Making tuning pins

This post describes my method of making tuning pins. It is a labour-intensive process and though I am taking orders for sets of pins, I think my pricing does not really cover the work involved. But I want there to be more harps with beautiful handmade pins! I’m posting this so that if anyone else wants to take on the manufacture and supply of pins like this, they can get some ideas from what I have worked out.


I want my pins to be the same as the old Irish harp pins. This is harder than it sounds because it is very difficult to accurately measure the old pins. I have been studying a combination of photographs of the old pins, and accurately calibrated laser-scans. The problem with the laser-scans is that there are a lot of scanning artefacts on the tuning pins; the problem with photographs is that perspective and parallax makes the tapers and exact sizes very difficult to assess.

For the reconstruction copy of the NMI Carolan harp, I chose one of the pins and made a paper template full-size from the laser-scan. I am also interested in copying some of the archaeological pins such as the ones from Montgomery Castle. It is also possible to come up with a kind of generic design pin that is not an exact copy of any one old pin, but which fits into the general scheme.

Tuning pin 14 on the NMI Carolan harp

I also tried making resin casts of the Monaghan pin, but this is not a particularly good pin since the shaft is not parallel and circular. Even then it was very hard to accurately measure its size.

I think that for functioning pins we need to control the taper and diameter of the shaft, and we need to control the taper and width of the drive. I am doing this by using commercial standard tapered shafts, and then hand-shaping the heads to fit with standard sized gauges.


I’ve been using Dan Speer‘s brass shafts. I haven’t yet found a supplier in the EU; but Dan is efficient and friendly to deal with. I also ask Dan to drill the string hole for me. I ask him to make the hole a bit smaller than usual, and closer to the end. The blanks are expensive, and so is shipping and import duty.

I have been experimenting with different size blanks. They are sized according to the Imperial taper system, with a 1/48 taper. The blanks are specified by a length and a number; the number refers to the diameter of the large end of the pin. This means that the longer the pin, the smaller the small end is. Sometimes I cut the wide end of the head off to make the blank shorter; this of course makes the whole pin more slender than if I had used a shorter pin of the same number.

Sizes of no.5, no.4, and no.3 Imperial (1/48) taper pins


For the heads, I buy square-section brass rod. This is available in standard sizes. The rod needs to be at least as wide as the wide end of the shaft; so for no.4 shafts I would buy 1/4″ (6.4mm) square rod. If I am using no.5 pins, then I need to get the next size up which is typically 3/8″ (9.5mm). Ideally the rod should be about the same size, so for no.5 pins the rod should be 7.5mm, because anything bigger than that will just need filed away.

#4 x 3 1/2″ drilled pin blank from Dan Speer, and 1/4″ square brass rod.

Assembling heads and shafts

The head is cut from the square rod with a hacksaw. For consistency, I use a caliper / divider to mark the length of the head.

The shaft can be used as is, or can be cut down. I started making my pins using the blanks as is, and then I realised that this made my pins a bit thicker than modern machined harp pins of the same nominal size. That’s because I was adding the head to the wide end of my pin, whereas a modern machine-made pin cuts the head down into the wide end of the blank. So, my preference now is to cut a short length off of the wide end of the pin.

cutting guide for a set of pins

In the example from my notebook, I would cut the head from 1/4″ square brass rod, cutting a piece 18mm long. I would take a pin blank, #4 x 3 1/2″ (i.e. no.4 x 89mm). I would mark 75mm from the small end, and cut off the remainder of the fat end.

Then I would carefully file the cut ends flat, so that they would fit together closely.

I use a blowtorch and silver-solder to join the shaft and the drive. This is tricky and precision work. I use firebricks to hold the pieces together under their own weight, standing the shaft wide-end-down on top of the head, with just a nice amount of flux powder. When they are almost red-hot the solder can be touched to the joint to melt in, and then more heating will bring the brass to red-hot and the solder will flow throughout the join and make nice wide fillets at the four corners of the head.

Two newly-soldered pins resting in the fire-bricks, the right-hand one still glowing red-hot.
Four rough pins, soldered but not cleaned.

Then the heads are filed. Care is needed to make the inner, wider end of the head just flush with the shaft; the outer, narrower end is tapered gradually down.

I use standard clock-keys as measuring gauges to judge the taper of the heads; for the example no.4 pins my notebook indicates how far onto the tapered head two clock keys will fit; a no.13 (5.5mm) key will fit about halfway down the drive, and a no.12 (5.25mm) key will fit just a few mm down the end of the head. I think I would use a 5.75mm socket on a tuning key for these pins.

