There are not many people in the world who can say that they have performed in front of the Queen of England and there are even less people who can say that when they did perform in front of the Royalty they performed whilst being totally blind. But this is the case when its comes to a Monaghan Man called Patrick Byrne.
The remarkable story of Patrick Byrne, the blind harper,Is an incredible story that seems to defy all explanation. How could a blind man from a small rural backwater in Ireland come to be so skilled at the use of Harp that he gets to perform in front of some of the wealthiest people in the world?
In 1794 Byrne was born in small corner of County Monaghan which goes by the name of Magheracloone. Details of his early years are scant but it seems widely acknowledged that Byrne lost his sight as a result of contracting small pox when he was a two year old child. Byrne was born a native Irish speaker and so this makes it all the more remarkably that the man was catapulted into stardom amongst royalty whose primary language would have been English, which to Byrne would have been an alien tongue.
Through a combination of luck and perseverance the young Patrick managed to learn English and become friendly with some local landowners from the Monaghan area. These contacts would later become vital as he shot for the proverbial stars.
Fortunately for Byrne, around the time of his youth there was a big push on to revive the ancient Gaelic way of performing and playing a Harp. Byrne was enrolled in a Harp School in Belfast in which he eventually graduated from in 1821. The Blind Man had demonstrated considerable skill in playing the harp having been believed to have mastered over 60 tunes. His early prowess at playing the instrument was so great that the college stated that the Monaghan Man “required considerable proficiency on the instrument.”
Allowing nothing to hold him back in life, and despite being virtually penniless and broke, Byrne set his radar upon conquering the big leagues in England, and so, as soon as he graduated from college Byrne emigrated to London England. No sooner had he landed landed in England Byrne began making waves on the local music circuit where he played the Harp in houses packed with some of the wealthiest people in Britain.
His skills and ability became so well known throughout London social circles that he was eventually recognised for his proficiency with the Harp by being awarded a Silver Shakespearean Medal in recognition of his abilities. He then moved to Scotland where his precocious talent was recognised by Queen Victoria who demanded that the Irishman play in front of her. The English Queen was so impressed by Byrne that he was then brought to the attention of Prince Albert who lavished praise upon the blind Mans remarkable prowess with the harp.
The tradition of playing the instrument had gone back centuries and centuries in Ireland but its prominence in Irish society came under threat when Elizabeth I ordered her army to, “hang the harpers and burn all of their instruments.” This order by Elizabeth I makes Byrne’s breakthrough into aristocratic society all the more remarkable.
Eventually Byrne returned to his native Monaghan where he was employed as a Harper by the Shirley Family, wealthy local landowners. One description showered praise upon his skills, “his touch was singularly delicate yet equally firm. He could make the strings whisper like the sigh of the rising wind on a summer eve, or clang with a martial fierceness that made your pulses beat quicker.”
Patrick Byrne died in 1863 and was buried In Carrickmacross in a cemetery called Bullys Acre, a pauper and famine graveyard. His Tomb is marked by a large slate slab. Upon his death he was described as being “the last of the great Irish Harpers.”
And so goes the story of Patrick Byrne, a blind man and modern day hero who refused to let the many obstacles thrown in his path stop him from achieving his goals in life. His indomitable spirit is a lesson to us all, a blind man who played the cards he was dealt with in life so skilfully that he managed to dine at the very top table in society.