Irish harp

For centuries, the distinctive thing about an Irish harp has been its metal wire strings. The traditional Irish harp playing techniques, first published in 1840, use the left hand in the treble and the right hand in the bass.

The old Irish harp traditions came to an end in the early years of the 20th century. The last of the tradition-bearers died in poverty, ignored and un-noticed. Instead of engaging with the tradition-bearers, middle-class enthusiasts in the Gaelic revival movement from the 1890s onward turned to Anglo-Continental classical harp teachers to invent a new tradition of harping in Ireland which thrives today.

But despite the suppression and ending of the inherited tradition, we have a huge amount of information about the harpers, the music, the harps, and how they were played. I am working on this traditional, pre-revival, style of playing. My aim is to study and understand the last of the old tradition bearers from the 1790s through to the early 1900s, to try and re-connect to their tradition as it was before the direct lineage of master to student came to an end a bit over 100 years ago.

Patrick Byrne (1794/8-1863)

These tradition-bearers played the harp in the inherited Irish harp tradition. They were taught orally, without using written music notation, in a chain of teachers’ teachers back through generations of traditional harpers. Their music was closely connected to traditional Irish song, fiddle and pipe music. Their harps were the big floor-standing wire-strung Irish harps, with 30 or more brass or iron wire strings. Some of the harps played by these last generations of old Irish harpers are still preserved in museums. Their playing techniques and their repertory were written down in the 1790s and early 1800s by the music collector, Edward Bunting.

For my own music, I use copies of their harps, made by specialist historical harpmakers and based on museum research into the originals. I string these copies using iron and brass wire strings, following the traditional stringing and tuning systems. I play these copies using the traditional Irish harp playing techniques, following the work of Sylvia Crawford. I play traditional Irish harp repertory, sourced from my own musicological research into Edward Bunting’s live transcription manuscripts, and from listening to Irish traditional musicians and singers in the living tradition and in archive recordings. I am living in Armagh, which is in the midst of where some of the most important tradition-bearers were from.

Harp made by Pedro Ferreira (Atelier Rumor) in 2019, based on the NMI Carolan harp owned by the National Museum of Ireland. Photo: Pedro Ferreira
Traditional wire-strung Irish harp made by Tim Hampson in 2023, copying John Egan's 1820s design
Traditional wire-strung Irish harp made by Tim Hampson in 2023, copying John Egan’s 1820s design