Finally, the V-shaped grooves on the drive are made, with fine needle files. Different original pins have different configurations of these decorative grooves; their specific shape and depth gives a lot of the character to the pins. For these no.4 pins I made the grooves on the drive faces very deep and tapering; the diamonds on the drive ends were also cut very deep and then shaped to give a “clove” effect. Other pins I have made have much shallower grooves which give a more two-dimensional look, more like engraved lines. Some pins also have lateral incised lines running around the drive end.

Two of the no.4 pins made according to the specs in my notebook.

I don’t believe this is how the old craftsmen made brass tuning pins. I think it is much more likely that the old pins were cast and/or turned on a lathe. I have seen modern cast and turned copies of the old pins, and they look very nice. But I don’t have either foundry equipment, nor a lathe. Also it seemed important to me to fit in with modern norms and to use the modern 1/48 Imperial taper shafts, just like other harps.

My header image shows the pins I made for the reconstruction copy of the NMI Carolan harp, which was made for me by Pedro Ferreira.

A little history

I have been asked to do a historical overview talk at almost every Scoil na gCláirseach for years and years. Every time I do it, I try to make it new and fresh, to basically come up with a new overview. I think that way, I challenge myself to think about what story I want to tell, what are the important strands that we want to focus on.

Here’s my August 2019 talk, videoed by the Irish Traditional Music Archive.

I only had half an hour allocated, which made me focus even more. In this talk I didn’t speak about the modern revivals; sometimes I would make these an important part of the story. But somehow the medieval museum ambience made this aspect seem less important. And for the week-long participants at the summer school, the revival was what we talked about each day.

I’m always interested in the questions and comments….

Using medieval harps to reconnect to 19th century tradition

As the old tradition came to an end in the first years of the 19th century, the old harpers who were the tradition bearers seem to have played harps that were made in the first half of the 18th century. Denis O’Hampsey died in 1807; his harp was made in 1702. Patrick Quin was still alive in 1811; his harp is dated 1707 though some people argue that it is much older. The last dated instrument in the old tradition I know of is the Bunworth harp, made in 1734. There are later references to harps being made; Arthur O’Neill talks about going to the harpmaker Conor O’Kelly to oversee the completion of an instrument, which would have been after about 1750. And William Carr, who was by far the youngest of that last generation of tradition bearers, mentions having a rather poor quality harp made for him by a carpenter, apparently in the late 1790s.

All of the harps we know about that were played in the continuing tradition at the end of the 18th century and into the 19th century were large, mostly high-headed instruments. We don’t actually know what kind of harps were used by the first generation of revival students taught by Arthur O’Neill in the early 19th century; but the second generation of charity school students from 1819 on played on the big wire-strung ‘hybrid’ Irish harps made for the Belfast Harp Society by John Egan. Some of these students continued playing their big ‘hybrid’ harps down to the 1880s.

Yet the wire-strung harps made for revival purposes from the 1890s onwards don’t look back to Egan’s hybrid wire-strung harps, and they don’t even look back to the 18th century harps played by the last of the tradition-bearers. Instead, the models were the medieval Trinity College harp and the Queen Mary harp.

I really noticed this in May when I was gathering images for my Discovery Day talk. The centrepiece of the talk was our current method for re-connecting to the end of the tradition, by getting a replica of Quin’s or O’Hampsey’s harp, studying posture and hand position from Quin’s or O’Hampsey’s portrait, and working through the field transcriptions of Quin’s and O’Hampsey’s playing.

But the images of revivalists from the 1890s to the 1970s all showed small medieval harps.

Slides from the May 2019 Discovery Day talk in Galway. 27: small wire-strung harp by James McFall, Belfast. 28: Medieval-style wire-strung harp by Glen, Edinburgh, 1890s. 29: replica Trinity College harp by Henebry, Ireland, early 1900s. 30: Medieval-style wire-strung harp by Arnold Dolmetsch, England, 1930s. 31: copy of the Trinity College harp, Rev. Chris Warren, Ireland, early 1970s.

Equally interesting is the way these harps were used. The slide of the Glen harp is revealing, showing Kate MacDonald playing with the harp on her right shoulder, and held very high, in a classical style and technique.

