UCD School of History and Archives. UCD Archives. Papers of Eugene O’Curry (1796–1862). LA38/36. © University College Dublin, National University of Ireland, Dublin, used under license (CC-BY-NC-SA)


We have a couple of different references to a harper named Murphy. The first reference is to a pupil at the Belfast harp school, and the second is from a Repeal parade in Cork city six years later. I don’t know if they are the same person or not. This post is to line up the information we have so that we can consider the possibilities.

At the Belfast harp school, 1839

A harp student called William Murphy is mentioned by name in the deadly letter which betrayed the tradition-bearers and killed the Irish harp tradition. This is the letter that was written to Edward Bunting by John McAdam, the secretary of the Irish Harp Society, on 30th July 1839, and which Bunting printed in his great 1840 book. It advocated defunding the harp school and abandoning the inherited tradition of playing the traditional wire-strung Irish harp, in favour of classical-style piano arrangements of Irish tunes. I discussed this letter in my post “Two letters to Edward Bunting”.

…After the first of August, we shall have only two boys; we are anxious to prolong the time, that one of the boys (William Murphy) may have as much instruction as can be afforded, he having his eyesight perfect, and a natural taste for music. We were most desirous to have one Irish harper who could read music…

Letter from John McAdam, 30th July 1839, published in Bunting, Ancient Music of Ireland, p.66-67

McAdam does not actually tell us very much here about William Murphy. I think the only direct information about him that we can extract is that William Murphy was a pupil at the Belfast harp school in 1839; that he was fully sighted, that he had “a natural taste for music” and that he was either able to read musical notation or was in the process of being taught how to read notation.

We can talk more about the context to get a sense of what William Murphy was doing. In the first half of 1839 there were at least three pupils at the Belfast harp school. On 1st August one or more pupil finished their education and was discharged, leaving just two male pupils, William Murphy and one other boy.

We know that Alexander Jackson became teacher of the Belfast Harp school after the death of Valentine Rennie towards the end of 1837. Jackson taught the school at its house in Cromac Street all through 1838, and then at the end of 1838 the school moved to new premises in Talbot Street. The school seems to have been defunded and closed by the Gentlemen in the first half of 1840.

Jackson was the master and teacher, and he was blind, and I have seen no hints that there was any teaching of literacy in the school, and so it is possible that Murphy was already literate when he entered the school. We do not have any information at this stage about Murphy’s age; he could have had an ordinary schooling before he entered the harp school, and we can imagine him going to an ordinary school to learn to read and write in English and Irish and musical notation.

We also do not know when William Murphy entered the school. It is possible he started his education in 1837, and that he had Valentine Rennie as his first teacher. I think it would be normal for a pupil to spend three or more years of full time study learning the traditional wire-strung Irish harp.

We also don’t have names for William Murphy’s classmates. We know that Samuel Patrick was at the school in Cromac Street “until the school was broken up”. I used to assume this meant that he was discharged alongside Murphy in early 1840; but now I think it may be more likely that Samuel Patrick was discharged in late 1838 when the school vacated the Cromac Street premises.

I have speculated that Paul Smith may have been at the school; his harp is dated 1840 and so it is possible that he was discharged alongside William Murphy in early 1840. but we have no actual evidence that Paul Smith was at the Belfast harp school so this can only be speculation at this stage.

Anyway I imagine that William Murphy would have learned all of the traditional fingering techniques and a load of traditional tunes from his teacher Alex Jackson. When the school closed in early 1840, William Murphy and his classmate (whoever that was) would have been discharged, and presumably each given a harp and a certificate, and sent out to make a living as a professional musician playing the traditional wire-strung Irish harp.

At the moment I do not have any further references to a harper called William Murphy.

In the Cork city Repeal parade, 1845

We are told that a harper called “Mr. E. Murphy” took part in the Repeal parade in Cork city on Sunday 8th June 1845.

