Patrick Byrne—the first modern harper?

Patrick Byrne was certainly the most successful harper of his generation and was frequently referred to as ‘the last of the old harpers’. Not strictly speaking true, but a view he does seem to have also held himself. He was though a man of his time and does not seem to have attempted to have avoided that new world that was opening up in the nineteenth century. That he was the first Irish Harper to be photographed when he was the subject of a number of calotype images taken by Hill and Adamson, (those early pioneers in photography), is now fairly well known and it was a process in which he appears to have retained an interest until the end of his life.

What is perhaps less well known is that Patrick Byrne achieved another combined distinction of also being the first Irish Harper to be robbed while travelling on a train. An event which occurred while he was going down from Edinburgh to stay with the Chalmers family at Glenormiston, an estate about three miles from Peebles, near St Ronan’s Wells by Innerleithen, on the north side of the River Tweed. The railway line had in fact only been opened on the 4th July 1855, just a little over a year before the harper’s own journey.

photograph of the Tontin Hotel

The Tontin Hotel in Peebles, still in use as a hotel today, where Byrne gave his performance.
Photo ©2013 by

Due to the theft Patrick had lost his purse containing his whole summer season savings of £14 10sh and as a result Mr Chalmers and some other of the local gentry arranged for the harper to give a public benefit performance in the ballroom of the Tontin Hotel in Peebles which had a financially satisfactory conclusion. The railway from Edinburgh to Peebles is now long gone but the Tontin Hotel in which the concert was given still stands and is in use as a hotel today.

The whole episode was reported in great length in the local newspaper, The Peebleshire Advertiser and was then as was commonly the practice in the press of the time re–printed in The Belfast News–Letter of the 3rd October 1856 and as it is of particular interest and detail is transcribed in its entirety below. It includes at the end of the report some comments on the harper’s early life including the fact that he was blinded through smallpox at the age of two and that he only spoke his native Gaelic until he was seventeen years of age, until which time he had no knowledge of English.

This is the part of Patrick Byrne’s life about which we know the least and as the news–letter reports statements made in the presence of the harper, it can be relied on as factual. Thus it is worthwhile exploring how it fits with the other pieces of information we have of the early part of his life. We know that Patrick was a pupil of the second harp school in 1821 having been sponsored by Nicholas Kelly, Esq of Anahean and James Carolan, Esq, of Nobber.[1] He was said to have been aged 23 at the time but in reality he was more likely to have been at least 27 years old yet appears to have been the star pupil, an unlikely event if he was actually starting to play the harp having had no previous experience. However the statement regarding his first knowledge of English occurring at the age of seventeen does enable some circumstantial evidence to be drawn together.

Taking his birth date from his tombstone Patrick would have been seventeen years old around 1812–3, which together with another reference which states that an early patron of his was the Earl of Moira [2] raises the possibility that Byrne had been for a short while a student of the final days of the first Harp School under Arthur O’Neill. If he had been patronised or provided to an ‘institution’ by the Earl of Moira, the most logical interpretation of his entering the English speaking arena, then it must have occurred prior to April 1813 when Lieutenant General Francis Rawdon, Earl of Moira, (and Colonel of the 27th Foot or Inniskilling Fusiliers), left to take up his post as Governor General of Bengal and Commander in Chief of the forces in India.

The Earl of Moira was a professional soldier but with some interesting musical connections. He had married Flora Campbell who was Countess of Loudon in her own right having inherited the Scottish Earldom from her father. Her mother though was a daughter of the MacLeod of Raasay of the 45 and so when the Moira’s left for India they took with them apart from their own children, the Countess of Loudon’s nieces the orphaned Eliza and Jane Ross whose mother had been another daughter of Raasay.[3] Also travelling out on the ship with them was Captain John MacRa, the Earl of Moira’s newly appointed military secretary and another whose mother was one of Raasay’s daughters.

The captain, later to become Colonel Sir John MacRa of Ardintoul, definitely had an interest in Gaelic song and was himself a piper and bagpipe maker, both activities he continued in India where he was said to have taught a number of the locals to play.[4] Since the captain like the Earl of Moira was a very active military man his musical interests could only have been continued in India with the indulgence of his commander in chief. The Earl himself, by now elevated up to Marquis of Hastings, took a keen interest in the formation of the second harp school and the raising of money in India for its funding. It is likely, as suggested in the newspaper report, that the Earl had taken some interest in the young Patrick Byrne just prior to leaving for India.

3 October 1856
The Belfast News–letter


Belfast News–letter report on Bryne

Click on the image above to view a larger “pdf” image of this new–letter clipping.

