Elaina Sugrue laser-scanning the NMI Carolan harp in 2018


This page gathers links and references to published information about the old Irish harps, plans, templates, and information about how they are made, which will be useful to harpmakers. See also my stringcharts.

I am very happy to be consulted on any aspects of the design of traditional wire-strung harps. The information on this page can also be very helpful to anyone who wants to order a harp from a harpmaker. I am always very happy to discuss the choices and options with you. Get in touch if you would like more information.

My focus is on trying to work out the design and specification for harps suitable for playing the traditional Irish harp repertory, using the traditional fingering techniques and playing style, as they were handed down by harpers in the inherited tradition through the 18th and 19th century.

There are not really any construction plans or instructions for making an old Irish harp. But what there are, is templates and drawings of the old instruments that can be used as a basis for making a new one.

Some of the old instruments are broken and damaged and some of the templates and drawings show them in their distorted shape so you need to use some creativity to reconstruct an original working form.

As with any instrument-making, there is no substitute for seeing and handling as many good examples as possible. The best examples of old Irish harps are now almost all in museum collections, and so handling and access to them is naturally restricted. In recent years, highly detailed technical studies and 3D scans are becoming available, which can provide a substitute for hands-on access to the real thing. Good accurate copies are now being made.

Grianghraf: Barbara Karlik, Scoil na gCláirseach, Coláiste Pobail Osraí, Cill Chainnigh, Iúil 2023

The different models of old Irish harp

Harpers in the inherited tradition, from around the 1650s right through to the beginning of the 20th century, played tall floor-standing harps with brass wire strings, and a bass range down 2 octaves or more below middle C. These are the harps which connect to the older strands of living traditional music of fiddle, pipes and song. There are quite a few good models to use for making or commissioning a harp like this.

At the moment we are still trying to understand the constraints of the old inherited tradition, and making (or commissioning) a close copy of one of these old harps is the easiest way to guarantee your new harp will be usable for the traditional repertory and playing techniques.

Standardisation in the 19th century

The design and specifications of traditional wire-strung Irish harps was standardised in the 19th century by the harpmaker John Egan in Dublin. Egan made these big (153cm tall) 37-string harps for the tradition-bearers associated with the Irish Harp Society in Belfast. They have all the features you need for the traditional playing techniques and repertory and style, since they were designed and made for traditional harpers who had learned from 18th century tradition-bearers; they speak well; and in my opinion they are ideal for exploring the traditional Irish harp repertory. Their ergonomics and voicing conform to older Irish harp norms, but they have a more up-to-date aesthetic and method of construction.

I am still working on these 19th century traditional wire-strung Irish harps; so far I have studied and written a brief report on a harp attributed to John Egan which is in Fermanagh County Museum. Read my report (PDF). I have also been studying and measuring two of Egan’s wire-strung harps in the National Museum in Dublin, which has informed my stringchart for them.

Other makers copied Egan’s design, most notably his nephew Francis Hewson, who made 38-string traditional wire-strung Irish harps through the 1840s. I have studied and written up one in the National Museum which belonged to traditional harper Paul Smith, and another in Dundalk Museum which belonged to traditional harper Hugh O’Hagan.

I have also studied and written up a 36 string harp made in Belfast by Felix O’Neill, which is now in the Belfast Museum. You can read about this one in my write-up of Patrick Murney.

I intend to produce accurate harpmakers drawings or plans of this design of traditional wire-strung Irish harp. The best way to do this is to have one of the originals laser-scanned, and then use the resulting 3d computer model to generate accurate scaled elevations, plans, templates and cross-sections. Get in touch if you would be interested in helping with this project.

The 18th century tradition

A lot of our previous work, to revive or re-discover the lost old Irish harp tradition, has focussed on the harpers who came to Belfast in 1792. The pianist and arranger, Edward Bunting, made live transcriptions of their music as they played, and his scribbly pages of live transcription dots still exist, preserved in Queen’s University Belfast MS4.

