Irish harp

The old Irish harp has metal wire strings, and is played with the left hand in the treble and the right hand in the bass. The old Irish harp traditions came to an end about 200 years ago, and ever since then people have been trying to get Irish harp playing up and running again.

The first attempts to recreate the lost old Irish harp traditions started in the 19th century by importing Anglo-Continental classical harp technology of gut strings, key-changing mechanisms, and playing with the right hand in the treble and the left hand in the bass. This created a new, modern Irish harp tradition which thrives today.

I am working on the older style of playing. My aim is to study and understand the last of the old tradition bearers from the 1790s and early 1800s, to try and re-connect to their tradition as it was a bit over 200 years ago, before the direct lineage of master to student came to an end.

These old harpers played the harp in the old Irish harp tradition, inheriting their playing techniques and music back through generations of harpers. They were taught by ear, without using written music notation. 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 between 30 and 36 brass or iron wire strings. Some of the harps played by this last generation of old Irish harpers are still preserved in museums. Their playing techniques and their repertory were written down in the 1790s by the pianist, 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 brass wire strings, following the traditional stringing and tuning systems. I play these copies using the traditional Irish harp playing techniques, based on the work of Sylvia Crawford. I play the repertory that was collected from the last of the old harpers, based on my own musicological research into Edward Bunting’s live transcription manuscripts, and 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 the old Irish harp tradition continued for the longest, down to the early 1800s.

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