Richard McCloskey

I have one single reference to a harper in Belfast called Richard McCloskey. I am not sure if he is real or not. This post is to discuss the reference. If in the future we discover any other references, we can add them as comments to this post.


The reference is in a discussion of the song The Exile of Erin, which is the same song that was discussed by Patrick Byrne and Mary Kellett in the eighteen-teens or early eighteen-twenties (this is how I came to find the reference to Richard McCloskey).

The song begins “There came to the beach a poor exile of Erin, / the dew on his raiment was heavy and chill…” The argument is whether the song was composed by the Scottish poet Thomas Campbell (1777 – 1844), or the Irish poet George Nugent Reynolds (c.1770–1802).

Interestingly, I found a brief reference to Thomas Campbell employing an Irish harper; he mentions him in a letter written in Sydenham in 1808. But I don’t know who that might have been.

The tune which this song is set to is ’S a mhuirnín dílis (Savourneen Deelish). The poem was printed by Edward Bunting in 1809, attributed to Campbell, and set to the tune of Savourneen. Bunting’s title for the tune seems wrong; if you want to follow this up then Donal O’Sullivan wrote a good account of the different versions of the tune in his ‘Bunting’ part 6 in the Journal of the Irish Folk Song Society p53-60.

Reference to Richard McCloskey

I found the reference in John O’Hart, Irish Pedigrees, or the origin and stem of the Irish nation. I don’t find this passage in the 1st edition (1878) or in the 2nd edition (1880); but it appears at the beginning of volume 2 of the 3rd edition (1892), on page 3. O’Hart tells us that the song

…was composed some time prior to November, 1799, on the subject of the exile of John Cormick, who was obliged to leave Ireland on account of the part he had taken in the Irish Insurrection of 1798. Mr. Reynolds’s sister (Mrs. Mary Anne MacNamara), of Lough Scur, county of Leitrim, wrote upwards of one hundred copies of it for friends, who again transcribed it for others, so that a travelling harper named Richard M‘Closkey, learned it in Belfast about the time of Christmas, 1799. Thus it was well known in parts of Ireland shortly after November, 1799.

John O’Hart, Irish Pedigrees, 3rd edition vol 2 (1892) p3

No references or sources are given so we can have no way of telling where any of this information comes from. I found an earlier telling of the story in the Boston Pilot, 21 Feb 1846 p2, which has slightly more detail about Mrs McNamara getting the song from Reynolds and copying it out, but which doesn’t mention the harper; it merely says “in the winter of 1799 this song formed a subject of instruction at the Belfast School of Music”. I am not sure what to make of this.

O’Hart is using Richard McCloskey as evidence for the date of composition of the song; the song must have been written after John Cormick left Ireland in 1798, but before Richard McCloskey knew it, in Belfast at Christmas 1799.

So it looks to me like O’Hart maybe has a report from someone who was in Belfast at Christmas 1799, and who met Richard McCloskey the harper, and who presumably heard him sing the song (or another song of the same title, or perhaps even just playing the tune of Savourna Deelish under the title of “The Exile of Erin” like Patrick Byrne apparently did).

What else can we say about Richard McCloskey

What else can we say about Richard McCloskey? He was a “travelling harper”, i.e. he was not based full time in one big house like Thomas Hanna, and he was not resident in the city full time teaching or working in the taverns and hotels, but he was an itinerant, travelling from place to place perhaps more like Arthur O’Neil or Patrick Byrne.

If he was working in 1799, when could he have learned to play the harp? I can think of two broad possibilities. One is that he could have learned to play the traditional wire-strung Irish harp at the harp school which Arthur O’Neil had run in Virginia, County Cavan, in 1793, which is where Biddy Reilly learned to play. Perhaps Richard McCloskey learned there, so that he would be out working as a professional by 1799. In that case we could imagine him aged between 10 and 20 in 1793, so he would have been aged perhaps in his early 20s when he was singing or playing “The Exile of Erin” in Belfast at Christmas 1799.

The other possibility is that Richard McCloskey was much older, perhaps more like a contemporary of Arthur O’Neil or Patrick Quin, that he had learned to play the traditional wire-strung Irish harp in the mid-18th century, and that by 1799 he was an old man.

I have no other references so we cannot know. All I will say is that no-one else seems to mention him; Arthur O’Neil does not mention him in his lists of harpers working towards the end of the 18th century; William Carr does not mention him in his list of harpers he knew about in the beginning of the 19th century. And I have not found him in any newspaper adverts or clippings.

I think 1799 is too early for him to have been a classical harpist. Pedal harps were known in Dublin by 1789; Dublin Evening Post Thu 12 Mar 1789 p1 is an advert offering French (i.e. pedal) harp strings for sale; Saunders’s News Letter Wed 24 Jun 1789 p2 is an advert for pedal harp lessons placed by Mr Lewis. But the earliest reference to a pedal harp in Belfast I have seen so far is Mme Dupree’s advert in the Belfast Newsletter, Tue 21 Sep 1802 p3. Also, the pedal harp was mostly for amateur aristocratic ladies, not for male travelling harpers. And of course the lever harp had not yet been invented in 1799, and at that date classical harp playing on gut strings had not started to usurp the Irish harp tradition of playing on traditional wire-strung Irish harps. I suppose it is possible that Richard McCloskey was a traditional Welsh harper playing the telyn deires (triple harp); we know that there were a number of Welsh harpers in Dublin in the later 18th century and at least one in Belfast in 1792. But I think that is less likely because McCloskey is not a Welsh name.

It is of course possible that everything is garbled and wrong and that there was no such harper as Richard McCloskey.

We will keep our eyes open. I have added him to my timeline of harpers in the long 19th century.

One thought on “Richard McCloskey”

  1. As a follow up to newspaper discussions of the authorship of The Exile of Erin, the Rev. Dr. Drummond read a paper to the Royal Irish Academy on the subject, on 12th January 1846. He says:

    It was stated in favour of Reynolds, that a wandering harper, called M‘Cluskey, had said that he had learned the song in the Irish Harp Society of Belfast in 1799, and that G. N. Reynolds was the author…
    Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy no.52, 1846, p157-160

    I’m not sure how helpful this is for us trying to track down McCloskey; but this at least is an earlier attestation of his name, even if it is all a bit garbled. I don’t think there was an “Irish Harp Society of Belfast in 1799”.

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