What did early Irish harpers play and sing?

An overview of historical repertory


Church music

Though there is no direct evidence for the accompaniment of plainchant by early Irish harps, there are accounts of harps accompanying sacred music. The early-fifteenth-century Great Book of Lecan mentions a ninth-century Irish abbot singing to an ochttédaich or ‘eight-stringed’ instrument.[1] Irish iconography of the eighth- to twelfth centuries shows stringed instruments in religious and biblical contexts, possibly played by professional musicians, clerics or, ubiquitously, King David. By the twelfth century, Gerald of Wales remarked:

…Wherefore [music] stirs courage in the bold and moves holy intentions in the pious. Hence it is that bishops, abbots and holy men in Ireland carry citharas about[2] and have grown accustomed to play on them, delighting in a holy manner.[3]

Accounts­ from eighteenth-century Ireland indicate that harpers of that – and the preceding – century, composed and performed instrumental music for liturgical use. The mid-eighteenth century History of Kerry mentions the seventeenth-century harper, Nioclás Dall Pierce’s ‘…singular capacity of composing Lamentations funeral additions and Elevations…’[4] Another eighteenth-century poem that mentions Nioclás Dall also mentions the harp in church in the context of orgáin, cláirseach is sailm [‘organ, harp and psalms’].[5] The eighteenth-century harper, Thady Elliott, ‘usually accompanied the service [Mass] on his harp…’[6] as did the most famous harper of that century, Turlough Carolan, who ‘frequently assisted with his voice and his harp at the elevation of the Host; and has composed several pieces of church-music, which are deemed excellent’.[7]

Carolan’s student, the scholar and antiquarian Charles O’Conor, of the distinguished O’Conor Don family in co. Roscommon, recalled in his memoirs his father, Denis O’Conor, having ‘hired a number of harpers to strike up a solemn concert at Midnight Mass’.[8] O’Conor also wrote to a friend recalling a piece of sacred music performed by Carolan: 

On Easter-day I heard him play it at mass. He called the piece GLORIA IN EXCELSIS DEO, and he sung that hymn in Irish verses as he played. At the Lord’s Prayer he stopped; and after the Priest ended it, he sang again, and played a piece, which he denominated the RESURRECTION.[9]

Secular music

The early Irish harp’s performance practice belonged to the medieval oral traditions of Europe, with no repertory notated until a possible indirect appearance in seventeenth-century Scottish lute MSS.[10] The idiom of the earliest secular music performed on the instrument therefore remains elusive.

Bardic poetry accompaniment

Syllabic bardic poetry in Irish, sung to accompaniment, was the apogee of medieval courtly performance art up to the early-modern period.[11] The harper accompanied the singing of praise poems and possibly laments, epic lays, histories and genealogies. That the poetic metres found their counterpart in measured, metrical harp accompaniments may be alluded to in this late description:

…the Poem…was perform’d with a great deal of Ceremony, in a Consort of Vocal and Instrumental Musick. The Poet himself said nothing, but directed and took care, that every body else did his Part right. The Bards having first had the Composition from him, got it well by Heart, and now pronounc’d it orderly, keeping even Pace with a Harp, touch’d upon that Occasion; no other musical instrument being allow’d of for the said Purpose than this alone, as being Masculin, much sweeter, and fuller than any other.[12]

A poem that at least predates 1200 also echoes the concept of a sophisticated rapport between harper and singer, the harp being ar aen [‘at one’] with a clear voice,[13] while singers accompanying themselves on harp can be traced back to the medieval period.

Medieval variation sets and marches

It is still the subject of debate whether the ceòl mór [‘big music’ a.k.a. piobaireachd [‘piping’]] tradition of variation sets in Scottish piping of the seventeenth century onwards, together with a unique source of comparable variation sets in late-medieval Welsh harping,[14] had a parallel in Irish harping, and in vocal-accompaniment practice. 

The refrain-and-episodes structure of the didactic composition, Burns’s March, may point to the existence of such a genre in Ireland. The medieval rondeau form of this unique piece – AA BB AA CC AA DD AA etc. – is indicative of an antique origin. Other Irish marches played by harpers were also specific to clans or kings as evidenced by their titles, for example The King of Leix’s March.


Harp songs

Strophic songs associated with harping survive from before 1650 but it is the vocal repertory of the later seventeenth- and eighteenth-century harp composers that has best survived. Harp songs were sung and played simultaneously by a single performer. Most fall into three categories: love songs, praise songs for patrons, and epithalamiums, celebrating marriages. Bawdy, vulgar songs are rare but not unknown.


