The Harp

The traditional symbol of Ireland and an instrument that is gaining in popularity with the huge trend that is the Celtic revival globally. It is smaller than the concert harp and has one set of strings in comparison to the Welsh harp, which has three. Today’s harpists are modern and well-trained in the intricacies of counter-point and harmonies. 

Evidence left by stone carvings made before any others in Western Europe would seem to suggest that the harp existed in Ireland at a very early stage and occupied a privileged position in both society and culture. It is thought that the harp originated in the Middle-East – possibly Egypt – and the Irish harp in it’s present triangular form had emerged by the Twelfth century AD as an instrument unique to this country. Those who played it were recognized as having a special status in society. The ancient harp was s solid structure, with a large, hollow sound box and a deep heavy neck. Its strings were made of thick brass and were plucked by the fingernails.

The oldest model of the harp is preserved at Trinity College, Dublin and dates from the fourteenth century: this harp is one of the oldest instruments to have survived intact from medieval Europe. Harpists at this time did not use any system of notation and it is difficult to know the exact nature of the music or the type of melody, which would have been fashionable during the period. However, evidence left by the scholar, Giraldus Cambrenis, at the end of the Twelfth century, indicates that though the music played was refined it did not differ greatly from the music in the courts of Europe. Peculiar to Ireland was the inclusion of the Harper’s at the bardic recitations.

The status enjoyed by the Harper’s had diminished by the end of the Eighteenth century and those who remained were generally blind, itinerant musicians. Turlough O’Carolan(1670-1738) was the most renowned and best remembered of the travelling Harper’s and though his actual playing ability was not outstanding, the beauty of his compositions are what has secured his memory in the Irish music tradition right up to the present day. The Neo-Irish harp, which evolved in the Nineteenth century, is the one we are most familiar with in Ireland. It has a large frame, much like that of the classical concert harp and the strings of plastic (gut), are plucked with the fingertips.

Although the harp is far from being as popular today as other traditional instruments, most of a harpists repertoire would be comprised of O’Carolans airs. There is much innovation taking place with many players throughout the country adding more dance tunes to their repertoire and thus widening the scope of the instrument.