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Michael McCloskey

Michael McCloskey was a traditional harper in the first half of the 19th century, about 200 years ago. This post is to gather the records of his life, times and music.

His name

I suppose we should start with his name. I have records of two other harpers also called McCloskey, both slightly earlier than Michael McCloskey. We need to know about them though, because the records of the traditional harpers often only refer to them by their second name, so if we find a record referring to “McCloskey” we need to be able to work out which one is being referred to.

The earliest is Richard McCloskey. I only have one reference to Richard, that he was a harper in 1799. He may have been a young man who learned from Arthur O’Neil in 1793, or he may have been much older, having learned in the first half of the 18th century. I don’t know anything more about Richard, how long he lived for or when he died.

The second is Patrick McCloskey. He was born some time between about 1806 and 1809. He learned the harp under Edward McBride and Valentine Rennie at the Harp School in Cromac Street, Belfast, from 1820 through to 1824. After his discharge Patrick worked as a traditional harper for a few years, but he died very young in 1826 or perhaps 1828.

The Database of Irish Language Surnames says that McCluskey is part of the Bloscadh group of surnames. It gives McCloskey, McCluskey, and Cluskey as variants. Barry Griffin’s maps based on the 1901 and 1911 census results show that MacCloskey is centred in County Derry; he also gives alternative spellings including Closkey, Cluskey , Mac Bhloscaidh, MacCloskey, MacCluskey, MacLoskey, MacLuskey. I have also seen it spelt without the final e, as McClosky or McClusky.

Birth and early years

At present we have no information about where or when Michael McClosky was born. Most of the students at the Harp School were between 10 and 20 years old so we can very vaguely think that he may have been born some time between approximately 1805 and 1815.

Learning to play the harp

There was a meeting of the Gentlemen of the Management Committee of the Harp School in Belfast, on Thursday 24th August, 1826. The minutes open with a report by the teacher Valentine Rennie, detailing the current students: five boarding pupils, plus four day pupils “who receive at present, daily tuition gratis”. The day pupils are not named, but the boarding pupils are: Alex Jack, Martin Crenny, Arthur Morgan, John McMullan, and Matthew Wall.

Then there is a list of six past students, who were then out working as professional harpers with their harps “being given to them by the Society”: Patrick Byrne, Thomas Hanna, Jane McArthur, Patrick McCloskey, Hamilton Gillespie, and Hugh Fraser.

The next item is a resolution to appoint some of the Gentlemen to collect subscription payments in London and Belfast; and than after that there is a resolution from the Committee:

Ordered – That Michael McClosky be admitted, provided his friends make up a sum of £17 per annum, to be paid half-yearly in advance, which extra pupil will be no additional charge on the Funds of the Society.

Minutes of Irish harp Society meeting, Thu 24 Aug 1826, printed in Irish Harp Society Calcutta 1828 (Penn Libraries ML1015.C3I7) p.44

Then other resolutions agree that two more prospective pupils, Thomas Brown and Thomas Williamson, should be admitted as day pupils, until there is a vacancy for them being taken in as boarding pupils.

The thing about asking his friends to pay is very curious. None of the other pupils have this against them. it looks to me like the Society did not have a vacancy for a boarding pupil, but that Michael McClosky was very keen to become a pupil, and that he had friends who could pay. £17 a year was a lot of money; according to that might be the equivalent of a few thousand. £17 was about twice the cost of a new harp, or about a quarter of the Master’s annual salary. I suppose this is broadly equivalent to the cost of a college or university education today. I wonder who those friends were? I also wonder if the Gentlemen were already starting to worry about running out of money. Running the harp school was expensive, and there almost always seems to have been a bit of difficulty getting donations in.

Anyway we can build a pretty good picture of what was happening at the Harp School in August 1826, when Michael McClosky was admitted as a full-time boarding pupil to learn the traditional wire-strung Irish harp. Valentine Rennie was the master and teacher; he lived with his young wife Mary-Ann in the Harp Society House on Cromac Street. The boarding pupils also lived in the Harp Society House; they studied the traditional wire-strung Irish harp full-time; and they were joined every day by the day pupils.

After August 1826, the house would have been crowded; there were six boarders and six day pupils, twelve pupils in all.

Harp made for the Irish Harp Society by John Egan, early 1820s. Photo from Armstrong 1904
Harp made for the Irish Harp Society by John Egan, early 1820s. Photo from Armstrong 1904

The Harp Society was formed of the Gentlemen who bankrolled the whole thing; they paid for the house, and for Rennie’s salary, and for the food and clothing of the boarding pupils, and for heating the house, and they also paid for the harps: there were a few harps belonging to the Society which were kept in the house and used for the lessons; the Society also paid for gift harps, which would be given one to each pupil after they had finished their studies and were ready to be discharged to start their lives on the road as itinerant professional traditional Irish harpers.

