"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 O Neill

ARTHUR O NEILL was born in the townland of Drumnastrade near Eglish in the year 1734. When only two years of age he accidentally suffered an injury to his right eye while, he remarked, ‘diverting myself with a penknife’.1 This accident, together with subsequent ‘cures’ administered to both his eyes by what he described as ‘quacking’ doctors, rendered him totally blind. As career prospects for blind children were extremely limited, Arthur’s parents sent their ten-year-old son to Owen Keenan in Augher, Co. Tyrone, to learn to play the harp.He displayed skill for the instrument partially because of a musical instinct but, mainly, because of his instinct for survival.

After five years of tuition, the young man (aged just 15) began a long life as a wandering bard. We read from his memoirs that he spent most of his adulthood travelling the island of Ireland where he was lauded and scorned, praised and ignored by both nobility and ‘the not so noble’ alike. Arthur O Neill cherished his lineage and heritage. Indeed, at an event held in honour of the old Irish clans in Killarney, he declared to his host Lord Kenmare and the assembled guests at the banquet table, ‘it’s no matter where an O Neill sits, and let it be at what[ever] part of the table I am, it should be considered the head of it’!2 O Neill was not an admirer of flamboyance, sycophancy or wealth but of the more important qualities of talent, learning and decency within people regardless of their status, religion or social ranking.

In his late forties and into his fifties, O Neill competed at three harping competitions in Granard, Co. Longford and at another in Belfast in 1792. As a relatively young man, the already muchtravelled Arthur O Neill had been befriended by Michael and Elizabeth McDonnell of Cushendall, County Antrim. They had invited Arthur to reside with them and to teach the harp to their sons, Alexander, Randall and James. The friendship between the bard and James McDonnell (1763-1845) was to last a lifetime. James, then a doctor in Belfast, helped organise the Belfast Harpers’ Assembly in July, 1792. At this gathering, which took place in the Assembly Rooms, Belfast, a nineteen-year-old church organist, Edward Bunting (1773-1843), was commissioned to musically notate the airs played by the eleven assembled harpers. The fusion of McDonnell’s foresight and Bunting’s musical talent ensured that the melodies, of what was an old and fading harping tradition, were preserved for future generations. At the 1792 competition, O Neill won second prize playing The Green Woods of Truagha and Mrs Crofton. Around half the airs played at the festival had been written by Turlough O Carolan (1670-1738). Although he preferred the ancient harp music to Carolan’s more modern compositions, O Neill respected Carolan for his creative skills and his significant contribution to the Irish bardic tradition. Indeed, Mrs Crofton was written by Carolan.

In 1808, at the request of the newly-established ‘Belfast Harp Society’, Arthur, then aged 74, settled in Belfast where he was appointed ‘Professor’ of the harp by the Society at a salary of thirty pounds a year. His mission was to teach the harp to young people, most of whom, like he, were blind. Content in the knowledge that they had secured the services of an experienced and knowledgeable bard, the Society prepared a statement for the press expressing their delight:

... that the person, whom they have been so fortunate as to procure for a master, is already far advanced in life [and is] the only person they know, now living in the kingdom capable of that office ...

Belfast’s Cromac Street was the location for much harp-related activity and the Belfast Harp Society had its headquarters at number 21. Arthur O Neill was housed just a few doors away. The engraver, Thomas Smyth, who also lived on this street, made an intricate engraving of O Neill which featured in various forms in Bunting’s publications. Another Cromac Street neighbour, Valentine Reanney, was related to Rabbie Burns, the Bard of Ayrshire.

Edward Bunting commissioned his private secretary, Thomas Hughes, to write O Neill’s life story at the bard’s dictation. This memoir (most probably written in the year 1810) provides a vivid insight into, not only Arthur’s personality and his music, but the social and cultural climate of the Ireland of the 1700s. As he recounted his stories to Hughes, O Neill was ever-conscious that his dictations could later be read by people who might be offended by his lucid recollections. True to character, he admitted to ‘not caring a pin into whose hands these unconnected memoirs may fall’.4 Although the work of Bunting, McDonnell, et. al. in the Belfast Harp Society ensured that the Irish harping tradition was safely preserved for generations to come, it is unfortunate that the person of Arthur O Neill became collateral damage in their efforts.

The Bard of Tyrone had been initially welcomed to Belfast. However, after some four years he was left to fend for himself. Anonymous contributors to the Belfast Commercial Chronicle and The Belfast News Letter related how O Neill was being neglected by the Belfast Harp Society. ‘Augustus’ wrote of O Neill living in ‘abject poverty ... in a filthy lane off Mill Street’. Reacting to such letters and to public opinion, the Harp Society held benefit concerts for him. This controversy proved too much for the proud, ‘silent, uncomplaining O Neill’. In 1816, without pomp or ceremony, he returned to the county of his birth. He died at Crowhill, Maydown, near Benburb, on 29th October that year at the age of 82. He is buried in the churchyard in Eglish.

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 the time meant that “gentlemen” and professional harpers found it increasingly difficult to attract the necessary patronage to ensure themselves a decent standard of living. In spite of this, a considerable number of mediocre performers joined the circuit of “itinerant harpers”. Unfortunately neither the musical ability nor the general behaviour 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 each of the three Harp Festivals held at Granard, Co. Longford, in 1781, 1782 and 1785.

The Grandard Festivals

The first meeting for the “revival of our national music” took place 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 went on a tour of 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 1791-92 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.

Seal of Belfast Harp Society

The Belfast Harp Festival

This 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 11th to 14th July 1792. The boundless enthusiasm which imbued the organisers spread throughout the north and ensured a much larger attendance than that at any previous festivals.

A Harping School

When the festival of 1792 concluded O Neill, after spending four days as 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 reaching 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.

Further information can be found in The Book of Eglish