THE harpers who assembled at Granard, County Longford, in 1781, to play at the Grand Ball instituted for the encouragement of harp music by Mr. James Dungan of Copenhagen, were:

Charles Fanning,

Arthur O’Neill,

Patrick Kerr,

Patrick Maguire,

Hugh Higgins,

Charles Byrne, or Berreen,

Rose Mooney.

First, second, and third prizes were awarded to Fanning, O’Neill, and Rose Mooney. Respectively. The decision, it appears, was not unanimous, for a Mr. Burrowes, one of the stewards, found vent for his anger by thrusting his cane through a window.

The second ball, held early in the next year, was more numerously attended than the first; yet notwithstanding the publicity, and the fame of Mr. Dungan, who was a native of Granard, only two new competitors came forward - namely, Edward McDermott Roe and Catherine Martin. Owing to some fancied slight, Hugh Higgins, though present, did not play at ail. The prize-winners were the same as at the first ball.

In point of numbers, the third ball, held in 1783, was a magnificent success.

It was attended by its founder, Mr. Dungan, in person, and by Lord and Lady Longford. Two additional candidates - Lawrence Keane and James Duncan - presented themselves on this occasion.

For the third time the prizes were awarded to Fanning, O'Neill, and Rose Mooney. Jealousies and animosities began to do their deadly work, and even the originator and financier of the harp revival movement was not exempt from their shafts.

A suggestion from Arthur O’Neill that a subscription be taken up for the benefit of the harpers who had not won premiums was favorably received. The result was quite satisfactory, for the amount distributed to each exceeded the value of the prizes.

The experience of the patriotic Mr. Dungan was so disheartening that he did not afterwards interest himself in the renewal of those interesting assemblies.


Every age - and every generation, it may be said, for that matter - produces its enthusiasts who, undeterred by the failure of their precursors, undertake to break through the barriers of stagnation and indifference, and accomplish the ambition of their lives.

Of such were Doctor MacDonnell, Robert Bradshar, Henry Joy, and other estimable citizens of Belfast, who founded the “Belfast Harp Society” in 1791. Originated for the purpose of reviving and perpetuating the ancient music and poetry of Ireland, it fulfilled its mission to a degree not equaled by any prior or subsequent endeavor in that line. The concluding paragraph of their prospectus, which follows, was well calculated to appeal to the sympathies of all music-loving Irishmen:

An undertaking of this nature will undoubtedly meet the approbation of men of refinement and erudition in every country. And when it is considered how intimately the spirit and character of a people are connected with their national poetry and music, it is presumed that the Irish patriot and politician will not deem it an object unworthy his patronage and protection.”

The ten harpers who responded to the invitation to attend the Harp Festival at Belfast in July, 1792, were:

Denis Hempson, blind Native of Derry age 97 years

Arthur O’Neill, blind Native of Tyrone age 58 years

Charles Fanning Native of Cavan age 56 years

Daniel Black, blind Native of Derry age 75 years

Charles Byrne Native of Leitrim age So years

Hugh Higgins, blind Native of Mayo age 75 years

Patrick Quin, blind Native of Armagh age 47 years

William Carr Native of Armagh age IS years

James Duncan Native of Down age 45 years

Rose Mooney, blind Native of Meath age 52 years

A Welsh harper named Williams also played. His execution, which was very great, was in marked contrast to the sweet, expressive tones of the Irish instrument. He died on shipboard soon afterward.

The first premium of ten guineas was adjudged to Charles Fanning, and the second of eight guineas was awarded to Arthur O’Neill. All of the others received six guineas each. After the meeting, which lasted four days, all of them were liberally entertained at his residence by Doctor MacDonnell.

Edward Bunting, who had been selected to take down the airs played by the harpers, says Fanning was not the best performer, but that he succeeded in getting the first prize by playing “The Coolin” with modern variations, a piece of music at that time much in vogue with young practitioners on the pianoforte.

A prejudice in favor of “The Coolin” still exists, for not a few who proclaim a love for Irish melody have no ear for any other strain. Most of the harpers convened at that historic meeting were rnen advanced in life, yet little was known to them of the origin of the tunes they played. To them, all of their tunes, even then, were ancient and handed down traditionally from their predecessors.


