Patrick Byrne (c. 1794-1863)
Patrick Byrne’s harp. Photo courtesy Baby Dee
Patrick Byrne was presented with his harp when he left the Irish harp school in 1821. His harp was made for him by the Dublin firm of John Egan.
John Egan specialised in full-size pedal harps, and he also invented a new romantic miniature Irish harp, his famous “Royal Portable”, strung and set up just like the pedal harps with gut strings and chromatic mechanisms.
The harps Egan made for the Irish Harp Society, including Byrne’s, were built using the workshop’s standard construction practice, just the same as the big pedal harps and the little Royal Portable harps. However, unlike the other two types, the Society harps were strung and set up as early Irish harps. This meant that they had brass wire strings, not gut, and they did not have semitone mechanisms - instead, they seem to have incorporated the old Gaelic tuning system of unison tenor g strings known as na comhluighe.
Byrne’s Egan harp is clearly visible in the series of portrait photograpsh taken of him in 1845 by Hill and Adamson in Edinburgh.
In 1921, Byrne’s harp was described as being “specially ornamented with shamrocks on the fore-pillar and on the harmonic curve as well as on the sounding board”, and having 32 strings (Co. Louth Archaeological Journal, 1921, p.25, cited in Ní Uallacháin 2003 p.354). Every student who graduated from the school at this time was supposed to have been presented with a harp, bearing a brass plaque with the name of the school and the name of the harper (McClelland 1975).
Acccording to his will, “he left his harp to Evelyn Philip Shirley Esq, with the request that it be preserved in the great hall at Lough Fea, as an heirloom in the family of Shirley” (Sanger 2002). The house burned down in 1966 and the harp was presumed to have been burned with the contents (Sanger 2006).
However, in the early 1970s, the harp was found in a junk shop in Dublin. Baby Dee flew to Shannon from the USA, intending to buy a harp to bring home. Walking from town to town in Tipperary she met Rev. Chris Warren, who suggested going to Dublin instead.
Baby dee writes:
Back in the USA, it was restored and rebuilt by New York instrument restorer, Noah Wulfe, who repaired and replaced damaged sections of the neck and forepillar, and repaired cracks and missing sections in the soundbox. The harp was restrung with gut and used for performances in Europe and America.
In the 1990's the harp was once mistakenly tuned too high and a crack appeared on the neck. Baby Dee stopped playing it, fearing for its integrity.
The harp was inspected and measured by Ann and Charlie Heymann in 2011. Thanks to Baby Dee for supplying information and photographs, and for permission to reproduce them here.
The smoking gun
On this recent photograph of the harp, you can make out the crest, and then three large lines of text;
Under this there is space for another line or two of text, but the paint is entirely missing, scraped away down to the bare wood. Only the very tops of the letters are visible.
If we turn and look at the 1845 photographic portraits of Byrne with his harp, we see that in 1845 those letters have already been scraped away, and only the three lines are visible:
This is clear evidence that the harp in the USA is Patrick Byrne’s harp, and it also points to some story as to why the lettering has been scraped away. Baby Dee suggests that this may have been the name of the unlikable King George IV.
Special thanks to Baby Dee for telling me about Patrick Byrne’s harp, and for sending photos and information, and for permission to reproduce them here.