Didactic compositions

Burns’s March is one of three surviving, historical didactic pieces. It functioned as a study, enabling the inexperienced performer to learn and practice treble-hand striking- and string-damping gestures. Two simpler didactic compositions, Mailí Bhán [‘fair Molly’], and Féilacháin [‘butterfly’] also survive in the Bunting MS collection.


Harp preludes

A genre of harp preludes – the féachain gléis – existed historically. Now only one example remains: the féachain gléis prelude performed in the 1790s by one of the last vernacular harp virtuosos, Dennis O’Hampsay, who explained that the old harpers ‘were accustomed to play the ancient caoinans or lamentations, with their corresponding preludes’.[15] One English-language title for the surviving example is Try if it is in tune, and Seán Donnelly has translated the Irish title as a ‘preliminary test or tuning trial’. Harp tuning as a performative activity is documented already in medieval British, and continental European, practice. Ann Heymann has situated the surviving féachain gléis as compositionally parallel with the earliest surviving European keyboard preludes from the mid-fifteenth century.[16]



Ireland’s first systematic music collector, Edward Bunting, wrote that the caoine [‘lament’] ‘was a solemn piece of music, intended as a tribute of respect to the deceased, and was looked on as the greatest test of the abilities of the harper. It consisted of three divisions in one lesson, and was not intended to be sung.’[17] Irish harps were involved in caoines for dead patrons from at least the sixteenth century but probably much earlier. Later in the vernacular harping tradition, laments were sung to harp accompaniment, with eighteenth-century examples by Turlough Carolan (1670–1738) still surviving.



The earliest examples of the instrumental genre connected with harping known as the port are found in seventeenth-century Scottish MSS for lute and other fretted, plucked instruments.[18] Further examples survive in the Bunting MS collection, and in an early nineteenth-century collection from the Isle of Mull in Scotland, the latter captured indirectly from the eighteenth-century Irish harper, Echlin Ó Catháin.[19]


Outside influences on Irish harp repertory

Medieval European

Chivalric French influence on Irish poetry is well documented: the lyrics of the Irish love-song tradition were influenced by amour courtois [20] so it is not surprising to see the existence of the medieval French rondeau form that I have identified in Burns’s March. Similarly, Irish harp repertory includes examples of the European Nachtanz [‘after-dance’]: a faster triple-metre dance that uses related thematic material from a previous, related slower composition. Jigs follow seventeenth-century compositions such as Port 7th in the Maclean-Clephane MSS, The Jointure by Thomas Connellon (c. 1649–ante 1700) and eighteenth-century Carolan praise songs such as Mrs. Bermingham, Lady Dillon and Michael O’Connor. Joan Rimmer has argued for further evidence of early European dance forms in the work of Carolan, including estampies and bransles.[21]


European Renaissance 

Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century harpers working within European art-music environments – for colonial patrons in Ireland or at English or Welsh aristocratic establishments – would have been involved in the performance of contemporaneous European music. King James I of England’s royal harper, the Irishman Cormac MacDermott, composed European Renaissance courtly dances: pavans and almains.[22] Successive players of Irish harp at the English royal court performed in the royal entertainments known as masques, and probably performed one, or more, voices in consort music, alongside other instruments. They may also have provided accompaniments improvised over a bass line in instrumental and vocal pieces. They would also likely have played ground basses (repeating bass patterns) and divisions (a kind of variation).[23] The Irish harp was also known in continental Europe at this period, reaching as far south as Florence by 1581, enabling the musician and music theoretician, Vincenzio Galilei – father of the astronomer – to describe an Irish harp.[24] It also travelled as far east as Poland, and by the early seventeenth century was played at German and Danish courts.[25]


Italianate baroque 

A cadre of harpers who had once had royal patrons at Gaelic courts in the medieval period, and who were welcomed at English and continental courts in the seventeenth century, become travelling musicians by the eighteenth century. They were welcomed at the great Irish houses by descendants of Old English (Norman) and New English (Tudor) patrons alike, in addition to their traditional, Gaelic sponsors.