The Dolmetsch harp is shown with a photo of Edith Taylor; though we know she played left-hand-treble in the old style, what I have found about her music suggests she was playing classical-style arrangements of the “songs of the Hebrides”. Mabel Dolmetsch used one of these medieval style Irish harps to play tunes from Bunting’s piano arrangements in the 1930s.

Chris Warren’s picture is especially interesting. He was explicitly working to re-connect to the end of the tradition in the 1790s and early 1800s; but he worked on the “harp music in the Bunting collection” using his copy of the medieval Trinity College harp.

It was only with Ann Heymann in the later 1970s that we saw someone getting a copy of first Quin’s harp, and then O’Hampsey’s harp, and studying Bunting’s manuscripts with the transcriptions of the old harpers’ playing.

What is going on here? I think this is connected to the harp as symbol, vs. the harp as working instrument. The Trinity College harp as the national symbol, gave it a much stronger resonance, than the 18th century harps as the working instruments of the last tradition-bearers 200 years ago.

We need to do more research on this, to find out if anyone else was taking the big 18th century style harps seriously before Ann; and to correlate better the playing style, idiom, repertory and instrument choices of different revivalists over the past century or more.

Replica harps & portraits of harpers as a source for performance practice

In 2018, I did a session at Scoil na gCláirseach in Kilkenny, about connecting to the old Irish harp tradition, and understanding how tradition worked. As part of that session, we sat with replica harps and looked at the portraits of the old harpers. I had not really prepared that aspect of the 2018 workshop, and so it was a bit ad-hoc. But afterwards, I realised that this was a very powerful tool for understanding and re-imagining the lost old Irish harp traditions.

Part of the point of that kind of work is acknowledging that the present day living practice of harp playing in Ireland is not part of the inherited indigenous Irish harping tradition. The inherited tradition came to a final end in the 19th century, with the death of the last tradition-bearers, who did not pass their tradition on to the next generation. Post-19th-century harp-players in Ireland have had to invent their practice anew, mostly by borrowing heavily from Anglo-Classical practice (many common features of present day practice, e.g. gut strings, semitone mechanisms, right orientation, harmonic arrangements, colour-coded strings, show Angle-Continental classical lineage)

My idea was that we can try to re-connect to the broken end of the old Irish harp tradition by trying to imitate the last of the tradition-bearers. If the old harpers were still alive, we could sit beside them and copy their playing and share their tradition. We can’t do that because they’re all dead for over a hundred years; but we can try to imitate them as closely as possible by looking at what information we do have about their practice.

For some of the old harpers we have a huge amount of information. Patrick Quin is probably the most important; we have the amazing portrait discovered by Sylvia Crawford; we have the harp that he is playing in that portrait; and we have very explicit, clear and complete transcriptions live from his playing, done by Edward Bunting in around 1800. Denis O’Hampsey is also important, since we have the engraved portrait of him, we have the harp that he played, and we have Bunting’s transcriptions of his playing, though the portrait is less life-like and the transcriptions are more problematical. For other harpers, we have other information, less complete. For some we have transcriptions; for others we have harps that may or may not have been played by them; for some we have more biographical details.

But there is plenty enough to be getting on with, by applying ourselves in an honest and all-consuming attempt to play the old Irish harp by carefully and meticulously imitating the practice of the tradition-bearers.

The portraits, the old harps, and the manuscript transcriptions are our guidelines.

For Scoil 2019 this past August I led a participatory workshop titled “Replica harps & portraits of harpers as a source for performance practice”. The aim of this session was to explore what information the harps and portraits could give us. The portraits are simple enough, in that they show us posture and hand position (though there was some interesting discussion about the limitations of the portraits, and the different nature of the different portraits).

I spent more time talking about the old harps, and the value of really accurate “archaeological” reproductions of them, and what both the originals and the modern copies could tell us about how they were used in the old tradition.

The highlight for me was to have so many really top quality copies of a selection of the old harps lined up, and to have willing volunteers to sit in front of one of the portraits, and hold the appropriate replica harp, and try to copy the details of posture and hand position demonstrated by the old harper.

The video of the session is almost one hour long, but if you are interested in the process of trying to re-connect to the broken end of the old Irish harp tradition, you might find it of interest.

Thanks to Brian Doyle and ITMA for filming the session, and to Siobhán Armstrong and the Historical Harp Society of Ireland for hosting it. Thanks also to Michael Billinge and Aoibheann Devlin for the loan of their instruments.

