The musical instrument depicted in the national emblem of Ireland—the Trinity College or Brian Boru harp—is the only late-medieval harp still surviving in Ireland. This noble instrument typifies the kind of harp that was played in Ireland and the Scottish highlands and islands for probably the best part of a millennium.The early Irish harp was the pinnacle of Gaelic music culture: harpers were highly-accomplished, high-status musicians at the Gaelic royal courts and later in the Great Houses, probably from at least the eleventh century until the early nineteenth, 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 wires of brass, whose mesmerizing resonance were 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 the ancestor of the modern Irish harp, an instrument invented in Dublin in the 1810s by pedal-harp builder, John Egan. He derived his designs from his beautifully-built European pedal harps, with a construction, stringing and playing technique similar to both but which was quite different to the earlier Irish harp. Modern Irish harps are now usually strung with nylon or carbon fibre and have names including ‘Irish harp' and ‘Celtic harp'.
Would you like to hear the sound of the medieval Brian Boru harp? Would you be interested to know what Turlough Carolan’s music might have sounded like on the kind of harp he played?
The Historical Harp Society of Ireland promotes the rigorous study of – and historically informed performance of – the instrument and its music, which lies at the core of Irish music traditions, using measured copies of the surviving historic Irish harps housed in museum and private collections.