Also known as Pádraig Dall Ó Beirn, Young Byrne
(see A Hidden Ulster, pp. 393-97 for full references and further information)
The memory of harper Patrick Byrne has been reawakened in the Oriel region in recent years, especially in the Carrickmacross area in County Monaghan, near to where Byrne is buried in Cloughvalley, and where there is now an annual traditional festival named from him. This is primarily as a result of due recognition being given to Patrick Byrne in A Hidden Ulster – people, songs and traditions of Oriel 2003 (AHU pp. 353-7). In it, his position as the last in a long line of recognised poets and harpers in the Oriel region was acknowledged.
Although known among the harp community to be the first Gaelic harper to be photographed, A Hidden Ulster established Patrick Byrne as the first ever Irish traditional musician to be photographed (AHU 355-7) – Thomas Moore being the first Irish musician. Although a minor point in Patrick Byrne’s colourful life as a musician, it captured the imagination of the traditional music community in Carrickmacross, as well a having a local harper who was lauded for entertaining Queen, Lord, Duke and Earl. However, having a ‘first ever’ claim in local traditional circles, has given the harper Patrick Byrne, a not insignificant local celebrity status.
A more important aspect of his performance, was that he sang in Irish to his own accompaniment, which was his first and only language until he acquired English in his late teenage years. From our limited knowledge of his repertoire we can glean that he favoured older music and that Oriel song was central to his performance. He was regarded as an excellent and inspiring harper who sang in Irish to the accompaniment of his own harp. This places singing in Irish at the heart of his performance at home and abroad. Edward Bunting wrote to Byrne in 1840:
“I conceive it to be a matter of much moment that we should have in you a performer, yet remaining capable of giving due effect to the primitive airs of our country, you being able to accompany them with your voice in the words of their native language” (AHU p. 354)
His reputation as a harper was unparalleled. A German visitor travelling in Ireland, J. G. Kohl, had heard that there was a
‘distinguished harper … celebrated, named Byrne whom I often heard mentioned is, if I mistake not, also blind. The latter I was told was generally thought superior to all others.’ (AHU p. 355) .
During that time he received many letters of recommendation by his patrons, including one from Edward Bunting written from a Dublin address in 45, Upper Baggot Street, on 20 May 1840:
“I consider you as peculiarly well qualified to give these sweet melodies their proper effect by playing them in that extremely soft and whispering manner which can be perhaps best executed by the delicately sensitive touch of a person deprived of sight.”
Bunting also remarked in the same letter that Byrne’s stopping the vibrations of the strings was another ‘distinguishing characteristic’ of his playing.’ Some further information is given on ‘Pat Byrne’ in a letter from Dr James McDonnell in 1841 to Bunting on his teaching the harp in Irish (AHU p. 355).
Although there are many references to tunes and songs he played, only two pieces namely, Rose McWard and Nurse putting the child to sleep, were written down by Edward Bunting.
Further ongoing research on the airs of Oriel song-poems by named poets, may establish that Rose McWard is the air of a song, Róis Nic a’ Bháird, by Oriel song-poet Peadar Ó Doirnín who also reputedly played the harp (AHU p. 347, 348-50). This comes as no surprise as the poet Ó Doirnín lived nearby, and Ó Doirnín’s song-poems were well established in the tradition when Patrick Byrne was born.
Patrick Byrne was a younger contemporary of Patrick Quin (AHU pp. 351-53) and was known as ‘Young Byrne’ who was born about 1786 or ’87, on the Monaghan Cavan border, although elsewhere his year of birth is given as 1794. He was blind, taught at an early age by travelling harpers and was, reputedly, proficient by 1803, His name appears in the 1820s when he attended the revived Irish Harp Society in Belfast as a pupil in 1820. In 1821 Patrick Byrne aged 23 was discharged from the Irish Harp Society school having acquired ‘considerable proficiency on the instrument (60 tunes)’.
This implies that he may have been quite a proficient harp player when he arrived at the Harp Society and his short time there was spent, probably, increasing his repertoire. On leaving, the Society presented him with an Egan harp.
