was when gazing up at this gallery that we observed an old Irish harp leant against the railing…
…We were informed that this instrument was the first used by Paddy Byrne, the far-famed Irish harper. Byrne has a right to be known at Shirley Castle. He is a native of the barony of Farney…
…Poor Paddy, wherever he is we wish him every good; we have met him in social circles…
…J. W. M. July 4, 1861

Meath Herald and Cavan Advertiser, Sat 6 Jul 1861 p3

This description of Patrick Byrne’s first harp, leaning against the railings on the gallery in the hall of Lough Fea, while Byrne himself was out touring and performing with his second harp, opens a whole world of questions for us. I don’t have any other references to this first harp, but we can speculate a little.

The obvious conclusion to be drawn is that Patrick Byrne had the first harp, presumably presented to him by some patron or Gentleman or Society. That was the normal way that a traditional harper got their harp through the 18th and 19th centuries.

Then at some point he was presented with the Egan harp, by some patron or Gentleman or Society. The Egan harp was presumably a much better instrument than the first harp, louder, more powerful, more ergonomic, more beautiful with its gilded shamrocks and Royal inscription. And so Patrick Byrne presumably presented his first harp to his patron Shirley, and it was then kept as a relic at Lough Fea.

So can we speculate when these two presentations may have been?

The most obvious suggestion is that the first harp was presented to Patrick Byrne in perhaps 1812 or 1813, after he had finished his study at the first Harp Society school in Belfast under Arthur O’Neill. And that the Egan harp is the harp referred to in the Certificate, and was presented to Patrick Byrne by the Irish Harp Society in May 1822.

The alternative suggestion is that Patrick Byrne never had a harp before 1822 for whatever reason, and the first harp is the one mentioned in the certificate, and was presented to Byrne by the Harp Society in May 1822. And then we might guess that it may have been an inferior one (we know that the Harp Society was trying to source cheaper Belfast-made copies of Egan’s design), and that a patron (perhaps Shirley) bought the Egan harp for Byrne some time later.

Nancy Hurrell in her book The Egan Irish Harps (2019, p.93) dates Byrne’s Egan harp to “c.1822”, though it is not clear to me how she has assigned dates to the different Egan harps – very few of the extant instruments have both a date and a serial number. Byrne’s harp obviously dates from the early 1820s by its style and decoration but I don’t know if we can be more specific than that at this stage.

My personal feeling is that my first story seems more plausible, that the first harp dates from the eighteen-teens, and that the Egan harp was given to him in May 1822 when he was discharged, but it is good to be aware that this is not proven either way at this stage.

If the first harp was given to him at the end of the first school, in around 1812 or 1813, what might it have been like? We have no information about the design of the harps that were made for the Belfast Harp Society pupils between about 1809 and perhaps 1812. This is an area where more research is needed.

Professional career

So from May 1822, Patrick Byrne had his harp and his certificate, and was setting out to make a living as a professional (or “artisan”) traditional musician, playing the traditional wire-strung Irish harp.

We have an enormous amount of information about him from this point on, too much for this post. I have over 200 newspaper clippings about him, and his papers in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland consist of about 170 documents including personal letters, formal certificates and recommendations, song lyrics, and a load of paperwork to do with his will from after he died. This all needs collated and analysed before we can start to talk about his professional career and his life.

So we will stop for now and leave his professional working life for another post at some point in the future.

Edit Tue 15th August 2023: Part 2 (1822-1837) is now posted.

Thanks to PRONI and the Shirley Estate for permission to reproduce Patrick Byrne’s certificate, and also thanks to National Museums Northern Ireland for permission to reproduce Valentine Rennie’s portrait. And thanks also to Keith Sanger for sharing a lot of research and information about Patrick Byrne right back when I was beginning my work over 20 years ago.

2 thoughts on “Patrick Byrne part 1: 1790s to 1822”

  1. Many thanks Simon for a great read!
    Added interest for me as my grandmother was an O’Byrne from Wicklow.

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