The Tholsel, Kilkenny

John McMullan

John McMullan (or McMullen) was a traditional Irish harper in the early to mid 19th century. This post is to gather the few references we have, to try and say something useful about his life and music.

We first meet John McMullan when he was a student at the harp school in Belfast. The minutes of the management committee of the Irish Harp Society give us some fragments of information about him.

Birth and early years

John McMullan appears to have been born at the beginning of 1816 (or perhaps the very end of 1815); we are told in August 1826, that he was 10½ years old.

We are told that he was blind already as a child, but we are not told where he was originally from, or anything more about his background.

McMullen is listed as part of the Maolán group of surnames on You can check Barry Griffin’s maps of the 1901 and 1911 census distribution of MacMullan and MacMullen; I think Macmillan is also a form of this same name. All these names have a focus in counties Antrim and Down.

Learning to play the harp

John McMullan entered the Belfast Harp School in August 1824, according to the minutes of the management committee of the Irish Harp Society, who funded and managed the school.

We have the minutes of a meeting from 29th June 1824, just before he was admitted. After a list of the then current pupils, the Gentlemen make three resolutions; first, to discharge Patrick McCloskey, and to give him a certificate and a harp; and then to admit two new pupils. Neither of the new pupils is named, but we are told the names of the Gentlemen who recommended them. The first pupil, recommended by Browne Roberts Esq., we can recognise as Matthew Wall. And so therefore the other un-named new pupil must have been John McMullan. He would have been just 8½ years old at this point.

Resolved – That a young person recommended by the Marquis of Downshire as a pupil, be admitted into the house next vacancy, and his lordship be informed of the same by Mr. Williamson.

Minutes of meeting, 29th June 1824, in Irish Harp Society Calcutta 1828 (Penn Libraries ML1015.C3I7) p.41-42

I am not 100% certain that this prospective pupil is John McMullan but it seems extremely likely – we don’t have any information about a third person it could be. The only thing that makes me doubt is the “next vacancy” – it seems to be that Matthew Wall was taking Patrick McCloskey’s place, and so it is not clear why a second vacancy should have arisen at the same time. Perhaps the teacher Valentine Rennie, or some of the Gentlemen, decided they could fit him in anyway. Perhaps the Gentlemen of the Irish Harp Society management committee wanted to impress the Marquess of Downshire. Or perhaps more prosaically, Hugh Fraser may have been discharged a week or two later.

Arthur Hill, 3rd Marquess of Downshire, was an interesting Irish aristocrat with an interest in Irish language and culture. His seat was Hillsborough Castle. (Arthur Hill’s grandfather Will Hill had paid for and organised the building of the church at Hillsborough and the installation of the peal of 8 change ringing bells by Rudhall in 1772). Robert Williamson was one of the Gentlemen on the management committee at this meeting. I went to the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland to look through the Hill correspondence. I looked at about 27 envelopes each containing up to 30 or more letters, from PRONI D671/C/321 through to 343. I also looked at an envelope of letters to Hill from Robert Williamson (D671/C/126) and manuscript volume containing copies of letters from Hill (D671/C/354) but I did not find anything relating to the Harp Society or to John McMullan.

The minutes of two years later list John McMullan alongside his classmates in the harp school:

Present Pupils on the Society’s Books, as reported by Mr. Rainy.
1st March 1822, Alexander Jack, Blind . . . . . . . . . . 13½
2d November ——, Martin Crenny, ditto . . . . . . . . . 14
3d April 1824, Arthur Morgan, has sight . . . . . . . . 11½
4th August ——, John McMullan, blind . . . . . . . . . . 10½
5th August —–, Matthew Wall, nearly blind . . . . . . 14½
Independently of four extern who receive, at present, daily tuition gratis.

Minutes of meeting on 24th August 1826, in Irish Harp Society Calcutta 1828 (Penn Libraries ML1015.C3I7) p.44

The numbers “1st … 2d … 3d…” etc. seem to be the numerical listing of the pupils, and not the date. So this list only tells us that John McMullan had entered in August 1824, not the actual date (and definitely not 4th August).

