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The Historical Irish Harp:

Myths Demystified

Here are musical examples in connection with the forthcoming article by Andrew Lawrence-King, Katerina Antonenko & Natalia O'Shea, discussing the organology, philology and musicology of the Irish harp in the context of Celtic literary and mythological studies.

Example 1: Pibroch-style ornamentation on Irish harp

Battle of Harlow (Anon 17th century):  Exquisite Consorts (Berlin Classics 1995)

Andrew Lawrence-King (copy by Hobrough of Queen Mary harp)

Example 2: Gaelic repertoire

Scott’s Lamentation (John Scott 1599, ed Bunting 1840): His Majesty’s Harper (DHM 1999)

Andrew Lawrence-King (copy by Hobrough of O’Neill harp) 


Example 3: The legendary O’Carolan

Carolan’s Farewell (attributed to Tulough O’Carolan, early 18th century): Carolan’s Harp (DHM 1996)

Andrew Lawrence-King (copy by Hobrough of Queen Mary harp)

Example 4: Irish Jig with heterophony and ‘parallel’ bass-line

Jig to Mr James Betagh (Carolan, ‘Carolan Fragment NLI LO1635, 18th cent):  Carolan’s Harp (DHM 1996)

The Harp Consort directed by Andrew Lawrence-King (copy by Hobrough of O’Neill harp)

Example 5: Chromatic Irish harp with ‘Reinhard Thym consort’

Pavan for the Harp Consort (William Lawes, after Cormack McDermott, early 17th century):

Exquisite Consorts (Berlin Classics 1995)

The Harp Consort directed by Andrew Lawrence-King (chromatic Irish harp by Hobrough 

after Dalway fragments & O’Ffogarty harp)


Andrew Lawrence-King, Katerina Antonenko & Natalia O' Shea




This article presents the work of three scholars from three disciplinary areas, surveying the history of the Irish Harp through the lenses of organology and musicology, supported by literary & mythological studies.


Perhaps the most powerful tool for demystifying myths is careful attention to distinctions of date. We should establish as precisely as possible a chronology for all those tunes, texts, artefacts and cultural practices described in nineteenth-century accounts as ‘ancient’ or ‘very old’.


The Old Irish word cruit is cognate with European names that refer not to a harp but to the four-sided lyre. Between the 8th and 11th centuries, European names referring to lyres (vernacular harpa and Latin cithara) become associated instead with the gut-strung triangular harp.


In Gerald of Wales’ 12th-century Latin, cithara is assumed to mean triangular harp; tympanum is cognate with tiompán and assumed to mean a four-sided lyre. These meanings are highly plausible, but not proven. Gerald states that metal strings are used: it is plausible that he means to link this statement to Ireland. But he does not specify which instrument had metal strings.


There is a long gap between the first representation of a triangular harp in Ireland (eleventh century) and the first occurrence of the name cláirseach  (fourteenth century). That name is securely linked to some 18 surviving historical instruments with carved-out bodies and thick metal strings.


The simplest explanation of the available data is that the wire-strung cláirseach did not appear until the late 14th century. 


In 1820, harp-maker John Egan began to sell his Royal Portable Harps, built like a French harp with gut strings, but equipped with ditals, little finger-levers at the pillar, instead of the foot-pedals. The twentieth-century successor to Egan’s Dital harps is the modern Celtic Harp, also known as the Neo-Irish harp, and often referred to as the ‘lever harp’. This is a small, light-weight, simplified version of a modern orchestral harp.


In all those sagas that give a musical instrument high status and otherworldly powers, we simply do not know precisely what type of stringed instrument was meant. But it is highly plausible that from the fourteenth century onwards, cláirseach players were happy to believe that their renaissance harps were the inheritors of the high status and otherworldly powers of the ancient cruit. Certainly, the equation of ancient cruit with the renaissance Irish harp was made explicit during the revival of the harp in the nineteenth century; it is still widely accepted today. However, this romantically inspired equation now needs rigorous examination.


Perhaps the most cherished illusion is that ancient Irish harps were made of willow. The Scottish ‘Queen Mary’ harp has recently been identified as willow, but most surviving harps appear from expert visual inspection to be sycamore, alder or lime, timber typical of instrument-building in general. Modern high-tech analysis of each surviving harp is needed.


Probably most players are tempted to imagine themselves as re-embodying Tristan the mythical bards of ancient tradition, playing repertoire of Gaelic melodies preserved unchanged from a far-distant golden age. There certainly was such a repertoire, but apart from a few tantalising hints, it is now almost entirely lost to us, for it was handed down aurally. The period from which we begin to have reasonable amounts of hard information is around the year 1800, but by this date the repertoire had changed dramatically.


We can no longer support the romantic view of Carolan as the font and origin of ‘ancient Gaelic harp music’, but we can justly celebrate his achievement in uniting French and Italian, baroque and older styles. We will never know for sure precisely how the lost Gaelic repertoire originally sounded, but we should certainly continue to experiment, combining artistic sensitivity with intellectual rigour.





From left to right:


Trossingen lyre (6th century) - probably Old Irish cruit means an instrument of this type

Gut-strung harp (circa 1180) - perhaps Gerald's 12th-century cithara means an instrument of this type

Trinity cláirseach (late 15th century) - perhaps this type of instrument first appeared during the 14th century.

Egan Dital Harp (c 1821) - this is the ancestor of today's modern Celtic Harps

Modern Celtic Harp (2014) - Rainer Thurau's 'Fianna' design.


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