notes and references

1. For a complete illustrated list of 19 instruments built in Ireland and Scotland before 1800 see the Harps page.

2. See the Sources page for details of 15 manuscripts and printed books from c. 1600 to 1850 containing Gaelic harp repertory.

3. The Trinity College harp was restored by the British Museum in 1961; it was strung by Joan Rimmer and played by Mary Rowland. A recording was made by the BBC. The strings were not all tightened, and the tension of those that were was kept low, so the sound quality was very poor, especially in the bass; nonetheless damage was caused to the wooden components of the harp. The work was never published.
For a good discussion of the ethics and practicalities of restoring and copying historical instruments, see "Copies of Historic Musical Instruments: Papers read at the CIMCIM meeting, Antwerp, July 1993" (CIMCIM Publications No. 3, 1994).
Read it online.

4. Barra Boydell, "The Iconography of the Irish Harp as a National Symbol", in Irish Musical Studies 5, 1996. See also my 19th century history page.

5. For example Emily Macdonald, pictured and described in "The Celtic Monthly", July 1898. She plays a gut-strung lever harp (an instrument that had been invented in Scotland less than six years previously) using ordinary classical technique, yet the caption describes the "importance being attached to the ancient Highland Clarsach..."

6. See for example - a modern, gut-strung lever harp being played with the classically-derived fingerpad technique and chordal accompaniment, but with a romantic and antiquing commentary.

7. There are too many examples to list but one very recent will suffice, from the 10th edition of the printed catalogue of the Early Music Shop in Bradford, England, distributed in October 2005. On page 38, a Camac "Aziliz" lever harp (a late 20th century development of a 19th century type) is shown standing on the grass in front of Stonehenge, and described as being "constructed according to centuries-old traditional principles... directly inspired by those harps which established the instrument's historical past". The contrast with pages 40-44 which show a series of historical lute models underlines the strange romantic confusion surrounding harps.

8. The standard study is R.B. Armstrong, "The Irish and Highland harps", David Douglas, Edinburgh, 1904. There has not been a major study since then, and Armstrong's are the only measured drawings available for any of the historical Gaelic harps.

9. See Stringing for more details.

10. Modern technique derives from 19th century pedal harp technique, requiring the fingers to point downwards along the length of the string, to catch the string on the fleshy pad of the finger and to pluck hard, closing the finger into the palm, so producing a loud tone from the gut string. It appears that this technique developed alongside the evolution of the pedal harp in the 18th century. The early Gaelic harp, whether played in the older style with fingernails or the more modern style without, used an "early harp' technique where the fingers approach the strings at 90 degrees, and touch with just the very tips, and sound the strings with minimal movement. Early harp technique is also very concerned with selective silencing of individual strings by placing individual finger tips while playing - something quite unknown to modern classical technique. The two approaches can be easily contrasted in Ann Heymann's tutor book for early Gaelic harp, "A Gaelic Harper's First Tunes" which teaches an early fingernail technique, and Alison Kinnaird's tutor book for modern lever harp "The Small Harp Tutor" which teaches a modern classical finger-pad technique.

11. A good example of this is the work of American harpmaker Glenn Hill; see his website for a "Queen Mary style Wire strung Harp". It is interesting to read makers' descriptions of themselves at - the majority of these instruments shown are not measured replicas.

12. It is for this reason that I try not to use the term, preferring "Early Gaelic" - Early to emphasise that it is a lost historical tradition that is being revived, and Gaelic as a regional and cultural label to accomodate both Ireland and Scotland.

13. While professionals (and of course a few wealthy students) have for a long time been able to commission a one-off accurate replica at great expense, most students interested in early Gaelic harp have bought or rented a small and affordable harp like for example an Ardival "Kilcoy", George Stevens "Jerpoint", Stoney End "Clarseach", or Triplett "Irish". All these instruments have names that evoke the historical tradition, outlines and visual cues derived from the old instruments, and selected historical features such as brass strings, carved soundbox or narrow string spacing, but none of them attempts to copy any of the surviving instruments. In many important ways they differ greatly from the old instruments, most notably the lack of bass range, smaller number of strings, being equally spaced instead of varying, not having (or being able to have) unison "comhluighe" strings, and having an uncomfortably small size making holding them berween the thighs or knees difficult.

14. HHSI Student Trinity

15. David Kortier made the harps played by the top professional early Irish harpers Ann Heymann and Siobhán Armstrong.

16. For a photo of Dave inspecting the Trinity College harp in Dublin see his website. The measurements taken on this trip, while not exhaustive and definitive, are a great improvement on those previously available from published sources.



© Simon Chadwick 2005 - part of my work on the early Gaelic harp, at