I have already written up three of his classmates: Alex Jackson, Martin Craney, and Arthur Morgan. The five boys were full-time boarding pupils at the Irish Harp Society school, which in the 1820s was in the house on Cromac Street, Belfast. The boys lived in the house along with their teacher Valentine Rennie, and also his young wife Mary Ann. There must also have been some kind of housekeeper to run the house and cook for the boys; I wonder if Mary Ann Rennie had this role. I don’t think we have any records of this domestic side of things except for lines in the accounts summary of 1825 which lists “General expenses, coals, &c”, “Dieting Boarders and Washing…” and “Rent of House” (IHS Calcutta p43)

We also see from the August 1826 minutes that there were four day pupils, who walked in to the house on Cromac Street every day for their lessons.

We can imagine the teacher Valentine Rennie working each day in the house in Cromac Street, teaching the 9 young people to play the traditional wire-strung Irish harp. We know very little about the nitty gritty of how the classes were actually run; some at least of the teaching was one-to-one, and after learning the formal structures of fingering technique, they would learn a big repertory of tunes. I presume they would also learn practical things like tuning and maintaining the harp, as well as how to interact with patrons and agents, how to travel and how to get paid events, in fact everything that they would need to set off as a professional when they finished their education at the harp school.

Wire-strung traditional Irish harp made for the Irish Harp Society by John Egan, early 1820s (NMI DF 1913.381)
Wire-strung traditional Irish harp made for the Irish Harp Society by John Egan, early 1820s (NMI DF 1913.381)

We know that the Harp Society owned harps that were kept at the house, and which would have been used in the teaching. The harps were specially made for the school by the Dublin maker John Egan, and were designed from the ground up to be traditional wire-strung Irish harps suitable for use in the inherited tradition. My photo shows one that was made in the early 1820s for the Society, and which was probably kept in the house as a classroom harp; I think it is very likely that John McMullan had some of his lessons using this harp.

This particular harp was owned in the early 1900s by the harp historian Robert Bruce Armstrong; he later gave it to the National Museum in Dublin where it is preserved today.

Discharge from the harp school

At the moment I don’t have any information about when John McMullan was discharged from the harp school. The usual arrangement was that the pupils would be examined by the Gentlemen of the management committee, and when the Gentlemen decided (presumably with the advice of the Master Valentine Rennie) that a pupil had reached a professional standard, then the pupil would be discharged. The pupil would be given a harp, one of these 37 string floor-standing traditional wire-strung Irish harps, either made by John Egan or a cheaper Belfast-made copy. The Harp Society would usually pay ⅔ of the cost of the harp and would solicit a donation for the remaining ⅓ from a gentleman patron. The Gentlemen would also write a formal certificate for the pupil, certifying their musical ability and good conduct. And after that the pupil would be out on their own, to make a living as a traditional musician.

We know that John McMullan entered the school aged 8½ in August 1824; he was still there as a full time pupil two years later in August 1826. But we have no more records of him at the school after that. We know that his classmate Matthew Wall stayed at the school about five years, before being sent to Canada in 1830. This seems to me to be a normal period of time to be studying the traditional wire-strung Irish harp full time, and so we can guess that John McMullan may have been discharged with his harp and certificate in the late 1820s or perhaps the very early 1830s.

Professional career

We have no trace of John McMullan for the next 10 years or more. He must have been working: one of the reasons the inherited tradition of playing the wire-strung Irish harp continued right through the 19th century is because the harpers, being blind, had no other way to make a living, and so they had no option to keep working.

It is possible that John McMullan was working every evening in a hotel or tavern, playing background music; we know some of the other traditional harpers did this. Or he may have toured around, visiting aristocratic patrons to play for their private parties and house events. We have a hint that he may have been doing some of this kind of thing because there is a reference to “testimonials … from distinguished personages in different parts of Ireland” which he appears to have collected.

John McMullan also apparently kept in contact with other harpers who had learned at the harp school, because we find three of them performing together in Kilkenny in 1842:

Concerts in Kilkenny, 1842

The Tholsel, Kilkenny. The harp concerts would have been in the upstairs room.

In January 1842, three traditional Irish harpers performed in the Tholsel in Kilkenny, which the prominent arcaded town hall on the High Street. This concert features John McMullan alongside Mr. O’Connor, and James McCurley. Now I think both O’Connor and McCurley may have been at the school a but later than McMullan, because thir names do not appear in the Harp Society records. The records stop in 1826, so I think it is likely that O’Connor and McCurley were at the school in the late 1820s and early 1830s.

I have already written up O’Connor; he seems to have been a flamboyant showman who usually performed alongside other harpers – I get the impression he liked to be the lead performer, but he liked to have some of his old classmates alongside him as support.

Poor James McCurley is best remembered for having been beaten up in Cootehill, by a drunken blacksmith who injured McCurley and broke his harp.

