In the early 1900s, the Belfast carpenter William Savage and his younger brother Robert made a very decorative copy of the medieval Brian Boru (Trinity College) harp. When the harp was finished, brass wire strings were fitted by George Jackson.
George Jackson had learned harp from Patrick Murney, in a lineage going back to the 18th century Irish harpers. I recently started to wonder if some of Jackson’s strings might still be on the harp.
The Best harp is probably the worst of the surviving old Irish harps. It has been almost completely ignored in the literature. Joan Rimmer does not mention it; R.B. Armstrong does mention it but he failed to understand what it was, and he mis-identified it.
The Best harp was given to the Royal Irish Academy by the Rev. Berkeley Baxter, in 1882. The Wakeman catalogue of the RIA lists the harp as No. 369, and says that the harp was transferred to the Arts & Industry division of the National Museum of Ireland on 19th July 1958, under the reg. no. 93-1946. The harp is now at the National Museum with the accession number NMI DF:1946-93.
In the Freemans Journal of December 1882 there is an account of the provenance of the harp:
All that is known of it is, that a very old minstrel, some generations back, was frequently the guest of a clergyman of the name of Best, in the county Sligo, and that at his death the venerable minstrel bequeathed his harp to his worthy host, stating that it was an heirloom which had descended to him from his ancestors. Mr. Barter acquired the harp in 1879… from a lady, the descendent of the Rev. Mr. Best, and who is herself a distinguished harper.
Who was Rev. Best? At Michael Billinge’s index of old harps, it is suggested that he was the Rev. Best of Tandragee, County Armagh, mentioned by Andrew Craig in 1787, but this seems unlikely, since we know our Rev. Best was in County Sligo. I have not yet been able to find any more information about “Rev. Mr. Best of Sligo”. We might suppose that Rev. Best was dead by 1879 at the latest, so that his daughter, perhaps, had inherited the harp. Or he could have died decades before, and passed the harp down for many generations. So the “venerable minstrel” could have died any time before 1879. Not very helpful…
The account does, however, suggest that the harp may have been a genuine working instrument of a harper in the old tradition, and so I considered that it was worth studying, even though it is the worst of the old harps and is basically a horrible thing.
The frame of the Best harp is pretty horrible. The neck is perhaps the nicest part, carved fairly competently from a piece of very dark wood (the Freemans Journal says “ebony”, though I doubt this. Wakeman says it is “stained black” which I also doubt). But even then, there are two things about it that set it apart from the mainstream of old Irish harp norms. One is that it does not have the metal cheek-bands, which the tuning pins pass through; they seem never to have been a part of this harp. The other is that the curve of the tuning pins turns down in the treble, making the treble string lengths very badly scaled.
The bass end of the neck fits, as is usual, into the back of the forepillar. But the treble end of the neck, very unusually, fits into the front face of the soundbox. The only other old Irish harp I know of that does this is the Malahide / Kearney 2 harp, whose current location is unknown.
The neck has 35 tuning pins in it, Nos. 2, 4, 5, 9, 11, 12 and 34 are iron, and all the others are brass. Every pin except no.13 has the end of its string wound around it, though the free sounding part of each string has been removed. The pins are plain and undecorated and are not all identical, though they are nicely made of type 1a or 1b.
The soundbox of the Best harp is pretty crude, compared to the elegantly shaped and hollowed one-piece soundboxes of the other old Irish harps. Wakeman says it is “red sally” (i.e. willow). The soundbox of the Best harp is assembled from eight separate pieces of wood, having a five-sided cross-section. This is the same construction seen in the Malahide / Kearney 1 harp, where the front is formed from three planks, having a flat front and angled flanks. The soundbox of the Best harp is parallel in depth all the way along, though it appears to taper a little in width.
There are two sets of brass fittings on the Best harp soundbox. There are thin brass strips on the front: a long strip runs down the centre-line and has 36 string holes which line up with the holes in the wood. There are also three lateral strips which wrap across the front and are fixed onto the sides. The other fitting is the heavier brass plate with engraved lines at the top of the back of the soundbox.
There is an inscription on the bass end of the back, which seems to read IWI.
There is no projecting foot on the soundbox; this is unusual on the old harps, with only the Clonalis Carolan harp similarly lacking a foot. The lower rear edge of the Best harp’s soundbox is very worn away, as if it had been played resting on that edge a lot.
Inside the soundbox, there are the ends of some of the strings. There are 10 strings and toggles still there. 8 of them are just the stubs, jammed into the string holes. Two are longer lengths, attached to the stringholes but with their toggles dangling inside the soundbox.
There are three different kinds of toggles. Strings 17, 19, 26 and 31 have wooden toggles. Strings 6 and 18 have iron screws attached as toggles. And strings 1, 2, 3 and 5 are toggled onto what look like toggle-knots that have broken from their strings and removed from their toggles.
The forepillar is the worst part of the Best harp. It looks like a broom handle painted black. It is straight, slender, and cylindrical all the way down, except for the ends where it squares off. It does not look strong enough to resist string tension, and it is so straight and slender that it looks ridiculous compared to the rest of the harp (even though the neck and pillar are hardly objects of great beauty and elegance). I wonder if it is a replacement for one that was broken or damaged.
The Freemans Journal article says that the harp “has 35 strings made of brass wire”; Wakeman says that “portions of wire strings remaining”. Now, the harp is basically unstrung, but the strings have been cut from the harp, leaving the coils wound around the tuning pins, and leaving some toggled ends inside the soundboard. Was this done after the Freemans Journal article? Or did the article interpolate from the fragments?