Italianate music became increasingly familiar in Ireland from the early eighteenth century, and was fashionable in the milieu in which the harpers and their aristocratic colonial patrons moved. Italian divas and instrumentalists performed in Dublin – the second city of the British empire – in addition to London, when they went on tour to Britain. The composer and conductor, Johann Sigismund Kusser [Cousser] (1660–1727), moved to Dublin by 1707 and later became ‘Master of Musick attending his Majesty’s State in Ireland’. He had studied with the famous Jean-Baptiste Lully, in France, for six years in the 1670s, but was equally adept at Italian style and brought his expertise in both French and Italian music to Ireland.[26] Kusser’s death in 1727 created a vacancy that the influential Italian composer, and student of Corelli, Francesco Geminiani (1687-1762) was invited to fill but it was his student, Matthew Dubourg (1703-1767), who finally took up the position. Nonetheless, Geminiani spent a great deal of time in Ireland, from his first visit in 1733, until his eventual death in Dublin in 1762.[27] Dubourg was an English violin prodigy, musical director and composer who moved back and forth, professionally, between Dublin and London until 1765, after which he lived in London until his death two years later. He was a colleague and close friend of Handel, leading the latter’s orchestra for his Dublin premieres in 1741-2 including the world premiere of Messiah. [28]

This was the urban colonial-music context in which Irish harpers found themselves, and one which influenced domestic music-making in the great Irish houses, where they were received as guests or where they were employed more consistently. Some were known for adapting Italianate repertory including arias from Handel’s oratorios (Dominic Mungan, c. 1715 to 1770s),[29] and adagio movements from works by Geminiani and Corelli (Mungan and Echlin Ó Catháin).[30]

Some Irish harpers in turn travelled to London as well as to Dublin from the homes of their aristocratic employers in the provinces; for example, Cornelius Lyons (c. 1680–post 1750). These were clearly heavily influenced not only by what they heard in these cities but undoubtedly also by domestic music-making in the homes of their colonial patrons. The continental influence is particularly noticeable in the much remarked-upon Italianate flavour of some of Turlough Carolan’s output. The influence is also to be seen in the division-writing to be seen in compositions collected from late-eighteenth-century harpers such as Hugh Higgins.[31] Of particular note, in this regard, are divisions surviving in the two surviving variation sets of Cornelius Lyons.

Though traces of the vernacular harping tradition were still faintly discernible throughout the nineteenth century, the tradition was effectively dead shortly after 1800.[32] 


Siobhán Armstrong © 2021    All rights reserved    www.siobhanarmstrong.com    Revised 09.01.2022

