On Friday I was at Áras an Uachtaráin with Siobhán Armstrong and Eibhlís Ní Ríordáin, for Culture Night. We gave a 20 minute presentation to the President’s guests; I spoke for a few minutes and then Siobhán and Eibhlís played and sang.
Today I took a saw and sliced a section off of my HHSI Student Trinity harp.
I designed the stringing and tuning regime for the HHSI Student Trinity harps back in 2005, based on how I had previously set up my old copy of the Queen Mary harp. My aim then was to present what we knew of the 18th century Irish harp tradition – to have na comhluighe at g below middle c’, and to have a complete octave below na comhluige down to cronan G.
On Thursday I was at the National Museum of Scotland store in Granton, a suburb north of Edinburgh. I went there with Karen Loomis, to look at the plaster-cast of the Trinity College harp which is kept in the store. We had a very productive hour, inspecting, measuring and photographing the cast, and discussing aspects of the cast and how it related to the real thing in the Long Room at Trinity College, and to later illustrations and depictions of the harp.
After I finished the Trinity College harp neck decoration sheet, I thought again about the issues surrounding this type of art, considering the sketchy and approximate versions of this scheme that we have seen up to now even on the best copies of the harp.
I am halfway through preparing a sheet, laying out the decorative scheme of the neck of the Trinity College harp.
I thought of doing this two years ago, when I did my scheme for the pillar, but I never got round to it until now.
I will eventually put both the halves together in one sheet, and publish it on Early Gaelic Harp Info, but for now you can get a sneak preview of the left side.
Karen Loomis suggested at her talk at Scoil na gCláirseach last week, that we try taking stereo pairs of photographs in the museums in Dublin on Tuesday. I am only just now starting to go through my pictures and see what I have. Here’s a first trial – grab your red/cyan goggles and see what you think!
Following on from the interlace on the caskets I posted yesterday, here is a whalebone gaming piece found in a cave on the isle of Rum. The Museum suggests it is 15th or early 16th century.
Again the style of the interlace carving is reminiscent of the pillar carving on the Trinity and Queen Mary harps – the interlace in low relief over and under against a recessed ground, tightly knotted, with parallel incised stripes emphasising the turn of the ribbons. Compare especially this panel on the Trinity harp forepillar:
The gaming pieces is a bit wobbly in its execution, but then so too is the interlace on the Trinity harp. However the thing about the gaming piece that really got me is the weird asymmetry. I have rotated my photo to show it with the axis of symmetry vertical, however it does not have a horizontal symmetry. The pattern of the top half is quite elegant and interesting, but if mirrored in the bottom half it would not give a single endless line. Perhaps the artist saw this and made one fewer edge loops, so crossing over two of the ribbons. However this also has the effect of creating two closed circles in the lower half. We see similar closed circles on the Trinity pillar. Look at how the end circles on the trinity pillar do not close but loop back on each other. This is similar to how the two circles in the upper half of the gaming piece are not closed.
I have to say that no matter how I turn and manipulate the gaming piece in my mind, it is not as elegant a composition as the panel on the Trinity harp pillar!
When I was in the National Museum of Scotland earlier this month, I was looking at the Queen Mary harp, and I noticed the wear on the lower back left corner of the soundbox. The corner of the box is quite worn away, and there is a wooden patch nailed on to the back of the box at this point, an old repair.
The wear on this corner was mentioned and drawn by R.B. Armstrong in his book The Irish and the Highland harps (David Douglas, 1904), though he talks mostly about sliding the harp along the floor when it was put down, Keith Sanger and Alison Kinnaird in their book Tree of Strings (Kinmor 1999), p.57 repeat Armstrong’s observations. Karen Loomis in her MMus dissertation (University of Edinburgh, 2010), p.49, includes a photo and a mention of this wear, but she is mostly concerned with the cracks from the repair patch nails.
