logo Enthusiasms No 85
A collection of shorter pieces on subjects of
interest, outrage or enthusiasm ...

A Celebration of the Belfast Linen Hall Library's Beath Collection
and the Bicentennial of the Irish Harp Society of Belfast (1819-39)

A look into one of Linen Hall Library's most fascinating collections, with music, speakers, and insights into early 19th century Belfast

Thursday, 12 September 2019. 3:30pm-7:30pm
Linen Hall Library
17 Donegall Square N,
Belfast BT1 5GB
Telephone: +44 28 9032 1707

All-inclusive ticket: £20.00

To celebrate the Bicentenary of the Irish Harp Society of Belfast (1819-39), we present a colloquium that draws together strands from Linen Hall's Beath Collection.  In 1974, Mrs Norah Beath - granddaughter of architect and noted music collector Robert Young - donated a collection of manuscripts to Linen Hall Library.  This collection contains a wealth of material from the 18th and 19th centuries tied to music - as well as social reform, politics, and more.  Many of the manuscripts are connected with influential music collectors and musicians, including Edward Bunting, Patrick Lynch, Robert MacAdam, Mary Ann McCracken, and William Ware.  These figures are not only important in the sphere of music, but were also influential in the late 18th and early 19th centuries when Belfast - the 'Athens of the North' - was a thriving beacon of Enlightenment.

Of special interest this year are papers in the collection regarding the Irish Harp Society of Belfast (1819-39) and the 'Bengal Subscription' that enabled that Society's existence.  The Irish Harp Society that was established in Belfast in 1819 aimed to 'revive the Harp and Ancient Music of Ireland'.  One of the ways in which they proposed to do this was by training a new generation of harp players.

The impetus to do this can be seen as a reaction to - and continuation of - the work of a similar, earlier Irish Harp Society in Belfast that was formed in 1808 and that also organized a school to train young boys and girls to play the harp.  The harp societies in Belfast were two of four Irish Harp Societies that existed in Ireland in the 19th century - the other two were in Drogheda and Dublin.

Belfast's 1808 Irish Harp Society walked a financial tightrope from its inception, and had rapidly been losing the support of its patrons - and, indeed Belfast - due to their treatment of the revered harper Arthur O'Neill, whom they had engaged as a tutor for young harp pupils.  O'Neill was considered to be something of a national treasure and had been one of the participants in the Belfast Harp Festival of 1792.

Unfortunately, O'Neill was treated rather appallingly by the Society and was not paid; he was essentially living in poverty, blind, and elderly.  Many people who had championed the work of the society began to withdraw their support—to the point where anonymous letters and poems were submitted to the major Belfast papers urging that something be done to help O'Neill.  By 1812 the Irish Harp Society no longer existed, but the published letters deploring O'Neill's treatment eventually made their way to the expatriate community in India.  The impression that these letters made prompted a group to come together - Irish, Indian, and of various backgrounds and religions - who were prepared to change O'Neill's life for the better.

Sadly, by the time the now-defunct harp society managed to communicate with the group in, India O'Neill had died, but the need for change was seen and the finances from India went toward creating a new Irish Harp Society and school in 1819.  The new school was to train a generation of harp players who would be taught by some of O'Neill's pupils.

The 1819 Irish Harp Society was almost entirely funded by the group in India - the 'Bengal Subscription'.  It lasted until 1839, when the Bengal Subscription ended up having to cease its funding, which is why the Harp Society folded; there simply wasn't enough interest in Ireland to keep it going.  There's a letter from 1839 in the Beath Collection from the Society's secretary, John McAdam, saying 'Our gentry in Ireland are too scarce, and too little national, to encourage itinerant harpers, as of old; besides, the taste and fashion of music no longer bears upon our national instrument: it had its day but, like all other fashions, it must give way to novelty'.

Though the Society ultimately failed to revive the Irish Harp, John Egan - the Dublin pedal harp maker whom both Belfast Societies employed to make 'Irish' harps for the school's pupils - created the early incarnations of what was to become the lever harp (sometimes called 'Celtic' or 'folk' harps).  So the impact of the Society's work has been fascinating to review in hindsight, and more and more research is being published about this influential and little-known chapter in the history of the harp.

By coming together to mark the Bicentenary of the Irish Harp Society of Belfast (1819-39) and celebrating the treasures that comprise the Beath Collection we hope to raise funds that will go toward its long-term preservation and eventual digitisation. Thus, future generations can more readily access the past—and enrich the future.

Presenters/Performers include:

Frank Bunting, who has researched and published two extensive articles in Dúiche Néill exploring Edward Bunting's familial roots - that Mr Bunting shares - and the forces that drove Edward Bunting to collect and publish Irish harp music.

Nicholas Carolan, whose vast contributions to Irish Music include co-founding the Irish Traditional Music Archive.  Mr Carolan is currently the Archive Director Emeritus, and will talk about Irish Traditional Music in the Beath Collection.

Simon Chadwick, who, in an extension of his research of historic Irish harps and Bunting manuscripts, will perform a selection of tunes from the old Irish harp tradition on a reconstruction of an 18th century Irish harp.

Philip McDonagh, a former ambassador to India and current Overseas Citizen of India, who will speak about his visits to Irish missionary foundations there (Presbyterian, Church of Ireland, and Roman Catholic), and literary and cultural links between Ireland and India.

Lily Neill, who will perform a program highlighting the development of the lever harp, with repertoire spanning the 1500s to the present.  Early incarnations of this harp supplanted the old Irish harp in the 19th century to accommodate changing music trends.

Dr Mary Louise O'Donnell, author and Fulbright Scholar, who will talk about the crucial role that the Irish Harp Society of Belfast played in the education of Irish harpers from 1819-39 and the significance of the Bengal Subscription.

All of the above are appearing gratis as the funds raised will go toward the preservation and eventual digitization of the material in the Beath Collection.

We invite you to celebrate the Bicentenary of the Irish Harp Society and revel in the treasures of the Beath Collection with us.  This modest collection deserves our attention and, just as the Irish Harp Society sought to preserve and further the harp tradition, we too seek to ensure that the marvels of the Beath Collection are readily available for future generations.

Lily Neill - 21.5.19


Rod Stradling - e-mail: rod@mustrad.org.uk  Tel: 01453 759475
snail-mail: 1 Castle Street, Stroud, Glos GL5 2HP, UK

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