While making his way to Belfast to attend the Harp Festival, Arthur O'Neill met Patrick Lyndon, a most interesting harper and poet, who was anxious to accompany him if his wardrobe had not been so scant and shabby. Knowing Lyndon to be an excellent bilingual scholar and a desirable representative of the profession, he furnished him with a presentable suit of clothes. Lyndon was so delighted with his improved appearance in the newly acquired raiment that he went rambling around in such elation of spirits as to forget to keep his appointment with his benefactor, who was reluctantly obliged to continue his journey without him.

Lyndon, who was a native of County Armagh, boasted of his boyhood acquaintance with Turlogh O'Carolan. Patrick Quin, who played at the Belfast Harp Festival, was one of his pupils.


Another harper of acknowledged ability, named O’Shea, was prevented by extreme debility from attending the Belfast Meeting. Though an octogenarian, he wasstill an enthusiast in everything connected with Irish feeling, a characteristic common to practically all natives of Kerry, the county from which he hailed.


The most celebrated of all the harpers in many respects was Arthur O’Neill, who was born in 1734, at Drumnaslad, in the County of Tyrone. Intelligent, liberal, and companionable, this exemplary minstrel honored the traditions of his illustrious ancestry. His manners and acquirements, Bunting tells us, were such as would not have been inconsistent with the pretentions of many country gentlemen.

Stored in his tenacious memory, he preserved an array of facts, anecdotes and reminisences concerning his predecessors and contemporaries, but for which the very names of many of them would have passed into oblivion. From his manuscript memoirs, written out by one Thomas Hughes at Belfast, about the year 1800, Edward Bunting and other writers derived most of such information as is now available relating to the Irish harpers of the late centuries.

Both parents, as well as his paternal and maternal ancestors for generations indefinitely back, were O’Neills. In fact, he had no relatives, to his knowledge, of any other surname. An injury to his right eye, when but two years old, led to his total blindness, and he commenced the study of the harp at the early age of ten, under the tuition of Owen Keenan, who continued to be his instructor for three years. Although he set out as a traveling harper at the immature age of fifteen, there is no doubt but that he subsequently received some training at the hands of Hugh O’Neill, a blind harper from County Mayo, for whom he always entertained the greatest friendship and veneration.

Accompanied by a boy as guide, young Arthur O’Neill directed his footsteps southward, wandering through the provinees of Leinster, Munster, and Connacht successively, and arriving at the home of his parents about the year 1760.

While visiting Murtagh Oge O’Sullivan, at Dunboy Castle, Berehaven, at Christmas time, his guide came to his bedside one morning in great alarm, telling him to bless himself. Being asked why, he replied: “Och, sir! there’s a pipe of wine and two hogsheads of some other liquor standing up in the hall, with the heads out of them, and a wooden cup swimming in each, for any one that likes to drink their skin full.” Similar instances of reckless and wholesale hospitality came to his notice elsewhere in Munster.

At an entertainment given by Lord Kenmare (annually) to the Mac’s and O's or principal Milesian families in the district, all were represented but the O'Neills. Murtagh Oge O’Sullivan told his lordship he could supply a young man who could fittingly represent the name.

Arthus O'Neill was sent for accordingly, and when dinner was announced he groped his way to a seat among the Munster chieftains. Lord Kenmare, addressing the young minstrel, said: “O'Neill, you should be at the head of the table, as your ancestors were the original Milesians of this kingdom.” “My lord,” promptly responded Arthur O’Neill, “it's no matter where an O’Neill sits; let it be at any part of the table. Wherever I am should be considered the head of it.” This impromptu reply was greeted with a universal burst of applause, and his arm was almost shaken from his body, in appreciation of his ready wit.

It was in the year 1760, shortly before completing his first tour of the provinces, that Arthur O’Neill performed the memorable act of playing on the harp of Brian Boru through the streets of Limerick.

