Old Irish harp transcriptions project

I first got hold of a facsimile of Bunting ms29 (Queens University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4/29) when it was first published online at QUB Library web site, back in 2006, and I have been working from the facsimile ever since.

This manuscript, dating from the late 18th century to the beginning of the 19th century, is the most important single source for old Irish harp repertory. In it, the young collector Edward Bunting wrote his live field transcriptions of the performances of the last of the old Irish harpers. These scratchy incomplete jottings are our most direct connection to the now lost tradition of playing the old Irish harp with brass wire strings. There are many other sources of old Irish and Scottish Gaelic harp repertory, but most are second-hand, re-set for piano, fiddle, or other instruments. The great value of ms29 is the transcriptions live from performance.

Manuscript 29 is not easy to use, because it is written so fast and sketchily. I also started wondering about the lack of metadata in the manuscript – most of the tunes are not tagged with the names of informants, places, or dates, and this information has to be inferred from other sources. Many tunes are written without their title, or with the titles of different tunes written around them. And there are a lot of tunes – I counted 212 different tunes in the manuscript in total, of which about 190 appear to be represented by field transcriptions.

Back in September I started making a transcript of the textual content of Bunting ms29 (Queens University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4/29). This was prompted by a discussion with Siobhán Armstrong, who had started to inspect the binding of the manuscript and had noted where the different gatherings joined together. I started wondering how this structure of gatherings fitted with the content, whether groups of tunes fitted into discrete gatherings, and so I started to compile an index of what was on which page. The project grew and I ended up trying to copy all of the text on every page, and to identify the tune represented in every bit of music notation.

Identifying the tunes has been the hardest part, and is still not complete. My transcript still has many “unidentified tune” tags in it. Hopefully over time we will find identifications for more of these tunes.

You can download my ms29 text transcript and tune identification PDF from my Bunting pages. As I add more information or correct errors, I will update the PDF.

Making this document is in some ways an end in itself, as it forms a very useful guide to reading and working with the manuscript; it also forms a much more complete index than has been available so far. I have relied heavily on the published work of Donal O’Sullivan and Colette Moloney (both cited fully on the PDF). It is the nature of scholarship to build on and improve the work of previous generations, and I am very grateful for the important work that O’Sullivan and Moloney have done; I would not have got this far without their work.

I think that the value of ms29 was always the transcriptions: the first, quick, instinctive response of the listener to the performance. I have said before that I consider these transcriptions the 18th century equivalent of 20th century field audio-recordings. They are our window into a lost performance tradition.

My ms29 document aims to identify these transcriptions, and to distinguish transcriptions from secondary copies. The manuscript contains a number of tunes copied from printed books, and probably also from older manuscripts. These copied notations naturally don’t give us the direct connection to oral performance traditions that the transcriptions do.

I have become fascinated by the idea of working from transcriptions. To get a replica of an old Irish harp, to string it with brass wire, and tune it following the 18th century tuning schedules, to hold it in the posture and orientation shown in the 18th and early 19th century portraits of old Irish harpers – these methods take us close to the world of the old Irish harpers. And then to play the notes written in the transcription – no more, no less, gives us a sniff of their performance on that day in the 1790s.

My project now, I think, is to identify as many transcriptions as I can, and then to start describing, categorising, and analysing them. There are transcriptions of old Irish harp performances in other manuscripts in the Bunting Collection, especially in QUB MS4/33(1). I wonder if there are any transcriptions like this anywhere else? Was Edward Bunting the only person to do this?

I am thinking that as well as identifying the “normalised” tune titles for them, I can try and find other information about these tunes. Elsewhere in Bunting’s piano manuscripts he tells us who and when he collected tunes from. Can we match versions of tunes in piano arrangements, with the same version in a transcription? Can we group the transcriptions according to this kind of metadata, to understand who the transcriptions were collected from, where and when?

By combining this aggregated metadata with an analysis of the manuscript structure I think we may be able to build up a fine-grained picture of the collecting process and the performing style of different informants.

And we can also use this new insight into the nature and importance of the transcriptions to create new performances on old Irish harp, hoping to get ever closer to a plausible way of returning the old Irish harp to the tradition.

