Arthur O’Neill taught a harp school in Belfast from 1808 to 1812. The school was at a house in Pottinger’s Entry from May/June 1809 through to about the summer of 1812. This post is to collate different references to try and work out where the house was, and what more we can say about it.
The school was managed and funded by the Irish Harp Society, a collective of Gentlemen who wanted to sponsor the continuation of the inherited harp tradition, by funding the education of young students of the traditional wire-strung Irish harp.
We know that after the death of Arthur O’Neil, a successor school funded and managed by a re-founded Irish Harp Society ran from a premises in Cromac Street from 1820 through to 1838, and I have already written a post about the Cromac Street school. At about the end of 1838, the school moved to Talbot Street, and I have already written about the Talbot Street school.
There has been some scholarly work on the Irish Harp Society, e.g. Aiken McClelland ‘The Irish Harp Society’ Ulster Folklife, Vol 21, 1975; Mary Louise O’Donnell, ‘The Bengal Subscription’, in Sandra Joyce & Helen Lawlor (eds) Harp Studies (Four Courts Press 2016); David Byers, Gatherings of Irish Harpers 1780 – 1840 (Irish Pages 2022). However this previous work concentrates on the Gentlemen of the management committee and the Gentlemen subscribers and patrons who bankrolled everything, and pays little attention to the teachers, students, and the day to day running of the school. Scholars have assumed or stated that the harp school was in Cromac Street from 1808 to 1812-13, but I think this is just a mistaken extrapolation back from the 1820s.
Working out where the school was
The Belfast Gentlemen organised themselves into the Irish Harp Society and apparently held their first meeting on St Patrick’s Day, Thursday 17th March 1808. That is the date on the first page of their manuscript minute book (Belfast, Linen Hall Library, Beath 5.1). There is no information there about the school yet, just the list of Gentlemen subscribers. On Tuesday 3rd May 1808 they met at Linn’s Hotel in Belfast and appointed officers to the management committee, and set up rules for how often they should meet, and started talking about putting a notice in the newspaper. The notice, written by Dr James McDonnell, appeared in the newspapers in June (e.g. Freemans Journal, 16 June 1808 p4), and announced that Arthur O’Neil had been engaged as teacher, and was ready to receive pupils. But we are not told where Arthur O’Neil was living, or where the pupils (who started arriving that same month) would live, or where the school would be.
Some time in June the Gentlemen met again in Linn’s Hotel. They again talked about Gentlemanly committee business but also started enquiring about ordering harps.
After that the minute book does not record the location of the meetings. The gentlemen’s next meeting was on Monday 4th July 1808. They discussed committee business and the price of harps. The next meeting was on Monday 1 Aug 1808, and they talked about drawing up rules. The next meeting was set for 3rd October, but there is no record of a meeting on that date. The next meeting was on Tuesday 1st November 1808, and at this meeting the Gentlemen organised a sub-committee to examine the harp students.
The next meeting was on Tuesday 6th December 1808; the Gentlemen decide to purchase one harp, and they want Arthur O’Neil to choose which one they buy. There must have been a premises to keep the harp at, and for the classes, but I have no idea where it was.
The first meeting after the new year was on Tuesday 7th March 1809. The minutes of this meeting are quite long and there are a lot of different Gentlemanly things discussed including planning an annual dinner, and collecting the subscriptions, as well as a matter more connected to the harp school: an application to be a scholar from a grandson of Denis Hempson (I don’t think the grandson ever actually became a student). The Gentlemen also decided at this meeting that they would start Irish language classes to run alongside the harp school. However, whereas the harp school was very much practical and vocational, with the professional teacher Arthur O’Neill teaching young poor boys full-time to fast-track them into professional performing careers, the Irish language classes seem very much aimed at Gentlemen; a number of the Gentlemen present at the meeting signed their names that they would commit to attend the proposed Irish language classes. I don’t think the harp students were being taught Irish. I think the Gentlemen and the harpers occupied totally disconnected social and class-based worlds.
The next meeting was on Tuesday 4th April 1809 but the minutes only record a note about subscription payments.
Then the next meeting was on Tuesday 2nd May 1809. We have a newspaper advertisement announcing this meeting (Belfast Commercial Chronicle, Mon 1 May 1809 p3) which says it is the “General half-yearly meeting of the subscribers” and that it will be held in Linn’s hotel. The minutes of this meeting include a very interesting resolution which we need to think about:
Resolved that Doctor Tennent William McCracken and William Williams [? ?] they are appointed to look out for a suitable Room for the Committee to meet in and also a House for the better accommodation of The Scholars and Mr O Neill.Minutes of meeting, Tue 2 May 1809. Irish Harp Society minute book, Belfast, Linen Hall Library, Beath Collection box 5.1 p22
This instantly raises the big question: where had Arthur O’Neil and his full time pupils been living, and where had the classes been happening, before this date? I really don’t know.
