HARPERS OF NOTE
DURING his comprehensive tours throughout the four provinces, Arthur O'Neill not only picked up all the information and current gossip relating to his predecessors, but met all the prominent harpers of his own time. Not included in the list of those already mentioned were a few whose attainments he deemed worthy of special note.
Foremost among them were three brothers named McAleer, encountered in Tyrone. Edward, the oldest and most accomplished, spent five years in the Irish Brigade in France, and of course learned the language of the country as well as some other acquirements less praiseworthy. Assuming the name “Leeriano” ior professional purposes, after his return to Ireland, he started out as a traveling minstrel. Down in County Cavan, at a gentIeman’s home, he was set to perform in a hall where some tailors were at work, and gave a fine exhibition of jig and reel playing. After some time, the lady of the house said she was much disappointed in his performance, as some of her own countrymen could excel him. “Leeriano” sarcastically responded that as he had been ordered to play in the hall, he appropriately played tailors’ and servants’ music. This outspoken reflection on the “knights of the goose” aroused them to fury and had it not been for some peacemakers corning between them, the “French” harper may not have escaped with his life.
Of fourteen harpers encountered at Cavan, O’Neil1 says, “Ned” McCormack was by far the best of them all. The first and best which claimed his attention in County Tyrone was “Paddy” Ryan, a cherished friend next to Hugh O’Neill. Ryan’s father was a Munsterman, and his kindly biographer adds:. “Indeed, `Paddy' was not inferior to any man I ever heard on the harp.” Besides, it appears Ryan was honorable, and devoid of the “low ideas of jealousy common to itinerant musicians.”
Hugh Quinn, one of “Con’, Lyons’ pupils, comes in for special mention. “He was a gent1eman’s son, and as such conducted himself.” He reflected nothing but credit on his teacher.
Also in Tyrone he came across his namesake, “Peggy”’ O’Neill, “who played very decently on the harp.” Her special claim to fame, however, was founded on her ability to play “all O'Carolan’s planxties extremely well.” While at Bantry, County Cork, he met a blind harper named John O’Gara, from the County of Sligo, who was a good performer. He was also evidently a man of spirit, for when offered part of his confiscated estates, he declined to compromise, and so forfeited the whole.
Others of some note mentioned in Arthur O’Neil1’s Memoirs, recently published in the Annals of the Irish Harpers, by Mrs. Milligan Fox, are: “Ned” Maguire, a blind harper of County Mayo, who was drowned in the River Shannon at Limerick; Mathew Ormsby of County Sligo, a good performer, but so peevish as to be unendurable; Owen O’Donnel1 of Roscommon, a very genteel young man, but blind, and Andrew Victory, a blind harper from county Longford, whose name gave rise to much banter and plcasantry.
RENOWNED MINSTREL – CORMAC COMMON
While Turlogh O’Carolan may be regarded as the last of the Bards, Cormac Common was undoubtedly the last of the Order of Minstrels, called Tale-tellers, or Fin-Sgealaighthe.
He was born in May, 1703, at Woodstock, near Ballindangan, in the County of Mayo, although he spent many years of his adult life in the adjoining County of Galway. His parents possessed little but a reputation for honesty and simplicity of manners. Smallpox deprived him of sight before he had completed the first year of his life, so that blindness and poverty conspired to deprive him of the advantages of education. While he could not read, he could listen to those that did, and though lacking in learning, he was by no means deficient in knowledge, for a receptive mind and tenacious memory made amends for his misfortune.
Unkind fate seemed relentless, for a generous gentleman who procured him a teacher on the harp died suddenly when his protegé Cormac had received but a few lessons, and so the poor blind boy's musical prospects came to an end.
His taste for poetry was still unquenched, and though too poor to buy strings for the harp, it cost nothing to listen to the songs and metrical tales which he heard sung and recited around the fireplaces at his father’s and neighbors’ houses.
Having stored his memory with all he heard, and being without other means of obtaining a livelihood, he became a professional tale-teller.
At rural wakes, and in the hospitable halls of the native gentry, he found a ready welcome for his legendary tales, and being blessed with a sweet voice and a good ear, his recitations were not infrequently graced with the charms of melody. He did not recite his tales in an uninterrupted monotone, like those of his profession in Oriental countries, but rather in a manncr resembling the cadences of cathedral chanting.
But it was in singing the native airs that he displayed the powers of his voice to the best advantage, and before advanced age set the seal of decadence on his vocal cords, he never failed to delight his audience. He composed several airs and songs in his native Irish language. One_a lament for john Burke, Esq., of Carrentryle_is preserved in Walker’s Historical Memoirs of the Irish Bards. `
We find that the highly romantic story of “Eibhlin a Ruin” and her elopement with Carroll O’Daly was derived from Cormac Common's repertory.
