Facts, speculation, and making things up

The study of the historical Gaelic harp traditions of Ireland and Scotland is unusual in its scope, materials and foundations. Of course it shares many aspects with other disciplines. As a combination of historical research and performance art, it does not fit easily into mainstream historical or artistic disciplines. In this, it shares a lot with other historically-informed performance (HIP) practice disciplines, such as harpsichord, lute, or baroque violin. However, historical Gaelic harp is different from other HIP areas because of its nature as an oral tradition. Other areas of HIP deal with dead or extinct literate traditions; one can get hold of an 18th century harpsichord instruction manual, and sit at an original or reproduction instrument, and do what the book tells you to. This is not possible for an extinct oral tradition.

There are other extinct oral traditions that are of interest to scholars, for example the performance of Old English or ancient Greek epic poetry with lyre, but early Irish harp is different due to the amount of information about the old tradition that survives. It seems to me that the field of early Irish harp studies is pushing new ground in exploring and recreating a lost oral performance tradition, and so there are problems and issues that are emerging as the subject develops.

One issue of primary importance is the disjunct between what people did in the past, what we can know about that from historical or archaeological investigations, and what we should do now. The harp perhaps suffers more from confusion here than other areas, because of its powerful symbolism and iconic role in non-musical culture1. The old native Gaelic harp traditions died out during the 18th and 19th century, and the 19th century revival was based on the use of completely new and organologically very different instruments, known today as lever harps2. It is interesting that some players of the lever harp have claimed, from the late 19th century to the present day, that their new instrument is identical with the original, ancient harp of Ireland and Scotland3.

From the point of view of the HIP movement, there is obviously great value and interest in trying to create artistic performances whilst also adhering as closely as possible to the results of historical enquiry. From the historian’s and archaeologist’s point of view, there is a desire to find out about past performance practice whether or not there is any interest in seeing and hearing such practice recreated in the modern world. And there is also a historiographical interest in seeing how much of the past performance practice is visible, and how much is invisible, to modern enquiry.

As a lost, historical oral tradition, the first issue that confronts any researcher, whatever their background and aims, is the lack of primary sources. There is, to my knowledge, no primary written music notation by an old Gaelic harper from Scotland or Ireland. There are some anecdotes dictated by 18th-century harpers, most notably the Memoirs of Arthur O’Neill4, but almost all of the musicological and historical material relating to the harp tradition is found in secondary sources, coming from observers or reporters outside the tradition and relating information second-hand at best.

Perhaps the most solid and reliable evidence is embodied in the surviving historical instruments. Even this is not free from myth-making; on the one side are the romantic historical provenances of some of the instruments, linking them to famous people such as Brian Boru5, or Turlough Carolan6. But on the other side are persistent claims that the surviving museum instruments are somehow not representative, that they are defective or non-typical examples, or that being complex composite structures gives them a lesser status as historical instruments. I wonder if there is a myth-making and political agenda to position the museum instruments as of lesser status in understanding the old traditions.

Part of this ambiguous status of the historical instruments comes down to the lack of study. There are any number of scientific analyses waiting to be carried out including timber species ID, dating by radioisotope or dendrochronology; materials analysis of the metalwork, pigments and finishes; and surface analysis of form, tool marks and wear marks. We need properly published, fully worked and referenced technical studies, not just a connoisseur’s pronouncement, an argument from authority. Without the backing of full data tables, or published close-up photographs, labelling and identifying the diagnostic features being compared, so that anyone else can follow the argument and see the evidence, this kind of opinion not only lacks value, but can add to the re-mythification of the subject.

Loomis’s work of scientific imaging and materials analysis as part of a MMus7 and subsequently PhD8 at the University of Edinburgh has showed how such physical recording of the survivng historical instruments in the museums can and should be done. Rigorous design of the research methodology, generous access to the instruments provided by the museum, close collaboration with specialist technicians, and a careful and systematic working through of the results with detailed publication of all steps9, has provided some incontrovertible, very interesting and useful data from which to start re-evaluating the nature of the old tradition. Such a solid archaeological approach gives a real bedrock on which interpretative performances and narrative histories, inevitably including some speculation and gap-filling, can be built.

Of course, increasingly technical studies require increasingly rigorous standards to prevent the unwary being bamboozled by science. Of course, the highest standards should be applied to all areas of research; sloppy thinking and unexamined assumptions in any area of our enquiry are not going to help us really understand the nature of the old Gaelic harp traditions. But if (as we should) we lay prime importance on the solid results of scientific enquiry, then the results of that enquiry have to be presented in a way that displays the limitations of the data (including error estimates) and of the conclusions, and which allows the working methods to be tested and replicated, in order that the results can be accepted unequivocally, or challenged where necessary.

