Music from Ireland in Colonial America
Expanded information from the Rogues' Consort CD Booklet

Sir William Johnson (continued)

Johnson was a generous landlord, and eventually no longer needed to advertise for tenants. His tenants included Irish, Scottish Highlanders, Mohawks and Germans.  He sat to dinner regularly with ten to thirty guests, where they consumed quantities of Madeira, ale, strong beer, cider and punch. Guests were startled to find themselves dining with this collection of people, including Indians, and to find Mohawk and other visitors sleeping on the floors in the hallway of the house when all the beds were full.

Johnson also set up traditional Irish amusements for the local populace, such as greased pig contests, or local young women wrestling with squaws for trinkets or fancy clothing. One old woman came prepared with sand, and was enabled to catch her greased pig.

But Johnson was also a civic minded reformer. He started a weekly market, annual fairs, built churches and free schools, founded Johnstown to house artisans to serve the neighboring farmers. He built mills, set up an agricultural experimental station, and promoted the cultivation of hay, peas, hemp, and raising sheep, which had not previously been done in the area.

Eventually, at his Johnson Hall, he gathered around him a group of Irishmen, including his overseer Thomas Flood of County Meath, and a former teacher Charles Riley, who played “now bagpipes, now the German flute, then the hautboy, then the violin.” (A 1695 law forbade schools to the Irish, resulting in a large emigration of Irish school teachers and school masters to America.)

Horrified visitors to Johnson Hall noted that they “drink punch at victuals at twelve o’clock in the day, even in winter, “ even though they “suffered from a perennial wilderness hazard  - lack of limes for a good punch...”

Among his other musicians, Sir William had a “dwarf violinist called Billy, who grimaced as he played duets with a bewigged Indian able to scrape European tunes ‘tolerably’ out of a fiddle.” Musical instruments known to have been in Sir Williams’s household included bagpipes, a German flute, hautboy, violin, Irish harp; his children took music lessons, and an inventory of the parlor indicated it contained 3 fiddles and a flute.

He imported John Kain, a blind Irish harper, to come play for him at Johnson Hall.

It is likely that Kain was the blind harper John Keenan, mentioned in The Memoirs of Arthur O’Neill. O'Neill, born 1734, was one of the last of the old Irish harpers. (Donal O’Sullivan’s Carolan, The Life Times and Music of an Irish Harper, Vol. 2, p. 180:) John Keenan was born in Augher, in the County of Tyrone. [He]was born blind....his harp was seized for payment of damages, but he got it back....  “Keenan fell in love with a French gouvernante that was there, and they became of consequence very great....he contrived to visit madame, and...brought with him a nineteen-foot ladder and put it up against her bedchamber window, then climbed up and tumbled into bed. However, madame was not in bed but another old woman, who screeched out and made an alarm; and poor Keenan was taken and committed to Omagh Gaol.....his friend Higgins came to gaol to see him, brought whiskey....and the gaoler’s wife, who doated on it, and the turn-key and other prisoners fell to drink and all got drunk, except Keenan and Higgins. The gaoler’s wife got so drunk she went to bed, the gaoler being from home, and Keenan got into her room and stole the key of the gaol out of her pocket.....escaped with Higgin’s boy to guide him, and went to see the gouvernante..  Keenan, however, married the gouvernante, and after divers journeys through this Kingdom they went to America together, where poor Keenan died.”

Other accounts vary. Edward Bunting added: “Keenan, after his marriage, emigrated to the States where his Juliet, however, proved unfaithful to him.”

Kain finally drifted away to Philadelphia, where he committed a murder. Sir William followed the advice of his agent in Philadelphia and released Kain from his indenture. The agent advised that he thought Kain would be acquitted of the crime, but that Sir William would be better off without a harper. Kain was replaced at Johnson Hall by the dwarf violinist Billy, and the bewigged Indian.

From the Papers of Sir Wm Johnson: Vol. IV p. 638, … Jan 17 1765: “a letter of the 21st from Hugh Wallace, New York, about Indian difficulties, severe weather and his purpose to send to Ireland for a harper and harp for Johnson Hall;”  and “September 1766, a letter Sept 25 from Norman MacLeod, Ontario...a harper expected from Ireland.

William Johnson had three children by a Palatine German woman Catherine Weisenbergh, and after her death, he had eight children by the Mohawk Molly Brant, who with her brother Joseph Brant were some of the most important leaders of the Iroquois Confederacy. Apparently he also left numerous other Mohawk children. (Gossip indicated they numbered upwards of 700.)