Playing the harp in the Linen Hall Library

Yesterday I was at the Linen Hall Library in Belfast, for the conference or colloquium, A Celebration of The Beath Collection and the Bicentennial of the Irish Harp Society (1819-39)

The organiser, Lily Neill, had asked me to play some old Irish harp tunes to tie in with the music manuscripts and the early 19th century documents relating to the Irish Harp Society.

I took the new reconstruction copy of the NMI Carolan harp, which was delivered to me in Kilkenny by harpmaker Pedro Ferreira less than four weeks ago. So, this was the new harp’s first public engagement!

I played a couple of tunes I had found in the Collection, and some tunes associated with Irish Harp Society students Matthew Wall and Patrick Byrne.

Here is the full line-up for the day:

Dr. Mary Louise O’Donnell – “The Bengal Subscription and the Irish-Indian Connection”
Frank Bunting – “Edward Bunting’s Kilmore Parish Connections”

Philip McDonagh – “Do you remember Sinclair Stevenson? Reflections on the Irish Missionary Tradition in India”
Lily Neill – “The Emergence of the Lever Harp”

Simon Chadwick – “The Old Irish Harp”
Nicholas Carolan – “Some Irish Traditional Music Finds in the Beath Collection”

Mary Louise O’Donnell
Frank Bunting
Philip McDonagh
Lily Neill
Me with the new harp
Nicholas Carolan
Conference attendees discussing items from the Beath Collection on display

My header image shows a fragment of a manuscript which I played in my concert, from the Collection: Box 4, appendix 1, no.8

The Best harp

The Best harp is probably the worst of the surviving old Irish harps. It has been almost completely ignored in the literature. Joan Rimmer does not mention it; R.B. Armstrong does mention it but he failed to understand what it was, and he mis-identified it.

The Best harp was given to the Royal Irish Academy by the Rev. Berkeley Baxter, in 1882. The Wakeman catalogue of the RIA lists the harp as No. 369, and says that the harp was transferred to the Arts & Industry division of the National Museum of Ireland on 19th July 1958, under the reg. no. 93-1946. The harp is now at the National Museum with the accession number NMI DF:1946-93.

In the Freemans Journal of December 1882 there is an account of the provenance of the harp:

All that is known of it is, that a very old minstrel, some generations back, was frequently the guest of a clergyman of the name of Best, in the county Sligo, and that at his death the venerable minstrel bequeathed his harp to his worthy host, stating that it was an heirloom which had descended to him from his ancestors. Mr. Barter acquired the harp in 1879… from a lady, the descendent of the Rev. Mr. Best, and who is herself a distinguished harper.

Who was Rev. Best? At Michael Billinge’s index of old harps, it is suggested that he was the Rev. Best of Tandragee, County Armagh, mentioned by Andrew Craig in 1787, but this seems unlikely, since we know our Rev. Best was in County Sligo. I have not yet been able to find any more information about “Rev. Mr. Best of Sligo”. We might suppose that Rev. Best was dead by 1879 at the latest, so that his daughter, perhaps, had inherited the harp. Or he could have died decades before, and passed the harp down for many generations. So the “venerable minstrel” could have died any time before 1879. Not very helpful…

The account does, however, suggest that the harp may have been a genuine working instrument of a harper in the old tradition, and so I considered that it was worth studying, even though it is the worst of the old harps and is basically a horrible thing.


The frame of the Best harp is pretty horrible. The neck is perhaps the nicest part, carved fairly competently from a piece of very dark wood (the Freemans Journal says “ebony”, though I doubt this. Wakeman says it is “stained black” which I also doubt). But even then, there are two things about it that set it apart from the mainstream of old Irish harp norms. One is that it does not have the metal cheek-bands, which the tuning pins pass through; they seem never to have been a part of this harp. The other is that the curve of the tuning pins turns down in the treble, making the treble string lengths very badly scaled.

The bass end of the neck fits, as is usual, into the back of the forepillar. But the treble end of the neck, very unusually, fits into the front face of the soundbox. The only other old Irish harp I know of that does this is the Malahide / Kearney 2 harp, whose current location is unknown.

Right side of the neck, showing tuning pin drives 20 to 27
Rough outline of the left side of the neck, with tuning pins numbered

The neck has 35 tuning pins in it, Nos. 2, 4, 5, 9, 11, 12 and 34 are iron, and all the others are brass. Every pin except no.13 has the end of its string wound around it, though the free sounding part of each string has been removed. The pins are plain and undecorated and are not all identical, though they are nicely made of type 1a or 1b.


