Patrick McGrath

Patrick McGrath learned to play the traditional wire-strung Irish harp in the early 19th century. This post is to gather what scanty information we have about him. Perhaps in future more references will turn up and we can add them to the bottom of this post.

So far I have only one single reference to Patrick McGrath, in the list of Arthur O’Neil’s pupils at the Belfast harp school. The list of twelve names was written into the minute-book of the Gentlemen of the Irish Harp Society management committee, which funded and ran the school.

Patrck M.Grath from Dundalk C of Louth
          aged 14 Entered Sept. 1808.
          Recommended by Mr. Bell of Lambeg near

Irish Harp Society minute book, Linen Hall Library, Belfast, Beath Collection box 5.1, p39

And that is all. I don’t have any more information about Patrick McGrath. However we can talk about all the things that are mentioned in this little reference to start to flesh out who he was and what he was doing.

His birth and upbringing

All we can say at present about Patrick McGrath’s birth and upbringing is what we can work out from this entry; he is said to be from Dundalk, and he was listed as aged 14 on 2nd January 1810. This means he must have been born some time in 1795. There are various references to the pupils being blind, and so perhaps we should assume that Patrick McGrath was blind or partially sighted. But we should not assume too much; some of the pupils (such as Valentine Rennie) had limited sight but were not completely blind.

Admission to the school

Before being admitted as a pupil, each candidate for the harp school between 1808 and about 1812 required a Gentleman to sponsor their entry, or to give a reference. The list of pupils here tells us that Patrick McGrath was sponsored by Mr Bell from Lambeg. Henry Bell was one of the Gentlemen subscribers to the Irish Harp Society; he was a business associate and a relative of John Williamson, and was involved in Williamson’s linen business in Lambeg and he also lived for some time at Lambeg House. I don’t know how Henry Bell would have got to know about Patrick McGrath. There is an entire research project to try and work out the networks of patronage that connect the Gentlemen to the musicians.

His teacher

Arthur O’Neil

Patrick McGrath was taught to play the traditional wire-strung Irish harp by harper and tradition-bearer, Arthur O’Neil (c.1735-1816). It seems to me that Arthur O’Neil was a keen and committed teacher; he had been organising harp schools since the early 1790s, and I think we can imagine his pupils making fast progress. I think Arthur O’Neil’s intention was to try and fast-track his pupils to allow them to be discharged from the school ready to go out and make a living as professional musicians playing the traditional wire-strung Irish harp.

His classmates

Patrick McGrath was only the second pupil to join the school. When he was admitted in September 1808, the teacher Arthur O’Neil had only one pupil, William Gorman who had been studying one-to-one with Arthur O’Neil for about three months since June 1808.

Patrick McGrath had two months studying alongside Gorman, before they were joined by a third pupil, Edward McBride in November 1808. Then in January 1909 Patrick O’Neil joined; and in February James O’Neil and Valentine Rennie.

In May or June of 1809, after Patrick McGrath had been studying for 8 or 9 months as a full time boarding pupil, the Gentlemen decided that the expanding school needed its own premises. I don’t know where Arthur O’Neil and the pupils had been living before then, perhaps in a Gentleman’s house, but from May or June 1809 the school moved into no.8 Pottinger’s Entry.

More pupils joined the school during 1809: Abraham Wilkinson and James McMolaghan. There were also three day pupils by the end of 1809 who did not live in the house but who walked in every day: Edward O’Neill, Hugh Dornan, and John Wallace.

In September 1809, Bridget O’Reilly joined the school. I think she was different from all of the boys; she was apparently already a professional harpist before she joined the school. I think she may have been taught by Arthur O’Neill at his school in Virginia in 1793. I wonder if she joined for advanced study with her old teacher, or if she joined as a kind of teaching assistant. I am not sure.

In June 1810 two of the pupils were expelled form the school (William Gorman and James O’Neil), possibly for bad behaviour. Also the two top pupils, Edward McBride and Valentine Rennie, were sent out to tour together to get performance experience. This meant there were vacancies, and although we don’t have direct records I think that their places were likely taken by new pupils: John MacLoughlin, Patrick Carolan, and Patrick Byrne.

Life at the school

I have to point out here that I have no further references to Patrick McGrath after 2nd January 1810, and so everything else is supposition based on what we know of the working of the school after that.

It seems that the harp school ran at 8 Pottinger’s Entry until perhaps the summer of 1812. The pupils studied full-time under the tuition of Arthur O’Neil. Every so often they were exhibited, either to the Gentlemen subscribers at their formal dinners once or twice a year, or at fundraising concerts where a couple of the best pupils would play “specimens of Irish national airs”. We are never told the names of the pupils who perform at these events and so, apart from McBride and Rennie who were sent out on tour in 1810, the chronology of different pupils’ progress is very unclear.

Closure of the school and discharge of the pupils

There are various references to the idea that when a pupil had completed their education, they would be discharged from the school and presented with a harp (e.g. Freemans Journal 14 May 1810 p3) though there are not clear rules for this process like there were for the second Belfast harp school from 1820. I think what may have happened is that the Gentlemen were so bad at raising money, and the finances of the Irish Harp Society were so desperate, that they could not afford to be buying gift harps for any of the pupils.

Eventually, I think in 1812, the Society ran out of money so that the school was closed and the pupils were all discharged, possibly en masse. Perhaps the few schoolroom harps that the Society had managed to acquire were distributed amongst the pupils. We have very few records for this period; I am inferring the events from a couple of very terse offhand references.

O’Neile, is at present without pupil, salary, or subsistence!

Belfast Commercial Chronicle, 7 Nov 1812 p4

The Pupils, we understand, were, some time ago, sent into the country, to provide for themselves

Belfast News Letter, Tue 22 Jun 1813

So I presume then that from some time in the Summer or Autumn of 1812, Patrick McGrath was out on the road trying to make a living as a professional musician playing the traditional wire-strung Irish harp.

We have a brief mention of an Irish Gentleman, who went out to India around 1817 and reported to Irish Gentlemen out there, he had met “five or six Belfast harpers” in county Sligo some time before 1817. He describes them:

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

Perhaps one of these five or six was Patrick McGrath. I do not know if “indifferently furnished with harps” means that the harpers did not have enough, and so had to tour together sharing one harp between two or more players; or if they had a harp each but the harps were very poor quality.

We don’t really know what the harps were like at this time. They had wire strings, of course, and would have been large floor-standing instruments.

Part of the problem of actively trying to search for Patrick McGrath would be that there are many variant spellings of the name. We can only hope that a reference to him turns up, so that we can say something about his professional career. Did he live long, or did he die young? No-one knows.

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