[1]     O’Curry, Eugene. 1873. On the Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish: A Series of Lectures. 3 vols. London, Dublin, Edinburgh, New York: Williams and Norgate. 3:261–3.
[2]     At this period, cithara probably denotes a harp (triangular) rather than a lyre (quadrangular).
[3]     Gerald of Wales c. 1185, quoted in Fletcher, Alan J. 2001. Drama and the Performing Arts in Pre-Cromwellian Ireland: A Repertory of Sources and Documents from the Earliest Times Until c.1642. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 166.
[4]     Fletcher 2001, 489.
[5]     The poem Conspóid Dhonnchaidh Mhic Labhra agus Ghiollamhuire Chaoich Mhic Cartáin in O’Rahilly, Thomas Francis. 1927. Measgra Dánta: Miscellaneous Irish Poems. Part 1. Dublin and Cork: Cork University Press, 9.
[6]     Bunting, Edward. 1840. The Ancient Music of Ireland... Dublin: Hodges and Smith, 79. Accessed 19 December 2021. https://archive.org/details/ancientmusicofir00bunt For an amusing story about Thady Elliott taking wagers to play inappropriate music during especially solemn parts of the Mass see Milligan Fox, Charlotte. 1911. Annals of the Irish Harpers. London: John Murray, 142–144. Accessed 19 December 2021. archive.org/details/annalsofirishhar00foxcuoft/page/142/mode/2up
[7]    Walker 1786, Appendix VI, 91. A Carolan composition entitled ‘The Elevation’ survives in Lee, Edmund. 1780. A Collection of Irish Airs by the Celebrated Composers Carolan and Conolan. Dublin: Edmund Lee, 17.
[8]     O’Conor, Charles. 1796. Memoirs of the Life and Writings of the Late Charles O’Conor, of Belanagare. By ... Charles O’Conor, D.D. Dublin: J. Mehain, 162.
[9]     Walker 1786, Appendix VI, 91
[10]   See Graham, George Farquhar. 1847. ‘GB-En MS Adv. 5.2.18 Robert Gordon of Straloch Lute Book (1627-9) Transcription’; Skene, John. Early- to mid-17th century. ‘GB-En Ms.Adv. 5.2.15 Skene Mandour Book’; and Wemyss, Lady Margaret. 1643–1644. ‘GB-En Dep. 314 No. 23 Wemyss Lute Book’. Fife.
[11]   See University College Cork. n.d. ‘CELT: Corpus of Electronic Texts’. Accessed 9 July 2019. celt.ucc.ie/index.html 
[12]   Clanricarde, Marquis of. 1722. Memoirs of the Right Honourable the Marquis of Clanricarde, Lord Deputy General of Ireland. London: James Woodman, quoted in Fletcher 2001, 484.
[13]   In IRL-Dn MS 7. For an account of the poem see O Daly, Máirín. 1962. ‘Mesce Chúanach’. Ériu 19: 75–80. My thanks to Seán Donnelly for bringing it to my attention.
[14]   Huw, Robert ap. Early 17th century. ‘GB-Lbl Add. MS 14905 Robert Ap Huw MS’. A facsimile and further information is available online: Lindahl, Greg. n.d. ‘Facsimile of the Robert Ap Huw Manuscript (B. M. Addl. MS 14905)’. Accessed 15 November 2018. www.pbm.com/~lindahl/ap_huw/facsimile/ 
[15]   Bunting 1840, 83
[16]   Heymann, Ann. 2016. ‘Three Iconic Gaelic Harp Pieces’. In Harp Studies: Perspectives on the Irish Harp, 184–208. Dublin: Four Courts Press Ltd, 197
[17]   Bunting 1840, 90–91    
[18]   See Graham 1847; Skene Early- to mid-17th century; and Wemyss 1643–1644.
[19]   Maclean-Clephane, Margaret, Anna Jane Maclean-Clephane, and Wilmina Maclean-Clephane. Early 19th century. ‘GB-En MS 14949B [IRL-Dt MS 10615] Maclean-Clephane MSS’. For more on the port genre see Kinnaird, Alison, and Keith Sanger. 1992. Tree of Strings: Crann Nan Teud: A History of the Harp in Scotland. Temple: Kinmor Music, 174–91, and McAulay, Karen E. 2013. ‘The Accomplished Ladies of Torloisk’. International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music 44 (1): 57–78.
[20]   For an overview of its influence in Irish poetry see Ó Tuama, Seán. 1960. An Grá in Amhráin na nDaoine. Dublin: An Clochomhar Tta.
[21]   See Rimmer, Joan. 1987. ‘Patronage, Style and Structure in the Music Attributed to Turlough Carolan’. Early Music 15 (2): 164–74.
[22]   Four of these can be heard on Armstrong, Siobhán, and The Irish Consort. 2018. Music, Ireland and the Sixteenth Century. CD. London: Destino Classics.
[23]   For more on Cormac MacDermott, and the predominance of the Irish harp at the English court, see Holman, Peter. 1987. ‘The Harp in Stuart England: New Light on William Lawes’s Harp Consorts’. Early Music 15 (2): 188–203.
[24]   Galilei, Vincentio. 1581. Dialogo Di Vincentio Galilei Nobile Fiorentino Della Musica Antica, Et Della Moderna. Florence: Giorgio Marescotti, 143; English translation in Palisca, Claude V. 2003. Dialogue on Ancient and Modern Music. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 357.
[25]   The latter three links are due to traffic from London rather than directly from Ireland. See Donnelly, Seán. 2000. ‘A Cork Musician at the Early Stuart Court: Daniel Duff O’Cahill (c. 1580 – c.1660), “The Queen’s Harper”’. Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society 105: 4.
[26]   For more on Kusser, see Owens, Samantha. 2017. The Well-Travelled Musician: John Sigismond Cousser and Musical Exchange in Baroque Europe. Martlesham: The Boydell Press.
[27]   For more on Geminiani in Ireland see Sadie, Stanley, and John Tyrell. 2001. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. New York: Grove, 7, 224.
[28]   For more on the colonial music scene in eighteenth-century Ireland see Walsh, T. J. 1973. Opera in Dublin, 1705-97: The Social Scene. Dublin: Allen Figgis & Co. Ltd, and Boydell, Brian. 1988. A Dublin Musical Calendar 1700-1760. Blackrock, Co. Dublin: Irish Academic Press.
[29]   Bunting 1840, 78 
[30]   Gunn, John Charles. 1807. An Historical Enquiry Respecting the Performance on the Harp in the Highlands of Scotland. Edinburgh: A. Constable and Co., 60
[31]   See particularly the field transcriptions of his Tá mé i mo chodladh ‘s ná dúisigh mé [‘I am asleep and don’t wake me’] in Bunting, Edward. 1792–1805. ‘IRLN-Bu Special Collections MS 4.29’, 28; and Thugamar féin an samhradh linn [‘we brought the summer with us’] in IRLN-Bu Special Collections MS 4.29, 86.
[32]   For more on the early Irish harp in the nineteenth century see O’Donnell, Mary Louise. 2014. Ireland’s Harp: The Shaping of Irish Identity c.1770 to 1880. Dublin: University College Dublin Press, and Hurrell, Nancy. 2019. Egan Irish Harps: Tradition, Patrons and Players. Dublin: Four Courts Press Ltd.