The Clonalis Carolan harp

Not to scale

Dated to the 18th Century

Also known as the Carolan harp or the Clonalis harp

Kept on display at Clonalis house, Ireland, home of the O’Conor family.

approx. 35 strings

"High Headed" design;
No dimensions available

Clonalis harp
photo © Siobhán Armstrong

This harp is said to have belonged to Turlough O'Carolan (1670 - 1738). It is not well studied; it is not listed in either of the two main authorities, R.B. Armstrong (1904) or Joan Rimmer (1969).

There are two slightly different accounts of the provenance of this harp. One says that when Carolan died, he bequeathed it to Madam MacDermott-Roe, at Alderford, and it was subsequently transferred to the O'Conors of Belnagare (the ancestors of the O'Conors of Clonalis). The other account says that Carolan bequeathed it to Denis O'Conor of Belnagare. Denis O'Conor's son, Charles O'Conor, was a friend and harp student of Carolan.

There are at least three harps associated with Carolan, this one, the NMI Carolan harp, and the harp shown in his portrait which may be the one that was said to have been burned at Alderford.

According to Pyers O’Connor Nash, owner of Clonalis house, the harp is made largely of sycamore. From visual inspection, the constructed soundbox and the neck could be sycamore; the composite forepillar is a different wood, with a close tight straight grain, and may be a later replacement.

The harp is made of a number of different pieces of wood, nailed and glued together. The soundbox is made from a curved front, two sides, and two end blocks. The bass end block has two holes presumably for inserted legs; there is no projecting foot. The neck is one piece, with heavy brass cheek bands. The bands seem to have more holes than there are in the wood, so it is hard to know exacly how many strings it had. The forepillar is made of a main part, and a seperate T-section front nailed on. The scroll is a crude plain disc. There is severe woodworm damage to the bass end block, and to the neck-pillar joint, with considerable loss of wood there. A metal repair strap around the top of the forepillar conceals the bass ends of the cheek bands, but does not seem very effective in repairing the damaged joint.

The tuning pins are brass, in nice decorated 17th century style, but are all different lengths and designs, and a number are missing, Three have string fragments of brass wire preserved wrapped round their ends.

This harp was taken to New York in April 1886, where it was exhibited by the Gaelic Society there. According to newspaper reports, the harp was re-strung, and was played upon by Miss Inez Kinsale who sung and played on it "The Coulin". It is not clear if the reports or restringing are true or not; there was concern in the mid 19th century about its condition and it was placed in a glass case to preserve it then. For that trip, the harp was valued at $10000 (£2074) and insured for $5000 (£1037). New York Times, April 26, 1886

Simon Chadwick