There are a number of instruments dated to the late 18th and early 19th centuries. By this late date the Gaelic harp tradition was in severe decline; the Belfast harpers' meeting of 1792 attracted only a handful of mostly elderly men, and within a decade the tradition was reduced to charitable schools for blind boys. These harps shown here do not share many of the features common in the earlier Gaelic harps, instead being based largely on European pedal harp technology. Most notably this means the soundbox is built from thin planks with a cross-grain softwood soundboard, is deeper at the treble than the bass and has a sloping bottom to provide a stand for the harp. They are included as “Gaelic harps” only because they were intended to be a part of the tradition, and they do still make use of metal strings instead of the pedal harp's gut.
Made by John Egan, a Dublin pedal harp maker, and later by his nephew Francis Hewson, between 1820 and 1840
37 strings, longest 136cm (on Armstrong's example)
These instruments were of large high-headed design. Their soundboxes are built up in the style of pedal harp bodies; the neck and pillar being very plain and of a curious curving shape similar to Egan's “newly invented Portable harp” with gut strings, the predecessor of the modern lever harp. I am not sure how many are extant; Patrick Byrne had one that was decorated with golden shamrocks, which after his death was allegedly preserved in a house in North East Ireland but no-one I know has ever seen it. Petrie owned one in the mid 19th century; Armstrong owned one at the beginning of the 20th century which is now in the National Museum of Ireland; I have seen another (by Hewson) at the NMI in Collins Barracks; there is one in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, one at Enniskillen Castle and one at Hawick museum.
Joan Rimmer slated these instruments in her 1969 book as “nightmare parodies of the old Irish harp” and criticises their “peculiarly unattractive” tone. However as her only concrete complaint was that their sound is “excessively long-lasting unless damped” - hardly a fault in an early Irish harp - we should not put too much store by her comments.
These large, wire-strung, Gaelic harps made by Egan for the Society are often confused with Egan's later and smaller 'Royal Portable' harps, which have gut strings and mechanical semitone fretting devices. Both types were usually green with golden shamrocks, and have a similar curving profile, but whereas the Society instruments were about 6 feet tall with brass wire strings and intended for Gaelic harp students, the Portable harps were about 3 feet tall with gut strings and semitone mechanisms and were intended for aristocratic ladies of accomplishment.
Despite their late date I am happy for the large ‘Society’ instruments to be included as “Gaelic harps” because not only did they have brass wire strings, and were played by harpers who had been taught by students of Arthur O'Neill and Patrick Quin, but at least one of those harpers, Patrick Byrne, knew of the old term “na cawlee” (as he put it) and so presumably used this distinctive feature of Gaelic harp tuning.
Dated to the late 18th or early 19th Century
Owned by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, England.
"High Headed" design;
38 strings, longest 107cm
Some have tried to argue that this was the harp of Arthur O'Neill (1734-1818), based on the similarity with the harp in his portrait. However certain details differ, most notably the number of strings. This harp's construction differs from the pre-1800 Irish harps in that it has a crossgrained softwood soundboard, and an oblique base allowing it to balance upright in a playing position, both features derived from pedal harp design. This has led some to suggest it dates from the 19th Century, perhaps made by someone without real knowledge of either the Gaelic harp or pedal harp traditions. Perhaps more likely is that it consists of an 18th century neck and pillar, with a replacement soundbox incompetently made in the 19th century.
Information sheet from the V&A website.
Also known as Hempson harp
Early 19th century?
This harp is styled after a pedal harp, with cylindrical pillar. The Hempson attribution is obviously spurious
Made by Goudy of Belfast, early 19th century
This instrument is preserved in Collins Barracks, Dublin. It is said to have belonged to Valentine Rainey, Master of the Belfast Harp Society School (1823 - 1827), and to have been made by Goudy, Belfast. It seems based on the design of the Egan/Hewson Society harps (see below) using a spare pedal harp body, but in this case the pedal box has also been retained! It bears tuning pins and bridge pins but no strings.