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Arthur O’Neill: A Blind Harper’s Journey Through 18th Century Ireland

“I was born in Drumnastrade, Eglish, in the county of Tyrone. My father and mother’s names were O Neill, their father and mother’s names were O Neill, and my great-grandfather and grandmother’s names were O Neill.”

Arthur’s Sight

At age two, Arthur O Neill diverted himself with a knife, which pierced his right eye but did not deprive him of sight. His grandmother sent far and near for doctors to cure his eye. However, in their endeavors to cure one eye, he, unfortunately, lost sight of both.

“I have no doubt now on my mind that if it was not for quacking I would have the perfect use of both my eyes at present. But there is an old adage in Irish, the meaning of which in English is ‘That the grandmother’s pet is an unfortunate pet’.”

Playing the Harp

As with many blind, Arthur was taught the harp and became an accomplished itinerant harper.

“I was about ten years old when I commenced learning to play the harp under Owen Keenan of Augher [County Tyrone]. He frequented my father’s house for two years, and I attended him in Augher for about half a year, at which time I was considered to play middling well.”

The rapidly-changing social, political and economic conditions of the time meant that “gentlemen” and professional harpers found it increasingly difficult to attract the necessary patronage to ensure a decent standard of living. Despite this, a considerable number of mediocre performers joined the circuit of “itinerant harpers”. Unfortunately, neither the musical ability nor the general behavior of many of these reflected much credit on their profession – a fact deplored by Arthur O Neill almost as much as he deplored the passing of “the dear, dear sweet old Irish tunes”.

In 1760 O Neill strung Brian Boru’s Harp and played it in a procession down the streets of Limerick. He gained 2nd prize at the three Harp Festivals at Granard, Co. Longford, in 1781, 1782 and 1785.

The Grandard Festivals

The first meeting for the “revival of our national music” occurred in Granard Market House in 1781 and attracted an audience of about five hundred, with seven participating harpers. The second Granard meeting in 1782 was more numerously attended than the first, and the same seven harpers entered the competition for which prizes were distributed.

After Granard II, O Neill visited Longford, Sligo and Fermanagh, visiting such patrons as Counsellor Edgeworth of Edgeworthstown – the celebrated antiquarian. It was then back to Tyrone and home to his brother’s place at Glenarb near Caledon for a well-earned rest. But in the home area, too, there were patrons to be visited.

A Plan for Reviving the Ancient Music

In the winter of 1791-1792, several Belfast gentlemen joined Henry Joy, the proprietor of The Belfast Newsletter, Robert Bradshaw and Doctor James MacDonnell, a former pupil of Arthur O Neill, in planning a festival “to revive and perpetuate the ancient music and poetry of Ireland”. An important feature of the festival was to be the written notation of the old tunes, and the man chosen for the task was Edward Bunting, who was born in Armagh nineteen years earlier and spent some of his early years at Drumglass near Dungannon, where his father managed some coal mines.

On one occasion O Neill spent a fortnight with Bunting, who noted down many tunes from his playing and O Neill, obviously enchanted by the young man’s earnestness, proudly sang the words of many of them.

The Belfast Harp Festival

Belfast Harp Festival – a great four-day meeting of Irish harpers was held in the Assembly Room of the Belfast Exchange Rooms (in what is now Donegall Street) from the 11th to the 14th of July 1792. The boundless enthusiasm that imbued the organizers spread throughout the north, ensuring a much larger attendance than at previous festivals.

A Harping School

When the festival of 1792 concluded, O Neill, after spending four days as a guest of MacDonnell, set out once more on his itinerary and eventually reached his adopted county of Cavan. Some time before the outbreak of the 1798 rebellion, he had reached the home of his friend Captain Somerville of Lough Sheelin. The Captain was most enthusiastic about O Neill’s dream of forming a school for aspiring harpers and “readily consented to erect one near his own house” and to find him some scholars. Unfortunately, Somerville’s untimely death and the “subsequent disturbances” prevented the idea from fruition.

Meanwhile, work in Belfast progressed apace. Bunting’s first collection was published in 1796. The idea of a harping school was examined with fervour and resulted in the establishment in 1807 of the Belfast Irish Harp Society, of which O Neill was appointed resident master.

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