The Harp, Ireland, and Irish Harp Music
The harp or lyre is one of the earliest instruments in human history, following the voice, percussion, flutes or panpipes, and drums. It was developed from the hunting bow through the realization that a string under tension produces a particular pitch. This type of stringed instrument is depicted as early as 3000 BC in Egyptian paintings.
Around 1500 BC, ancient art depicts an instrument built of two pieces: a sound box, and an angled arm with gut or leather strings wrapped around it. This instrument traveled from Asia to the Middle East, where it became a common instrument in the Holy Land. The harp is mentioned over 66 times in Biblical text. The words ‘arpa’ and ‘lyra’ were first used interchangeably, but harp came to mean the triangular instrument, while a lyre was more squarely shaped. Similarly, the gaelic word ‘cruit’ came to mean lyre, while ‘cláirseach’ meant harp.
The earliest distinctly Celtic people emerged from the Indo-European side of the Mediterranean Sea around 1000 BC, and migrated west and north across Europe. They brought the triangular harp with them to Ireland, adding a pillar (first depicted on an 8th century stone cross), which allowed for more tension and greater numbers of strings. Likely due to the influence of Viking skills in metallurgy, the strings on Irish harps were made out of metal, resulting in greater volume, longer sustained tone, and a magical bell-like sound. The strings were wrapped around pegs, which were twisted by a special wrench called a harp key to tune them into the chromatic scales needed for different tunes. The oldest Irish harp, dating back to the 14th century, sports a curved pillar with 34-36 metal strings. It is known as the Brian Boru Harp, as it was attributed to the famous historical figure Brian Boru, who leveraged control of Viking port towns to wrest the High Kingship of Ireland from the O’Neill clan in 1002, until the harp’s actual age was measured through modern dating methods.
The skill of the Irish on their harps was highly praised by foreigners, and Irish harpers were of high value in the gaelic-speaking aristocratic society that existed through the 16th century in Ireland. Every chieftain, or Taoiseach, had a poet and a harper, who with music could evoke emotions of joy, grief, or sleep in the audience. Harps at this time rested on the left shoulder and the strings were played with the fingernails. Music was enriched with simple harmony and intricate ornamentation that wove around the melody. A significant number of harpers were blind, as it was the best opportunity for a blind child to contribute in that society.
Over the course of the century from 1600 to 1700, the balance of power shifted to the English-speaking Anglo-Irish. Without their gaelic lords, the harpers became traveling minstrels and teachers. One famous Irish harper, Turlough O’Carolan (1670-1738), lived during this time of transition, and his musical compositions show both the old style as well as European styles that became popular at the time. Harps in this period gained levers that gave the ability to change the pitch of a string, reducing the need for tuning between each piece.
As the Anglo-Irish gentry became more accomplished harp players, their willingness to support the wandering minstrels waned. By the end of the 18th century, the tradition of the old harpers had all but died out. In an attempt to preserve the old style of harping, Doctor James MacDonnell organized the Belfast Harp Festival in 1792, which invited traditional harpers to compete and have their music recorded. Eleven harpers were in attendance, and their music was published by Edward Bunting as piano arrangements in three books named “The Ancient Music of Ireland.” Ten years later, only two of the harpers remained. This was the end of the age of the harpers.
Harp music in Ireland continued in the 19th century in a new form, played by the sophisticated ladies of upper class society. Women played and sang airs, many of which were old songs with new English lyrics, and accompanied themselves on the harp, which was placed on the right shoulder with both knees to one side. Music was learned from books, rather than being passed down by oral tradition. The harp was considered feminine and a representation of Ireland herself, and thus became a tool of nationalism. Simply by playing the tune of a rebel song, Irish ladies could inspire a political spirit from the safety of the drawing room. A pedal harp maker, John Egan, capitalized on the nationalism of the era and in 1824 advertised a smaller, levered harp with gut strings. The idea caught on, and the neo-Irish or folk harp is still popular today, although many now use nylon string material.
All this while, Irish traditional music had developed among the working class on a totally separate trajectory from harp music, shaped by Irish dance and the commonly available instruments such as fiddle, flute, and later, accordion. In contrast to the slow songs and airs played on the harp, “trad” music was quick, lively, and rhythmic for dancers. The technique necessary to play such tunes on the harp was not developed until the 1970s.
In modern times, Irish harp is used in Celtic ensembles, solo, and as accompaniment to voice. It is still used as a symbol of Ireland, and its magical sound evokes the mythical past. The history of the harp in Scotland followed a similar path, and many Scottish songs and tunes are played in Ireland, and vice versa. All in all, the harp tradition developed by the Celtic peoples continues to flourish alongside classical repertoire in the harp world today.
“History of the Harp.” International Harp Museum, International Harp Museum, 2009, www.internationalharpmuseum.org/visit/history.html.
“History of the Harp.” The World of the Harp, Harp.com, 2016, www.harp.com/history-of-the-harp.htm.
“History of the Harp” and “The Irish Contribution.” The Harp Foundation, The Harp Foundation, 2013, www.theharpfoundation.org/about-us/history-of-the-harp/.
Harbison, Janet. “A History Lesson.” Traditional Irish Harp Tutor Level 4. Castleconnell, Co. Limerick: Irish Harp Centre, 2011. 4-5. Print.
Ní Fhuartháin, Méabh. “Irish Harping Tradition.” Traditional Irish Music and Dance, National University of Ireland Galway, 5 July 2016, NUIG, Galway.