“Archæological” copies of old Gaelic harps

I found this project proposal I had written back in the Autumn of last year, but had never followed up on.


By an “archaeological” copy I mean a copy that is as accurate as possible in as many ways as possible. This is not a working reconstruction; the maker should make no adjustments to the design or specification based on functional criteria.

The copy is a hand-crafted art object, that copies the original whole-heartedly as a physical object. Every detail of decoration, structure, workmanship and materials should be emulated as closely as possible given current knowledge and technical possibilities.

There is no need to avoid the use of modern power tools for roughing out the components, however all of the fine shaping and finishing should be done with hand tools using the same techniques or methods deduced from the original, in order that the finished result is as close as possible to the original. Kiln-dried timber should be avoided; the wood should either be worked green (e.g. soundbox) or air-dried (e.g. neck, pillar, back)

An important aspect of the making of a musical instrument is the subtle response of the instrument maker to the specific piece of timber, to bring out acoustical characteristics desired in the finished instrument. However even this can be approached from an archaeological point of view, in that the acoustic response of the timber can be considered something to emulate in the same way that the visual appearance or the measured dimensions are. At a simplest level, measured thicknesses can be used as a guide to constrain the artisan’s options in tuning the soundbox.

Stringing and setting up an archaeological copy is a seperate task from making it; ideally it would be done by a different person, so that the constraints of possible stringing and tuning regimes do not affect the strictness of the maker copying the extant museum original. In fact, it is best if multiple artisans work together, each concentrating on their area of expertise, e.g. woodwork, metalwork, acoustic shaping, decoration.

The finished instrument should not be considered a completed product, rather a work in progress. There should be an aim of continually re-working and finessing the instrument as new understanding and information becomes available. The old harps are composite objects, not the complete artistic statement of one individual. Allowing these archaeological copies the same kind of development will help them to reproduce the originals more closely.


A 20-year project to raise standards in historical Gaelic harp construction and use

Every year, complete a full-specification “archaeological” copy of one of the historical Gaelic harps in the Museums. The strict time schedule to focus minds and drive the project forward.


  1. A collection of full-spec highly accurate working copies of the historical harps

  2. A published body of documentation of the originals and the copies

  1. A developing “standard” by which to asses the work of other historical instrument makers

Working method:

  • Selection of instrument to copy. Criteria for the selection might include the amount of information currently or potentially available (Some instruments i.e. the Queen Mary and Lamont harp have been well-studied; others are difficult to access and investigate), or the needs of a proposed project (e.g. a project to investigate the repertory of Denis O’Hampsey, Rose Mooney, or Patrick Quin, which would require an accurate copy of their instrument)

  • Literature review: all published information about the chosen instrument is collated and research questions and problems are identified.

  • The original instrument is viewed in the Museum and analysed to the highest possible standard at the time, given constraints of access permissions. Priorities would include measurements, photographs, timber ID.

  • Decisions about what state to copy. In general, a late state might be more satisfactory than a more speculative earlier state. However, an obviously broken and repaired state might be less desired.

  • Sourcing of timber, to copy the timbers used in the original as closely as possible.

  • construction of instrument

  • metalwork, if necessary by a different artist

  • decoration, if necessary by a separate artist

  • stringing regime to be designed separately after the instrument is complete, so that the design and construction of the copy is not influenced by functional preconceptions.


  • All data gathered and all drawings and plans prepared would be published online, on an open-access model.

  • The completed instrument to be photographed, and videoed and recorded in use by different performers.


  • The completed instrument to be kept within Ireland & Scotland, and be available for use or exhibition by interested parties.


List of historical instruments

1 Trinity College

2 Queen Mary

3 Lamont

4 Ballinderry

5 Cloyne

6 Otway

7 O’Fogarty

8 Kildare

9 Sirr

10 Mullaghmast

11 Rose Mooney

12 O’Neill

13 Downhill

14 Bunworth

15 Hollybrook

16 Malahide 1

17 Malahide 2

18 Clonalis

19 V&A

20 Egan Society

Simon Chadwick, September 2016

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