Were these string fragments the remnants of the last working stringing and setup of the harp? I think it is likely that all of the other old harps in the Museum that have strings on, have been restrung for display purposes since the harps became non-working collectables. So if we had a harp retaining its old stringing that would be very valuable.
I went to the Museum and I measured as much as I could manage by hand of the old strings. I think a lot more data could be extracted from this harp by using more high-tech methods, but this will do for a start.
All but one of the pins retains a winding of brass wire on it. Two of the pins have two windings, no. 18 perhaps being merely a single coil that has broken, but no.28 being very clearly a thinner coil that was a complete string, and a thicker bit of wire looped around the pin beneath it. All of the wires were wound clockwise around the pin end, to drop the string from the back of the pin. All of the windings were neat and close, not crossing, with the end inserted neatly into the drilled hole .
There were a few strings out of sequence, but the majority of the strings seem to be in the right place, and to increase from 0.7mm in the treble to 1.1mm in the bass.
I would summarise these measurements as saying the harp seems to be intended to have 0.75mm brass wire for the top 5 strings, 0.7mm for strings 6 to 16, about 0.9mm for 17 to 29, and 1.2mm for 30 to 35, with a few strings being the “wrong” size.
I also measured the string lengths. Because there are 35 tuning pins but 36 string holes, there are two possible configurations, 1-1 and 1-2. I measured both, but I think 1-1 is much more plausible. It is possible there was originally a 36th pin mounted on the forepillar, supposing the current stick is not original. The string lengths are a bit odd, with a few far-too-long strings in the treble (where the line of pins on the neck bends up then down), and with the mid-range and bass a lot shorter than an ideal (pythagorean) scaling.
This combination of having string lengths, and having wire gauges, allows us to plot a possible tuning regime for this harp. Unfortunately, the current stringing and setup of the Best harp seems to be as horrible as its design and construction. The use of 0.7mm brass wire in the treble means the treble strings are far too thick and far too high tension; the bizarre scaling of the harp means that the mid-range and bass strings are far too short and tubby.
The harp would speak with its lowest note at G (2 octaves below na comhluighe) and its highest note as e”’ one note higher than the top of the Downhill harp, at a slightly lower pitch than modern (perhaps a’=415). It wouldn’t go higher than that without snapping strings 4 and 5. At this tuning the total tension on the harp would be around 475kg which seems rather high for the slender neck and ridiculously slender forepillar.
If I were stringing and tuning a replica of this harp I think I would disregard the top five strings. Because of their bizarre toggles, I think they could be considered later cosmetic additions. Perhaps those top five should be thinner (the thinnest wire on the harp is no. 20, obviously out of place, measuring about 0.55mm). These top five could even be iron allowing a slightly higher pitch standard for the harp. And strings 5-6 is a good place to change gauge, being g-a on my suggested tuning.
So how do we regard the Best harp? Was it really strung and played in its current state by the “venerable minstrel” who visited the Rev. Mr. Best at his house in Sligo? If so, did this old harper know that he had the worst harp in Ireland?
How are we to assess the quality of an old harp? We are not in the tradition, we do not know what aspects of a harp are more or less important. It is easy to take a modern attitude, and to expect certain types of sound, touch, aesthetic and engineering criteria when we look at a harp. Perhaps the old harper who set up and played the Best harp thought it was fine, perhaps he was able to play it well to good effect. Perhaps he used the over-heavy treble and twangly bass for a specific traditional style of harp playing.
Or, was the harp a failed experiment by an incompetent harper trying to get a harp on the cheap from a local carpenter? Were the strings put on it after the harper died and bequeathed it, just using whatever wire was left over in his string-bag, to try and make it look presentable for display in the entrance hall of the Best residence? What did Rev. Best’s descendent, the “distinguished harper”, who passed it on to Berkley Baxter, think of it? Did she try to play it? Was she glad to get rid of it?
There is a story behind every artefact, a sequence of human interactions that layer upon layer shape and affect the material object. Every aspect of the Best harp has been done by Human agency. Someone has wound those strings on, someone has snipped them off. Someone has wound string 28 with a fat bit of wire jangling round the tuning pin shaft. Someone has wound the toggles and the wood screws and the strange loops in the treble. Who? Why? What were they even thinking? We cannot know, but we can analyse the stuff they left behind to try and work some of it out.
Thanks to Sarah Nolan and to the National Museum of Ireland for facilitating my visit.
The word ursnaidhm (and variants) appears in Bunting’s 1840 book, where it is also translated “The wooden pegs to which the strings are fastened”. Today I was restringing my Student Downhill harp with only four gauges of wire, and I thought I would experiment with the toggle windings, following the historical evidence.
While working on something else I came across this from last year which I had meant to write up.
Understanding the tuning and stringing of an old harp requires knowledge of string lengths and angles. This basically means measuring between the tuning pin and the little hole in the soundboard where the string goes in. But Ann Heymann pointed out to me years ago that on the Castle Otway harp, you can’t see a lot of those holes, because the metal strap down the middle does not line up with the string holes in the wood.
I have been discussing stringing possibilities of a harp made by a French harp maker, supposedly as a copy of one of the old Gaelic harps. Analysing its string lengths I noted that its scaling was suspiciously slow.
(Scaling is the technical word used to describe the ratio of string lengths across the range of a harp or other stringed instrument; a slow scaling means the strings increase in length more gradually as you move from treble to bass.)
Then I remembered that I had come across this slow, even scaling before, on harps modelled after the “Bardic harp” of Gildas Jaffrennou.