Rose Mooney’s harp

The harp is badly damaged and crudely repaired at the base of the soundbox and at the treble end of the neck. Some of the tuning pins are bent.

Dr James McDonnell wrote the following description of Rose Mooney’s harp in a letter sent to Edward Bunting:

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. 1839

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, and every point noted by MacDonnell has a clear parallel on the instrument, reinforcing the identification of this harp as being Rose Mooney’s.

The harp has suffered terrible damage to both ends. The treble end of the neck is badly cracked, splintered and distorted where the top 5 or 6 pins go through it. The base of the soundboard is very smashed and broken, so that the forepillar is currently positioned much too low on the soundbox. This makes it very hard to understand how the harp was set up when Rose Mooney played it, and even harder to appreciate its original form.

There are three metal straps around the neck in the treble, and one in the bass (at the neck-pillar junction). There is a substantial metal strap running longwise over the neck-soundbox joint; there are also two slender straps in the bass, running parallel to the cheek bands, and bridging the neck-pillar joint.

At the bass end of the soundbox, the original ‘lobed’ design (like the Downhill) has been obscured by cloth bandages; the smashed wood is suppoorted by two iron straps which run diagonally across the soundboard and attach to the pillar base.

The lowest two tuning pin holes on the neck are blocked in by an unknown substance, possibly wooden dowels, or possibly broken pin shafts. It is hard to estimate the number of strings at different stages in the harp’s life. In the absence of proper documentation, technical drawings and CT-scans, this simple diagram attempts to clarify the situation:

pins and shoes numbered
Numbered diagram of pins and shoes, also showing straps on neck. Click to enlarge

The harp has the 2 lowest tuning-pin holes blocked, plus 34 extant pins, plus one empty hole (no. 34 from the bass). This hole is filled with a 35th pin in old photos. So there are a total of 37 tuning pin holes.

There are only 35 string shoes on the soundbox. Are there 2 extra shoes in the bass concealed by the bandages? Or were the two highest pins a later addition?

According to James MacDonnel’s letter above, Rose Mooney only had 33 strings, which makes sense as the highest pins pass through the break in the neck and must have been unusable. Did Rose use the two lowest positions and leave the highest four positions empty?

There are wood screws screwed into the neck below the string end of the tuning pins along the left side of the neck. (I have not marked these on my numbered drawing above). Some people have wondered if these were used as primitive semitone devices, or if they were to guide the strings (and change their length) after the neck was smashed and the upper pins became unusable. However I would be suprised if these modern-looking wood screws dated as far back as Rose Mooney’s time. I think they are a much later addition, for whatever reason.

Many of the tuning pins are bent, perhaps from the impacts which caused the damage to the wood.

There are currently 25 strings fitted, which are probably 19th century replacements for display purposes; there are also 4 fragments of possibly older wire on the pin ends in the high treble.


Simon Chadwick