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Musical Journeys from Kerry to the Heart of Victorian England
By Bob Fitzsimons

Kerry Philharmonic Society

The Kerry Philharmonic Society was founded in 1839, thirteen years after its Dublin counterpart, and met every second Thursday during the season. It consisted of over forty members and a main object of the club was to cultivate musical talent. Politics were rigidly (sic) excluded! Their first meeting place was Mr John Morris's large rooms in Castle St and Thomas O'Connell was appointed Secretary and Treasurer. The musical programme of that first meeting was not recorded though the editor of Tralee Mercury was delighted by the selection of Strauss Waltzes.

The Society held a public dinner on 3 September 1840 to honour their "very efficient Treasurer and Secretary" Thomas O'Connell. It was held in Benner's Hotel and Chairman for the night was Lieutenant Jeffrey Eager of Ballyard and Croupier (sic) was James Morphy, Governor of the County Jail. After several toasts to members of the Royal family, the Chairman arose and eulogised Mr O'Connell as "the founder of an institution which had already done so much in the way of bringing men together in friendly intercourse, whom the rude strife which broke up society elsewhere had otherwise separated".

In his reply O'Connell said that "when he first conceived the project of setting on foot the institution which, even in its infancy as it now is, had already been the source of so much concord and social harmony among its members, he did not expect that his humble efforts would be crowned with such signal and speedy success." This was followed shortly after by a toast to the performing members of the Society who then played The Kerry Jig. Later in the evening Justin Supple remarked that "the Kerry Philharmonic Society was distinguished by its knitting together men of the most opposite opinions, and formed a green and refreshing platform on which all might take their stand."

An unusual concert that took place two weeks later is one of the few insights we have into the musical workings of the Society. This was a combined concert with the Collins family whose other concerts are detailed in the next chapter. This was called "the most brilliant musical fête for many years to be seen in Tralee." Items performed by the Kerry Philharmonic Society were Cooke's overture to The Exile, and an Air from Donizetti's Elisir d'Amore. They opened the second half of the concert with the overture to Il Tancredi. Emma Collins then sang a ballad written and composed by a member of the Society - I Do Not Love Thee Now, the arrangements by A D Roche. Their final instrumental item was the Gallope Militaire. The Society also ran a benefit night for Miss Rossini Collins at their Denny Street rooms "when the most numerous and most fashionable audience ever congregated there, assembled to witness the wonderful powers of the violiniste".

They also planned a tribute concert for Arthur O'Leary senior at the end of 1840 for his services to the Society and this was eventually given on 11 January 1841. The first announcement in the preceding December noted that "his services have been of so much value to the musical character of the club". The concert took place in the Society's rooms in Denny St, single tickets cost 2/6d and family tickets 6/-. An addition to the corps musique' was Daniel O'Leary who played the violin and the violoncello. Mr Holt also joined the corps on the cornopean. The pieces most enjoyed by the Kerry Evening Post contributor were the overture from Mozart's opera La Clemenza di Tito (slightly condensed) and a Cantata by Beethoven (arranged by Forde) for piano, two flutes and violoncello. First flute was Mr Pomfret and second flute Mr O'Connell. Arthur O'Leary performed "with his usual judgement and solid execution" on the piano. There was a very large crowd at the concert and it broke up well after the hour that Mr Byrne of the Kerry Examiner put his newspaper to press, though he managed a few column inches on the event. The Evening Post had an extra day to produce its copy which included further details of the performance.

Two months later Daniel O'Leary was the 'star' of another Philharmonic concert on 11 March. His performance of a Divertimento on the violin, accompanied by his brother Arthur on the piano, was greeted by a prolonged burst of applause. His 'reading' of the composition under consideration was the best that Mr Byrne of the Kerry Examiner had ever witnessed, "whether we consider the distinct notation or the admirably varied expression which characterised his performance". Unfortunately the other amateurs who performed that night were not mentioned.

In 1841, regular bi-monthly meetings were held through to June and a most pleasant social occasion took place on 24 May thanks to the Queen's birthday. They took to the water and "a tiny fleet of sailboats moved in various directions across the glittering expanse of waters like creatures of fairy life. Never do we remember to have seen our beautiful bay with its zone of dark hills present a more inviting appearance."

