Would you like to hear the sound of the brass wire strings on the medieval Brian Boru harp, depicted in the Irish national emblem? Would you be interested to know what the famous harper, Turlough Carolan’s eighteenth-century songs and tunes might have sounded like on a much bigger version of the same kind of instrument?
The illustrious, early Irish harp was played in Ireland and the Scottish highlands and islands for probably the best part of a millennium, forming the core of traditional Irish music. It was the pinnacle of Gaelic music culture: harpers were highly-accomplished, high-status musicians at Gaelic – and foreign – royal courts and later in the Great Houses of Ireland, from at least the eleventh- until the early nineteenth century, when it finally died out in Ireland, having disappeared earlier in Scotland.
With a resonating chamber usually carved from a single log – traditionally willow – and strung with brass wire, whose mesmerising resonance was selectively damped, the extraordinary sweetness of this instrument was described in glowing terms by early writers.
It was replaced in the early-nineteenth century by a new Irish harp, whose construction type, stringing materials and playing techniques were those of the European pedal harp – quite different to the earlier instrument. The modern Irish harp is also called Celtic harp, clarsach and lever harp and now has its own distinct traditions, some of these lying within contemporary Irish traditional music.
The Historical Harp Society of Ireland supports the rigorous study and historically informed performance of the music of the early Irish harp, using measured copies of historic Irish harps now held in museum and private collections.