The next meeting in the minute book is Wednesday 5th July 1809; the minute is very brief, only appointing Rev. Edward Groves to be acting secretary. Presumably there was more discussion that we don’t have a record of, because 5 days later Groves sent an advertisement for the Irish language classes to the newspapers. This gives an address which I think may well be the house that the Gentlemen must have taken for Arthur O’Neil and the scholars to live in, where they would teach, and where the Gentlemen would meet for their monthly management committee meetings and for their big half-yearly meetings of all the subscribers.
IRISH HARPBelfast Commercial Chronicle, Sat 15 July 1809 p3, also Wed 19 Jul 1809 p1
THE Public are informed that a SCHOOL for teaching the IRISH LANGUAGE, is now open, under the patronage of the Society for preserving the knowledge of the Irish Harp. Every necessary information respecting it, may be had at No. 8, Pottinger’s Entry, every day from 10 to 12 o’Clock.
July 10, 1809.
It is requested that any Person capable of giving any information relative to the ANCIENT NATIONAL MUSIC, or to MANUSCRIPTS in the IRISH LANGUAGE, will communicate it to the Secretary. Letters on the subject to be addressed to the Rev. EDW. GROVES, 22, Mill-street, Belfast.
I think the Irish language teacher was the piper James Cody. We can see the Gentlemen being ambitious but also losing their focus on sponsoring Arthur O’Neil’s teaching to continue the inherited harp tradition. I have no further information about this Irish language school and I don’t know if it ever really got off the ground.
We see Rev. Groves’s home address is 22 Mill Street, and we also see that you would get information about the Irish classes by going to 8 Pottinger’s Entry between 10am and 12 noon any day (presumably when one of the Gentlemen would be there to take your enquiry).
I am assuming that 8 Pottinger’s Entry is the house that the Gentlemen took for Arthur O’Neil and the harp students to live in. They must have taken the house and moved the school in some time between May and July 1809.
After that date the minute book continues with the same mixture of Gentlemanly committee business and occasional rules and regulations governing the scholars. I am not seeing mentions of the house after this, though I assume that the meetings were now held in the house rather than in Linn’s Hotel.
The minutes of the half-yearly general meeting on Tuesday 8th May 1810 are very interesting, because we can collate the entry in the minute book with a newspaper article about this same meeting (Freemans Journal 14 May 1810 p3). This shows us very clearly that the manuscript minute book in the Linen Hall Library Beath Collection is only a partial record of the meetings; for this meeting the minute book only lists the names of the Gentlemen present. But the newspaper article paraphrases a report presented to the meeting on the progress of the students.
The newspaper does not tell us the venue, but the entry in the minute book is headed “Harp Hall”. I presume this is a rather grandiose name for the house at 8 Pottinger’s entry. But it doesn’t say this.
In the minutes of a meeting on Tuesday 29th May 1810, there is an instruction to have “each of the scholars provided with a suit of Inishowen blue cloth”. I have already discussed this in connection with William Gorman, since I think it is connected to the expulsion of him and his classmate James O’Neil from the school. The expulsion is dealt with at the next meeting, on Tuesday 19th June 1810. That meeting also passed a resolution:
Ordered – that Mrs Rankin shall have the boy’s uniform locked up and only given out on public occasionsMinutes of meeting, Tue 19 Jun 1810. Irish Harp Society minute book, Belfast, Linen Hall Library, Beath Collection box 5.1 p56
My guess is that Mrs Rankin was some kind of housekeeper; if blind Arthur O’Neil and his blind students were living in the house, someone would have to light the fires, cook the food and generally run the place, and I think having a lady housekeeper like this employed by the Gentlemen would be normal way of running a household at this time. I do not know of any other references to Mrs Rankin, except some scribbled sums on page 65 of the minute book which seem to record payments to Arthur O’Neil and Mrs Rankin.
The next-but-one minute is from the meeting on Tuesday 31st July 1810, and it includes an interesting resolution:
Resolved that A Barr and R McAdam be requested to have the pipe water brought into th[is] house now occupied by the Society as the pipes are now a laying thro the city.Minutes of meeting, Tue 31 Jul 1810. Irish Harp Society minute book, Belfast, Linen Hall Library, Beath Collection box 5.1 p58
I think it says “this house” and not “the house”, which would imply that (as we would expect) the meeting was held in the harp society house.
After this we get minutes of meetings for the next four months, but they don’t mention the house or the school; they only deal with the difficulty of collecting subscriptions due from the Gentlemen subscribers, and the initial plans for a series of benefit balls. The last entry in the minute book is Tuesday 20th November 1810.
I have been looking for records of other later meetings, but I am not finding much. But we do have a very useful record of a meeting held on Tuesday 21st May 1811.