Daniel O’Connell, “the Liberator”, held a Repeal procession in Cork on Sunday 8th June 1845, as part of his political campaign to repeal the Acts of Union. As usual, the procession was enormous and spectacular, with different civic and trades bodies, and triumphal arches erected at different points on the route. It is said that half a million people turned out to see the procession. It seems that O’Connell arrived in Fermoy (about 20 miles north-east of Cork city) on Saturday 7th, and stayed overnight there; the procession assembled in Cork on Sunday morning, and made is way out to Riverstown, maybe 5 miles north-east of the city, where they met O’Connell; he descended from his carriage and got into a fantastical “triumphal car” with a canopy over the top; and then the whole parade returned to Cork city. By the time it got in it was quite late on Sunday, and so it seems that some of the formal addresses were delayed until the next day, Monday afternoon, at a levee in the Chamber of Commerce. This was followed, I think on the Monday evening, by a banquet at McDowell’s Imperial Hotel (part of the Commercial Buildings on the corner of South Mall and Pembroke Street).

We have a superb write up in the Cork Examiner, Mon 9 June 1845, which devotes many columns to a dense and detailed description of the events. The newspaper seems to have gone to print on the Monday afternoon, when the events were still going on, and so a “special edition” bearing the same date and issue number was apparently printed and issued on the following day (Tuesday), so allowing full coverage of Monday’s events. The special edition had a new front and back page, giving a long and detailed account of the Monday afternoon levee, and the banquet, with speeches printed in full and lists of attendees. Other newspapers reprinted or paraphrased the report from the Cork Examiner, and some add details of interest to their own readers. The Tipperary Vindicator (Sat 14 Jun 1845 p1) adds some extra info. It usefully tells us that in the procession, the harper’s car was followed by the triumphal car (which O’Connell rode in), and behind that was O’Connell’s travelling carriage which “was assigned to the Representatives of the Press, who mustered very strong, and had thus an opportunity of observing the interesting proceedings”.

The procession

The procession was incredibly well organised, with committees and meetings for a month beforehand to plan every detail. The Cork Examiner gives details of how groups of people came into Cork city from towns and regions around up to 64 miles away, starting to arrive well before 6am and still coming at 9am. They were organised and marshalled into their places to form the parade. The newspaper details the different groups: the people of Mallow had “a vast number of coaches and four, carriages, cars, and other vehicles. In and on one the band of the temperance society of Mallow were seated; and in the next were the Town Commissioners, accompanied by the … Parish Priest…” (p1 col 1). Then came the people of Kinsale (over 2000 of them) Then Bandon (over 600 people with a uniformed band and a large banner). 2000 people came from Cobh by steamer, with band and banners. Midletown, Cloyne, Youghal, Kanturk, Macroom, Kinnalea, Cappoquin, Lismore, Clonakilty, Killavullen and Aghabollogue, Greenagh, and Killarney each had representatives, with hundreds if not thousands of people from each area along with their banners, flags, uniforms and bands.

After the regional groups, the Cork Examiner lists different Societies, describing their banners and uniforms. The Cork Benevolent Society had an Irish piper. Next after the various societies in the description came the different Repeal societies, listed as “Repeal reading rooms”. These are from the Wards which were the administrative divisions of the greater city. You can see the Wards laid out on this 1832 map at Cork library. The newspaper (p1 col 3) lists the people from the Cornmarket Ward, and the St Patricks Ward, with a band and with banners, before we get to the effort of the Lee Ward, which was the mostly rural area to the west and north-west of the city centre, along the North bank of the River Lee, out almost as far as Blarney. I think the reference to “the chair” is to the triumphal car which O’Connell himself was to ride in; the Lee Ward display travelled immediately ahead of O’Connell’s triumphal car.