If the surviving museum instruments are the primary archaeological resource, which proper, rigorous, and fully explained and described study should be bent towards, what is the primary musical resource? As mentioned before, there are no primary musical materials, but there is a great wealth of secondary musical documents10. The music of the old harpers seems to have passed into other traditions, and to have been written down by other musicians, for lute, fiddle and keyboard instruments. However this material needs very careful handling; without detailed knowledge of context and working methods of the scribes or publishers, we can end up with circular arguments regarding what aspects of the notated music represents genuine Gaelic harp idiom and what represents changes to fit the music onto fiddle, lute or keyboards.

Edward Bunting’s manuscript notebooks11 are in that respect simpler; Bunting sat down beside the last of the old harpers in the 1790s and early 1800s, and wrote down their music at speed live from their playing. There are still problems; we know too little about his precise working methods; we struggle to identify precisely which manuscript books and pages represent this kind of live field transcription and which are later, more scholarly attempts to reconstruct an ideal original form for the music. We do know that Bunting’s aim was to set the music for piano to give it life for a contemporary piano-playing readership. We also have to be careful extrapolating things that Bunting noted from the harpers, which may have been personal or idiosyncratic to that harper, or may have been a feature of late 18th-century Irish harping without particularly deep roots in the older tradition.

Nonetheless, close critical study of the field notebooks has the potential to give us a lot of very useful and reliable information about the nature of the old Gaelic harp music. While some of the manuscripts have been digitised and made available to researchers, most have not, and so are effectively unavailable to scholars; there is an index12 but it is incomplete and hard to use; and much commentary on the work of Bunting in notating the old harp music misses the point by relying too heavily on his published piano arrangements.

It seems to me that, just as our understanding of the physical instruments has to start with solid, irrefutable evidence, such as Loomis’s timber IDs and CT scans, so the only way to really understand the music of the old Gaelic harpers is to work at giving ourselves a solid base of incontrovertible and reliable data. Bunting’s field drafts are the only way to get that; after we have properly catalogued and studied these notebooks, we will have a base line of information that can then be used on more speculative inquiries such as the 18th century keyboard arrangements of tunes attributed to Turlough Carolan13; or the 17th century lute settings of tunes attributed to Ruaidhrí Dall Ó Cathain14. And they in turn might inform enquiries into tunes and songs preserved in fiddle books and oral tradition, which might be considered to have originated as harp tunes. Let us not fall into the trap of taking these written sources at face value. Writing the music down is foreign to the old oral traditions. While there can be value in gaining a fresh overview of a tradition by looking at it as an outsider, this brings with it extra dangers of a narrow colonial attitude to indigenous views and values. Traditional oral performance practice needs to be taken seriously as a source for style and idiom, not uncritically of course, but neither dismissed as something inferior and other.

Writing a narrative history of the old harp traditions might be the hardest task of all, because almost every narrative of the harp in Ireland and/or Scotland is loaded with political overtones. The harp as a symbol of Ireland, either free or under London rule, is almost matched by the harp as the symbol of lyric poetry, of the inspired word-artist. Just the fact of the subject being “Irish” or “Gaelic” or “Celtic” can instantly prejudice the writer, either for or against. Modern scholarship is no exception; narratives of continuity of the old tradition into the present day vie with narratives of colonialism and exploitation in trying to articulate what the Irish harp was and is historically and practically. I think that there is a historiographical issue here, in that it might be much easier given the present state of knowledge, to write a history of the Irish harp as symbol, than as working musical instrument.

Which brings us back to the performance side of things. Historically informed performance naturally requires history as a starting point; and one of the problems in reviving the performance traditions of the historical Gaelic harp of Scotland and Ireland has been exactly the lack of reliable and uncontentious historical results. For a long time the museum instruments were so un-studied that harpmakers had to invent their own designs and instruments, since they did not even have basic dimensions and photographs of the old harps. And musicians, lacking access to Bunting’s manuscripts, worked from piano arrangements and used their own modern taste and judgement to decide how to set these tunes on the harp.

Of course, performing artists are free to do whatever they want, in order to express their art in a way that is most authentic to themselves as artists. There is no longer a moral obligation that to play old music one was obliged to do it in a historically authentic way15. But I think that in these post- postmodern times we do have an obligation to be honest and straightforward about our aims, methods and results. There are many aspects of historical Gaelic harp performance practice that can be inconvenient to modern-day performers who have established a performing career in blissful ignorance of them – for example, the left orientation, with the dominant right hand controlling the bass of the harp16; the use of unison “na comhluighe” tuning17; placing the hands on the soundboard in a way that respects the wear-marks caused by the hands of the old harpers on the old instruments18; sitting with the harp held low, resting on its foot in a way that respects the wear marks on the bottom of the harp19; an awareness of the types of bass sonority and movements demonstrated by the old harpers to Bunting, and noted by him in ms2920… the list grows, and as more work is done, inevitably certain ad-hoc assumptions that are necessary to get performances of the music up and running will be challenged, disproved, and consigned to the box of “debunked myths”. It is up to us as historical Gaelic harp players to be humble, to respect that the tradition is older and wiser than us, and to accept that we may well be wrong, and to change as soon as we realise that the game is up.

