Harping on about politics – An Irishman’s Diary about the American Civil War

It’s one thing to worry about how your children will turn out. It’s quite another to find yourself fretting over the life choices of dead ancestors. But I had that odd experience again recently, in the wake of events in Charlottesburg, when re-reading a letter from a supposed distant relative who fought in the American Civil War.

His name was Christopher Byrne. And I might never have heard of him except for the letter's intended recipient: my slightly-closer and more illustrious relative, "Blind" Patrick Byrne, to whom he was a half-brother.

It was on foot of reading in newspapers about Patrick, 36 years his senior and by then known as “the last of the great Irish harpers”, that young Christopher wrote from Minnesota in March 1863.

The letter expresses pride in his brother’s fame, regrets that their family is “scattered all over the world” and describes at length his own fortunes as a Union soldier. Alas, Patrick never read it. He died in April, before the post arrived.


Despite some eccentric spelling and grammar, the text is highly literate for a man who cannot have had much formal education before emigrating in his teens. There are novelistic flourishes, eg: “When I meditate on the Separation that exist[s] between us it brings a gloom of sorrow over my mind that is easier imagined than described.”

And for a regular recruit – although he rose to sergeant by the war’s end – he is both very informed and fiercely engaged with current affairs. This despite acknowledging Patrick’s advice never to “Interefere in Politick”. As Christopher pleads in apology, he discusses the political background only because “a rebellion is raging which for Magnitude has no parallel on record”.

But this is where, reading his opinions, I suffer quasi-parental anxiety, and a wish to put him straight on things about which he seems confused.

For although he is fighting on what history has decided was the right side, he himself is far from convinced. On the contrary, he confesses to volunteering not from conviction in a just cause, but because “the excitement of the time and the misrule of the administration has forced me and thousands like me into it”.

He goes on to describe the Union leadership as a “Horde of Fanatics” who would “rather rule in hell than serve in heaven”, and adds: “When they are not interfering with the rights of foreigners or proscribing Religious Denominations, they are Speech Making in favour of abolition”.

There, in that last word, is the kernel of what we now assume the war to have been all about.

And although he does mention slavery several more times throughout, he never sees fit to express an opinion on its morality, other than to insist the North had no right meddling in the South’s affairs.

He even suggests that, if the Union is to be restored (which he doesn’t expect), it will only be by guaranteeing the South’s autonomy on the matter.

Oh well. The past is always messier than we like it to be, however many of its statues we pull down. And I shouldn’t blame myself.

If genealogists are right, Patrick Byrne was only my great-great-granduncle. So Christopher was a mere half of that. Plus he was a grown man in 1863. It’s not my fault how he thought.

But getting back to politics, and avoiding it where possible, the letter does suggest a piece of unimpeachable wisdom by a later generation of Irish people: the ones who won independence and then decided that – uniquely in the world – Ireland would have a musical instrument as State symbol.

Patrick Byrne would surely have approved. His aversion to politics was a product of turbulent times. Born poor and Catholic, he benefitted from the Belfast Presbyterian-led revival in harping that accompanied, and outlived, their 1798 Rebellion. But at some point in life, he converted to Anglicanism.

This helps explain why he is buried in what became the paupers’ cemetery of my home town, Carrickmacross.

Happily, the harp has since triumphed over all political and religious considerations, which means he is now also commemorated in a festival every April.

In the meantime, a few miles south of there, this September brings the annual celebration of the most famous harpist of all, Turlough Carolan.

Born a century before Byrne, in north Co Meath, he is still considered the greatest player-composer in the harp’s long history. And as usual, later this month, his native village will host a weekend of celebrations in his honour, details of which are at nobberharpfestival.com