The soundbox of the Best harp is pretty crude, compared to the elegantly shaped and hollowed one-piece soundboxes of the other old Irish harps. Wakeman says it is “red sally” (i.e. willow). The soundbox of the Best harp is assembled from eight separate pieces of wood, having a five-sided cross-section. This is the same construction seen in the Malahide / Kearney 1 harp, where the front is formed from three planks, having a flat front and angled flanks. The soundbox of the Best harp is parallel in depth all the way along, though it appears to taper a little in width.

There are two sets of brass fittings on the Best harp soundbox. There are thin brass strips on the front: a long strip runs down the centre-line and has 36 string holes which line up with the holes in the wood. There are also three lateral strips which wrap across the front and are fixed onto the sides. The other fitting is the heavier brass plate with engraved lines at the top of the back of the soundbox.

Brass plate at the top centre of the back

There is an inscription on the bass end of the back, which seems to read IWI.

bottom centre of the back, with the letters I W I

There is no projecting foot on the soundbox; this is unusual on the old harps, with only the Clonalis Carolan harp similarly lacking a foot. The lower rear edge of the Best harp’s soundbox is very worn away, as if it had been played resting on that edge a lot.

Inside the soundbox, there are the ends of some of the strings. There are 10 strings and toggles still there. 8 of them are just the stubs, jammed into the string holes. Two are longer lengths, attached to the stringholes but with their toggles dangling inside the soundbox.

There are three different kinds of toggles. Strings 17, 19, 26 and 31 have wooden toggles. Strings 6 and 18 have iron screws attached as toggles. And strings 1, 2, 3 and 5 are toggled onto what look like toggle-knots that have broken from their strings and removed from their toggles.

Strings 17, 18 and 19 inside the soundbox. Note the scars around hole 16 where a wood-screw has been used on a string under tension.
Strings 1, 2 and 3 inside the soundbox. The strings appear to be toggled onto broken toggle windings. Could these even have sustained the string tension if brought up to pitch? There are toggle-marks from previous use of wooden toggles in these positions.


The forepillar is the worst part of the Best harp. It looks like a broom handle painted black. It is straight, slender, and cylindrical all the way down, except for the ends where it squares off. It does not look strong enough to resist string tension, and it is so straight and slender that it looks ridiculous compared to the rest of the harp (even though the neck and pillar are hardly objects of great beauty and elegance). I wonder if it is a replacement for one that was broken or damaged.


The Freemans Journal article says that the harp “has 35 strings made of brass wire”; Wakeman says that “portions of wire strings remaining”. Now, the harp is basically unstrung, but the strings have been cut from the harp, leaving the coils wound around the tuning pins, and leaving some toggled ends inside the soundboard. Was this done after the Freemans Journal article? Or did the article interpolate from the fragments?

Were these string fragments the remnants of the last working stringing and setup of the harp? I think it is likely that all of the other old harps in the Museum that have strings on, have been restrung for display purposes since the harps became non-working collectables. So if we had a harp retaining its old stringing that would be very valuable.

I went to the Museum and I measured as much as I could manage by hand of the old strings. I think a lot more data could be extracted from this harp by using more high-tech methods, but this will do for a start.

All but one of the pins retains a winding of brass wire on it. Two of the pins have two windings, no. 18 perhaps being merely a single coil that has broken, but no.28 being very clearly a thinner coil that was a complete string, and a thicker bit of wire looped around the pin beneath it. All of the wires were wound clockwise around the pin end, to drop the string from the back of the pin. All of the windings were neat and close, not crossing, with the end inserted neatly into the drilled hole .

There were a few strings out of sequence, but the majority of the strings seem to be in the right place, and to increase from 0.7mm in the treble to 1.1mm in the bass.

I would summarise these measurements as saying the harp seems to be intended to have 0.75mm brass wire for the top 5 strings, 0.7mm for strings 6 to 16, about 0.9mm for 17 to 29, and 1.2mm for 30 to 35, with a few strings being the “wrong” size.

I also measured the string lengths. Because there are 35 tuning pins but 36 string holes, there are two possible configurations, 1-1 and 1-2. I measured both, but I think 1-1 is much more plausible. It is possible there was originally a 36th pin mounted on the forepillar, supposing the current stick is not original. The string lengths are a bit odd, with a few far-too-long strings in the treble (where the line of pins on the neck bends up then down), and with the mid-range and bass a lot shorter than an ideal (pythagorean) scaling.