We see John McMullen heading the bill here, perhaps because he was the most senior of the three. He would have been aged 26 at this time, in January 1842.

(From the Royal Institution, Belfast,)
BEG leave most respectfully to announce to the Nobility, Gentry, and Inhabitants of Kilkenny, and its Vicinity, that they will give,
In the Assembly Rooms, Tholsel,
The novelty and interest of the Entertainment will, they hope, draw forth public attention; as few towns in the Kingdom have witnessed such a performance since the days of the honored Minstrels of old.
Doors to open at half-past Twelve. Performance commences at One.
Admission to Morning Concert, 2s. – Children half-price.
Doors to open at 7. Performance commences at half-past 7. Admission to Evening Concert –
Front Seats. 2s. Back do. 1s.
Tickets to be had at the Offices of the KILKENNY JOURNAL and MODERATOR, and by private distribution of friends.
☞ For particulars of Performances, see Programme in Bills.

Kilkenny Journal, and Leinster Commercial and Literary Advertiser, Wed 5 Jan 1842 p3

We also have a review of the concerts a few days later:

Messrs. O’Connor, M‘Mullen, and M‘Curley, performers on the Irish Harp, and pupils of the Royal Institution, Belfast, whose advertisement appeared in our last, gave a morning and an evening concert at the Tholsel, yesterday. – Both were numerously and respectably attended, and the performances of the representatives of our ancient minstrels is pronounced by all capable of forming a judgement to be first rate. – Their execution of the most difficult pieces evinced the hand of a master and the heart of an enthusiast, and the performance on the instruments was in no wise superior to the singing. We understand that their stay will be prolonged, and we would earnestly recommend all who appreciate the beauties of the ancient music of Ireland to avail themselves of the opportunity which may not again readily present itself, for enjoying them in all their perfection. The performers bear with them testimonials to their high skill and exquisite performance from distinguished personages in different parts of Ireland.
By reference to the advertisement, which appears elsewhere, it will be seen that the entertainments are to be repeated on Tuesday.

Kilkenny Journal, and Leinster Commercial and Literary Advertiser, Sat 8 Jan 1842 p2

I don’t have any information about the concert on the following Tuesday, but we do have the advert and review for a subsequent concert two weeks later. It is possible that the three were playing private events in Kilkenny during the time inbetween, as hinted in the review above.

BEG to apprise the Public, that the Members of the
have kindly promised them their Support and Patronage,
On THURSDAY Evening next, Jan. 20, 1842.
In the ASSEMBLY ROOM, Tholsel
Upon which occasion, they will perform some of the most celebrated pieces of
the particulars of which will be specified in the bills o[ ] the day.
Doors to open at half-past seven, performance to begin precisely at Eight o’Clock.
Tickets same as last Concert.

Kilkenny Journal, and Leinster Commercial and Literary Advertiser, Wed 19 Jan 1842 p3

We also have a review of this concert:

On Thursday night, pursuant to the advertisement which appeared in our paper, Messrs. M‘Mullen, O’Connor, and M‘Curly, the performers on the Irish Harp, for some time resident in our city, gave their concert, under the patronage and support of the Citizens’ Club; and a demonstration so effective had not for years, been witnessed in Kilkenny. The Assembly Rooms were thronged to suffocation. There were upwards of 500 persons in attendance, comprising the respectability, taste, and intelligence, of all parties in our city. In calling for a “bumper” for our minstrel friends, we had no idea that we should be gratified with one so overflowing.
After the concert, about fifty members of the Citizens’ Club sat down to an excellent supper prepared for them at their rooms in William-street. Mr. Tidmarsh was in the chair. Mr. T. Cody occupied the vice-chair. Both gentlemen discharged their duties to the high satisfaction of all assembled. The harpers were in attendance, and contributed to render the scene one of real and thorough entertainment.
On the subject of national music, and the encouragement to be afforded to it, we shall have something to say hereafter. For the present we can only recommend to general imitation the example of the Kilkenny Citizens’ Club.

Kilkenny Journal, and Leinster Commercial and Literary Advertiser, Sat 22 Jan 1842 p3

William Street turns off High Street just opposite the Tholsel; I think the Citizen’s Club was at no.18.

I think the comment at the very end is relating to some ideas to set up a harp society in Kilkenny, modelled on Father Burke’s in Drogheda. However nothing seems to have ever come of these ideas.


I don’t have any more information about John McMullan after that.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.