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Irish Harp Society harps

Society harps

Egan wire harp
Old postcard

Made by John Egan, a Dublin pedal harp maker, and later by his nephew Francis Hewson, between 1820 and 1840. Other makers also made similar instruments at this time, copying Egan.

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. Nancy Hurrell has been catalogueing the ones made by Egan, and has listed six extant examples, some in private collections and some in museums. There are also harps made by Egan's nephew, Frances Hewson, and others made by other makers copying Egan's design.

Patrick Byrne with Egan wire harp
Byrne with
Egan harp
(RBA 1904)

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.

References

Simon Chadwick