Egan Life in London 1821 fp339


Blakeley was a traditional Irish harper at some point in the mid 19th century. So far I have only one reference to him. This post is to discuss what we know, and to put down a “marker” for Blakeley, so that if more information comes to light we can add it at the bottom.

Our information comes from the list of traditional Irish harpers written down by William Savage. The information was given to Savage in 1908 by George Jackson, who at that time was almost certainly the only living traditional Irish harper. George Jackson had learned the harp probably in the 1850s from Patrick Murney, who had learned the harp in the 1830s from Valentine Rennie, who had learned the harp in around 1808-10 from Arthur O’Neil, who had learned the harp in the mid to late 1740s from Owen Keenan.

Perhaps in 1911, after George Jackson had died, Savage made a neater expanded version of the information but he did not change or add anything in this brief text about Blakeley. Here’s what William Savage wrote down, from what George Jackson told him in 1908.

Blakeley. Whose father was a sergeant and Bandmaster
this Blakeley was a good harper had a good knowledge
of music. Travelled with his father

National Museum of Ireland, Arts and Industry division, archive file AI.80.019


We are not given a first name, only the surname Blakeley. The name Blakeley is an English surname, from around Yorkshire and Lancashire and that part of central or northern England. There were not many Blakeleys in Ireland; you can check Barry Griffin’s maps of the 1901 and 1911 distributions of Blakeley, Blakely, Blakley, and Blackley, where you can see that fairly small number of Blakeleys in Ireland are concentrated in Down and a bit across mid Ulster.

…Whose father was a sergeant and Bandmaster…

We are told that Blakeley’s father was a “sergeant and bandmaster”. Now I don’t know how to tell if these were some kind of combined function, as if he were a military bandmaster holding the rank of sergeant, or if the two things were independent: he could have been a soldier rising to the rank of sergeant, who then left the army and became a civilian bandmaster. I suspect the most likely answer is that it was a combined post of some kind and that Blakeley’s father was the bandmaster of a military band.

I am not finding any easily digested overview of the history of military bands in 19th century Ireland. Partly this must be because from 1800 through to 1922, Ireland was a unitary part of the United Kingdom and so all military organisations would count as part of the “British Army”; many British regiments were stationed in Ireland during the 19th century. But there were also local militias which I am sure had their own bands. We have quite a few references to military bands performing at civilian events, and it seems to have been a fairly common thing for the traditional harpers to have shared a platform with a military band if performing a formal concert. My header image shows a military band performing for a civilian dance (from Egan, Life in London, 1821, fp339). The black percussionists dressed in “Turkish” costume was a common feature of military bands in the 19th century.

I am wondering about how young Blakeley the traditional Irish harper fits in with old Blakeley his father, the sergeant and bandmaster. I am trying to imagine some kind of storyline that might make sense. Were the father and his band attached to an English regiment, that was posted to Ireland some time in the early to mid 19th century? Would the son have been sent to learn the harp in Belfast, perhaps at the harp school between 1820 and 1840? Most if not all of the harpers on Jackson’s list either lived in Belfast or had strong connections to the town.

…this Blakeley was a good harper…

Jackson says that young Blakeley was “a good harper”; therefore I am assuming that he had had a formal education learning to play the traditional wire-strung Irish harp in the lineage going back through Valentine Rennie to Arthur O’Neil. Everyone else that George Jackson mentions seems to have done this, except for Walker who is singled out as “not properly educated”. Jackson doesn’t mention any classical harpists and so I think we can assume that everyone he lists is a traditional harper playing a full-sized traditional wire-strung Irish harp.

George Jackson’s information goes back as far as the pupils of Valentine Rennie, that is, people who were learning the harp during the 1820s, and continues for about a whole generation, with Jackson himself and the two others he “knew personally” apparently learning the harp in the 1850s. So I think we should be looking for the young harper Blakeley in that kind of time period; if he was a full time pupil learning the traditional wire-strung Irish harp some time between the 1820s and the 1850s, then he may have been born some time in the first third of the 19th century, and he may have died some time in the second half of the 19th century.

…had a good knowledge of music…

George Jackson tells us that young Blakeley “had a good knowledge of music”. I am not sure how to interpret this. It could mean that Blakeley knew a lot of tunes, or had a deep formal structural understanding of the modal and harmonic system underpinning traditional Irish music. But there is a thing I have seen in 20th and 21st century century Irish musicians, to talk like this about people who had classical music training. I think it is a kind of colonial projection where Irish music is seen as somehow inferior or simpler than classical music. it is possible that George Jackson was speaking in this way, and it is possible that young Blakeley had learned classical music theory and structures from his father or through the band system, before or alongside learning traditional Irish harp.

…Travelled with his father

George Jackson’s comment that Blakeley the harper “travelled with his father” suggests to me that Blakeley may have had some kind of role within or more likely alongside the band. Could the son have been made the Regimental harper, perhaps like the blind traditional harper James O’Neil had joined the 86th (Royal County Down) Regiment in 1812?

If Blakeley the father really had been a Sergeant and a Bandmaster in the British Army, then I am sure there must be some records of him. If he was in a local Militia in Ireland then there may be records. I don’t know how to go about looking.

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