IRISH HARP.Belfast Commercial Chronicle, Mon 20 May 1811 p3
A GENERAL MEETING of the SUBSCRIBERS to the IRISH HARP INSTITUTION will be held in the School-Room of the Society, No. 8, Pottinger’s-entry, at EIGHT o’Clock, on TUESDAY Evening the 21st instant; to elect a Treasurer, Secretary, and Committee for the ensuing Six Months, and to transact other business.
It is particularly requested, that the Friends of our NATIONAL MUSIC will attend on this occasion, as it is become absolutely necessary some arrangement shall be made to secure a continuance of an Institution so interesting and meritorious.
JOHN M‘ADAM, Secretary.
There is a lot of information for us here in this advert. The last minutes in the manuscript minutes-book (Linen Hall Library, Beath box 5) are from Tue 20 Nov 1810, so this advert comes from the undocumented period from Nov 1810 through to the end. The tone of the advert implies that the Society is in trouble, and we know that it had a big problem in getting subscribers to pay the money they had pledged, and was desperately short of money. A follow-up report appeared in the Belfast Commercial Chronicle on Sat 25 May 1811 p2, listing the officers and committee members elected at the meeting, and concluding by saying that “the funds stand in great need” of donations and subscriptions.
But for us, the thing that is most important is the venue for the meeting: “the School-Room of the Society, No. 8, Pottinger’s-entry”. I think that we can take this as pretty clear confirmation that the harp school was running from 8, Pottingers Entry, probably from around May or June 1809 through to it being broken up apparently in 1812.
Where was no.8 Pottinger’s Entry?
Pottinger’s Entry is one of the narrow lanes which run north to south between High Street and Ann Street in Belfast. You can look at the map and see that Pottinger’s Entry is still there. The handsome arched entrance at the south end (on Ann Street) is still there, I don’t know how old it is though. Here’s the interactive streetview of the Ann Street entrance.
The entire North end onto High Street has been demolished and rebuilt, and now runs down the side of the Lidl supermarket. Here’s the streetview of the High Street entrance:
We can try to work out the street numbering of Pottingers Entry from collating the different street directories. This is harder work than for Cromac Street and Talbot Street, because the time of the Harp Society in Pottinger’s Entry (1809-1812) is before the street directories really get going as regular and useful tools.
We can start with the 1887 fire insurance map. I have rotated the map so that North is slightly to the right of the top; Ann Street is on the bottom of this map and High Street is on the top. You can see the archway at either end. The building marked P.H. (for Public House) just over half way down on the left (west) side is the Morning Star pub, which is perhaps the only building on the street still standing. You can also see the street numbering, starting from the High Street end. The odd numbers from 1 to 17 run from High Street along to Pottingers Court, which runs West (left) about half way down my map, beside the Morning Star pub. The rest of this side from the Morning Star to Ann Street do not have street numbers on this map. On the East side of the street (the right side of this map) we have numbers 2 and 4 at the north end of the street, but none of the other premises on this side are numbered. They are all industrial units, the backs of business premises which have their front entrances onto other streets.
I have made a spreadsheet where I try to collate the same occupants over time from different sources. You can see that there are gaps in my collation, especially when we get back before 1819, and so at the moment I am not feeling very confident at all about how to work out where no.8 was in 1809-12.
We have an extreme problem between 1807 and 1808 because the street seems to have been radically re-numbered; according to the transcripts online at LennonWylie, John McMullan’s tavern is no. 2 in 1807 but is no.3 in 1808; and his neighbour Matthew Dempsey’s pawnbrokers is at no.4 in 1807 but no.5 in 1808. It seems that the odd and even numbers may have swapped sides but that seems very bizarre and I don’t really understand what was going on. Luckily this is before the Harp Society’s time so I think we can quietly ignore this problem.
The only continuing business I can see over our period (1809-12) is Hugh Marshall, tailor. His address is given as no.7 in 1808, no.3 in 1819, no.11 in 1831, and no.9 in 1835. My guess is that the premises were regularly re-numbered around him while he stayed in the same place, but it is also possible he moved along the street as well. I would also note that he is on the odd-numbered (west) side of the street, and the re-numbering of each side is not necessarily done in sync.
So at this stage I would not like to say more than that I suspect that the Harp Society House at no.8 was on the east side of the street, close to the High street end – i.e. if you entered from the High Street you would go to perhaps the fourth house on the left. But I am not even 100% sure of that. The numbering could have jumped all over the place since 1813.
I found a couple of photos from around 1900 which show the general area of the Harp Society house. I do not know if these buildings may date back to 1809 or if there had already been demolition and rebuild during the 19th century.
