September 2006 Edition

Music ‘For the benefit of Mercer’s Hospital’

Dublin was a thriving centre of musical activity in the eighteenth century which has attracted the attention of many researchers. However, there are still a few areas of fertile ground and a comprehensive study of concerts to support Mercer’s Hospital is needed to compliment Brian Boydell’s study of Rotunda Music [Rotunda Music in Eighteenth–Century Dublin (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1992)].

Mercer’s Hospital was founded through a benefaction from a Mary Mercer. Little is known of this Mary Mercer other than that she was the daughter of a George Mercer from Lancaster in Northern England who came to Trinity College Dublin as a student in 1663. By 1734, Mary Mercer was in poor health and she gave her stone almshouse in Stephen Street to a group of clergy and medical practitioners to open a hospital which opened on 11 August 1734 with beds for ten patients. The accounts from the first decade show expenditure averaging about £500 per annum. Mary Mercer had died some three months before her hospital opened and she left the bulk of her estate for the foundation of a charity school rather than the support of the hospital so the fledgling institution required additional sources of income. The first of the Mercer’s Hospital benefit concerts was advertised in the Dublin Gazette of 16–20 March 1736 ‘For the benefit of Mercer’s Hospital in Stephen Street…there will be a Solemn Grand Performance of Church Musick…with the Church Service, and a Charity Sermon. Besides the best public performance in this Kingdom, there will assist above forty gentlemen, skilled in Musick on various instruments. The musick appointed is the celebrated Te Deum and Jubilate of the famous Mr. Handel, with his Coronation Anthem, made on the King’s accession to the Crown, never heard here before. Tickets will be distributed at the Said Hospital, at Half a guinea each’.

It is significant that this concert included the first performance of one of Handel’s coronation anthems in Dublin. Indeed, the benefit concerts for Mercer’s Hospital first introduced the sacred repertoire of Handel to Dublin audiences. The most significant concert in aid of the hospital was the first performance of Handel’s Messiah on 13 April 1742 which raised funds ‘For the relief of Prisoners in the several Gaols, and for the Support of Mercer's Hospital in Stephen’s Street, and of the Charitable Infirmary on the Inns Quay’.

In later years the governors of the hospital requested that the Lord Chief Baron and Lord Chancellor adjourn their courts for the day of the performance and the concert became an important part of the Dublin social calendar.

The administrative records from Mercer’s Hospital are held at the National Archives and include the governors’ minute books commencing in 1736, just two years after the founding of the hospital. The musical records are held in the Department of Manuscripts in the Library of Trinity College Dublin and consist of fifty-seven part books of which seven are printed and fifty are manuscript. MSS 1–44 is a virtually complete set of instrumental and vocal part books. MSS 45–50 contain Handel’s overture to Esther and Corelli’s eighth concerto and MSS 51–7 are printed instrumental parts.

All the scribal hands appear to be eighteenth century and some are very similar to hands active in the Dublin cathedrals. Most of the books are in good condition suggesting that they were not used too often. It would seem that their use was mainly restricted to the annual benefit concerts and indeed there is very little evidence to suggest that this music would have been heard by Dublin audiences outside the context of the annual concerts.

The repertoire of the books has a strong Handelian flavour including all four anthems written for the coronation of George II and the Utrecht Te Deum and Jubilate. The repertoire also includes the anthem which seems to have been written especially for Mercer’s Hospital by William Boyce Blessed is he that considereth the sick. Purcell is represented by his Te Deum and Jubilate written for Saint Cecilia’s day 1694 but curiously the part books contain only the cello part. We know that this Te Deum and Jubilate were performed regularly at the St Cecilia’s day celebrations in St Patrick’s Cathedral in the eighteenth century so it is probable that there were parts available for loan for Mercer’s Hospital performances.

These part books are undoubtedly the most important unexplored source for eighteenth-century music in Ireland. They can reveal much about the musical and social life of Dublin in the eighteenth century. A scholarship valued at €12,500 per annum plus fee waiver is available for a post-graduate student to work on these archives. The closing date for applications is 30 September 2006 and further details may be had from Kerry Houston, Head of Department of Academic Studies, Conservatory of Music and Drama, Dublin Institute of Technology, Rathmines Road, Dublin 6t:(01) 402 3478 ; e: <>

Kerry Houston
DIT Conservatory of Music & Drama

back to September 2006 index