Twice a widower, his offspring were not few, and when immortalized by Walker in 1786, he was living with a daughter near Dunmore, County Galway. In his old age he continued to be led around by a grandson to the homes of the neighboring gentry, but it would appear that with his faculties much impaired by the tooth of time, he was endured rather than admired. The date of his death is not a matter of record.
PATRICK BYRNE, “THE BLIND HARPER”
Of all the minstrels trained by Arthur O’Neill in the school founded by the Belfast Harp Society in 1807, none achieved such fame as a performer as Byrne, “The Blind Harper,” as he was called. Of his early life nothing is known, except that he was born at a place called Farney, in the latter part of the eighteenth century. He was said to be about sixty years of age in 1843 or 1844, when his picture was taken in Edinburgh, in the flowing garments of the harpers of earlier centuries, according to Bruce Armstrong, in his great work, The Irish and the Highland Harps, published in 1904, but that was an over-estimate, we are satisfied. Byrne, however, had played in Edinburgh and throughout Fifeshire for a considerable period before the date on which his picture in ancient costume had been taken.
Although from his estimated age, Armstrong thought that the Irish minstrel had commenced the study of the harp before the end of the eighteenth century, we must regard a Dublin gentleman in whose house Byrne played in 1860 as the better authority on that point. In an article in The Emerald of New York City, in 1870. he gives an account of the old minstrel’s manner of playing “Brian Boru’s March,” which reminds us of Owen Lloyd's performance of the same tune at the Munster Feis, in 1906.
Byrnes command of the harp was complete, the writer tells us. His touch was singularly delicate, yet equally firm. He could make the strings whisper like the sigh of the rising wind on a summer eve, or clang with a martial fierceness that made your pulses beat quicker. After quaffing a generous tumbler of punch, he would say, “Now, ladies and gentlemen, I am going to play you the celebrated march of the great King Brian to the held of Clontarf, when he gave the Danes such a drubbing. The Irish army is far off, but if you listen attentively you will hear the faint sound of their music.” Then his fingers would wander over the upper range of strings with so delicate a touch that you might fancy it was fairy music heard from a distance. Anything more fine, more soft and delicate than this performance, it is impossible to conceive. “They are coming nearer!” And the sound increased in volume. “Now here they are!” And the music rolled loud and full. Thus the march went on; the fingers of the minstrel's right hand wandering farther down the bass range. You find it hard to keep your feet quiet, and feel inclined to take part in the march yourself. You fancy you see the troops dashing fearlessly onward with the great old King and the fierce and stalwart Morogh at their head. “Histl we are nearing the field of battle.,’ Then the music became stronger and louder, and there is a deeper rumbling of the bass, with an occasional harmonic third with the right hand, producing a remarkable effect. “Now they’re at it-Irish and Danes!” The music suddenly changes to the middle range; it is hard and harsh-clang! Clang! Like the fall of sword or axe on armor, the blows showering thickly; and that harmonic third aforesaid comes frequently, but on a higher string, which gives it a sterner and more fitting effect. The right hand produces an artistic confusion with starts and rugged chords, while the left continues playing the melody, but more quickly. Presently the right rushes down pell-mell among the bass strings. “The Danes are broken! They are falling back!” Then the fingers of the left hand suddenly sweep up along the treble strings, producing a shriek-like sound. “That’s the Irish cry of victory.’) Immediately the music assumes a merry, lightsome character, as if it were played for dancers. “Rejoicing for the victory.” But this abruptly ceases; there is another shriek and discord, jangling and confusion in the upper bass strings. The harper explains as usual, “They have found the old King murdered in his tent.” Then the air becomes much slower and singularly plaintive. “Mourning for Brian’s death.’, There is a firmer and louder touch now, with occasional plaintive effects with the left hand. “They are marching now with the brave old Kings body to Drogheda.” The music now assumes a slow and steady tone, the tune being played on the middle range. Gradually the tone is lowered, and grows momentarily louder and louder, till finally it dies away, as Sheridan Knowles would say, “A sound so faint, there's naught 'twixt it and silence.” And all these marvelous effects are produced upon what is used as a simple dance tune in the south of Ireland.
Hearing such a player at this late day, one can understand the enthusiasm of Giraldus Cambrensis when he listened to the playing of the great Irish harpers seven hundred years ago. Alas! That those glories of the past should so easily fade away.
When Byrne, “The Blind Harper” played “Brian Boru's March” in Dublin, as above described, he must have been past the allotted Scriptural age. He died at Dundalk in 1863, and although he was the last of the great Irish harpers, he passed away, for all we know to the contrary, “unwept, unhonored, and unsung,” within a few miles of the capital of his native land!