The Irish Harp – History and Kinds

The national symbol of Ireland is the harp – the only country to have a musical instrument as its symbol. This instrument, however, has had a troubled history.

The Irish Harp – History and Kinds

History and Background

The national symbol of Ireland is the harp, it is on government stationery, Garda caps and coin currency. Ireland is the only country to have such a music instrument as its symbol. Yet it is almost two hundred years since Ireland’s old harp tradition flickered out. The instrument’s intense history has constantly motivated exploration, retrieval and ingenuity among harpers and harp enthusiasts through the twentieth century.

It and its music have been painstakingly researched, instruments reconstructed and new harps based on models that survive from the eighteenth century have been made, music collected from the last of the old order of harp players has been revived to suit these, and techniques of playing to suit the more modern dance-music repertoire have been perfected. Still, because the harp’s tradition was broken, it suffers from that rupture. In the passing on of skills, and players today are all in many ways also innovators, as each makes their own stamp on the instrument.

Harps and lyres are not by any means restricted to the ‘Celtic’ countries. The instruments’ oldest records date to the 2500 BC Mesopotamian graves of Ur, and various forms had travelled to Syria by 2000 BC, to Palestine where they were used in Hebrew temple orchestras. In ancient Greece harp was played by males and females, finger plucked for ritual use, plectrum plucked (a harder sound) for dancing.

Harps are still used all over North to Central Africa, in Burma and Afghanistan. Since lyres too are found from the Black Sea to the Atlantic it is likely that our early Celtic ancestors had adopted or become influenced by them. It is possible that the actual triangular harp may have had pre-Christian Celtic association In Ireland and therefore deliberately was not depicted in carvings – the psalterium may have been portrayed instead as a symbol of Christianity. Or it may be that the ninth-century-AD Danish incursions brought the actual triangular harp here.

Kinds of Irish Harp

The present triangular shape of the Irish harp was set by the eleventh century, its particularly robust, heavy construction most likely developed to suit our climate. It has a soundbox of willow, metal strings, a T-shaped pillar and a string-bearer reinforced with metal. The instrument is smaller than other eighteenth- century harps, it was designed to be held on knee, as was the fourteenth-century Trinity college harp. Irish harps became gradually bigger until by the seventeenth century they were large and floor-standing.

Irish harping was highly regarded, and popularly favoured, leading an ethnocentric fourteenth-century Welsh poet to urge the youth of his day not to adopt the Irish fashion of metal strings. The harp on display in Trinity College Dublin – the model for the Irish emblem – dates to the fourteenth century and is used as a reference point for playing practice – it has brass strings strung so that it had to be held on the left shoulder.

But in all there are three kinds of older Irish harp:

  1. That of the fourteenth to early sixteenth century – 70 cm high, thirty stings, referred to as the ‘small low-headed Irish harp’ .
  2. The ‘large low-headed Irish harp’ with thirty-five to forty-five songs from the late sixteenth into seventeenth century. It has four survivors – The Otway and O’Fogerty harps have thirty-five strings the Fitzgerald-Kildare instrument has thirty-nine (pictured above), the Dalway (or ‘Cloyne’) has forty-five, with an additional seven which probably sounded sympathetically.
  3. The high-headed Irish harp, used by later itinerant harpers – instruments like that of Turlough Carolan. Six of these survive – the Bunworth, Carolan, Mullagh Mast, O’Neill, Dounhill and Sirr. The most common harp played today is known as the modern or gut- string Irish harp. There are many different styles, some modelled on the low-headed, some on the high-headed older models, others use clairseach design.

Recommended Reading

• Published in 2017, The Trinity College Harp is a fascinating and wonderfully illustrated history of Irish music and culture during the Middle Ages.

• It features over 90 new illustrations from the Book of Kells, and tells a story long forgotten but which is essential reading for anyone interested in the history of music in the Western World. It can be bought from Dubhlinn Nua Publishing for €25.00 or $30.00 and ships worldwide.