I realised that the shape of this worn area is not just caused by general sliding of the harp, but instead it forms a flat surface which seems to me to be where the harp was stood on this corner when it was being played. You can see in my photo how the flat worn patch lines up with the projecting block of the bottom of the soundbox:
A long time ago I realised that if you sit on the floor to play a replica of the Queen Mary harp, then the harp naturally tips to rest on its projecting block and also this corner of the soundbox.
The angle of the flat panel therefore gives us a quite precise evidence for the angle that the harp was held at.
I propped my replica up on a hard surface, and adjusted the angle until my photo of my replica matched my photo of the original in the Museum:
And then, without moving the harp at all, I photographed the orientation of the harp, from floor level, at right angles to the plane of the strings, and also in line with it:
I think this gives a fair estimation of how the Queen Mary harp was positioned when it was being played.
Obviously there is some margin for error; the bottom of the projecting block would wear away and the corner of the box would wear away, so the angle in the front view would change over time. Also the flat worn surface is not entirely flat, but curves up towards the replacement piece. My positioning of the harp matches the most upright position. I would estimate that there could be 5 degrees either way since I was just doing this all by eye. The curving probably represents the harp being slid down to rest on its back as Armstrong suggests.
You’ll see that the strings are pretty much upright in the side-view photo.
The harp rests back quite a way behind its balance point. My replica won’t balance on that line between the box corner and the projecting block – if you tip it far forward enough to balance, it falls over sideways.
I looked again at Paul Mullarkey’s photos of the Trinity College harp. The soundbox is much more eaten away than the Queen Mary’s, especially at the bottom. However, the back bottom right corner of both the soundbox and the back panel are preserved, whereas the back bottom left corner is completely gone and is replaced now with extensive resin filler.
I was browsing idly through a first edition of Grattan Flood’s The Story of the Harp in the Wighton Centre in Dundee the other week, when I came across the description of the Trinity College or Brian Boru harp on pages 41-42. An 18th century letter is quoted, giving some description of the harp:
It says “When given to Counsellor MacNamara, it had silver strings…”
The letter is said to have been written by Ralph Ouseley, who owned the harp in the early 1780s. Macnamara acquired the harp in about 1756. If this is true then it is an exciting and important piece of information both about the Trinity College harp itself, and also about the use of precious metal strings on the old Gaelic harps.
Now Grattan Flood is a notoriously unreliable author, and many of his statements can be proved false by laboriously tracking down the source documents to see what he says. Often he gives no citation or only a vage reference to “an old manuscript”. This section is given a citation though: “Bibl. Egerton, Brit. Mus., No. 74, p.351”
I contacted the British Library, and put in a request for a copy of this manuscript page. After some confusion and digging on the part of the librarians, (and a rather eye-watering fee on my credit card for their troubles) I was sent a high-res page scan of British Library, ms Egerton 74 f184. This page contains a transcription made by J. Hardiman in 1820, of the Ouseley letter, and Grattan Flood is vindicated – it really does say that the harp had silver strings on it. I was delighted that my expensive gamble in ordering the manuscript page had paid off – worth its weight in silver you could say!
So I wonder, what is the story here? Was the harp strung entirely with silver? Or did it only have a certain section of the strings left? I have seen a photo of an 18th century Irish harp (one of the Malahide / Kearney ones) which had all of its steel trebles on but none of its brass basses; brass being more valuable to remove and recycle I suppose. When were these silver strings installed on the Trinity College harp? There is no suggestion that the harp was played in the early 18th century; Arthur O’Neill in about 1760 implies that the instrument was not played for 200 years before then. Were these silver strings the remains of a 16th century setup?
The genuineness and authority of this statement from an 18th century owner of the harp makes me want to start experimenting again. How does it work to fit silver strings to the entire range? Can it be taken up to the high treble? What alloys work best for this? Ann Heymann tells me she has had a low-headed medieval Irish harp strung entirely in silver, but more experiments are needed!