We have one single description of Hennesy, a traditional harper in Dundalk, which was printed and reprinted in many English newspapers in 1804. This post is to discuss this report and try to say something useful about Hennesy.
I do not know where this story originated. We find it as a single paragraph, included in columns of other “trivia” type information. I have looked to try and see what is the earliest printing of it, with the idea that this could give us a clue to its source or origin, but I don’t find anything earlier than 29th September 1804. On that day, three English newspapers ran the story.
Interestingly, right from the start we have two versions; the St James’s Chronicle ran the full text as given above; while the General Evening Post (p1) and the Commercial Chronicle (p3) both ran a truncated version finishing after “visitant”. After that both texts were re-printed; I have seen the full text in Johnsons Sunday Monitor, Sun 30 Sep 1804 p4; the London Courier and Evening Gazette, Mon 1 Oct 1804 p4; and the Limerick Gazette, Mon 8 Oct 1804 p3. The truncated text appears in the Cumberland Pacquet and Ware’s Whitehaven Advertiser, Tue 2 Oct 1804 p2; the Star, Fri 5 Oct 1804 p2; the Caledonan Mercury p3 and the Gloucester Journal p2, both on Mon 8 Oct 1804; and the Belfast News letter, Tue 16 Oct 1804 p2. Most of these are English newspapers; the Mercury is Scottish. Keith Sanger (on his Old News page) lists an American reprint from two months later, in the Gazette of the United States (Philadelphia), Tue 25 Dec 1804 .
The last of the Irish bards, named Hennesy, a venerable old seer, above 70, resides at Dundalk in the North of Ireland. He is blind; and though confined to his cottage by feebleness, he is visited by all the musical amateurs who come to that part of the country, attracted by the fame of his performance upon the old national instrument, the Irish harp, upon which he is justly esteemed the Orpheus of the country. He has subsisted for many years upon the generosity of his occasional visitant; and it is somewhat singular, that in an age so eminent for eliciting talents from obscurity, this extraordinary man, the last of his order, and perhaps the first of his profession in the world, should never have been brought forth to light for the amusement of the musical world.St James’s Chronicle, Sat 29 Sep 1804 p3
There is a lot of dense detail crammed into this paragraph.
Our man’s name is Hennesy. This is a much less common variant spelling of Hennessy: you can check Barry Griffin’s maps of Hennessy and Hennesy to see that this name is scattered broadly over the southern half of Ireland. The database of Irish surnames at Gaois.ie connects Hennessy to the Aonghus group of surnames, and suggests Ennis as a variant or relative.
He is aged over 70, so he must have been born before 1734. we are told that he is blind, and we are also told that he is frail and housebound, “confined to his cottage by feebleness”.
This also tells us he lived in a cottage or small traditional house; and we are told that he “resides at Dundalk”. I am not entirely sure if this means actually in the town, or very near it. Dundalk back then was much smaller than it is today, basically just the centre of modern town. Many of the houses in the town then would be traditional thatched cottages. My header photograph shows a traditional house in Dundalk in 1982 (Photo © Albert Bridge CC-by-sa).
He is described as a “bard” and a “seer” though I don’t know if we can take these literally; they may have been written by a journalist with an over-active thesaurus. We can be on more solid ground when the text describes “his performance upon the old national instrument, the Irish harp”, i.e. he was a traditional harper on the wire-strung Irish harp. He is described as “the Orpheus of the country”, i.e. an extremely good musician, and also as “perhaps the first of his profession”, i.e. the best harper.
We are told that “he is visited by all the musical amateurs who come to that part of the country”, and that “he has subsisted for many years upon the generosity of his occasional visitant”. By “musical amateurs” I understand this to mean lovers of music, though I am not clear who they would be. He seems to make a living from contributions given to him by people who come to the house to see and hear him.
I am not really sure how to explain this. At first I thought this might be a very garbled description of Dennis Hampson. The description of him being very old, and living in his cottage, and people visiting him, seems to match. And his name begins with H. The description of Hennesy was published in September 1804, and the following year Sydney Owenson found out about Hampson, and got George Sampson to visit Hampson in his house in July 1805. However against this idea is that not only is the name different (Hennessy versus Hampson), but the place is very different too (Dundalk versus Magilligan). I am not really seeing any sensible way to reconcile these differences.
So at the moment I am thinking that Hennesy of Dundalk may well be a real person, a traditional harper from the mid 18th century who has retired to a wee cottage in Dundalk.
There are still problems though. Most importantly, that I am finding no other records of Hennesy or even of anyone like him. Arthur O’Neil did not mention him when he was listing harpers in about 1808; William Carr did not mention him when he was listing harpers in 1807. I have not found a death notice in the newspapers.
Anyway that’s all I have. If we find any more references to a harper called something like Hennessy, in or near Dundalk, we can add them to the comments below.