The Rose Mooney or Carolan Harp

This page gathers claims about the original ownership or use of the harp now kept in the National Museum of Ireland, DF.1945-122, and commonly called either the Carolan harp or the Rose Mooney harp. This page is only a work in progress; as new evidence comes to light I will change or update things here.

Association with Carolan

harp in the Book of the Club of True Highlanders

The National Museum of Ireland has an information panel, bilingual in English and Irish, beside the harp. The panel is titled “The O’Carolan harp / Clairseach Uí Chearbhalláin” and says that the harp “may have belonged to” Carolan.

But when was this identity first applied to the harp? Here, I am being very cautious, because in the past lots of people (including me) have jumped to conclusions about what actual object is being referred to by a certain text. So here, I am wanting a definitive connection between the name Carolan, and the harp DF.1945-122 in the National Museum of Ireland.

The first published reference I have seen, explicitly connecting the harp NMI.DF.1945-122 to Carolan, is from 1881. C. N. McIntyre North1 includes the partial illustration shown here (detail of plate XX) with the caption “Part of Carolan harp: Museum of Royal Irish Ac”. His text (p38) reads, “Another harp, called Carolan’s harp (the head of which is shown)...” and gives enough technical details for us to be sure he is talking about NMI DF.1945-122.

Richard Hayward includes a photo of DF:1945-122 in his 1954 book2. The caption reads “Harp, circa 1650. Formerly in the Royal Irish Academy collection and now in the National Museum. Associated by report with O Carolan. The box is cut from the solid”

A photo of DF:1945-122 is used as a cover image for the 1967 LP Ceol na nUasal3, with the caption “Cruit Carolan circa 1700”

Joan Rimmer had a very important role in setting standards for the study of the old Irish harps, with her article in 19644, and her book The Irish harp in 19695. She mentioned “the so-called O Carolan harp” in the 1964 article but only in passing and without an illustration. In her 1969 book, Joan Rimmer printed a museum photo of the harp NMI.DF.1945-122 with the caption “Carolan harp” (p.62), and she describes this harp in the index of extant harps (p. 75): “Carolan harp. Large high-headed harp, said to have belonged to Carolan.” She gives no sources or references for these associations; In 1987, she used the same museum photograph to illustrate an article6 and describes it as “a harp said to have belonged to Carolan... if this or something similar was Carolan's instrument...” (p.172). She also writes, “There is no documentation of the Carolan attribution and no record of the harp’s provenance” (footnote 18, p.174).

Since the 1960s, the harp has been illustrated many times, and is almost always described or named as the “Carolan harp”

Notable lack of association with Carolan

Rose Mooney’s harp

There is one reliable reference to the harp in the museum, DF.1945.122, which we would expect to include any information then known about provenance or association. In 1904, Robert Bruce Armstrong7 illustrates the harp with a line drawing (reproduced right) which confirms that he is talking about NMI DF.1945-122. Armstrong says it is “the property of the Royal Irish Academy”, and that it is “in the Dublin museum”. Armstrong gives a physical description and measurements, but says nothing about the provenance of this harp, and does not mention any claim that it might have belonged to Carolan. Armstrong does discuss other harps associated with Carolan elswhere in his book.

Association with Rose Mooney

Ann Heymann pointed out how the damage to 1945-122 matches a description, written in the early 19th century, of a harp owned and played by Rose Mooney (1740 - c.1798):

Rose Mooney’s had thirteen strings below and eighteen above the ‘sisters’. A piece of timber of triangular shape (the angle truncated) was placed within the belly of the harp, through which the strings passed, being fixed by transverse pegs of wood, like quills of the Welsh harp differed in this respect, and there was of consequence a greater facility in replacing a string. The belly of Mooney’s harp was split and cracked upon one side where it was covered with canvas, or pasteboard beneath yet it was light, sonorous, and much superior to Quin's harp. Its body was composed of three pieces of timber. There were four strips of copper placed transversely, and one strip longitudinally, to strengthen the timber. The transverse strips were closer as you ascended to the treble, where the tension of the strings or purchase is greatest. The obliquity of the short strings is greatest, and the management of this is a principal difficulty in the mechanical construction of the instrument.

Letter from James MacDonnell to Edward Bunting, c. 18398

From 2006 to 2010, the letter above was read every year to students of Scoil na gCláirseach - Summer School of Early Irish harp while inspecting the instrument, to see if the description matches the harp DF.1945-122 in the National Museum.

So was NMI DF:1945-122 owned and played by Carolan? Or by Rose Mooney? Or by some other, as yet unidentified person? At this stage I am not at all sure!

Simon Chadwick


1. Charles Niven McIntyre North, Leabhar Comunn nam Fior Ghael (The Book of the Club of the True Highlanders) vol.1, (London: Richard Smythson, 1881) ^

2. Richard Hayward, The story of the Irish harp (1954) p.19 ^

3. Seán Ó Riada & Ceoltoirí Chualann, Ceol na nUasal LP, Gael-Linn CEF 015, 1967 ^

4. Joan Rimmer, ‘The morphology of the Irish harp’ Galpin Society Journal vol 17, 1964. ^

5. Joan Rimmer, The Irish harp (Mercier Press 1969) ^

6. Joan Rimmer, “Patronage, style and structure in the music attributed to Turlough Carolan’, Early Music vol. 15 no. 2, May 1987, ^

7. Robert Bruce Armstrong, The Irish and The Highland Harps, Edinburgh 1904, p.83-4 ^

8. transcribed in Charlotte Milligan Fox, Annals of the Irish Harpers 1911 p.280-1 ^