Memoir of Blind Harpist Arthur O’Neill, visit to Murtagh Mac Owen O’Sullivan at Berehaven, Co. Cork, Milesian Festival held by Lord Kenmare c 1720.
I travelled the principal part of the County of Cork without anything occurring worth relating. I spent one Christmas with a gentleman that lived in Berehaven named Murtagh MacOwen O’Sullivan, who lived in a princely style. My boy came to me one morning when in bed, who desired me to bless myself. I asked him why so. ‘Och, Sir ! there is a pipe of wine and two hogsheads of some other liquor standing up in the hall with the heads out of them and a wooden cup swimming in each of them for anyone that pleases to drink their skinful.’ I mention this merely to record the hospitality of the gentlemen of the province of Munster. Nor was this the only instance of it, as similar occurrences happened to me during the time I travelled through that country.
Lord Kenmare, the principal proprietor of Killarney, the lake and the surrounding country, took it into his head to give a Milesian entertainment, that is, to entertain at Christmas time every Milesian that could be found that bore the name of an Irish chieftain, which names are, the O’Neills, the O’Briens, the MacCarthys, the O’Donoghues, the O’Driscolls, the O’Connors, the O’Donovans, the O’Sullivans, the O’Connor Kerry, the MacNamaras, the O’Keeffes, the O’Meaghers, the O’Learys, the O’Callaghans, the O’Connells, the O’Mahonys, the MacGillacuddys, and some others of the Milesian race that my memory at present will not enable me to mention. At the feast there were one or more of every name (already mentioned) present but an O’Neill, which Lord Kenmare observed and mentioned. ‘Och,’ says my patron, Murreertagh MacOwen O’Sullivan, ‘upon my honour I can soon fill up that gap for you, as I have now at my house a young man from the north who is blind and plays on the harp very well for his years, and from what I can understand from his own lips he has a good claim to represent on this occasion the O’Neills.’ ‘Well, send for him,’ says my lord. I was sent for and was without any ceremony seated amongst them in the Great Hall before dinner. Hundreds of questions were asked me concerning my descent, and on my giving them satisfactory answers I was dubbed and deemed an O’Neill, for they all said I had a very genteel mug (a good face), etc., etc.
When dinner was announced, very near two hundred of the O’ s and Mac’ s took their seats, and poor self being blind I done what blind men always do – I groped a vacancy near the foot of the table ; and such a noise of cutting, carving, roaring, laughing, shaking hands, and such language as generally occurs between friends who only see each other once a year, I never before or since witnessed. While dinner was going on I was hob-nobbed by almost every gentleman present. But when Lord Kenmare hob-nobbed me he was pleased to say, ‘O’Neill, you should be at the head of the table, as your ancestors were the original Milesians of this Kingdom.’ ‘Oh, my lord,’ says I, ‘it’s no matter where an O’Neill sits, and let it be at what part of the table I am, it should be considered the head of it.’ An universal burst of applause ensued, and my arm was almost shaken from my body by all present, and I believe it was in consequence of my reply to his lordship, which they remarked came by instinct to an O’Neill ; and damn the O’Neill that ever was born or that will ever yet be born as well as myself but was drank by all the Milesians then present.
The gentleman who represented ‘O’Connor Kerry’ after dinner took my harp and to my astonishment he played a few tunes in the first style I ever heard in my life by a gentleman of fortune. He afterwards shifted the harp into my hands. I played some tunes which I received some compliments for ; but if King David came down to the Hall of Lord Kenmare and played his best tunes for that set of gentlemen they would make him cut (stop) the best tune he ever played, to drink to the real Irish, as harmony was lost when the port and claret began to box each other in decanters at all parts of the table when the cloth was removed and the carpet was generally the bed for the principal part of the visitors ; and at that time it was a common thing to take a dram in the morning, to fulfil the saying of ‘The dog that bit you a lock of his hair will cure you’.
As I mentioned that a MacGillacuddy was one of the Milesians, I was informed that one time taking his seat in Dublin for the stage coach he gave in his name which was kept by a woman, but she could not understand it and seemed confused. ‘Give me the book, my daisy,’ says he, ‘and I will enter it for you myself.’ ‘Thank you, Sir,’ says the female clerk, who handed him the book, in which he entered the name of Jeffrey MacSheefferoo MacGillacuddy. on which she, on looking over, informed him that the children must pay half price (she thinking that the length of his name would occupy the whole coach).
When I left Lord Kenmare’s I heard of the beauties of the lake, which I witnessed in every sense of the word except seeing them ; and as far as my judgement [goes], besides what I have been informed, the lake cannot be sufficiently described. I heard many descriptions of it, but Garrick’s (the celebrated actor’s) account of it came the nearest to my imagination.
When I left the County Kerry my next tour was towards Limerick and I met with nothing worthy of mentioning until I came to that city. I met a Counsellor Macnamara, then Recorder of Limerick, who invited me to his house about five miles distant, called Castleconnell, where I was very well received. He had a house in Limerick in which was the skeleton of Brian Boru’s harp, and in consequence of the national esteem I held for its owner I new strung it and then tuned it. It was made of cedar. It was not strung for upwards of two hundred years before ; which when done Counsellor Macnamara requested me to strap it around my neck and play it through that hospitable city, which I agreed to do, being then young and hearty and had no care, as at that period I was not very rebunxious among the women ; and the first tune I happened to strike on was the tune of ‘Eileen Óg’, now generally called ‘Savourneen Deelish’ and ‘Erin Go Bragh’. I played several tunes besides and I was followed by a procession of upwards of five hundred people, both gentle and simple, as they seemed to be every one imbibed with a national spirit when they heard it was the instrument that our celebrated Irish monarch played upon before he leathered the Danes at Clontarf out of poor Erin. The Lord be merciful to you, Brian Boru ! I hope in God I will tune your harp again in your presence in heaven. And if it should be the case, upon my honour and conscience I will not play the tunes of ‘July the First’ nor ‘The Protestant Boys’ ; but I would willingly play ‘God Save the King’, and that would be for yourself, Brian !