This photo shows one of the harps which seems to have been owned by the Society and kept at the House, for the use of the pupils. In 1904 it belonged to the harp historian, Robert Bruce Armstrong. He gave it to the National Museum in Dublin and it is kept there under the accession number DF:1913.381. You can see it is a floor-standing traditional wire-strung Irish harp, and it is fitted with 37 metal wire strings. This is the kind of harp that all the traditional harpers were playing by the mid 1820s; Michael McClosky very likely played this very harp during his daily lessons with Valentine Rennie.

Completion of education and discharge

Unfortunately, we don’t seem to have the minutes of any meetings of the management committee after August 1826, and so there are no further records of Michael McClosky’s attendance at the Harp School.

Traditional wire-strung Irish harp made by Tim Hampson in 2023, copying John Egan's 1820s design
Traditional wire-strung Irish harp made by Tim Hampson in 2023, copying John Egan’s 1820s design

I would expect him to have been examined by the Gentlemen of the Management Committee, and when they saw that he could play the harp to a professional standard, and also that he could behave himself so as to be able to go and make a living as a professional harper, they would have presented him with a hand-written certificate, and they would have given him a gift of a floor-standing traditional wire-strung Irish harp, either one of the ones made by John Egan, or a cheaper copy made in Belfast. They may well have asked his friends to pay part or all of the cost of the harp.

There is a brief note in the newspaper (Belfast Newsletter 22 June 1830) which reports an extract of the minutes of a meeting on Thursday 17th June 1830, when Michael McClosky’s classmate Matthew Wall is to be given a harp and spare strings and sent off to Canada. I assume that this is Matthew Wall finishing his education and being discharged (since otherwise I think he would already have a harp), so perhaps we can imagine that Michael McClosky may have been discharged at a similar time? I think 4 years full time study was the norm for learning to play the traditional wire-strung Irish harp to a professional standard. However we have information about McClosky performing in public before then, and so I think he must have finished his education quicker, and already been discharged in 1829 or early 1830

Professional career

Michael McCloskey went off and had a career as a professional traditional Irish harper. Unfortunately we know almost nothing about this.

I have a newspaper clipping about a concert in Sligo town that Michael McClosky performed in, on Monday 24th May 1830.

Two Members of the Belfast Irish Harp Society, Messrs. FRASER and M‘CLUSKY, have arrived in this town, and intend performing on that National instrument before the public, at the Theatre, Linen-Hall-street, on the evening of Monday next. From what we have already heard them play, and in the opinion of one of the first Professors of Music in this town, expressed in high approbation of their style of performance, we can safely promise the Gentry of Sligo a treat on Monday night. From the constitution of the Irish harp – altho much improved – the performer cannot have that scope of harmonic transition which the Pedal Harp supplies; but in the soft and flowing MELODY of our National Music, its tones come upon the heart “like the memory of former times” and wedded to the words of MOORE, the listener feels himself as it were transported to the Halls of TARA, the long-neglected harp taken down from the walls on which it had slumbered – the venerable bard again placed again in his seat of honor, and giving expression to the beautiful aposthophe of the Bard of Erin –
“Dear Harp of my Country in darkness I found thee,
The cold chains of silence had hung o’er thee long,
When proudly my own Island Harp I unbound thee,
and gave all thy chords bright Freedom and Song”!

Sligo Journal, Fri 21 May 1830 p4

This comment comparing the traditional wire-strung Irish harp with the classical pedal harp is particularly interesting. The writer seems to have some experience of both types of harp, and some technical understanding abut the design and construction of both – the Irish harp with its brass wire strings and consequent long resonance and harmonic-rich sound, and no mechanism at all; and the pedal harp with its gut strings and consequent soft plummy sound, and with a mechanism on each string to raise the pitch by a semitone. (The “lever harp” had kind of been invented already by 1830 in the form of John Egan’s portable harps, but they were not in widespread use and were used solely by classical harpists as a kind of portable novelty alternative to the pedal harp, which I think is why our writer does not even mention it)

The Linen Hall building in Sligo (photo: NLI)

As far as I can work out, the theatre where the boys played was in the old Linen Hall building, which is now part of the old Imperial Hotel. Linen Hall Street is now called John F Kennedy Parade. There is a plaque on the building which you can see on Street View. This photo (from the NLI) shows the outside of this building in perhaps the 1880s; the most obvious distinguishing feature is the six arches at ground floor level.

