Arthur Ó Néill (c.1737 - 1816)

Arthur Ó Néill

Arthur Ó Néill is especially interesting as an old Irish harper who wrote his own autobiography. The The Memoirs of Arthur O’Neill, dictated by Arthur Ó Néill to a secretary in around 18001, is a detailed and lively account of his adventures and activities, from his birth up until the time he composed the autobiography.

Arthur Ó Néill was born around 17372 at Drumnistad, Co. Tyrone, Ireland. He was blinded in an accident aged two years, and when he was ten years old he was sent to learn to play the harp. His teacher was Owen Keenan of Augher.

Aged 15 years, Arthur Ó Néill commenced as an itinerant harper, travelling all over Ireland visiting the houses of the gentry and wealthier people to play the harp for them.

In the 1780s he attended the three ‘balls’ at Granard, and in 1792 he was at the famous meeting of harpers in Belfast, where he met Edward Bunting. Many of Arthur Ó Néill’s tunes were noted down by Bunting, and were published in the Ancient Music of Ireland.

From 1803 to 1813, Arthur Ó Néill was the master and teacher at the Belfast Harp Society, which was set up by Edward Bunting, James MacDonnell, and other Belfast patrons, and which recruited poor blind boys to be taught to play the harp. Students of the Harp Society school kept the early Irish harp tradition struggling along through the 19th century.


1. “ms14 ... dates from c.1797 to c.1803” (Moloney, Index & catalogue, 2000, p.30) ^

2. There are different sources for his date of birth. In the Memoirs (Fox, Annals 1911, p.141) the year is given as 1737. Bunting in 1840 gives 1734. At two points in the memoirs, Ó Néill implies it was 1739-40 (Fox, Annals 1911 p.155, p.199). My guess is that he himself was not 100% certain. I have gone with 1737 for now. We need to check the manuscript copies of the Memoirs. ^