The evening entertainment was at the house of Daniel Supple at the Spa, and continued up to nine o'clock. One of the last speeches was by Mr Byrne of the Kerry Examiner who was responding to a toast to 'The Press'. He received loud cheers for his sentiments in favour of the Society which he said, "afforded one of those few green spots - those oases in the desert - where men might rub off in social collision those incrustations with which the angry struggles of a party are but too apt to corrode the heart," echoing the sentiments of Lord Shaftesbury over a hundred years previously. Were some of the ideas of the enlightenment finally reaching provincial Ireland?

A toast to the Society was amended to include the Secretary and Treasurer, Thomas O'Connell, who warmly returned thanks, acknowledging that he had been instrumental in establishing and forwarding the interests of their Society. Further social activities took place in September with a series of 'Subscription Balls', the first being on Monday, 13 September in the Philharmonic Rooms in Denny St. Eighty ladies and gentlemen were present, including officers from the barracks and some young gentlemen from Cambridge. Dancing was kept up from 10pm to 6am with the assistance of Mrs Fitzgerald's refreshments. The regular meeting of the Society for 17 September was postponed because of the illness of one of the principal conductors.

In January 1842, John Mahony of The Grove accepted the post of President of the Philharmonic Society and Maurice O'Connell, MP, of Derrynane Abbey, became Vice-President. One of the meetings per month was to be for members only. In March 1842, Mathew Leahy of Cork, David Thompson of Ballintaggert, Charles O'Connell of Aghadda, John Drummond of Tralee, Arthur Lloyd Saunders (High Sheriff) of Flesk and Richard Agar of Killarney were enrolled into the Society and in August, the Earl of Listowel and Denis Shine-Lawlor of Castlelough both joined. The September list of new members included Thomas Martelli of Tralee, Captain HH Thompson of Tralee, Edward Gorham of Abbeydorney, and Christopher Galwey of Killarney. The latter had been agent to Lord Kenmare during the 1835 election.

A juvenile band had been formed and it was hoped that they would perform at the meeting in October. Would the eight-year-old Arthur O'Leary perhaps have been involved here? It may have been how Christopher Galwey and Thomas Galwey began to appreciate the young O'Leary's talent. Mr Byrne, the editor of the Kerry Examiner spent six months (from May to November) of 1842 in Tralee Gaol, having been imprisoned for a Libel against Peter Thompson, County Treasurer and Director of the Provincial Bank. Undoubtedly he missed the convivial evenings not discussing politics. The same Thompson was probably responsible for the dismissal of Denis Brosnahan, a runner for the Provincial Bank, who had voted for Maurice O'Connell in the 1835 election.

The first monthly dinner of the Society was held in the rooms in Denny St on 22 September 1842. George Fosberry was in the chair assisted by Thomas O'Connell. In October of that year, a pantomime of Jack and the Beanstalk was put on as a benefit for Mr W Collins, leader of the orchestra. The Society moved its rooms to the house of Mr McGillicuddy in Castle Street in December of 1842 and a meeting was called for 19 December to re-model some of the rules of the Society. A meeting of the Society in February 1843 had to be deferred because of a bereavement, but the advertisment commented on the success of the last reunion. However, on 14 March a General Meeting was called by the Secretary and Treasurer Thomas O'Connell looking for the members to "repay me the very large sum that it will be found I have, as Secretary and Treasurer, advanced in support of the same" and to "take into consideration whether the members will continue the Society".

Thomas O'Connell was also secretary of The Kerry Club in Castle Street and had had similar difficulties getting the subscriptions paid. His other occupation was as agent for the Patriotic Assurance Company of Ireland. He resigned suddenly from his post as Chairman of the Tralee Lighting and Cleansing Commission in June 1843, probably on taking up the post of Clerk to the Poor Law Union, and notices for the Philharmonic Society disappear from the newspapers, suggesting that the members decided to dissolve their society at that meeting in March 1843. It was a brave and notable venture and had not the famine intervened, might have picked up again. In his old age Arthur O'Leary junior recalled that opposite their house in the Mall lived a nephew of Daniel O'Connell (possibly Thomas O'Connell) who played the cello, and songs by Spohr and Molique with Cello Obligato were heard in Tralee and greatly appreciated.

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