This combination of having string lengths, and having wire gauges, allows us to plot a possible tuning regime for this harp. Unfortunately, the current stringing and setup of the Best harp seems to be as horrible as its design and construction. The use of 0.7mm brass wire in the treble means the treble strings are far too thick and far too high tension; the bizarre scaling of the harp means that the mid-range and bass strings are far too short and tubby.

The harp would speak with its lowest note at G (2 octaves below na comhluighe) and its highest note as e”’ one note higher than the top of the Downhill harp, at a slightly lower pitch than modern (perhaps a’=415). It wouldn’t go higher than that without snapping strings 4 and 5. At this tuning the total tension on the harp would be around 475kg which seems rather high for the slender neck and ridiculously slender forepillar.

Here are all my measurements, with estimated accuracy, and a calculated stringing chart: Rev Best string measurements pdf

If I were stringing and tuning a replica of this harp I think I would disregard the top five strings. Because of their bizarre toggles, I think they could be considered later cosmetic additions. Perhaps those top five should be thinner (the thinnest wire on the harp is no. 20, obviously out of place, measuring about 0.55mm). These top five could even be iron allowing a slightly higher pitch standard for the harp. And strings 5-6 is a good place to change gauge, being g-a on my suggested tuning.

So how do we regard the Best harp? Was it really strung and played in its current state by the “venerable minstrel” who visited the Rev. Mr. Best at his house in Sligo? If so, did this old harper know that he had the worst harp in Ireland?

How are we to assess the quality of an old harp? We are not in the tradition, we do not know what aspects of a harp are more or less important. It is easy to take a modern attitude, and to expect certain types of sound, touch, aesthetic and engineering criteria when we look at a harp. Perhaps the old harper who set up and played the Best harp thought it was fine, perhaps he was able to play it well to good effect. Perhaps he used the over-heavy treble and twangly bass for a specific traditional style of harp playing.

Or, was the harp a failed experiment by an incompetent harper trying to get a harp on the cheap from a local carpenter? Were the strings put on it after the harper died and bequeathed it, just using whatever wire was left over in his string-bag, to try and make it look presentable for display in the entrance hall of the Best residence? What did Rev. Best’s descendent, the “distinguished harper”, who passed it on to Berkley Baxter, think of it? Did she try to play it? Was she glad to get rid of it?

There is a story behind every artefact, a sequence of human interactions that layer upon layer shape and affect the material object. Every aspect of the Best harp has been done by Human agency. Someone has wound those strings on, someone has snipped them off. Someone has wound string 28 with a fat bit of wire jangling round the tuning pin shaft. Someone has wound the toggles and the wood screws and the strange loops in the treble. Who? Why? What were they even thinking? We cannot know, but we can analyse the stuff they left behind to try and work some of it out.

Thanks to Sarah Nolan and to the National Museum of Ireland for facilitating my visit.

Carolan’s original harp bass

Carolan’s tunes had no base to them originally, as we have been informed by the late Keane Fitzgerald, a native of Ireland, and a good judge of music, who had often seen and heard old Carolan perform. It was only after his decease, in 1738, that his tunes were collected and set for the harpsichord, violin, and German flute, with a base, Dublin, folio, by his son, who published them in London by subscription, in 1747.

Abraham Rees, The Cyclopaedia; or, universal dictionary of arts, sciences and literature. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme & Brown, 1819. Volume 17, (unpaginated, under ‘Harp’)

Harp Society scandal

From the Minute Book of the Irish Harp Society, Belfast, some time in the first few months of 1810:

The Committee proceeded to an investigation of certain charges made by Arthur O Neill our Harper against Bridget O Reilly and Edward McBride two of our Scholars for having an Improper Connection. They were unanimously of opinion that such charges have been altogether groundless, false and unfounded

Belfast, Linen Hall Library, Beath Collection, box 5, item 1

(the previous page is dated 6th Feb 1810; this may be from that meeting or may be from an subsequent undated meeting. The entry is followed by a few blank pages and then the next item, in a different hand, is dated 8th May 1810.)

Bridget O’Reilly was from Virginia, County Cavan. She was a student of the Irish Harp Society school starting in September 1809.

Edward McBride was born around 1792. He was from from Omagh. He was a student at the Irish Harp Society starting in November 1808. When the Irish Harp Society was re-formed in 1819, McBride was recruited to be the new master and teacher of the school; one of his students then was Patrick Byrne.