This photo from c.1907 shows Anderson’s window blind factory, which we can spot on the fire insurance map at no.5, on the west side of the street towards the High Street end. So this photo must be taken from just inside the High Street entrance, looking south. You can see the Ann Street archway in the distance; you can just about make out Pottingers Court turning to the right the other side of the white building , where there is a figure of a person standing in the street in the distance. So the Harp Society House was one of the houses on the left foreground.
This lovely photo is looking the opposite direction, North towards the High Street from just outside the Morning Star pub. In the distance is the old High Street archway which has since been demolished. The old Harp Society House would be one of the houses in the distance on the right side of the photo. It looks to me like these may be four-storey terraced houses.
Other information about the Harp Society House at no.8 Pottinger’s Entry
I don’t have any information about Arthur O’Neil and his students at the Harp Society house after 1811. The pupils performed in a cameo role in the theatre in Belfast in June 1811 alongside professional entertainers, as a fundraiser for the Society. Then the Gentlemen organised a series of six fundraising balls from January through to April 1812. It is possible that the school was already broken up by then but I suspect it was still running, and probably broke up in the summer of 1812.
On 5th October 1812 a florid letter was written to the newspaper (published in the Belfast Commercial Chronicle 7 Nov 1812) complaining about the mismanagement of the Society and the school; we are told that “O’Neile, is at present without pupil, salary, or subsistence!” This sounds very much like the school had already been closed, the pupils dispersed, and Arthur O’Neil no longer living at the house in Pottinger’s Entry. Another, only slightly less florid letter from the same pseudonym (Belfast Commercial Chronicle 25 Nov 1812) describes Arthur O’Neil living “in his wretched dwelling of smoke, in a filthy lane off Mill-street”. The letter criticises the Gentlemen of the Harp Society for not paying O’Neil his salary; states that they owe him £160 (which works out as two-and-a-half years back pay); and says “He is no longer employed: why so? Because he has not a single pupil for instruction.”
The next mention of the school I have seen is an article in June 1813, describing another benefit concert at the Theatre. This next article explains why there were already no pupils by October 1812.
IRISH HARPBelfast News Letter, Tue 22 Jun 1813
It is with pleasure we observe, in the Theatrical department of this day’s publication, that Mr Talbot has generously given the use of the Theatre on Wednesday evening, for a benefit to this Institution, which has latterly been in a languid situation, in consequence of the funds being inadequate to its support. – The Pupils, we understand, were, some time ago, sent into the country, to provide for themselves till the establishment be renovated; when they will be recalled to prosecute their education under their venerable tutor, and to acquire a knowledge of the principles of the art, agreeably to the modern practice, which will be done by introducing an improvement on this instrument similar to the pedal harp, without impairing the original melody…
The article continues with the hope that new subscribers will step forward to support the Society. Perhaps we should be grateful that they did not, and that no further trace of the Society and the school was left, given that the Gentlemen appear to have highly inappropriate plans to supply the pupils with mechanised chromatic harps (presumably John Egan’s new small gut-strung Royal Portable design), and to educate them in “modern practice” (i.e. classical harmony).
But aside from that we can notice the comment about the students being sent out of town “till the establishment be renovated”; we can wonder if the house was dilapidated, or if this comment might mean something else.
Thankfully, given the disastrous direction the management seem to be heading in, the pupils never came back, and there was no school in Belfast until the new school was formed in Cromac Street in 1820, with the new money from India, and with Edward McBride as teacher. But that is a different story.
8 Pottinger’s Entry after the Harp School closed
At this stage I can’t say more about what happened to the Harp Society House after the harp school closed in 1812, because I have not been able to collate the street numbering from 1809-12 with the street directories from 1819 onwards.
However I do notice that in the Smyth directory from 1819 (which I consulted in the Linen Hall Library), Patrick Carolan, “professor of the Irish harp”, is at 10 Pottinger’s entry.
I have already written up Patrick Carolan; I assume he is the “Caroline” who was described as a student of Arthur O’Neil, performing alongside O’Neil in a benefit concert in Belfast in 1816, eight months before O’Neil died (Belfast News Letter, 5 March 1816, quoted in Eugene Dunphy, ‘Arthur O’Neill (1734-1816) What the papers said’, in Dúiche Néill 19, 2011, p28). Patrick Carolan may have attended the harp school in Pottinger’s Entry, or he may have studied under Arthur O’Neil at one of his earlier schools, in Benburb in 1805 or even in Virginia in 1793.
Did Patrick Carolan take over the lease of the Harp Society House at no.8, and try to keep the school running privately in rudimentary form? Or is it pure co-incidence that we find him in either the same house or a door or two along? And is it yet another coincidence that James Carolan had the Hibernian Tavern at no.10, a generation later in 1852?
I went for a pint of Guinness in the Morning Star, and thought of Arthur O’Neill teaching his pupils to play the traditional wire-strung harp perhaps 30 to 40 metres along the lane from where I was sitting.