But of all the exhibitions of this glorious day, though all were creditable, grand and beautiful, all must yield the palm to the truly characteristic, striking and national demonstration got up by the spirited burgesses of the Lee Ward, who spared no trouble, no cost, no research into the history and antiquity of their country to honour the champion of Repeal. Immediately before the chair, on a high and extensive platform, drawn by four bay horses and driven by postillions with bright yellow uniforms and green velvet caps, sat a venerable Minstrel under the shade of an ivied and branching Oak, his beard hung o’er his bosom and his grey hairs floated on his shoulders from beneath his lofty conical cap, ornamented with a golden representation of a harp, with band and tassel of similar material; under his long green mantle, which was fastened on his breast by a sceptre-form bodkin or broach, was visible a long yellow tunic encircled by a dark belt and silver buckle, the nether garment of a buff colour, with red taped sandals, presented a tout ensemble of costume at once pleasing and antique; but to complete the picture he held in his hands the identical harp played before the Liberator at Tara on the memorable 15th August, 1843, from which ever and anon he elicited the most beautiful strains of his native mountains, which were constantly interrupted by the cheers of thousands; his page stood before him bearing in his right hand a green banner, on which was inscribed a red cross with a Harp and Irish crown encircled with Shamrocks, at once denoting the Christianity and the emblems of the green Island; a neat representation of a Harp in polished brass, with ball and tassel, was fixed in the flagstaff – his cap was also conical, composed of crimson velvet adorned with gold – his green velvet tunic turned up with yellow and clasped with a broad black belt – was nearly covered by a richly trimmed Falainn, or Irish mantlet – also of dark crimson velvet. In his left hand he bore the address which was afterwards read and presented to O’Connell in due form by the Bard; it was written in the vernacular tongue and magnificently embellished with the arms of O’Connell, and several curious old Irish devices. At the right and left of the minstrel stood two beautiful boys, habited somewhat like the first, with the exception of the caps, which were made after the model of that which adorned the brows of the Liberator on the mound of Mullaghmast, and they represented the sons of an Irish chieftain, or the young blood of Ireland, hailing the coming of Ireland’s friend. One had a green flag with Repeal inscribed in gold, the National emblems and the Irish motto – “Beidh Erin i fein aris.” The other bore a gold coloured flag similarly blasoned and inscribed “Arttir is ar Righbheam.” To the rere stood the tall and majestic figure of an Irish chieftain, clothed as a provincial Prince. The Prince of Desmond, his bright helmet, with waving plume, reflected the rays of a glorious sun which cheered the march of this countless and memorable procession of triumph. He bore a battle-axe entwined with laurel in his gauntleted grasp, his bright crimson robe bedecked with rich ermine, green velvet coat and brilliant armour bespoke his prowess and his nobility; at either side stood two knights habited in green and yellow, the favourite colours of the ancient Irish, and bearing lance and sword; their bright helmets to proclaimed them warriors, and the crimson sash or scarf with other appendages proclaimed their knighthood. To the extreme rere of the platform were four of the Repeal Committee of the Ward, wearing rosettes of orange and green, and carrying wands, from which depended a small streamer of similar mixed colours. Three gentlemen rode at each side as supporters, bearing wands and green favours – these were also of the Committee. On the whole it has been seldom our lot to witness on such an occasion, a more imposing and truly national a turn out, representing at once the costume, the music, the chivalry and the too long neglected, though beautifully expressive, language of our country. It is unnecessary to say it was hailed with applause and rapture, and was particularly gratifying to O’Connell as it slowly progressed through the dense masses of faithful honest men, who flocked in from every quarter to proclaim their undying devotion to the great cause of Repeal. The entire decorating, fitting-up, &c., &c., of the Car was admirably executed by Mr. Michael Keily, Blarney Lane – the whole indeed reflects the highest praise on the spirited and patriotic gentlemen, and the taste and artistic skill of Mr. Keily. Mr. E. Murphy was the harper.

Cork Examiner, Mon 9 June 1845 p2 col 3

The newspaper then continues with the Central Repeal reading room’s efforts, and then the trade societies: the bakers, the metalworkers, cabinet makers, shipworkers, carpenters, hatters, harness makers, cork cutters, wheelwrights, rope makers, engineers, chandlers, masons, plasterers, curriers, basket makers, coopers, weavers, stone cutters, tobacco makers, farriers, mailors, shovel makers, victuallers, coach makers, glovers, sawyers, shoemakers, printers (who had a float mounted with a working printing press, which they used to print off copies of a specially composed poem and distributed them to the crowds), moulders, brogue makers, tailors, brush makers, paper stainers, house painters, and furniture makers. For each guild or trade body the report indicates how many there were, and describes their appearance, banners, uniforms, if they had a band, or horses, etc.

The Ballyshannon Herald has a different write-up, which it credits to the Cork Constitution. It is not as complete but gives a more vivd description of some of the entries in the parade, including the fine bull paraded by the butchers; “pipers on horseback, dressed in green”; the tailors float had two people dressed in nude-suits as Adam and Eve, standing under a large tree with a giant (possibly animatronic) serpent coiled around it; the coopers also had a similar float with two figures standing beneath a luxuriant tree, but the figures were a free black man, and a “Paddy in chains”. The symbolism of Ireland enslaved, and anti-slavery, is interesting and topical; two months later Frederick Douglass arrived in Ireland.