Charles Byrne

Charles Byrne is listed as one of the harpers who went to Belfast for the harpers’ meeting in July 1792. The collector, Edward Bunting, says:

Charles Byrne, from the county of Leitrim, aged 80, played “The old Trugha,” author and date unknown; “Oganioge,” very ancient; author and date unknown.”…

…Charles Byrne, another Leitrim man, born about 1712, was one of those who attended the Belfast meeting. Although not distinguished as a performer, he possessed an extraordinary fund of songs and anecdotes, of which the Editor has availed himself to a considerable extent

Edward Bunting, The Ancient Music of Ireland, Dublin 1840, introduction p.63 & 77

Harper and tradition-bearer, Arthur O’Neill, tells us:

Chas. Byrne – worse than tol lol

comments dictated by Arthur O’Neill to Thomas Hughes, Belfast Central Library, F.J. Biggar archive, envelope V6

I met a Charles Byrne who was taught by his uncle to be a Harper /
(I may be taugt thought too be severe when I made use of the word “Tol: Lol” /
in my account of the Irish Harpers. others may Say the same of myself). But /
the fellow not being blind, had many advantages over those who had not that first /
of Gifts, (Sight,) and as he had a tolerable memory, He could recount all /
that happened to him during the time he led his blind uncle thro’ the Kingdom. & /
I must conclude my Biography of him. &Set him down a _____ Tol: Lol: /
I Know myself besides what I am Credibly informed that he could and can Sing a good variety /
of real Irish Songs in a pleasing Stile with a pleasing Voice.

Arthur O ‘Neill, Memoirs first version, Queens University Belfast Special Collections MS4/46 p.15

I met a Chas. /
Byrne who was taught by his uncle on the Harp, this /
man had many advantages not being blind, he was a good /
player. He had an excellent memory and could recount /
all the little incidents that happened to him during the /
time he led his blind uncle thro’ the Kingdom. I heard /
him sing a good many Irish songs in an agreeable stile /
and pleasing voice.

Arthur O ‘Neill, Memoirs second version, Queens University Belfast Special Collections MS4/14 p.19

The two different versions of the Memoirs do not agree on the quality of Byrne’s playing!

William Carr, listing all the harpers who went to Belfast in 1792, tells us

Charlie O Byrn from Leitrim (played worst) He was originally but the servant to a harper and always carried his Masters Harp but he and he only took a fancy to learning as well as he cd, never well Educated for it

A Scientific, antiquarian and picturesque tour – John (Fiott) Lee in Ireland, England and Wales, 1806-7 ed. Angela Byrne, Routlege 2018, p. 303

Edward Bunting collected tunes from Charles Byrne. As well as telling us the two tunes Byrne played in Belfast in 1792, Bunting tags a number of tunes in his manuscript and printed books with Byrne’s name, as well as in his annotated copies of his 1809 and 1797 publications.

In Edward Bunting’s papers there is a letter to Bunting from Reilly of Scarva:

To Edward Bunting Eqr

Scarvagh 16 Apr ’40
Doctor M’Donnell expressed
a wish that I should let you
see the enclosed slight sketch
of Charles Byrn a native I believe
of Connaught who for many years
visited this house & the neighbourhood
about Xmas & was the “last Minstrel”
I can remember regularly
visiting this country – he could
speak Irish & sing in that
language, & my sister who made
this sketch used frequently to
adapt English words to some of
his tunes, & altho’ I may have

some of his tunes amongst
my papers I have not at
this moment any idea of
where to look for them else
I should be most happy to
send you any thing of the
kind in my p[…] according
to Doctor M’Donnel’s wish
– the sketch I send tho’ very
slight is very like & brings
the old man strongly to my
view – should it be of any use
to you in your proposed work
I should be glad but hope

you will have the goodness
to return it when you have
done with it.
I remain with great
respect your obt
JM Reilly
since I wrote the above Mrs
Reilly has found one of the
songs I alluded to, & which
I hope you will also return

(Queens University Belfast Special Collections MS4/35/31)

This letter raises all kinds of questions, and seems to have been the starting point of a lot of guesswork and speculation about Byrne that I am starting to doubt. If we assume there was only one Charles Byrne harper around at the end of the 18th century, it seems likely that it was the same person.

Charlotte Milligan Fox published a transcribed text of the letter in her book Annals of the Irish harpers in 1911. She also published a portrait, which she said was the sketch done by J.M. Reilly’s sister.

