The fascinating tale of blind composer Carl Hardebeck, Beethoven, Padraig Pearse and The Foggy Dew

Carl Hardebeck collected traditional songs all around Ireland and was a close friend of Padraig Pearse. The blind composer's biographer Eugene Dunphy talks to Brian Campbell about The Foggy Dew, anti-German sentiment and Hardebeck's description of the Irish language as 'the music of the angels'

A plaque was unveiled at the Holy Family Church in north Belfast in 2013 to honour musician, composer and arranger Carl Hardebeck

CARL GILBERT Hardebeck was known by some as 'the blind bard of Belfast' but his isn't your average Belfast tale.

Born in London to a German father and a Welsh mother, he was rendered blind at just three months old due to an 'inflammation of the eyes'. He was pitch-perfect and went on to excel at reading and writing both text and music through the medium of Braille.

His love of music took him to Belfast in 1893 (aged 24), when he and a friend opened a music shop. When that business failed, Hardebeck – who lived on the Limestone Road – was employed as the organist at Holy Family Church in north Belfast and later at St Peter's in west Belfast.

He learned Irish, joined the Belfast branch of The Gaelic League and travelled to Irish-speaking areas across the island collecting songs in Gaelic Braille, a system he devised and one that is still in use today. He became close friends with Padraig Pearse and is quoted as saying, “I believe in God, Beethoven and Pearse”.

Music teacher Eugene Dunphy, who is from Omagh but now lives in Belfast, is currently writing a book about this remarkable musician, composer and arranger of traditional music.

Yet, as Dunphy admits, Hardebeck's story has received little attention since his death in 1945.

“My opinion is that there are a number of reasons that he has been overlooked. One was his surname. He was warmly embraced by the leading members of the Gaelic League in Dublin and Belfast, but because of the First World War and the time after that – people had long memories.

“When he went to Cork in 1918, for example – to be appointed to a traditional school of music – there was an incredible amount of anti-German animosity towards him. Thousands came out to protest. The man was born in London, but people had these preconceptions.”

Hardebeck settled in Dublin in 1932 but 30 years previously he had arranged six Gaelic songs which were published by the Gaelic League under the title Ceatha Ceóil (‘Showers of Music') following a request by Padraig Pearse.

“Pearse and people in the Gaelic League heard about Hardebeck's reputation for collecting traditional songs all around Ireland. So in 1900 or 1901, Pearse approached Hardebeck and asked him to arrange six songs. I've seen the letters that Hardebeck sent to Pearse,” says Dunphy.

Written correspondence and meetings between the two continued from 1902 until Pearse's death in 1916. On one occasion, Pearse visited Hardebeck's Belfast home.

Pearse, of course, went on to become one of the leaders of the Easter Rising in 1916 – the calendar centenary of which occurs this weekend – but Hardebeck refused to get directly involved in politics.

“He could see these two cultures living on the island and he made his opinions on it clear; he said it was ridiculous that people who claimed to have a Scottish heritage and people who claimed to have an Irish heritage were involved in warring with each other,” says Dunphy.

“His opinion was, 'Why are you warring? You share the same music, language and heritage.' He had an amazing admiration for Pearse, but he thought that the politicisation of the Irish language was an absolute disgrace.”

Hardebeck was married three times. When his first wife Mary Reavey – an Irish-speaker from Co Down – died in 1914, Protestants, Catholics, Quakers, unionists, nationalists, Irish-language enthusiasts and Irish Volunteers gathered around her grave at Milltown cemetery to pay their respects. Pearse also sent a heartfelt a letter of sympathy to Hardebeck.

Hardebeck is also known for writing the arrangement for popular song The Foggy Dew – the words of which were written by a Newcastle priest.

He self-published three collections of Gaelic songs between 1908 and 1914 and taught traditional singing across Ireland.

“James Connolly's daughter Nora attended his singing classes,” says Dunphy, who plans to publish his book within the next year.

And by way of paying tribute to Pearse and his incarcerated comrades, when playing the organ at Mass in St Peter's in Belfast on the Sunday after the Easter Rising (April 30, 1916), Hardebeck replaced the recessional hymn with Amhrán na bhFiann – much to the surprise of the congregation and the priest.

Hardebeck's father was a wealthy jeweller who moved to London from Germany, but the composer and arranger spent all of his inheritance on self-publishing Irish music, says Dunphy.

“A lot of good people stood by him for years and were pleading with de Valera and the powers that be to do something for him. But he died in abject property and it wasn't until the early 1960s that a suitable headstone was erected on his grave.”

The headstone in Glasnevin Cemetery is engraved with the words 'Oibrí do sháraithe ar son ceoil ár sinsear' (Indefatigable worker for the music of our ancestors) and 'He made our old songs live again'.

In 2013 a plaque to his memory was installed at Holy Family Church in Belfast.

Dunphy says Hardebeck's simple desire was for the Irish language to be known throughout the world.

“He referred to the language as 'the music of the angels'.”

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