O'Neill, Arthur (1734/6–1816), harper, was born at Drumnastrade, near Dungannon, Co. Tyrone, of O'Neill stock on his mother's and father's sides going back several generations; nothing else is known of his parents. It was supposed in folk tradition that the children of such a union were bestowed with unusual powers: he certainly gloried in his ancestral ‘purity’. His memoirs were inconsistent with regard to his age. Blundering local medical intervention cost him the sight of both eyes after an accident to one suffered in early childhood. Taking up the harp at the age of ten (c.1744/6), he was instructed by Owen Keenan of Augher, Co. Tyrone, for two and a half years. He was trained to manipulate the brass harp-strings in the new style, with the fingertips rather than the nails. Less than halfway through the conventional period of apprenticeship in the instrument, at a point when he could play ‘middling well’ (memoirs, 1), he ventured on his first professional tour as a musician. As it turned out, it was also the most extensive and prolonged of his career. According to the memoirs, this tour lasted about ten years (c.1749–c.1760). It was the practice of such musicians to seek out various patrons, who might offer bed and board for some weeks or months in return for dining-room entertainment and perhaps tuition. Gratuities too, given with due discretion, were usually part of the bargain; the harpist expected to be treated ‘as a poor gentleman’ (Fox, Annals, 138). He was sometimes given a house-servant.
Heading first to the landowner and industrialist Hugh Boyd of Ballycastle, Co. Antrim, he passed some months there in 1749/50, before moving through the glens of Antrim and lodging with Charles O'Neill (d. 1769) of Shane's Castle, near Antrim town, where his patronym carried some weight in the aristocratic household. Unlike earlier generations of harpers, he never crossed to Scotland; it seems that the post-Jacobite Scottish gentry no longer welcomed such relics of a previous era. He journeyed to Downpatrick and Newry, Co. Down, then to Dundalk, Co. Louth, and Navan, Co. Meath. After visiting Dublin, he proceeded to Carlow, Wexford, Waterford, Kilkenny, Clonmel, and then (c.1754) to Carrick-on-Suir, Co. Tipperary. His route generally took him from town to town, where his prospects were obviously best. Harpers were in greatest demand during assize or race weeks or during ‘season’. After a visit to the Rev. Thewles of Carrick-on-Suir, he was given generous hospitality in the palace of Dr Edward Maurice, bishop of Ossory (1754–6), a fellow Tyrone man, for which he returned grudging thanks, bearing a lifelong suspicion of protestant clergymen (with some exceptions). Travelling next to Cork city and the small ports and towns of the south-west, he fondly recalled having been ‘treated . . . as if I was the son of a prince of Ulster’ (memoirs, 1) at Coppinger's Court, near Clonakilty. At a Christmas gathering in the home of Lord Kenmare he was characteristically gratified by praise for his name and lineage. In the late 1750s he stopped with ‘Counsellor’ Macnamara of Castleconnell, Co. Limerick. Finding that his host possessed the frame of the so-called ‘Brian Boru’ harp (dated c. fourteenth century), he had it restrung for performance in procession on the streets of Limerick.
He now hastened through the small towns in the counties of Clare, Galway, Mayo, Sligo, Leitrim, and south Donegal in less than a year. It seems that on the way he picked up some valuable extra training from the distinguished Mayo harper, Hugh O'Neill (d. c.1790). Recouping his energies at the family home near Dungannon for about a year, he still craved further travel, but in future restricted his circuits to north Connacht and Ulster. From 1761 to 1768 he happily remained with Col. Francis White (d. c.1779) of Redhills, Co. Cavan, and Ballynagrane, Co. Tyrone. His hopes of staying for good with the hearty bachelor were apparently spoiled by the machinations of William Saunderson, a cousin of the colonel. During his late thirties and early forties he ‘rambled’ through Cavan, Tyrone, and Roscommon. Meeting his beloved mentor, Hugh O'Neill, at MacDonnell's of Knockranny, Co. Roscommon, in the early 1770s, both musicians played together at the homes of patrons and at fairs for several months. It seems that it was the mid 1770s before he began to teach – it is likely that his association with Randal, James (qv), and Alexander MacDonnell, the children of Michael MacDonnell (d. 1780) of the north Antrim glens, began at this time. He attended all three of the harping festivals held at Granard, Co. Longford (1781, 1782, 1785). Preparing for these competitions with great seriousness (swearing off drink for the duration, for instance), he took second place each time, winning first eight guineas then latterly six guineas, in addition to getting ‘many handsome compliments’ (memoirs, 3). During the 1780s his patrons included Richard Lovell Edgeworth (qv); Charles White (d. 1795) of Whiteshill, Co. Sligo; Jones Irwin of Streamstown, Co. Sligo; Charles O'Conor (qv); Cosby Nesbitt of Lismore, Co. Cavan; Cornelius O'Donnell of Larkfield, Co. Leitrim; Toby Peyton of Co. Leitrim; and Capt. Somerville (d. 1798) of Lough Sheelin, Co. Cavan.
During the 1760s he was often able to dispense with carrying his own harp around with him, since harps were available at so many of the big houses; this was no longer the case by the 1780s, and he now required the services of an assistant to transport the bulky instrument. In April 1792 one of his favourite patrons, Philip O'Reilly of Mullagh, Co. Cavan, insisted he enter the Belfast harpers’ festival organised by his former pupil, Dr James MacDonnell. Though weakened now by rheumatism in the fingers, he managed to get second place once more on the weekend of 12–14 July that year (having been treated with electricity by his ex-pupil for several days beforehand). He also began a close and fruitful relationship with Edward Bunting (qv), serving (with Denis Hempson (qv)) as one of the best sources of information on the tradition of harping whom the collector encountered. The intention to found in the late 1790s a school of harping by Lough Sheelin, Co. Cavan, miscarried on the death of his local patron, Capt. Somerville. From 1799 to 1809 he was based in the residence of Col. Edward Southwell, Castlehamilton, Co. Cavan. During the lifespan of the Belfast Harp Society (1807–13), he acted as master of the small attached school, getting a pension of £30 a year on its demise. His memoirs were transcribed by Thomas Hughes of Belfast in 1809. These constitute a unique source on the social history of the harping tradition in the eighteenth century. The text refers to some forty-eight contemporary harpers (mostly classed as ‘tol-lol’ or passable in ability), and two or three legendary masters of the previous century. It is a mystery why he made no mention of Denis O'Hempsey, however, and he gives little away on the intricacies of the music itself. He seems to have been the last working harper in the Irish tradition; none of his pupils came later to public notice. He never married, though once suggesting that ‘we blind men in general are addicted’ to women. Returning to Dungannon in 1813, he died 29 October 1816 at Maydown, Co. Armagh, and is said to be buried in Eglish churchyard, Co. Tyrone.