While enjoying the hospitality of Councillor McNamara of that city, he was shown the framework of the historic instrument at the councillor’s town house. And, as he says in his Memoirs, in consequence of the national esteem he held for the memory of its owner, he strung and tuned it, after its silence of over two hundred years. It was at the suggestion of his host, that O'Neill hung the harp from his neck, being then young and strong, and paraded through the streets of the patriotic city, followed by an enthusiastic audience of five or six hundred people - gentle and simple - as he played the melodious strains of “Savourneen Dheelish, Eileen Oge” and other tunes not named.

Tiring of the monotony of his life with his patents and friends around Dungannon, he resumed the life of a wandering minstrel again, but confined his circuit to the Ulster counties, especially Cavan, where he enlarged his list of acquaintances among the harpers, and of whom he tells many an amusing story in his Memoirs.

He attended the three celebrated balls held at Granard, County Longford, in 1781, ‘82, and 83. respectively, and won second prize at each, the first prize in all three going to Charles Fanning, more on account of his shabbiness and evident want of money, it was said, than the superiority of his performance.

Even in his dress, Arthur O'Neill never failed to uphold the respectability of his ancestry. The buttons of his coat, which were of silver and of half crown size, had the Red Hand of the O'Neills engraved thereon.

These balls, it will be remembered, were instituted by Mr. James Dungan, a native of Granard, and a wealthy merchant of Copenhagen, for the purpose of encouraging the promotion of harp music.

During his peregrinations sometime about the end of the eighteenth century, the renowned minstrel called at the home of Mr. James Irvine of Streamstown, County Sligo, who was an enthusiastic lover of music, and possessed an ample fortune. His four sons and three daughters were all proficient performers on various instruments. At a meeting in his house there were forty-six musicians, enumerated at follows:

Three Misses Irvine at the piano 3

Arthur O'Neill at the harp 1

Gentlemen flutes 6

Gentlemen violoncellos 2

Common pipers 10

Gentlemen fiddlers 20

Gentlemen clarionets 4

When O'Neill received from Dr. James Macdonnell the invitation to attend the Belfast Harp Meeting, in 1792, he was visiting Philip O’Reilly of Mullagh, County Cavan, at whose hospitable home he had spent the Christmas holidays for eighteen successive years. Suffering as he was with rheumatism in the two principal fingers of his left hand, he would have declined had not his friend and host insisted upon his attendance. Handicapped as he was in consequence of this affliction, he won second prize, the first being accorded to the incomparable Denis Hempson, who plucked the strings with crooked finger-nails, in the ancient style.

During the succeeding ten years of his life he made his headquarters at Castle Hamilton in County Cavan, the residence of Colonel Southwell, who treated him as a friend and companion.

On the formation of the Belfast Harp Society, in 1807, Arthur O’Neill was unanimously chosen to conduct the Harp School, which he did so creditably that on its decline in 1813, for lack of funds, he was provided with a pension of thirty pounds a year for life, by a few generous and musical enthusiasts of Belfast. He returned to his native district in County Tyrone, to pass the few remaining years of his life. An ideal minstrel, he never married, and passed away in peace in 1818, in the eighty-fifth year of his age, at Maydown, County Armagh, being the last of the old line of harpers.


Of the ten harpers who competed at the Belfast Harp Meeting in 1792, Denis O'Hempsey, or Hempson, then ninety-seven years old, was the only one who literally played the harp with long, crooked nails, as described by the old writers. In playing he caught the strings between the flesh and the finger-nail, while the other harpers pulled the strings by the fleshy part of the finger alone. Bunting tells us he had an admirable method of playing Staccato and Legato, in which he could run through rapid divisions in an astonishing style. The intricacy and peculiarity of his playing often amazed Bunting, who could not avoid perceiving in it a vestige of a noble system of practice, that had existed for many centuries; strengthening the opinion that the Irish were at a very early period superior to the other nations of Europe both in composition and performance of music. “In fact,” Bunting adds, “Hempson’s Staccato and Legato passages, double slurs, shakes, turns, graces, etc., comprised as great a range of execution as has ever been devised by the most modern improvers.”