Passing references to airs and tunes played by Patrick Byrne include Charles Coote, Lord Moira, Paul (sic) Doherty and The Coulin; Savourneen Deelish, Kitty Tyrrell, Nurse Putting the Child to Sleep, Rose McWard, and other traditional tunes identified as being in his repertoire include Brian Boru’s March, Aileen Aroon, Gramachree, Fox’s Sleep, Carolan’s Receipt and Planxties composed by Carolan for ‘various families.‘ Identifiable songs from the above list include An Chúilfhionn (The Coolin), A Mhuirnín Dílis (Savourneen Deelish – Ceol a’ Phíobaire) in A Hidden Ulster (pp. 69-74], Caitlín Triail (Kitty Tyrrell) and Eibhlín, a Rún (Aileen Aroon).
In 1821 he moved to London, where he remained for twelve years, playing in various houses of the nobility and gentry. He also performed in Stratford-on-Avon in 1829. Then to Edinburgh, where articles appear in the Edinburgh newspaper of the time describing him as playing:
‘with an enthusiasm that brings Carolan and his predecessors before the eyes of the audience. We observed that there is also a national peculiarity in his style, like the accent in speech, a certain wild plaintiveness, which probably none, not of the manor born, could imitate. We never before were sensible of the full effect of The Coulin, Savourneen Deelish, Kitty Tyrrell and other slow tunes of the same class’ (AHU p.354).
He remained in Edinburgh from 1837 to 1845. He also played before Queen Victoria, and on 6 January 1841 he received a warrant as Irish Harper to his Royal Highness, Prince Albert.
He had his picture taken whilst in Edinburgh, in ﬂowing robes, aged about sixty years, where he sat c. 1843, for pioneering photographers David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson. The photographs taken show Byrne in bardic robes as he played an Egan harp in an historical tableau in the Waverly Hall in Edinburgh, with his left hand playing the treble and his right hand the bass.
He returned to Ireland during the Great Famine, about late 1845, and we find him back in Tandragee, in County Armagh, playing some of his favourite pieces, and also singing the ‘comic’ song ‘Paul Doherty’, listed in his repertoire in the Armagh Guardian, December 1845. This is most likely to be the song Bold Doherty (pronounced Boul), which is in the Oriel Song tradition for at least 150 years, and was in the repertoire of the celebrated singer, Mary Ann Carolan from Drogheda, County Louth.
Me name is Bold Doherty from the north country
Where there’s a still upon every stream
Lady, be quicker and pour me more liquor
And fill me a glass of the stronger than cream
If I had you, Molly, so pleasant and jolly
Although it’s a folly to ask you at all
I’d fill up me glass with a mile to the bottom
And I’d drink to you, Molly, beside Donegal
With me fol the dol do, fol the dol do with me
Fol the dol do with me, fol the dol day
Fol the dol do, fol the dol do with me
Fol the dol do with me, fol the dol day
He found employment as ‘a domestic harper’ with the Shirley family of Lough Fea in County Monaghan, to which he bequeathed his harp after his death (AHU p. 356). Patrick Byrne’s harp has been located, and here is a fascinating account by harper, Simon Chadwick, on how it was found: http://www.earlygaelicharp.info/patrickbyrne/harp.htm
One of the most remarkable glimpses into the world of the Irish harper, and the transmission of music during that period, is in a letter which he received towards the end of his life from another harper called Thomas Hanna who wrote from Green House, Castle Forbes, in County Longford on 5 May 1861. Thomas Hanna from Ballymoney in County Antrim had also been a pupil in the Harp Society school with Byrne in 1821 (AHU pp.356-7), and here they are in their final years, and both blind, still playing, singing, travelling and transmitting music and song:
Green House, Castle Forbes
I am glad to hear you are very well and lose no time in sending the music of Sir Charles Coote. I want the words of Lord Moira as well as the music. When you go to Scotland, look out for the tune and words and send them to me and you’ll oblige your ever well-wisher,
Thomas Hanna, Irish harper. Castle Forbes, Longford
PS. I am for a sail up the Shannon on Wednesday next in his Lordship’s yacht the Erin with his Brother the Hon. Major Forbes. May 5th ’61 (AHU 356-7)
In 1862 he became ill while staying in the Sibthorpe Hotel in Dundalk. One of his patrons, Lord Clermont, had him removed to the Louth Infirmary, where a friend of Lord Clermont, Dr Brunker, attended him there. He died in Dundalk on 8 April 1863. He is buried in the graveyard in Tobergubboch, in the townland of Cloughvalley Upper near Carrickmacross in County Monaghan (AHU 355-7).
© Oriel Arts 2017