Arthur Ó Néill (c.1737 - 1816)

Arthur Ó Néill

Arthur Ó Néill played the early Irish harp.

This is a type of harp that died out in the 19th century. It is characterised by its metal wire strings, left orientation (left hand treble, right hand bass) and the tuning with two strings tuned to the same note, G below middle c.

The early Irish harp is completely different from the modern Irish harp, which was invented in the 19th century and which completely replaced the early Irish harp. There is no technical or organological connection betwee these two different instruments.

So what was Arthur Ó Néill’s harp like?

We have what may be a first-hand description of his harp, from a letter written by Arthur Ó Néill himself. Printed in a romantic novel in 1806, the attribution there only says it is by “a very eminent modern Irish bard Mr O Neil”, but it is generally assumed to be an actual letter written by Arthur to the novel’s author.

My harp has thirty six strings...of four kinds of wire, increasing in strength from treble to bass; your method of tuning yours (by octaves and fifths) is perfectly correct; but a change of keys or half-tones, can only be effected by the tuning-hammer. As to my mode of travelling, the privation of sight has long obliged me to require a servant who carries the harp for me...

Sidney Morgan, The Wild Irish girl, 1806

Arthur Ó Néill

We can tell something about what his harp was like by looking at his portraits. These show a harp with about 33 strings. By looking at the notations of his music from Bunting’s books and manuscripts, we might guess it was at least 33 strings, with a significant number of bass strings - at least 2 octaves below middle c, probably more.

His harp in the portraits is a large high-headed instrument, resting on the floor with its shoulder level with his cheek, and with its peak higher than the top of his head. The soundholes on the front of the soundbox remind us that the box would likely have been carved fom a single log of willow wood. The gently curving forepillar rises to a scroll at the top. The harp would have balanced on a projecting foot - this is not visible in the portraits as it would be hidden behind his foot.

So what became of his harp?

A couple of the surviving historical Irish harps have been claimed to have belonged to Arthur Ó Néill, but I think these are spurious claims, because he was famous, and I don’t believe any of these claims is true1.

R. B. Armstrong relates an anecdote:

There is a tradition that a favourite harp of O’Neill was destroyed when the house of the O’Neills of Glenarb was burned

Robert Bruce Armstrong, The Irish and Highland Harps, 1904, p.111

However I think this might be a confusion of two different stories. The house of Arthur Ó Néill’s brother, Ferdinand, at Glenarb, was attacked by soldiers in the late 1790s. The court martial papers of 17983 describe how Ferdinand's wife was shot dead, and the house was burned. The papers say that the harp was in the house, but explain how it was saved by being carried out through the back window.

Patrick Byrne relates an anecdote, stating that after Ó Néill’s death, his harp was inhereited by his successor as master of the Harp Society school, Valentine Rainey. Byrne says how the harp was burned by other harpers at the school, and the tuning pins were sold for drinking money:

Arthur O’Neill’s Harp was burned by Samuel Patrick (a bad harper) in the Harp Society house. That harp afterwards belonged to Rainy the harper. Patrick and others had taken umbridge at Rainie’s wife. It was burned as a bone fire, because Rainnie’s wife had gone out of the house. The brass pins were pick’d out of Rainie’s harp & O’Neill’s and they sold them for drink

John Bell’s notebook, c.18492

This would have been between 1823 and 1837, when Rainie was the master of the Harp Society.

When Arthur Ó Néill was a young man, in about 1760, he got the chance to restring and play the ancient Trinity College or Brian Boru harp. This early Irish harp was a lot smaller than his normal harp, with far fewer bass strings.


1. For example, the O’Neill harp in the Ulster Museum, and the V&A harp in London. For more info see R.B. Armstrong, The Irish and the Highland Harps, 1904; also Keith Sanger and Michael Billinge, ‘The Belfast Museum Harp’, 2011, online at wirestrungharp.com. ^

2. Henry George Farmer, ‘Some Notes on the Irish Harp’, Music and Letters, vol. XXIV, April 1943, p.103 ^

3. Réamonn Ó Muirí ‘A 1798 Court Martial With Reference to Arthur O’Neill, Harper’ Seanchas Ard Mhacha Vol 12, No. 2, 1987 ^