For a number of years, Mr Patrick Byrne, a blind Irish harper, has visited Scotland with a view to giving public and private entertainments with his instrument. In 1840 attention was drawn to the harp music of Ireland and to Byrne’s performances, in an article in Chamber’s Edinburgh Journal, in which occurred the following observation ‘The harp as is well known, has been the national musical instrument of Ireland beyond the range of authentic history. It continued from the days of antiquity down to the end of the eighteenth century, to be practised by a body of men generally blind often of good families and respectable acquirements, who travelled about the country, receiving and giving entertainment in the houses of persons of condition. The last of those ancient minstrels was the celebrated Hempson, who had played at the court of Prince Charles, at Holyrood, in 1745, and who surviving till 1807, died at the age of 112. The use of the harp having declined, it was revived in 1807, by the Belfast Irish Harp Society, which educated several blind youths of musical talent. Of these, few now survive, one of them being Mr Patrick Byrne, a well–informed, modest, and agreeable man, of perfectly virtuous habits, and a performer on his instrument. He makes a livelihood by playing to parties at Leamington and other places of fashionable resort. We had the pleasure of hearing him about three years ago, in Edinburgh, where he attended private parties for a moderate fee, and was generally esteemed’. Since the period above referred to, Mr Byrne has had the distinguished honour of playing before her Majesty and the Royal Family at Windsor Castle and Balmoral; he has likewise, on different occasions professionally visited the Duke of Buccleuch and Lord John Scott, and been the guest of other noblemen and gentlemen in Scotland. To many gentlemen’s seats in England he likewise pays periodical visits; with one kind patron in Warwickshire he sometimes stays as long as three months, delighting the numerous visitors with his performances.

Having arrived in Edinburgh, in the course of his rambles through Scotland this season, he was invited to stay a day or two with Mr Chambers, at Glenormiston. This proved a luckless journey. In the railway train to Peebles, he became the victim of one of those heartless pickpockets who have for some time been the pest of Edinburgh. In someway, unknown to him, his pocket was picked of a purse containing £14. 10s– the savings of a whole summer — which, with the characteristic heedlessness of an Irishman, he had had the imprudence to carry about with him. At Glenormiston he played with his wonted vivacity — losses and everything being forgotten — charming everyone who heard him (including a large number of rural labourers and servants, called in for the occasion. It was here suggested that he might possibly make up for his recent loss by giving a public entertainment in Peebles. Some gentlemen present having offered to facilitate this benevolent object, Byrne accordingly announced a musical entertainment in the ballroom of the Tontine Hotel on the evening of the 16th ult. The inhabitants of Peebles have so few opportunities of attending musical entertainments that there could be little fear for the result. The room was crowded with a highly respectable audience, and the harper gave unqualified satisfaction. ‘Coolun,’ ‘The Harp that once through Tara’s Hall,’ ‘The Meeting of the Waters,’ ‘Erin Go Brah,’ and ‘Brian Boru’s March to the Battle of Clontarf,’ in particular, commanded loud applause.

That a poor blind man, with a single instrument, should have sustained close attention and interest for nearly two hours, is indeed something remarkable. At the conclusion of the performance, Mr Byrne offered thanks to the ladies and gentlemen present for their kindness; and on the part of the company, Provost Stirling, in a few appropriate remarks expressed the general gratification which had been experienced and ventured to hope that Mr Byrne would again, next season visit Peebles, and renew the pleasure of the evening.

The Provost’s observations were followed up by Mr Chambers, who mentioned a few interesting particulars respecting Mr Byrne. He stated that the harper was a native of Monaghan, in the North of Ireland; that he lost his sight from small pox, while he was an infant of two years of age; that he spoke his native language till he was seventeen years of age, until which time he had no knowledge of English. Finally, that Mr Byrne was an exceedingly estimable person, as might be seen, of gentlemanly manners, and therefore in every way worthy of public and private encouragement.

We have only to add that, after paying all expenses, Mr Byrne cleared five guineas by his entertainment, with which he was more than satisfied. On the 17th he left for an engagement at a gentleman’s seat in Fife. —Peebleshire Advertiser.

[1] The Belfast News-Letter, 13 April 1863.

[2] The Scotsman, 16 April 1863; — ‘during the stay of the late Marchioness of Bute at Holyrood Palace he was frequently invited to perform, the Marchioness being a daughter of his early patron, Earl Moira’.

[3] Cooke, MacLeod and Ó Boile, ed. The Elizabeth Ross Manuscript — Original Highland Airs Collected at Raasay in 1812 hosted on the website of the School of Scottish Studies.

[4] Sanger, K, and Cannon, R, The MacRa–Chisholm Papers. Proceedings of the Piobaireachd Society Conference, Volume XXXVI, (2009).

Submitted by Keith Sanger, 12 October, 2011.

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