Hempson was born in 1695, at Craigmore, near Garvagh, Londonderry. At the early age of three years he was deprived of sight by an attack of smallpox, and when twelve he began to learn the harp under the tuition of Bridget O'Cahan. In those days, women as well as men were taught the harp in the best families. He studied under John C. Garragher, a blind traveling harper, Loughlin Fanning, and Patrick Conner, successively, all hailing from the Province ot Connacht - the prolific mother of musicians.

At the age of eighteen he began his professional career, being provided with a harp by the generosity of Councillor Canning, Squire Gage, and Dr. Bacon, of his native place. A tour of Ireland and Scotland, lasting ten years, furnished him with a fund of anecdotes and experiences, which rendered his conversation as entertaining as his music was entrancing.

He was fifty years old when a second trip to Scotland was undertaken, in 1745. Prince “Charlie” the Pretender, being in Edinburgh when Hempson arrived, the renowned harper was called into the great halls to play. After a time, four hddlers joined in, and the tune they played was “The King Shall Enjoy His Own Again.” Hempson was brought into the Pretender's presence, it is said, by Colonel Kelly of Roscommon and Sir Thomas Sheridan.

On his return to Ireland, the celebrated harper played in the houses of the nobility and gentry and in the principal cities throughout the country. Like all traveling musicians, his memory was stored with an inexhaustible assortment of interesting, gossipy narratives.

He had been in O'Carolan's company when a youth, but never took pleasure in playing his compositions, preferring such ancient strains as “The Coolin” “Eileen a Roon,” “The Dawning of the Day,” etc.

He was not entirely free from egotisin, the proverbial professional failing. In conversation with Bunting in 1793, the year after the Belfast Meeting, he said, with conscious pride, “When I played the old tunes, not another of the harpers would play after me.”

A gay bachelor at the age of eighty-six, he married a woman at Magilligan, in his native County, who bore him a daughter, with whom he spent the last years of his life. Commenting on his belated matrimonial venture, he remarked: “I cant tell if it was the devil huckled us together, she being lame and I being blind.”

The day hefore his death, on hearing that Rev. Sir H. Harvey Bruce had come to see him, he desired to be raised up in bed, and his harp placed in his hands. Having struck some notes of a favorite strain, he sank hack, unable to continue, taking a last farewell of an instrument which had heen a companion even in his sleeping hours and a solace through a life protracted to the astounding span of one hundred and twelve years.


As a winner of prizes against all competitors, Charles Fanning, a native of Foxford, County Mayo, and at contemporary and rival of Arthur O'Neill, stands pre-eminent, for the excellence of his performance at the meetings of harpers at Granard, County Longford. In the years 1781. '82, and '83. respectively, he was awarded the first prize. This success he repeated at the Belfast Harp Festival in 1792.

Born in 1736, he was the son of Loughlin Fanning, a comfortable farmer who played well on the harp, although the instruction of the son was entrusted to at County Roscommon harper named Thady Smith.

Charles Fanning preferred Ulster to his native province, and although certain important episodes in his life happened at Tyrone, his chief haunts were in the County of Cavan. The mistake of his life was marrying the kitchen maid of one of his early patrons, a Mrs. Baillie who was a good performer on the harp herself, and who had entertained him at her table, and introduced him to genteel company. The result is well expressed in the concise language of Bunting: “He was also patronized by the celebrated Earl of Bristol, the great Bishop of Derry; but in consequence of having married a person in low life and corresponding habits, he never attained to respectability or independence.”


The gentlemanly conduct of this distinguished competitor at the Belfast Harp Festival in 1792 attracted much attention. Musically inclined in his youth, he was taught to play the harp as an accomplishment and not as a means of obtaining a livelihood, his tutor being Harry Fitzsimmons.

Litigation connected with the settlement of his paternal estate in County Down drained his financial resources, and he had recourse to his harp as a means of securing funds to defray the expenses thus incurred. Fortunately, the lawsuit was decided in his favor, although he did not live long to enjoy his success. He died about the year 1800, in the fifty-third year of his age.

