There is not much information available about the people who made old Gaelic harps. Most of the old harps are unsigned, and old documents and descriptions rarely mention harp makers. This page collects evidence.

Nicholas Dall Pierse (c. 1561 - 1653)

The earlier the evidence, the more obscure. It's not clear if Pierse made harps, or much more likely commissioned new instruments to his specifications:

As to the Harp playing...Mr Nic: Pierce of Clenmaurice not only for his singular capacity for composing Lamentations funeral additions and Elevations &ca. but also by compleating said Instrument with more wires than ever before his time were used

Ancient History of the Kingdom of Kerry, mid 18th century1

Mac Sithdhuill
Parthalón mór mac Cathail
(fl. early 17th century)

A poem by Pierce Ferriter, to a patron who had given him a harp, names four people who worked on its making, two of them being father and son:

Fuair Mac Sithdhuill dá suidheacht
Fuair Cathal dá ceardaidheacht
Is fuair Beannghlan, mór an modh,
A ceangladh d’ór ’s a hionnlodh.

Mac Sithdhuill did its design, Cathal did its construction, & Beannghlan (great honour to him) its gold bindings and its inlay.

Maith a hóir-cheard eile sain,
Parthalón mór mac Cathail,
Cláirseach an óir ’ na n-allán,
Dóigh nach práisneach Partholán!

That other goldsmith, also good: big Parthalon, son of Cathal. The harp of gold and [?] - for sure, Partholon is not a brass-worker.

Piaras Feiritéir, Mochean d’altrom an Oirbheirt, first half of 17th century2

Donnchadh Fitz Teigh (fl. 1621)

The Cloyne harp bears an inscription:

Is iad so dob feidhmanaig ag Seann mac Emaind Gearalt acgluain an tan doronadh misi...ann Donachd mac taidhg na sar do ron...
Donatus Filius Thadei me fecit

These are they who were servants to Seán Mac Eamainn FitzGerald at Cloyne at the time when I was made...Donnchadh Mac Taidhg was his carpenter - it was he who made me
Donnchadh son of Tadhg made me

Cloyne harp inscription, 16213

Cormac O'Kelly (fl. beginning of the 18th century)

The Downhill harp bears an inscription:

[In the] time of Noah I was green;
[since] his flood I have not been seen,
Until 17 hundred and 02 I was found
By C. R. Kely underground;
[he raised me] up to that degree,
Queen of Musick [yo]u may ca[ll me].

Downhill harp inscription, 17024

Edward Bunting5 tells us that Cormac O'Kelly was from ‘Ballynascreen, co. Derry, a district long famous for the construction of such instruments’.

The Castle Otway harp, owned and played by Patrick Quin, has an inscription which I am reading as

Cormick O Kelly 1707

Otway harp inscription, 1707

Bunting tells us “Quin's harp was made by the same artist...it bears the date 1707”.

A third instrument signed by Cormac Kelly has recently been noticed by Keith Sanger6. The harp is lost but a 19th century watercolour includes the inscription

Ego sum Regina Musarum Made by Cormick O
Kelly for Captain Arth Magenis 1711

Magenis harp inscription, 17116

The Magenis harp is very similar in form and decoration to the Downhill harp, but it also shares some decorative motifs with the Otway harp, demonstrating the family resemblance of these three instruments and helping to define Cormac O’Kelly’s distinctive artistic and decorative style.

John Kelly (fl. c. 1730)

The Bunworth harp bears an inscription:

made by Iohn Kelly for the Revd Charles Bworth Baltdaniel 1734

Bunworth harp inscription, 17347

A second harp, now lost, has an inscription:

made by John Kelly 1726

Walker, Historical Memoirs of the Irish Bards, 17868

Connor O'Kelly (fl. mid 18th century)

Arthur O’Neill (1737 - 1816) described working with a harpmaker, while staying with 'my friend Hugh O'Neill':

and after some time he informed me that a Conor O'Kelly, a harp maker, was making one for him. As this O'Kelly was a very peevish man, Hugh requested me to go and keep him in temper while the harp was making, for fear of disappointment. I attended on Kelly and by means of threats and jokes he contrived to finish it. But [it] had to be taken asunder, as when it was tuned the treble was thought to be too long. It had forty strings, thirty-five in general being considered enough. The harp was a second time put together. It turned out the best one I ever heard or played upon. It then only wanted varnishing to make it a nonesuch, and a Mrs. Keane of Carrick-on-Shannon, a japanner, wanted three guineas to varnish and burnish it, which he declined. I being well acquainted in Longford, I informed Hugh I could get it done there better and cheaper, which he agreed to. I took the harp there accordingly and a Mr. O'Sullivan finished it properly

Memoirs of Arthur O'Neill, c. 18109

19th century makers of Gaelic harps

In the early 19th century, attempts were made to save the dying Gaelic harp tradition by setting up Schools to teach the Gaelic harp to young blind people. Harps were made for the Societies by the top Dublin pedal-harp maker John Egan, and after him his nephew Francis Hewson. Other makers who produced instruments in the 19th century for the Societies include Francis Flood in Drogheda10, Mr. White in Belfast11, Gaudy in Belfast12.

Valentine Rainey was master of the Belfast Harp Society's school from 1823-37. Patrick Byrne said

Rainie's Harp was made by James Mc Bride, a wheelwright, near Omagh, so it is not an ancient harp.

John Bell's Notebook, c. 184913

James's son Edward was the master of the Belfast school immediately before Rennie.


The Gaelic harp traditions died out completely by the end of the 19th century, and so too did the traditions of Gaelic harp making. Gaelic-style harps made after c. 1890 up to the present day were by necessity either copied from the extant museum examples, or (less satisfactorily) made up on modern principles.

Simon Chadwick


1. John H. Pierse, ‘Nicholas Dall Pierse of Co. Kerry, harper’ Journal of the Kerry Archaeological & Historical Society 6, 1973

2. Dánta Phiarais Feiritéir, Aubane Historical Society, 1999, p.44-45

3. Alan J. Fletcher Drama and the Performing Arts in Pre-Cromwellian Ireland: A Repertory of Sources and Documents from the Earliest Times until c.1642 D. S. Brewer, 2000 p. 210 & 526

4. R.B. Armstrong, The Irish and Highland Harps, 1904, p. 88

5. Bunting, The Ancient Music of Ireland, 1840

6. Michael Billinge, ‘Captain Arthur Magenis - His Harp and Its Portrait’, online at wirestrungharp.com, 2013

7. MFA Boston

8. Walker, Historical Memoirs of the Irish Bards, 1786, p. 163; also R.B. Armstrong, The Irish and Highland Harps, 1904, p. 110

9. Donal O'Sullivan, Carolan: the Life Times and Music of an Irish harper Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1958, vol 2, p. 165

10. Patrick L Cooney, ‘Drogheda Harp Society’, Journal of the Old Drogheda Society 1976

11. Aiken McLellan, ‘The Irish Harp Society’, Ulster Folklife 21, 1975

12. www.earlygaelicharp.info/harps/others.htm

13. Henry George Farmer, ‘Some Notes on the Irish Harp’ Music & Letters vol XXIV, April 1943