The following week, the Journal printed a short review of the concert:

The Messrs. FRA[Z]ER & M‘CLUSKY performed on the Irish Harp last Monday night, at the Linen Hall, but owing to the very extreme wetness of the evening, they had not so full a house as their merits deserved. They performed a number of very old & beautiful Irish airs with a great deal of sweetness and excellent taste, sprinkled with a few Welsh airs; amongst the latter, that beautiful air the “Rising of the Lark,” met with unbounded applause. It was whispered through the company that it would be necessary to have another night to enable many to enjoy such a treat, who were prevented attending by the weather; and we are happy to find that [those] gentlemen intend prolonging their stay in order to afford another, and we trust a more favorable opportunity to the lovers of harmony to hear their performance on Monday evening next.

Sligo Journal, Fri 18 May 1830 p4

We also have a nice review from the Sligo Observer:

On last Monday evening we had the pleasure of hearing two of the members of the Belfast Harp Society – Messrs. Frazer and M‘Cluskey – perform at the Linen Hall. The performance was at once novel and delightful – several of Carolan’s charming airs, and the Irish melodies generally, were played with great taste and feeling. Notwithstanding the wetness of the evening, (the wettest we remember,) a very considerable number of the Inhabitants attended, and appeared to be quite charmed by the wilderness of sweet sounds that filled the spacious hall. The Harp does, indeed, the “soul of music shed” – and we rejoice to find that there is a fair prospect of its being, for the first time, likely to be permanently patronised in Sligo. We understand that Messrs. Frazer and M‘Cluskey have fixed upon next Monday evening for the second performance. If the weather permit, we anticipate a very full attendance.

Sligo Observer, Thur 27 May 1830 p3

The Sligo Observer is very hard to read, because either the print or the reproduction on microfilm is very faint. I have not put square brackets for dubious readings because otherwise almost every word would be in brackets! I have done my best to read it for you.

The notice and two reviews for this concert on Monday 24th May 1830 are very interesting. The notice frames the two traditional harpers in very Romantic and distant way, talking about Tom Moore, the Harp of Tara, and the “venerable” bard (Fraser was aged in his early 20s, and McCloskey was probably a similar age).

The reviews are more factual, describing them playing ancient airs, and Carolan tunes. The only tune actually named is The Rising of the Lark, presumably this traditional Welsh harp tune, played here in traditional Welsh style by Robin Huw Bowen:

The second concert was on Monday 31st May 1830. I am not finding a notice or review of it in the Observer or in the Journal.

Hugh Frazer was discharged from the harp school some months before Michael McClosky was admitted as a pupil. But I have a feeling that it may have been a “thing” for a more experienced harper to take on a younger harper, and to tour together, as if this was a way of giving the younger harper some experience of touring and getting gigs. I would guess that at the time of them being in Sligo, Michael McClosky may not have been long out of school, whereas Frazer would have already had a few years of touring and performing under his belt.

I’m very curious about the Observer‘s line that “there is a fair prospect of its being, for the first time, likely to be permanently patronised in Sligo”. To me this suggests that one at least of the two harpers was considering staying in Sligo for the long term. We find Fraser working in Derry four years later, on his own (Belfast News-Letter, 10 Oct 1834 p.2) so perhaps this was Michael McCloskey’s plan? Did he have a Gentleman patron to take him on as a full time retained harper? Against this is the hint that the two lads were only convinced to stay in Sligo for another week, to repeat their concert due to some people not being able to go to the first one because it was so wet out.


That’s it, I have not at the moment got any more information about Michael McCloskey’s career.

I am sure there is more information out there, we just need to find it. I went to the newspaper archives and looked through all the Sligo newspapers I could find for May and June 1830, and found the reviews – because the printing is so bad, the OCR systems on the online news archives do not pick up any useful search words. If we went though all the newspapers manually we would probably find a load more clippings that don’t come up in searches of the archive. But there are a lot of newspapers – there are literally millions of pages of newsprint on the Irish News Archive.

We would also expect to find more information about Michael McClosky in other archive sources. There may be private letters referring to him, from patrons or people who attended performances. I wonder if there are not more records of the Harp Society out there somewhere in a private archive. There may be a death notice or obituary somewhere.

But I am not finding any of this stuff.

If I do find anything more I will add it to the comments section below. And you are more than welcome to do the same! It’s too much for one person!

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