In his Memoirs, Arthur O'Neill describes him as an excellent performer, who know very little of ancient Irish airs, but played at great variety of modern airs very well.


This distinguished harper, mentioned at some length in connection with Owen Keenan's escape from prison, was a good performer, and outranked in social standing most of the professional harpers of his time. He was born at Tyrawley. County Mayo, in 1837. his parents being in comfortable circumstances. Blindness in early life led him to thc study of the harp, and being gifted in a musical sense, he made rapid progress.

Well dressed and genteel in appearance, Higgins aimed at supporting the character of a gentleman harpcr, and traveled in a manner befitting the best traditions of Irish minstrelsy. He attended the Granard Balls and the Belfast Meeting in later years, but won no premiums. In fact, he did not play at all at the second hall at Granard, having taken offense at something connected with the arrangements. Arthur O'Neill's avowed friendship for Higgins was a guarantee of his respectability.


One of the youngest of the harpers who played at the Belfast Harp Festival in 1792 was Patrick Quin of Portadown, County Armagh, a pupil of Patrick Lyndon of the Fews, in the same County.

Early in the nineteenth century, he was taken under the patronage of thc eccentric but enthusiastic John Bernard Trotter, whose extravagance led to his bankruptcy in 1817, and death a year later.

Modesty, it would seem, was not Quin's most conspicuous virtue. He was so elated at his being selected to play at the O'Carolan Commemoration Meeting held at Dublin in 1800 that, on his return to his own country, he scorned to play the fiddle, as before, at public gatherings, although it had been his chief source of income in former years, ere he had fallen a victim to megalomania.


The most noted of the women harpers was Rose Mooney, winner of third prize three years in succession at the Granard Balls. She also attended the Belfast Harp Festival in 1792, where no third prize was on the programme.

She hailed from County Mcath, where she was horn about the year 1740. Her teacher, Thady Elliott, as well as herself, was blind, and being an incorrigible wit and joker, he was much disliked and seldom out of trouble.

Accompanied by her maid as a guide, Rose Mooney adopted the life of an itinerant harper, but in the course of time sacrificed her popularity and in a sense her life to a fondness for conviviality, a weakness which was decidedly more pronounced in the maid than the mistress. Some accounts intimate that she died when the French fleet were at Killala in 1798, but Bunting's notation of having taken down “Planxty Charles Coote” from her in 1800 conflicts with that view.


Charles Byrne, or Berreen, namesake and guide of his blind uncle, to whom O’Carolan had such an aversion, was born about 1712, in the County of Leitrim. He attended the three Granard Balls and the Belfast Harp Festival, but won no prizes at any of them. Though not excelling as a performer, as an entertainer with anecdotes and Irish songs he had no superior.

He was not far from being a centenarian at the time of his death, which was subsequent to the year 1810, and for many of the later years of his life he was in the habit of spending the Christmas holidays at the hospitable home of John Lushington Reilly of Scarva, County Down.


Little can be said of Daniel Black, one of the Competitors at the Belfast Harp Festival, except that he was one of the five harpers upon whom Edward Bunting relied for authentic information concerning the traditions of their art.

He hailed from County Derry, and was born about the year 1717. Bunting, who visited him in 1796, and noted down four of his airs, informs us that Black's chief resort when in Antrim was Mr. Heylands seat near Glendaragh. He was blind, and sang to his music very sweetly.


Nothing like an extended account can be given of the six other harpers who attended the Granard and Belfast Meetings, as little information relating to their lives has escaped the obliterating hand ot time.

Williarn Carr was a mere lad of fifteen, hailing from the County of Armagh, when he played at the Belfast Meeting. Of Patrick Kerr, Patrick Maguire, and Edward McDermott Roe, who played at the Granard Balls, nothing is available but their names.

Catherine Martin, the last of the list, was, like Rose Mooney, a native of County Meath. Her favorite airs were those composed by “Parson” Sterling, the reverend piper and composer of Lurgan, in County Cavan. It is much to be regretted that Mr. Bunting neglected to take advantage of the opportunity to preserve some ot the compositions of this renowned musician.