The history of the wire-strung Irish harp tradition from the twelfth century to the late nineteenth century is a story of a fight to survive through regeneration and adaptation in a changing society.
The Irish harp enjoyed a high status in early Gaelic society due to the sophistication of the instrument and the considerable technical ability of the harpers that was acquired from a young age. The harper, along with the file (poet) and the reacaire (reciter), were the epitome of Gaelic aristocratic culture.
In Topographia Hiberniae, Giraldus Cambrensis, a Welsh cleric who accompanied Prince John on a visit to Ireland in the late twelfth century, identified the skill of the Irish harpers as the sole redeeming characteristic of an otherwise barbaric race. The anomaly of an uncivilized race fostering such an advanced culture was difficult for Cambrensis to reconcile, but his acknowledgement of the supremacy of Irish harpers was cited regularly over the following centuries as proof of the existence of a highly advanced precolonial Gaelic civilization with a great tradition of harp music.
Over the course of the next five centuries the parallel decline of Gaelic civilization and increasing colonization of Irish society by the English meant that the role of the Irish harp and harper was gradually redefined. In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries the wire-strung Irish harp became a popular instrument at the English court and formed an important part of a distinctive ‘hybrid musical tradition’ called the harp consort. Irish harpers employed at court adapted aspects of their playing style to perform the compositions of William Lawes and others in ensembles which included a bass viol, theorbo, or other instruments.
Following the decisive defeat of a combined army of Gaelic chieftains by English colonial forces at the Battle of Kinsale (1601), many members of the Gaelic aristocracy fled to continental Europe. Some chieftains brought their harpers with them but the harpers that remained in Ireland were forced to find other sources of patronage, often amongst English settlers. The complex social fabric of Ireland from the seventeenth century onwards was reflected by the many groupings within society which included the aristocracy, gentry, and the Protestant, Dissenter and Catholic professional and commercial middle classes of Gaelic, English, or Scottish origin. Irish harpers adapted their repertoire, technique, and instruments to cater to the musical demands of their new patrons and this often entailed assimilating foreign musical influences into their repertoire and compositional techniques. In the early seventeenth century, in an attempt to emulate contemporary continental developments in keyboard instruments, some harp makers even tried to facilitate limited chromaticism on the Irish harp.
In the late seventeenth century, when contemporary audiences viewed the technique of playing with long fingernails as obsolete, some harpers modified their technique so that by the eighteenth century, most harpers were performing on thinly-strung high-headed harps with a fingertip technique. In the eighteenth century, as musicians were encouraged to become multi-skilled instrumentalists and pedagogues, Irish harpers, including Turlough Carolan and Arthur O'Neill, duly obliged and derived an income as travelling musicians and teachers. Every moment in the history of the tradition was characterized by an impulse to save the tradition and drive it forward, and its survival was largely due to the ingenuity and versatility of Irish harpers to adapt constantly to social and cultural changes.
Although members of the Protestant Ascendancy and Catholic gentry in Ireland continued to provide patronage for harpers, in the eighteenth century, the Irish harp tradition was increasingly regarded as a dying tradition whose practitioners were relics of a past glorious civilization and whose ‘ancient’ music was in need of urgent rescue from oblivion. In 1760, the writer Oliver Goldsmith declared the renowned Irish harper/composer Turlough Carolan (1670–1738) the ‘last Irish bard’ and a gathering of ten Irish harpers to perform and compete in Belfast in 1792 was interpreted culturally and politically as the end of Gaelic culture.
As the practice of wire-strung harp declined through the centuries, however, the harp icon became increasingly prominent as a symbol of Ireland under English rule and later as a marker of identity in contemporary Irish politics and culture. The harp was employed as a symbol of English rule in Ireland from the mid-sixteenth century when a harp surmounted by a crown was minted on Irish coinage in England during the reign of Henry VIII. During the eighteenth century, a winged-maiden harp was used as the symbol of the Protestant Ascendancy, the dominant political power in Ireland.
The popularity of the pianoforte, the genesis of an Irish pedal harp tradition, and a period of social and cultural flux in Ireland from the 1840s onwards transformed the Irish harp tradition into a complex, fractured tradition, which struggled to survive. The paucity of information on Irish harpers in Ireland from the 1880s onwards suggests that there were few, if any, professional harpers deriving an income from performance. The unique and intimate connection between wire-strung harp performance, patronage, and Irish society, which had its origins in early Gaelic civilization, was broken forever by the 1880s. In the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries harpers such as Owen Lloyd and Gráinne Yeats attempted to revive the performance of the wire-strung Irish harp in Ireland. Because these harpers were self taught and acquired their knowledge solely through the study of extant sources of harp repertoire, they were not part of the unbroken tradition of wire-strung Irish harp performance which was passed down orally from generation to generation in Ireland for almost a millennium. Although there has been a revival of interest in the performance of the wire-strung Irish harp in recent decades, the modern Irish or folk harp (strung with gut, nylon, or carbon) is now the most widely practiced type of harp in Ireland.
Figure 1: A map of Ireland which reinforces the harp as a symbol of colonial culture from The Fovrth Booke: Containing the Kingdome of Irelande, by John Speed (London, 1612). (Courtesy of the Special Collections Department, Glucksman Library at the University of Limerick.)
Figure 2: The three-headed hound represents three figures – John Fitzgibbon, John Beresford and John Foster – who served in the Irish parliament in the late eighteenth century and who were regarded in the nineteenth century with scorn for their perceived betrayal of Ireland. The hound is pursuing Erin clutching a winged-maiden harp which represented Ireland and the Irish people. 'The Three Jacks', The Irish Magazine, and Monthly Asylum for Neglected Biography (June 1809) (Courtesy of the Special Collections Department, Glucksman Library at the University of Limerick)
Figure 4: Patrick Byrne, often referred to as the 'Last Minstrel', was one of the most renowned Irish harpers of the nineteenth century and he spent much of his career in England and Scotland. 'Patrick Byrne', The Illustrated London News (11 Oct. 1856). (Courtesy of the Irish Traditional Music Archive, Dublin)
Figure 5: The Irish harp and harper were frequently used during the nineteenth century in the iconography of various political and revolutionary movements. The Young Ireland movement employed the contrasting images of the old bard with his harp of broken strings and a young, virile man carrying a harp on the frontispiece of The Spirit of the Nation (1845), by F.W. Burton. (Courtesy of the Irish Traditional Music Archive, Dublin)
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