The video below shows me playing Casadh an tSúgáin (DOSB 19), from the transcription and copy on ms29 pages 4/4/13/1v – 5/5/14/2r, on the copy of the NMI Carolan harp.

Last Days at Luggala

Garech Browne asked me to come to Luggala two-and-a-half years ago, when Richard Curson Smith and Liam McGrath were filming some scenes for a proposed documentary about Garech. Some of their footage has now been used in a new film, commissioned by RTÉ and directed by Mick Mahon, which was first broadcast last Wednesday.

I knew that playing for this kind of film means the footage will be used in tiny fragments, so I decided to play a sweet simple melody – the tune “Luggala” seemed most appropriate. Garech said afterwards that he was disappointed, he had hoped I would play ceòl mór. Garech was particularly taken with the idea of ceòl mór or pibroch played on the harp; he told me that he had read the idea in William Matheson’s book The Traditional and National Music of Scotland. The previous year, I had played pieces of ceòl mór on the harp for him and a few of his closest friends; he had wept openly, and said he never thought he would live to hear it.

The new film is a very beautiful thing, capturing Garech’s character very well. It is visually stunning of course, thanks to the setting at Luggala, but the memories of Garech’s friends in the documentary are lovely as well.

The film is available on the RTÉ Player until the middle of January. Watch it if you can!

Harp case part 1

From a practical point of view, seeing as how the case doesn’t affect the musical possibilities or performance of the instrument, there is no reason not to use the best case you can. In the past I have ordered cases from Glenn Cronkhite in California; his cases are extremely well designed and well made. I have three. But he has retired, and production has stopped.

There is also a legitimate research question about how harps were protected and transported historically. From a practice-based-research point of view we might want to experiment with using a reproduction historical case, to find out how well it protects the harp, and how it constrains or enables different performance contexts. Also, from a research-based-practice point of view, we might enjoy and even benefit from using a case made following historical models.

It’s curious that we seem to know more about harp bags, the further back in time we look. Some of the early medieval Germanic lyres even retain fragments of actual bags adhering to the decayed remains. Martin van Schaik wrote an interesting paper ‘The harp bag in the middle ages’, published in Aspects of the Historical Harp (1994) which discussed illustrations of harp bags as well as Irish and Scottish literary mentions.

Peter Holman, ‘The harp in Stuart England’, Early Music XV 2, May 1987, draws attention to a bill written out by the harper Cormack MacDermott:

Itm for putinge of a newe backe to yro Loxs. harpe
and mending of it wth plate where it was broken
and cutinge /the necke shorter ——————————– xvi s

for a lether case wth a chine and lynde wth
cotton for yor Lox: harpe ———————————– xxx s

Received by me Cormack dermode

Tristram Robson, in his thesis The Irish harp in art music (1997) adds that the bill is endorsed on the back: “item 46 shillings, Cormacke, bill of the 20th May, 1607”.

I was curious about the word “chine”. I suppose it might be read as “chire” or some other word but I think “chine” is the most plausible reading. Chine is not a very common English word; I know it from my youth as a kind of unstable steep-sided ravine; and also for the sharp angle along the side of certain types of boat hulls. I note that other meanings focus on the ridge (rather than groove) meaning and so I wonder if Cormack’s case had some kind of ridge? I have not found references to chines in specific leather-working contexts.

The other thing of interest in Cormack’s bill is the case being lined with cotton. I would expect something like this to have been lined with linen instead; it was not until the Restoration in the 1660s that cotton Calico and Chintz were introduced to the English market. A common type of fabric before then, back to medieval times, was fustian, which is a cotton-linen blend. But would Cormack have itemised a fustian lining as “cotton”? Another possibility is that the “lining” was actually a padded stuffing of cotton-wool.

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.

Design

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.

Shafts

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

Heads

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:

3:30pm-4:00pm
Dr. Mary Louise O’Donnell – “The Bengal Subscription and the Irish-Indian Connection”
Frank Bunting – “Edward Bunting’s Kilmore Parish Connections”

5:15pm-6:15pm
Philip McDonagh – “Do you remember Sinclair Stevenson? Reflections on the Irish Missionary Tradition in India”
Lily Neill – “The Emergence of the Lever Harp”

6:30pm-7:00pm
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.

Neck

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.

Soundbox

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.

Forepillar

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.

Strings

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’)