We should not resist, and try to argue that actually we were right all along, and that there must be something amiss with the results of historical, archaeological or musicological research. But the flip side of that is the necessity for historical, musicological and archaeological work on the old harps, their music and traditions to proceed in as rigorous and scientific way as possible, so as not to leave wriggle room for those who would rather wriggle than face facts. Error margins on measured data must be estimated and calculated21, not ignored. Myths must be inspected, dissected and critiqued, not busted or de- (or re-) mystified. And research must be published in an open, fully explained way, so that every result is clearly justified, every argument can be tracked logically back through to its starting point, and so that everyone can clearly see what is known, what is suspected, what is guessed, and what is made-up.

1 Sara C Lanier ‘”It is new-strung and shan’t be heard”: nationalism and memory in the Irish harp tradition’ British Journal of Ethnomusicology, Vol. 8, 1999
2 also known as clarsach, Irish harp, neo-Irish harp, Celtic harp, folk harp. See Karen Loomis, ‘Irish Harp’, New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments, edited by Lawrence Libin, Anne Beetem Acker, Carolyn Bryant, James B. Kopp, J. Richard Haefner, and Jeremy Montagu, Oxford University Press, 2014, p.152. Also Joan Rimmer, ‘Irish harp’ Grove Music Online, accessed 7th September 2015, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com.connect.nls.uk/subscriber/article/grove/music/13909 and Joan Rimmer, ‘Irish harp (ii)’, Grove Music Online, accessed 7th September 2015 http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com.connect.nls.uk/subscriber/article/grove/music/53767
3 e.g. “the ancient Highland clarsach or Harp… that sweet-sounding instrument”, describing Emily MacDonald’s lever harp, in The Celtic Monthly, July 1898, p.200. See also The Clarsach Society – Comunn na Clàrsaich Constitution and Rules 2010, accessed 6th September 2015 http://www.clarsachsociety.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Constitution_EC-Approved-November-2010.pdf
4 Dictated by Arthur O’Neill (1734 – 1816) to the secretary Thomas Hughes in 1803. The transcript is Queens University Belfast, Special Collections MS4/46 & 14. Edited versions have been printed by Charlotte Milligan Fox, Annals of the Irish Harpers, Smith, Elder & Co, London 1911, and Donal O’Sullivan, Carolan – the life, times, and music of an Irish harper, Routledge and Paul, London, 1958
5 Robert Bruce Armstrong, The Irish and The Highland Harps, David Douglas, Edinburgh, 1904, p.55-62; George Petrie, ‘Memoir of ancient Irish harp preserved in Trinity College’, in Edward Bunting, The Ancient Music of Ireland, Hodges and Smith, Dublin, 1840, p.40-41
6 Armstrong 1904, p.83-4; Joan Rimmer, The Irish harp – Cláirseach na hÉireann, Irish life and culture XVI, The Mercier Press, Cork, 1969, p.62, 75
7 Karen Loomis, The Queen Mary and Lamont harps: A Study of Structural Breaks and Repairs. MMus thesis, University of Edinburgh, August 2010
8 Karen Loomis, The organology of the Queen Mary and Lamont harps. PhD thesis, University of Edinburgh, 2015
9 Karen Loomis, David Caldwell, Jim Tate, Ticca Ogilvie, & Edwin J. R. van Beek, ‘The Lamont and Queen Mary Harps’. Galpin Society Journal LXV, March 2012
10 Simon Chadwick, ‘Sources’, Early Gaelic Harp Info, accessed 6th September 2015 http://www.earlygaelicharp.info/sources This online catalogue builds on Keith Sanger & Alison Kinnaird, Tree of strings – crann nan teud, Kinmor Music, Temple, 1992, Appendix D, p.216-219
11 Queens University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4
12 Colette Moloney, The Irish music manuscripts of Edward Bunting (1773-1843): An introduction and catalogue Irish Traditional Music Archive, 2000
13 Sandra Joyce, ‘An Introduction to O’Carolan’s Music in Eighteenth-Century Printed Collections’, Irish Musical Studies 4, ed. P.F. Devine & H. White 1996
14 e.g. in the Straloch lute book, National Library of Scotland ms adv.5.2.18, or the Wemyss lute manuscript, National Library of Scotland Dep.314, No.23
15 Nicholas Kenyon, Authenticity in early music, Oxford University Press 1988
16 Simon Chadwick, ‘Orientation’, Early Gaelic Harp Info, accessed 6 September 2015 http://earlygaelicharp.info/orientation/
17 Simon Chadwick, ‘Sisters’, Early Gaelic Harp Info, accessed 6 September 2015 http://earlygaelicharp.info/tradition/sisters.htm
18 Loomis 2015, p.292-295, p.440-441
19 Simon Chadwick, ‘Playing position of medieval Gaelic harp’, simonchadwick.net, accessed 6 September 2015 https://simonchadwick.net/2014/01/playing-position-of-medieval-gaelic-harp.html
20 Queens University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4/29
21 Louis Lyons, A practical guide to data analysis for physical science students, Cambridge University Press 1991

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