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Patrick Byrne (c. 1794-1863)

Portrait of Byrne

Patrick Byrne is famous for playing the harp. But what kind of harp did he play? It certainly was not the modern orchestral pedal harp! But neither was it the modern neo-Irish harp or lever-harp.

The type of harp Byrne played is nowadays referred to as the “early Irish harp”. With strings of brass wire, it has a unique sound - rich, resonant and sustaining - quite different to what most people expect from a harp. The long resonance of the strings is individually stopped with the fingertips in a complex and difficult playing technique. The early Irish harp was played in Scotland and Ireland from over 1000 years ago but died out in the 19th century, and Byrne was one of the very last exponents. Recently there has been a revival, using replica historic instruments to rediscover the old repertory.

Egan wire harp
Large Egan ‘Society’ harp in the National Museum of Ireland, similar to Byrne’s instrument

Byrne was presented with his harp when he left the Irish harp school in 1821. By that date, the old native harpmaking traditions, based on carving the harp from solid baulks of willow or other timber, had disappeared. So Byrne's harp is what I call one of the 19th century Society harps, since they were produed specially for the Irish harp Society by the Dublin firm of Egan.

John Egan specialised in full-size pedal harps, and he also invented a new romantic miniature Irish harp, his famous “Royal Portable”, strung and set up just like the pedal harps with gut strings and chromatic mechanisms.

The harps Egan made for the Society were built using the workshop's standard construction practice, just the same as the big pedal harps and the little Royal Portable harps. However, unlike the other two types, the Society harps were strung and set up as early Irish harps. This meant that they had brass wire strings, not gut, and they did not have semitone mechanisms - instead, they seem to have incorporated the old Gaelic tuning system of unison tenor g strings known as na comhluighe.

Byrne's harp was described in 1921 as being “specially ornamented with shamrocks on the fore-pillar and on the harmonic curve as well as on the sounding board”, and having 32 strings (Co. Louth Archaeological Journal, 1921, p.25, cited in Ní Uallacháin 2003 p.354). Every student who graduated from the school at this time was supposed to have been presented with a harp, bearing a brass plaque with the name of the school and the name of the harper (McClelland 1975).

Click here for more info about the Society harps.

A number of these Egan ‘Society’ harps exist, but we don't know the whereabouts of Byrne's. Acccording to his will, “he left his harp to Evelyn Philip Shirley Esq, with the request that it be preserved in the great hall at Lough Fea, as an heirloom in the family of Shirley” (Sanger 2002). However it is not there now. Various scholars are on its trail!