To connect to their tradition and to understand what the harpers were doing at the end of the 18th century requires a copy of the kind of harps they were playing.

These harps are quirkier and less ergonomic than the 19th century design, but each of them has great character.

The Downhill harp

The Downhill harp is often considered a great model to copy; it is small, easily carried, and works very well and is easy to set up as a good working instrument. Also, its association with the traditional harper Denis Hempson gives it an important cultural significance. I think it is the ideal harp for a child or small adult because it is a very petite harp.

However it has not been 3D scanned, and templates and data are not available. This means that any maker wanting to make a harp copying the design of the Downhill harp is on their own.

The Castle Otway harp

The Castle Otway harp is a very interesting instrument; it works like the other traditional 18th century instruments but it has a much older look or style. I think it is a less ergonomic harp, more difficult to hold and play, and lacking in the bass range which makes it speak less well than some of the others. But it has an important cultural significance because of its association with the traditional harper Patrick Quin, and because of its archaic appearance.

The Castle Otway harp was scanned in 2022, and I have made a set of plans and templates as a resource for harpmakers and researchers. They are all available on my Castle Otway Harp Plans page.

The Hollybrook harp

I think the Hollybrook harp would be a good model for a harpmaker wanting to make an 18th century style Irish harp. It is a neat ergonomic shape and size, and it has a good low bass range.

A full report on the Hollybrook harp by Karen Loomis and myself has been published on the HHSI website. The 3D scan is on Sketchfab; Karen has generated a full set of plans for the harp, and there is also a huge amount of other information and analysis about the harp and its construction, decoration etc.

The Kildare harp

Barbara Karlik is gradually publishing her data on the Kildare harp. You can download the 3D scan from Sketchfab, which is a great basis for you to generate templates, cross-sections, etc. Check her website for updates to this project. The Kildare is a very big and elaborately decorated harp.

The NMI Carolan harp

I studied the NMI Carolan harp, and wrote it up as a peer-reviewed paper: Simon Chadwick, ‘Provenance and recording of an eighteenth-century harp’, The Galpin Society Journal LXXIII, March 2020, p.85-110 & 199-201. Obviously its traditionary association with the traditional harper and composer and singer Turlough Carolan gives it great cultural significance even if that association cannot be proved at all.

There is a 3D scan which you can view online or download, and my (unsorted) processed templates which I generated from the scan are in Dropbox. All of this material has been released on an open license so you can use it and create your own derivative works freely without restrictions. This is a large and heavy harp. Mostly because of the damage and distortion, there are a number of issues with making a reconstruction copy of it. Get in touch if you want more information.

Other harps

The Mulagh Mast harp has been 3D-scanned, and the scan is available to view on Sketchfab, but templates and other data are not yet available.

Robert Bruce Armstrong’s book published in 1904 has some technical information about many of these old harps. I usually have a secondhand copy available for sale. It is also available online at the Internet Archive.

I think that commissioning 3D scans of the other 18th and 19th century harps would be very useful, because the scan can easily be used to generate accurate makers’ templates. Because the harps have subtle curving 3D shapes they can be very difficult to document by traditional measuring methods; the scan also allows the pins, strings, and shoes to be laid out very accurately following the original. Get in touch if you would be interested in sponsoring the cost of a scan. The more information that gets published, the more we understand how the old harps are designed and made and used…

Looking further back in time…

I often get asked about the medieval Irish and Scottish Gaelic harps. I have done a lot of work on these based on my background as an archaeologist.

I don’t think the medieval harps are useful or relevant for understanding the inherited tradition as it came down to us through the 18th and 19th century tradition-bearers. You would not start learning traditional Scottish or Irish pipes by using a set of medieval pipes; you would not start learning traditional Irish fiddle by using a medieval fiddle, and so it does not make sense to me to start learning traditional Irish wire-strung harp by using a medieval harp.

But I know that some people are interested in medieval re-creationism, and in playing medieval music on medieval instruments, and so I have made a separate page with information about the medieval Scottish and Irish harps.