Charlotte Milligan Fox, Annals of the Irish Harpers. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1911

When I went to Queens University Belfast to look at the letter (which I have made my own transcription of, above), I also hoped to see the sketch, but as far as I can tell it is not in the Bunting manuscripts (QUB Special Collections MS4). The letter is written on both sides of one piece of paper, about 22 x 18 cm, and has been folded six times to give a small package of about 11.5 x 6.5 cm. If the sketch was indeed included in the letter, it must either have been folded to a similar small size, or have been in total not much larger. It is not clear how big the original might have been from Milligan Fox’s reproduction.

We also might wonder about the rather pressing instruction in the letter, to return both of the enclosures, the sketch of Byrne and the “song” mentioned in the letter. Did Bunting not return the sketch and the song, and keep the letter? If he kept the sketch, did he also not keep the song?

What were the grounds that Charlotte Milligan Fox used to identify the sketch that she published? She says that the sketch was done on 16 Aug 1810, and that Byrne was then 92 years old. Where does that information come from? The age contradicts the information from tradition bearers mentioned above. Where is the published sketch now? Is it in Queen’s, uncatalogued and un-noticed? Or was it separated from the rest of the manuscripts before Fox passed them on to Queen’s? Did Milligan Fox jump too hastily to conclusions, finding the sketch in the box of papers, and finding a letter which refers to “the enclosed slight sketch”, and put two and two together to make twenty?

Milligan Fox points out that there is information from harper and tradition bearer, Patrick Byrne, that “Miss Reilly of Scarvagh is the only person whom he knows now living who was taught to play through the Irish language” (undated letter quoted in Milligan Fox p.136. I have not seen this letter). Is this “Miss Reilly of Scarvagh” the same person as “my sister” of J.M. Reilly who made the sketch of Charles Byrne posted to Bunting?

In 2012, Michael Billinge wrote a long and detailed article about the portrait published by Milligan Fox, saying that this portrait shows Charles Byrne playing the Mulaghmast harp. There is a whole lot more that could be said about similarities and differences between the harp in the sketch, and the Mulaghmast harp, but this post is only about Charles Byrne and so there is no space to go into that here. However, I do think that all these nested layers of assumption and connection need picked apart much more carefully before we can make any firm statements about any of this.

edit 23 July – Leitrim is in Connaught

Carolan tune collation

Donal O’Sullivan’s book, Carolan: The life times and music of an Irish harper was published in two volumes in 1958. It presented a biography, and 213 tunes presented as corrected typset melody lines, and also with quite detailed notes on each tune including some lyrics. This book has defined Carolan studies ever since, and the book has been reissued a couple of times, and there have also been derivative works.

I think there are a number of big problems with this book, which have never been addressed to my knowledge. One is that Donal O’Sullivan’s edited versions of the melody have become used as sources for performance, even though many of them are arbitrarily changed from the early source versions. Another problem is that O’Sullivan relied heavily on late fiddle and pipe sources, rather than respecting earlier harp transcriptions. Thus he also ignored harp idiom in the early sources including key, basses and ornamentation.

He also was very hasty to associate titles, lyrics and melodies, sometimes making demonstrable errors. He also included every tune he could find that had even the slightest hint of an association with Carolan, only marking the most unlikely with an asterisk to show their doubtful status. This system has been continued in the 2001 Ossian re-issue of O’Sullivan’s book, which includes new material not available to O’Sullivan. Catríona Rowsome’s 2011 book uncritically accepts all of O’Sullivan’s suggestions and the 2001 additions, giving a corpus of 226 tunes.

To Donal O’Sullivan’s credit, he did include references for all of his source material. However his referencing system is very tricky to use, with sources given by index letters, requiring constant cross-checking between pages and volumes. Also, many of his sources are still not easily available in facsimile.

I have been working on a collation of all the different versions of each of the tunes attributed to Carolan. I have entered all the information from Donal O’Sullivan’s book into a spreadsheet, and tried to unpick the different strands presented. I have put the spreadsheet here on Google Docs for you to look at and interact with.

You can use the spreadsheet to sort by source, or by Donal O’Sullivan’s number. I have also put a tentative rating beside each tune, to show how likely I think that Carolan had anything to do with the tune. These can be edited later if new information comes to light.

Rather shockingly, only a bit over half of the tunes have a solid and reliable attribution to Carolan; about 1/4 are almost certainly spurious.

There’s a lot more work to be done on this, and in time I will update the spreadsheet. But I thought it was in a useful enough state at the moment to show it to you,