The early Gaelic harp was traditionally played with long fingernails. There is much misunderstanding nowadays about the use of fingernails. It is often erroneously asserted that wire strings were played with nails while gut strings were played without.
My conclusion is rather different: that the use of fingernails was normal and universal across Europe in medieval times, and that the use of finger tips took over during the 16th or 17th century in all areas.
This is an imporant issue for period musicians because the sound of the same instrument and repertory is very different if played with or without nails.
The early medieval Irish law codes include what may be a reference to a false nail, to be supplied to a timpán player whose nail had been damaged. The timpán was probably a lyre with metal strings, either plucked or strummed. The nail could have been used to pluck the strings, or possibly to fret them.
Two medieval English poems include references to harp playing with sharp fingernails. Though Gaelic harps with metal strings may well have been used in England, these quotes most likely refer to the playing of the more common gut-strung bray harp.
The mid 15th century encyclopedia, ‘liber viginti artium’ by Paulus Paulirinus, contains a description of a gothic bray harp with gut strings, played with long fingernails:
Welsh poetry includes references to playing the harp with long fingernails. The usual medieval Welsh harp was a gothic bray harp, but with horsehair strings instead of gut.
George Buchanan's history of Scotland describes Highland musicians. This is a rare reference to the use of a plectrum:
Galilei is here describing both Italian and Irish harps. He says he got some of his information from an 'Irish gentleman'. It is not clear whether he is describing only Irish harpers, or perhaps more likely, Italian harpers as well:
Sometimes early texts refer to playing with the 'tips of the fingers'. While we can use this today to specify cutting the fingernails short, it could easily refer to nail-playing as well in a non-technical sense:
Stanihurst and Beare provide a hint of change in the early 17th century. Richard Stanihurst, belittling Irish harpers, describes their use of long nails:
However, in his comprehensive refutation of Stanihurst, Philip O'Sullivan Beare says that the Irish harp was played with the finger tips, while the timpán is played with a plectrum:
The dropping of nail techniques in favour of fingertips, 17th - 18th century
By the 17th century the use of long nails was still commonly associated with Irish harp playing, but was seen as barbarous, as illustrated here in a satirical description of a lady of ill repute:
John Lynch includes in his book an extended digression describing the current state of Irish harping. Here he describes how the use of fingernails was falling out of fashion in the later 17th century:
At about the same time there is a glimpse of similar arguments in lute playing. Thomas Mace writes:
However this may be less a change from nails to tips, as there are other texts from this time which emphasise that tips are best for intimate lute-playing, while nails are best for accompanying an ensemble:
Over the course of the 18th century the Irish harp presumably came to be played more and more with the finger tips instead of the nails. By the late 18th century, only two Irish harpers are known to have used long fingernails. Echlin Ó Catháin lived during the latter half of the 18th century:
Denis O'Hampsey (1695 - 1807) was specifically described as a curiosity, and contrasted with all the other surviving Irish harpers who did not use nails:
It must however be pointed out, that the harps played with finger-tips by these other 18th century Irish harpers were nonetheless early Irish harps, with brass strings. Many scholars have fallen into the trap of equating nails with brass and finger 'pads' with gut, and use this false correspondence to suppose that Denis O'Hampsey was the last person alive to play early Irish harp with brass strings. He was not.
The neo-Irish harp or neo-clàrsach, invented in the 19th century with gut strings, and still the most popular type of harp in Ireland and Scotland today, has always been played like a classical orchestra harp, with the fleshy pads of the fingers.
In its modern revival, the early Gaelic harp (since the 1970s) has almost always been played with long nails as a 'mark of difference', even by players specialising in the 17th and 18th century repertory. For example the announcement for the "Beginning Wire-strung Clarsach" class at the Edinburgh International Harp Festival 2005 stated "NB. Finger nails at least 2mm long are essential"18
My suggestion, which some of my students have tried with success, is to play 18th century style with the tips of the fingers - not the fleshy pads but the very tips.
The playing of medieval harps in the wider early music scene is in a far worse state - bray harps themselves are still rarely to be heard, and the use of nails is almost as rare. The 19th century aesthetic of finger pads on open gut strings dominates.
In medieval times, lutes were played with plectrums. In the later 15th and early 16th centuries, plucking with individual fingers took over, though it's not clear if finger tips or nails were used. There are references to false nails or fingerpicks.19 The quotes above indicate that by the 17th centiru boith nails and tips were used for different instruments, repertories or effects. I'd welcome more input from lute players on these pages.
As Echlin O'Kane's story shows, broken fingernails can be very inconvenient for a working musician. Siobhán Armstrong has an online nail-repair tutorial. (broken link updated March 2015)