When you think of Regimental Sergeant Major Patrick Augustine Harper you probably think of Daragh O’Malley’s superb performance in the role in the Sharpe ITV series.
The actor’s curly-hair dark hair and swarthy appearance, his distinct southern brogue that points to his upbringing in Limerick, is in stark contrast to the Harper portrayed in Bernard Cornwell’s novels. A giant of a man, he is described as sandy-haired and blue-eyed, a man who would’ve spoken in the accent of Ulster (think of a slowed down, softer version of Ted Hastings' accent in the BBC drama, Line of Duty) thanks to his birth in County Donegal amid the Blue Stack Mountains.
We often hear how Harper evokes the memories of his ancestors, wild-eyed and swinging weapons like a warrior of old, screaming murder in his native Gaelic tongue, as he charges into the depth of the fighting alongside his friend, Richard Sharpe.
If anything, growing up in Northern Ireland with a dad from Donegal, to me it was Harper who was the real hero of Cornwell’s series! And like almost all authors of military-driven historical fiction, Cornwell, and the Sharpe novels in particular, led me to put pen to
paper and write my own series of books. Based around the Norman invasion of Ireland (which began on 1st May 1169, exactly 850 years ago), it was during the research into this period that I came across a reference pointing to the real Harper family’s origins and which might give an idea of the fictional character’s background.
Family myth says that the founder of the Harper family came to Ireland in the retinue of the famous invader, Richard de Clare (better remembered as Strongbow). However, unlike Patrick, the first Harper was no warrior. Instead he is believed to have been a Welsh minstrel who was rewarded by his lord for his musical skills with a small estate at Aghdare in County Wexford. It also led to his descendants adopting a new surname, remembering, perhaps, their appointment to a hereditary position at Strongbow’s noble court: le Harper.
By the thirteenth century, the Harpers had a stone castle and Aghdare had become known by the new name of Harperstown. The family were no longer troubadours but had risen through patronage and political marriages to the rank of knight, giving military service to the crown in return for their lands, often alongside their Hore, Furlong and Roche neighbours. By the mid-fifteenth century the senior male line of the Harper family became extinct and their castle passed by marriage to the Hores.
So, this all set me to wondering just how might our fictional hero’s family have found themselves resident at the other end of the country when Patrick Harper was born in 1785?
What follows is my ‘fan-fiction’ account of the Harper family’s journey from knightly landowners in Wexford in 1450 to lowly peasant farmers in Donegal in 1800.
The descendants of the Norman invaders (known as the Old English) had begun intermarrying with the native Gael within a few years of their arrival in Ireland and had adopted many of their cultural practices. This would’ve included the Irish language which Patrick Harper would use so often in the heat of battle in Cornwell’s novels.
By the time of the Tudors, many of the descendants of the Old English, including the Harpers, would have become so like the Gael that they would be known as being ‘More Irish than the Irish themselves’. And in contrast to their kin in England, they retained the Catholic religion following King Henry VIII’s break with Rome. In the 1530s, it was the Old English families who launched a series of rebellions against the crown, with some taking up arms against the Protestant government in defence of the old religion. As a result, many an Irish gentleman found himself as an outlaw in his own land and might’ve joined the thousands who fled persecution to the continent, becoming mercenaries in the armies of France, Spain and Austria. Others, equally pursued by the law, took up contracts with the independent Gaelic-Irish lords such as the rebel Ulsterman, Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone.
One such real-life mercenary was Richard Tyrell. Born in Spain into an ancient Old English and Catholic family from Westmeath, Tyrell became a military adviser to O’Neill during the Nine Years’ War and scored a notable victory over the government army at the Battle of Tyrellspass in 1597.
Might Harper’s ancestor have performed a similar role to Tyrell on behalf of Red Hugh O’Donnell, the penultimate King of Tyrconnell, during the same period?
O’Donnell’s realm roughly equated to those of modern County Donegal. In 1592, the 20-year-old king had joined forces with his neighbour O’Neill to oppose government incursions into their territories. Both declared that it was in defence of their traditional rights and religion that they rose in rebellion and many flocked to their cause. O’Donnell was certainly the sort of young lord who would’ve required the advice of a veteran soldier as he gathered and trained his forces to take on the English war machine. Could we also imagine O’Donnell granting Harper’s ancestor a small mountain estate in return for this work?
Patrick Harper was born in the townland of Tangaveane in 1785. It’s not hard to imagine his family’s fall from landowners to the peasant farmers we hear about when we first meet Harper (1807 in Sharpe’s Prey and then more fully in Sharpe’s Rifles in 1809).
In 1607, Red Hugh O’Donnell and O’Neill fled Ireland never to return. Three years later King James I began the Plantation of Ulster, replacing many native landowners with Protestant colonists from Scotland and England. Without their leader, most were swept aside by the newcomers. The plantation of Donegal was principally carried out in the north and east of the county and so the Harpers of Tangaveane, a valley locked on all sides by unproductive mountain land (a few miles east of the town of Glenties), would not have been high on the planters’ agenda. As such Harper’s family might well have hung onto their hard-won property despite the cruel anti-Catholic laws of the day, living quietly as subsistence farmers in the high hills, without the notice of the big landlords in the lowlands. They would’ve married local women and had big families making it ever more difficult to make ends meet.
And in 1801, when one of their number, Patrick, ‘the big wee one’, left Tangaveane to join the British Army, he might well have forgotten that his family had ever lived anywhere other than the Blue Stack Mountains, or that his paternal ancestor had come to Ireland from Britain centuries before with little more than Patrick had as he left it. Perhaps only a harp and a head full of songs from which to make his fortune.
CHECK OUT MY BOOKS:
Lord of the Sea Castle
The Earl Strongbow