There was another vehicle, drawn by four horses, in which was seated an old gentleman, with spectacle on nose, to represent a harper of the days of Brian Boroihme. He was surrounded by imaginary knights, wearing, strange to say, the British cast-off brass helmets of a dragoon regiment. The harp was said to be that played before Mr. O’Connell at Tara.

Ballyshannon Herald, Fri 20 June 1845 p1

So this astonishing procession went out of the city for about five miles to Riverstown, where the triumphal car was waiting for O’Connell to join them all. There is a long and detailed description of the triumphal car in the newspaper (p2 col 7) and we also have a drawing of it, preserved in the National Library in Dublin (though I have not yet seen a copy of this drawing). This is a different triumphal car from the one used by O’Connell in Dublin which I wrote about on my posts about Joseph Craven and John MacLoughlin.

The procession started to move on, past O’Connell, beginning at 1pm; by 4pm enough had passed that O’Connell in his triumphal car could join the procession and start to move. I think O’Connell joined in right behind the enormous float that Murphy the harper was riding on. The procession wound its way back via Glanmire Bridge, Dunkettle Bridge, Lower Road and into the city where it wound around different roads and streets, all of which were thronged with crowds. The newspaper describes what happened next, when O’Connell’s triumphal car (and the huge float bearing the harper and his attendants) stopped in the city centre:

The Triumphal Car having stopped at the entrance of the Commercial Buildings, the Harper, surrounded by the chivalry and cloathed in the costume of ancient Ireland, stood up under the shade of his native oak, and in a clear, distinct and impressive tone, read from a Parchment Scroll, on which it was most beautifully inscribed and embellished with the Arms of the Liberator, the following address in the vernacular tongue:
A SAORTHOIR OIRDHEIR[C] – Bard deanach Deasmumhan a leanughadh dhuit, an ainim a dhutha ata lecian cloidhte o uibharice, ‘sa clann air feodh a mb[r]on, an ionarba go tiortha, imchein lorg an didhean nach faghall iona ttir fein. Do ruaga a cathmhilidh sa cieir air seachran amhuill feodh-dhuille na ccoillte le aigh na gaoithe. – Bhi a cealla tuitim go larr, cnamha a druidthe ’sa Blataicc gan adhla- air an allabh agus a gealladh fa an soin – do bhi Erin lag, cloidhthe, uaigneach, lan do cumhadh o dhiothugh a tire, ’sa dearmad gnath ceolta binne athais agus gloire a croit. Gan tabhacht a bhfuaim a habhana, aoirde a cnoch agus glaise a maghaidh, ameasg iriosa agus bron a daoine. – Acht a bhuidhe le Dia riaran Innisfall ta anois da saora o na cruadh cinneumhuin; oir is follas go bhuil na dubhnealta broin is buaireadh ag imtheacht, agus ar ttir a gealla suas faoi drucht naomhtha is grian ga gloire, reir faisdine [arnaruithe] is ar bhfaigidh, go lasach aris ar ccionn. – Ata deor na buairardh tirimaghadh, agus dochus sogh is luthghair ag las a go follus ann gach suil, sa lionadh gach croidhe, da fhogra soleir go bhfuil san la sonadh seunmhar so, Saorthoir Erionn a bhfogas.
A mhic mhordha foirtil an larthair, O’Conaill na cceud ccath neamh fuilteach, an intina, daingion, cruadh mar carrig Duirenain do dhethebair ard agus comhtrean leis na garbh-thontha bhuailean Domhnall a bhonn, [anois fearraid Dermadha agus inghine ailne cor-mheith na millte failte romhat.]
Go raibh do laethaibh sonadh is a bhfad noimhradh, agus feadh breis is lionmhaire ar do bhuidhean, is do namhuid air milleadh, go raibh inntin te do croidhe air sonus is nuadhbheatha Erionn gan tiomhal, comhlionta reir do tholl. – Oitehim go rai[b]h an cru ceangal measda a gcoir is comhlionta le breib agus full dar sclabhuicht is dar is [llughadh sgriosda] uainn go brath.
Feadh bheidh og is arsa an Prionsa an Tuata an cleir agus na daoine go uille ag ard – glaodhach Athgairm Athgairm, go raibh glan ainim O’Conaill a ccroidhthe aichme sonadh shaor da niomradh dar sliocht a ngloir sa mordhacht a ccomhartha buadh is fairfhocal na Saoirseacht.
An tochtmadh la mhithiomh Sambro, MDCCCXLV.
ILLUSTRIOUS LIBERATOR. – One of the last of Desmond’s Bards greets thee in the name of his country. Long stricken down by the stranger, her children pined in sadness or fled to foreign climes for shelter and protection denied them at home. Her Warriors and Clergy were scattered as the withered leaves of the forrest before the winds. Her temples were crumbling to decay, and the bones of her sages and Blatachs lay whitening and unburied on the hill. Erinn, weakened and desolate, mourned o’er the national ruin and forgot the [s]trains of gladness and glory which used to reverberate from the strings of her lyre. The music of her streams, the majesty of her mountains, and the verdure of her plains, were unheeded amid the destitution and the sorrows of her people. But, thanks to that God who rules the destinies of Innisfall, such things are passing away, the dark shades of discord and woe are disappearing, and nature, brightening again under the dew of heavenly expectation, is cheered by the glories of that sunburst, which our wise men and Prophets foretold should shine again above the horizon of our country. The tear of anguish is wiped away, and hope, and jot, and exultation beaming from every eye, and bursting from every heart, proclaim aloud on this happy, happy day, that Ireland’s Liberator is at hand.
Yes, fearless son of the West, Dan of the hundred bloodless battles; strong as the emancipated eagle, after an unjust imprisonment of 100 days in the cause of your country; firm in resolve as the rocks of Derrynane, thy mountain home. The true hearted sons and daughters of Coreagla hail thee with a hundred thousand welcomes.
May your days be happy and long numbered, and while your friends increase, and your enemies are confounded, may the ardent yearnings of your soul, for Erin’s welfare and regeneration be crowned by success. May the foul Union, conceived in crime, and achieved by bribery and blood for our enslavement and degradation be blotted away; and while the young and the old, the Prince and the Peasant, the Priest and the People, echo back the loud shout of Repeal, may the unsullied name of O’Connell, enshrined in the hearts of a happy and emancipated race, be handed down with eclat and glory to our children’s children, as the talisman of success and the watchword of Liberty.
June 8th, 1845

