The Healing Harp

An Eighteenth Century Precedent

by Keith Sanger

The physician Richard Brocklesby was born in 1722 at his mother’s home at Minehead in Somerset. He was though, brought up at his father’s home in Cork. The family were Quakers and he completed his education at the Quaker school at Ballitore, co. Kildare where he met and became a lifelong friend of another pupil, Edmund Burke. He commenced studying medicine at Edinburgh, but later transferred to Leiden to avoid the anti–Jacobite feelings which might have affected an Edinburgh graduate wishing to practice in London.

His career in London, where he stayed for the rest of his life, flourished and he was recognised as both a writer and practicioner.[1] It is one of his works, Reflections on Antient and Modern Musick with the Application to the Care of Disease, published in London in 1749 which supplies the passage quoted below, along with the subject of the title The Healing Harp. The story was clearly acquired by him while studying in Edinburgh and in referring to the Pretended Prince along with the rebel forces being routed at the battle of Dunblane appears to have been written with the political situation of the more recent events of 1745–46 in mind and a need for diplomacy in its aftermath.[2]

The battle of Dunblane in 1715 was another and older name for the battle of Sheriffmuir and that was more of a stalemate rather than a rout as implied by the text. The name of the patient, a gentleman with three sons who had been on the Jacobite side at the battle is still to be determined although certain of the more prominent gentry can be discounted. The harp master whose playing effected the patient’s cure does involve a much smaller number potential candidates with probably that of Thomas Connellan occupying the prime spot. Indeed from the date of the event described by Doctor Brocklesby it might have been a factor behind the harper being made a Burgess of Edinburgh in 1717.

The transcription from the relevent pages given below follows the original text including puntuation, use of the long ſ [S] and using an apostrophe to abbreviate some of the words.

page 34

To this purpoſe I ſhall relate a memorable hiſtory, communicated to me by a phyſician at Edinburgh of great learning and experience. A gentleman with his three ſons were unfortunately engag’d in the rebellion of the year 1715, and, zealous for the cauſe, he had ventured the largeſt ſhare of a considerable fortune in the ſervice of his ſuppos’d rightful maſter. This, added to ſeveral other inſtances of his unfeigned attachment, had deſervedly procur’d him the higheſt marks of eſteem, from the Pretended Prince; however, when the rebel forces were routed at the battle of Dunblain, he had the misfortune to find two of his ſons kill’d, and himſelf wounded in the hands of his enemies.

page 35

Yet, in theſe circumſtances, all due care was taken of his health, ſo that he ſoon made his eſcape, and was ſuffer’d to live in a private manner at Edinburgh; but there ſtung with obdurate pride and grief of mind, he fell into a nervous fever, which left him in ſo deep melancholy, that he refuſed the neceſſary ſupport of food, and all diſcourſe with the perſons uſually converſant about him: when all other remedies were excluded, his phyſician (who previouſly knew what delight he formerly had in playing on the harp) propos’d to the patient’s friends to engage one of the ableſt hands on that inſtrument, to approach him with ſuch ſoft and ſolemn ſounds, as were formerly known to give him moſt delight: his relations were under no difficulty to conſent to the trial, and as ſoon as one or two pieces had been play’d, the patient diſcovered an uncommon emotion both of body and mind, and ſhortly after, reproach’d their preſumption in ſo diſturbing his meditations. When this point was once gain’d, the doctor enjoined the maſter to play a while every day within audience, ’till by degrees the ſick perſon was thereby induc’d to ſpeak of ordinary things; and ſhortly after to take food and ſuch medicines as were requiſite in his condition, ’till at lengh he perfectly recover’d his former ſtate of health.

[1] The biographical details are from the entry for Richard Brocklesby written by Ernest Heberden in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Version 21 May 2009.

[2] Strictly speaking it should have been Pretended King as that rebellion was raised in the name of the exiled James Stuart the Old Pretender while although the Jacobite campaign of 1715 was a failure, the question of which side actually won at Sheriffmuir is still a matter for debate. However Richard Brocklesby was writing in London just three years after the later Jacobite rebellion at a time when tension was still very high had to choose his words to avoid showing any bias. In fact politically he was a whig that is an estabishment man and was appointed physician to the army in 1758.

Submitted by Keith Sanger, 18 January, 2019

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