Irish harp finials: scrolls, figures and beasts

A discussion about the provenance of the Rose Mooney or Carolan harp which is owned by the National Museum of Ireland, prompted some thoughts about the decorative finial on the tops of the forepillars of the old Irish harps. I thought it might be interesting to line them all up to see if there were patterns or groups.

I will count 13 harps dating from c.1650 to c.1750, representing the indigenous Irish harp making tradition in its final and most developed form. I also include a couple of harps now lost, and a few portaits of 18th century harpers with their instruments.

I have mirror-reversed some of these images so that all of the pictures show the scroll as if viewed from the right side of the harp.

Harps with true spiral scrolls

the Hollybrook harp

Deep wide carved scroll turned backwards (mirrored)

the O’Ffogarty harp

Huge deep tight scroll, turned backwards

the Fitzgerald or Kildare harp (traditionally dated 1672)

shallow tight scroll turned backwards. There is also an animal head facing upwards / backwards, but I think this is secondary to the scroll.

The portraits of Arthur O’Neill  show a harp with a turned-back spiral scroll


Harps with unclear or damaged scrolls

The portrait by Conn O’Donnell, of a harper (sometimes claimed to be Arthur O’Neill or Cormac Ó Ceallaigh). His harp may have a scroll turned back, but it is almost impossible to say. This portrait is in very poor condition and I have not seen a good reproduction of it.

The pencil sketch of a harper (sometimes claimed to be Charles Byrne holding the Mullaghmast harp) in Bunting’s papers seems to show a turned back scroll, only shown in outline.

The Mulagh or Mullaghmast harp
scroll, turned back, completely broken off.

The V&A harp

scroll, turned back, mostly lost

Harps with non-spiralling scrolls

the Rose Mooney or Carolan harp

Deep wide concentric circles

the Malahide 1 or Kearney 1 harp

Applied concentric boss turned back

the Clonalis or Carolan harp

flat disk, turned back. (mirror-image)

Harps with figural finials

The Downhill harp (made by Cormac O’Kelly, dated by inscription 1702)

Animal head facing forward, turned downwards

Captain Arthur Magenis’s harp, made by Cormac O’Kelly in 1711 (now lost), had a similar animal head facing forward, turned downwards.

the Sirr or O’Neill harp

Bird’s head turned back

The Bunworth harp (made by John Kelly, and dated by inscription 1734)

Human head facing forward

A harp belonging to Jonathan Hehir of Limerick, inscribed “Made by John Kelly in 1726”

Human figure facing forwards

Harps without finials

The Otway harp is an archaic “low-headed form” without a finial. Some people suggest it is older than the other harps discussed here, though it is dated by inscription to 1707 and signed by Cormack O’Kelly.

The O’Neill harp

has no finial; however it is possible that there was originally one which has been cut away.

The portrait of Denis O’Hampsey shows a harp without a finial; I think that this is the Downhill harp with its animal head finial broken away before being later repaired. I don’t count this in the conclusion below.


Listed above are 17 examples. Of these, 10 of them (59%) have some kind of scroll (four true scrolls, two concentric non-spiralling scrolls, one plain disc scroll, three damaged or unclear scrolls).

Five of them (29%) have figural finials, three animal and two human.

Two of them (12%) have no finial.




3 thoughts on “Irish harp finials: scrolls, figures and beasts”

  1. I like to think that the animal/lion/wolfhound on top of the Kildare harp is a display figure. It looks beautiful when the harp is laid on its back, for storage and display. It might be a guardian for the pillar containing the coat of arms.

    As for the scroll – I think the curious thing about it is the face of the monkey/weird thing on the outside of the scroll. It’s not that visible from over the harp, but I assume (from the position and all) it’s perfectly visible to the player, looking down on them when they’re playing. Probably judging their tuning. Or their choice of ornaments!

  2. We could add Malahide / Kearney 2, which has a flat circular scroll with an applied flower on the left side… not even sure how to categorise this one! And I don’t have a good photo of it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.