Cork Examiner, Mon 9 June 1845 p3 col 1-2

This fascinating and unique speech in Irish given by the harper Murphy is a very interesting thing and I am also quite surprised that the Cork Examiner printed the full text of Murphy’s speech in Irish. I have tried to transcribe it as best I can but the printing is quite hard to read in the online microfilm copy I have access to, and so some of the words may be mis-transcribed. There are also some errors (perhaps the typesetter was not used to setting Irish texts).

The translation is fairly florid, perhaps influenced by MacPherson’s Ossian and its imitators. As far as I can see the translation was not read aloud from the float, but we are not told. I think that the Irish address is a fascinating text, which could very usefully be studied in the context of the Irish-language literature of the 18th century. There is a cruel cruel irony in how this optimistic and dramatic prophetic imagery was being proclaimed in June 1845; it was just three months later that the potato blight arrived in Ireland.

A second address on Monday afternoon

Anyway O’Connell left the scene, and that was it for Sunday night. On Monday a bit after midday, the Corporation organised a levee at the Mayor’s office (I’m not sure where this was – another source says the levee was at the Chamber of Commerce, which may have been what is now the Victoria Hotel, though I am really not sure. The mayor in 1845 was Richard Dowden). At this levee, different groups presented their addresses to O’Connell. The Cork Examiner must have rapidly obtained and typeset the addresses that afternoon, because they were included in the Monday evening newspaper.

On Tuesday, the “special edition” of Monday’s Cork Examiner was issued, and the front and back page of the special edition are full of new stories about what happened at the levee on Monday afternoon, and at the ball on Monday evening. More addresses were printed in full; the paper also says “We were not furnished with copies of some of the addresses” which strongly implies that the different towns and organisations gave a written text in to the newspaper to be printed.

One of the addresses seems to be from, or on behalf of, the people of Blarney:

Mr. D. Murphy, habited as an Irish Bard, and accompanied by two youthful pages in characteristic habiliments, read the address, which was drawn up in the old Irish language.
The Liberator replied in the vernacular, amid much laughter and applause. At the close
The Rev. Mr. O’Regan read an English translation, and
The Liberator in responding said – he should also translate his reply for the good of the country gentlemen (laughter). His reply would be brief. He regretted that he could not command a sufficient quantity of the sweetly accentuated Irish language. His tongue was unfortunately tinged with the Saxon dialect; but his heart was, they might believe him, altogether Irish – (loud cheers).

