Patrick Byrne (c. 1794-1863)

Egan wire harp
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.

Byrne’s Egan harp is clearly visible in the series of portrait photographs taken of him in 1845 by Hill and Adamson in Edinburgh.

Calotype portrait
1845 calotype photograph of Byrne with his harp. Image provided by Baby Dee

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:

I went to Dublin and just walked around going into every imaginable place, music stores, auction houses, antique stores, bars... You name it. One day I went into a junk shop. I should say here that this is precise language. It was not a run down antique shop or even a used furniture store but a real ‘junk shop’.

“Do you have a harp for sale?”

Now the English coined the phrase “taking the piss” as way of saying “to mock or make fun of” but it’s in Ireland that the practice finds its perfection. Nobody can take the piss out of a person like an Irishman and this junk dealer was a master at it. “Well no, I don’t in fact have a harp in at the moment but I do have this marvelous frying pan with a hole in it.” and as I tried to explain that I didn’t actually want a frying pan with a hole in it he dragged me to the store window and held it up to the light so I could plainly see that there was indeed a hole in it. It was as if he wished to convince me that the hole somehow enhanced the frying pan and made it more desirable.

A few weeks later I walked past the same store, looked in and saw, to my utter astonishment, there were two harps in there! I rushed in all excited and before I could open my mouth to speak the storekeeper held up his hand and said “Don’t tell me. You changed your mind about the frying pan.”

The wonderful thing about Ireland is that it’s the only place in the world where people would have no trouble believing such a story and there would be no need for me to say, “This really happened!”

Anyway, one of those harps was the Egan but you couldn’t see that because it was such a shambles. Completely black, there were worm holes, the laminations of the harmonic curve were all splayed apart, there were three big holes and one big crack in the body, and one entire side-section of the column was missing. It put me in mind of a witch’s hat. It was not for nothing that I found it in a junk shop.

The only bit that was intact was the soundboard.

Fool that I was I didn’t buy it immediately but went for advice to a harpist I had met, a student of Grainne Yeats, from the Isle of Man. He told me it was a hopeless mess and that I shouldn’t buy it and that was that. I was a block and a half down the street when I realized how stupid it was to walk away from the only harp I’d seen in all the weeks of tramping around. I ran back and bought it on the spot -- two hundred quid.

I stopped in to see the wonderful junk dealer before I left for home and he told me that the Manx had come back only a few minutes after me, wanting to buy it.

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
Although the harp is very worn and the decoration very abraded, you can read most of the painted lettering at the bottom of the soundboard on both sides. Egan usually signed his harps with his name, and his Royal appointment.

Left and right face of the bass end of the soundboard.

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.

Part of the word “Majesty”, with the tops of the next line of letters and the bare wood below.

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:

Calotype photograph of Patrick Byrne (detail). Image supplied by Baby Dee. This is image B in my sequence.

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.

Technical specs

Ann and Charlie measured the string length and spacing of the harp. They counted 37 string positions. However, Byrne dictated his stringing regime to the collector John Bell c.1840:

Largest wire to be got in Flower the wire drawers Church St., Dublin, 5 wires of this, 3 wires of the next size, 6 of the next, 6 7 of the next, 6 5 of the next, 7 8 of the next, making 34 in all...
...1/2 lb each of the 3 first numbers of brass wire, 1/4lb of next which will string the tennor, then there are 2 oz of course and 2 oz of fine treble wire, this constitutes the whole wire.

John Bell’s notebook, 19th Century25

The 34 strings listed here imply that he may have not used the highest 3 positions. I wonder why the 1921 Co. Louth report mentions 32 - were the top 2 strings missing then?

The string lengths as measured (which may be shorter than as built, due to damage and restoriation) give a scaling that is very straight and even, showing Egan's skill as a musical instrument designer.

My blog post assembles comparative materials to suggest possible tuning and setup of Byrne's harp, including data PFDs of the string lengths and other tecnical info.