Special Edition, p1 col 3

It goes on to say that “the levee terminated at half-past three o’clock”. So it seems clear to me that Murphy went to the place, and read the address in Irish again to O’Connell. Perhaps not enough people had heard it on the Sunday evening, at the end of the parade. Perhaps the costume and the language was so spectacular that everyone wanted to see and hear it again.

It worries me that his name is given here as D. Murphy, whereas in the reports of the parade the harper is called E. Murphy. Is this just a typo? Or is it a different person? The Tipperary Vindicator tells us “Addresses were then presented from … Blarney (in Irish), by Mr. D. Murphy, habited as an Irish bard, to which the Liberator replied in the vernacular language…”

So, is Mr. D Murphy our harper? Or is this a different person who donned the costume and read from the vellum scroll?

One of the things that strikes me about these costumes is that the individual wearing them was effectively disguised. The hat, long wig and false beard mean that whoever was wearing the outfit might not be immediately recognisable.

The address

Before the event, Matthew Horgan wrote to Eugene O’Curry, enclosing the text of the address and also an English translation.

Blarney, June 4th 1845
Dear Eugene,
This is a copy of our address to O’Connell. It is now beautifully written on vellum to be read for him on Monday next…

UCD School of History and Archives. UCD Archives. Papers of Eugene O’Curry (1796–1862). LA38/36
UCD School of History and Archives. UCD Archives. Papers of Eugene O’Curry (1796–1862). LA38/36. © University College Dublin, National University of Ireland, Dublin, used under license (CC-BY-NC-SA)

In the absence of the illuminated scroll used by Murphy, this letter in Horgan’s hand is the nearest we can get. I have not transcribed this text, as it is pretty easy to read, but you can see by comparing it with my transcription from the newspaper that the two texts are not actually the same. Yet Horgan says “it is now beautifully written on vellum” so I am not quite sure how the edits were incorporated between this text written here on Wednesday 4th June for O’Curry, and the text printed in the newspaper on Monday 9th June. And we can wonder exactly which text was written on the vellum scroll which the harper “Mr E. Murphy” read aloud from on Sunday 8th June, and which “Mr. D Murphy” read aloud from on Monday 9th June.

Were there two vellum scrolls? Was Fr Matt Horgan’s text copied onto a vellum scroll for Mr D. Murphy, representing the people of Blarney, to read on the Monday, and did the Lee Ward people plagiarise the idea and have a modified text written onto a second vellum scroll for the harper Mr E. Murphy to read on the Sunday? Perhaps this is reading too much into things.

Father Mat Horgan was a very interesting character, from just north of Blarney; he was interested in antiquities, Irish language, ogham stones, and that kind of thing. He built early-medieval style round towers at two local churches, Ballygibbon (Waterloo) and Whitechurch. He also seems to have organised “a pipers’ congress after the style of the bardic meetings held… in the early part of the eighteenth century” (James Coleman, ‘Contributions to Irish Biography. No. 35…’, The Irish Monthly vol.26 no.300, Jun 1898) I imagine Father Matt may have had a big hand in the designing of the float, of the costumes, and I imagine he composed the Irish text and the English translation. On the other hand the newspaper credits Michael Keily with doing the float; he is listed as a farming implement maker at 404 Blarney Lane in the 1845 Aldwell’s Directory of Cork.

We can wonder how Murphy the harper was recruited to be part of the display. Was Murphy just working generally in the Cork area, or was he working specifically for a gentleman in the Lee Ward, or was he already collaborating or being patronised by Father Mat?

I think it is very interesting that Murphy the harper was sighted and literate in Irish. If you check my timeline of 19th century harpers you will see that the norm seems to have been that the harpers in the 19th century generally did not have Irish. I think that this is because most of the harpers came from the north and east of Ireland, where the Irish language had already pretty much disappeared by the 19th century. Perhaps Murphy was originally from near Cork and so may have had Irish as a child growing up? Where did he learn to read Irish?

Murphy’s harp

We have two slightly different mentions of the harp that Murphy played on Sunday 8th June 1845.

he held in his hands the identical harp played before the Liberator at Tara on the memorable 15th August, 1843, from which ever and anon he elicited the most beautiful strains of his native mountains…

Cork Examiner, Mon 9 June 1845 p2 col 3

The Harp was the identical one played before O’Connell at Tara Hill, which was procured and presented to the committee by the Very Rev. B. Russell.

Tipperary Vindicator Sat 14 Jun 1845 p1

15th August 1843 was the “Monster Meeting” at the Hill of Tara. I have already written a bit about this event, because Thomas Hanna is said to have been one of the harpers who played there. We are also told that six harpers played that evening at the banquet (Evening Mail, Fri 18 Aug 1843 p7) and we are told that five harpers, pupils of Hugh Frazer, were sent from Fr. Burke’s Drogheda harp school (Patrick Cooney, ‘Drogheda Harp Society’, Journal of the Old Drogheda Society 1976 p. 39).

So actually this is not very helpful because if six harpers played at Tara on 15th August 1843, there must have been six harps there, and we can’t know which one was used two years later in the procession in Cork on 8th June 1845. Cooney owned a harp which had been played at Tara in 1843 by William Griffith; Nancy Hurrell has written about this surviving instrument. Because this one was preserved in Griffith’s family, I think it is less likely that this is the harp that Murphy played in Cork in 1845.

I also find it curious how the harp used in Cork “was procured and presented to the committee by the Very Rev. B. Russell”. Its my understanding that these harps were normally owned and kept by the individual harpers; there are plenty enough references to a harper being presented with a harp when they finished their full-time course of study, and each harper seems to have kept and used the same harp for their entire professional life, usually right through until their death. So we can start to wonder what is going on here – how come Rev. Russell was able to get a harp off of one of the harpers, and how come Murphy did not use his own harp in the procession?

Is it possible that it was Murphy’s own harp, that Murphy had played it at Tara two years earlier, that Murphy was one of Father Burke’s harpers from Drogheda? And that Rev Russell had procured the harp, and the harper came with it, as it were? This seems less likely to me.

I have not yet tracked down the Very Rev. B. Russell either. He might be a useful person to try and trace the connections.


The biggest question remaining, is how many people called Murphy are we dealing with here?

At one extreme we might have three different people:

  • William Murphy, the sighted and literate harp student who was learning the harp from Alexander Jackson in Belfast in 1839;
  • Mr. E. Murphy the harper who dressed in costume and played the harp in the procession in Cork and read the Irish address from the vellum scroll on Sunday 8th June 1845,
  • Mr. D. Murphy who dressed up in the same or similar costume and read from the same or similar scroll on Monday 9th June 1845

Alternatively we may have two different people (though then we don’t know whether the second was called E or D):

  • William Murphy, the sighted and literate harp student who was learning the harp from Alexander Jackson in Belfast in 1839;
  • Mr. Murphy the harper who dressed in costume and played the harp in the procession in Cork and read the Irish address from the vellum scroll on Sunday 8th June 1845, and who returned on the next day to read the scroll a second time.

Or finally, there might be only one person, who learned from Jackson in Belfast in the late 1830s, and who played for O’Connell in Cork in 1845, and who read the Irish address from the scroll on two consecutive days, but then we would have to explain why they are sometimes called William, sometimes called E, and sometimes called D.

And even then we can’t say anything more about their life and career apart from these flashes of description, just “a day in the life”.

The only recent published description of Murphy the harper I have seen (apart from verbatim quotes of the deadly letter) is from Mary Louise O’Donnell, who writes

William Murphy, who was amongst the last students registered at the Society’s school, accompanied Daniel O’Connell at a number of ‘monster’ meetings agitating for repeal of the Act of Union (1801) at Tara in 1843 and Cork in 1845.[80]

[80] Cork Examiner, 9 June 1845.

Mary Louise O’Donnell, Ireland’s Harp – the shaping of Irish identity, University College Dublin Press 2014, p77 & p84

Unfortunately the footnote only takes us to the Cork Examiner articles which I have transcribed from above; so unless she has other unreferenced information, this seems to be making the conflation that William Murphy is Mr. E. Murphy, and the Tara 1843 claim seems to be a misreading of the newspaper’s statement that the harp he used had been played at Tara in 1843.

The more I am doing this work the more I am seeing how careful we need to be. The references are so fragmentary, and often only deal with the harpers in a distant or off-hand way, that it is far too easy to conflate or read into the references things which they cant really support. I suppose the flip side of that is that we end up with very unsatisfactory posts like this one, where we are stuck at the very first question: who is Murphy the harper?

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