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The Harp that Once Through Tara’s Halls…

Harp of Moher
A contemporary “lever”, or “Neo-Celtic,” harp at The Cliffs of Moher, County Clare.
Photo 2008, by Audrey Nickel

The harp that once through Tara’s halls
The soul of music shed,
Now hangs as mute on Tara’s walls
As if that soul were fled.
So sleeps the pride of former days,
So glory’s thrill is o’er,
And hearts that once beat high for praise,
Now feel that pulse no more!

No more to chiefs and ladies bright
The harp of Tara swells;
The chord alone that breaks at night,
Its tale of ruin tells.
Thus Freedom now so seldom wakes,
The only throb she gives
Is when some heart indignant breaks,
To show that still she lives.

— Thomas Moore (1779 – 1852)

Ireland’s cherished emblem

If you know anything at all about Ireland, you know that the harp is one of its most cherished symbols.

There’s a harp on the Irish national coat of arms. There’s a harp on many a high cross. There’s even a harp on the Guinness bottle (heck, Guinness even makes a lager called “Harp!”).

Harps were so important to traditional Gaelic culture that there are two words for “harp” in IrishCláirseach (KLAHR-shokh) and Cruit (kritch).

But which harp are we talking about?

If you listen to recordings of Irish or Scottish music, you may have heard a “Celtic” harp being played. In fact, that sound has become so associated with Irish music as it’s currently performed — made popular by such musicians as Derek Bell of The Chieftains and Moya Brennan of Clannad — that it would seem odd NOT to hear it.

What you may not know, however, is that the harp you heard is NOT the kind of harp that Thomas Moore was talking about…nor is it the kind of harp that is pictured on the Guinness bottle, the coat of arms, or the high crosses.

In fact, what you may know as the “Celtic” harp is a relative newcomer on the scene of Irish and Scottish music. It was invented in the 19th century, based roughly on the continental European Medival “Gothic” harp, but with string spacing and tension similar to the concert or “pedal” harp.

Although the sound of this kind of harp is very well-suited for a lot of Irish and Scottish music (which is why it has been so widely and enthusiastically adopted), it isn’t, strictly speaking, a “Celtic” instrument, which is why some traditional harpers refer to it as a “Neo-Celtic harp.”

Another name this instrument goes by is “lever harp.” It comes by this name because of the small levers or blades that may be installed at the top of the strings to allow them to be raised in pitch by a semitone.

These levers give this kind of harp a limited level of chromaticism, which makes it suitable for a wider range of music than some other types of folk harps.

Lever harps are typically strung with nylon (or, sometimes, with gut) and are played in a manner similar to a pedal harp. The player rests the harp on his or her right shoulder and strikes the strings with the pads of the fingers.

Usually the right hand plays the melody on the treble (high) strings, while the left hand plays an accompaniment on the bass (low) strings…much as a piano is played.

Here’s a lovely recording of Tríona Marshall playing two O’Carolan tunes on a lever harp. Although this wouldn’t have been the kind of instrument O’Carolan played, his tunes are still very well-suited to it:

The true harp of Tara

Three harps
Three harps belonging to the author. Clockwise from back: A Dusty Strings “Ravenna 26” lever harp, a Dreamsinger “Bard” Gaelic harp (a modern interpretation of a traditional Irish wire-strung harp), and a Harpsicle travel/therapy harp (technically a lever harp, even though it isn’t fitted with levers!).
Photo 2009, by Audrey Nickel

The true harp of Tara, however…the instrument that inspired Moore, as well as many other writers throughout the centuries who have rhapsodized over the traditional music of Ireland, is a very different instrument indeed.

That honor belongs to a type of harp that few people of the 21st Century have seen or heard played: The Wire-strung Gaelic Harp.

These distinctive harps, which were played by Irish and Scottish bards from at least the 11th century, but which almost entirely died out with the fall of the old Gaelic aristocracy, might have disappeared entirely, other than as a footnote in musical history, had not a few examples survived the test of time.

If you’ve ever visited Ireland, you may have seen one such example in the Long Library at Trinity College in Dublin: The Trinity Harp (also sometimes mistakenly called “The Brian Boru Harp”). This 15th century instrument is the harp that inspired the image on the Irish coat of arms (and the Guinness bottle!).

You may have also seen a slightly more modern (18th century) Gaelic harp at the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin: The “Downhill Harp,” which belonged to one of the last of the old traditional Irish harpers, Donnchadh Ó hAmsaigh (Denis Hempson).

These were the harps of the famed Irish bards, from the height of the Gaelic order through the “Irish baroque” period of O’Carolan, right up to the Belfast Harp Festival of 1792. And, until relatively recently, it seemed that their music might never again be heard.

Fortunately, in the late 20th century (particularly the 1970s), a few musical pioneers began to research the Gaelic harp in earnest.

By studying the extant instruments themselves, as well as the writings about them and pictures of people playing them, they were able to re-create playable modern versions of them, as well as reconstruct how they may have been played.

If you’d like to learn more, Simon Chadwick has an excellent page on the early Gaelic harp, including information on history, historical instruments (including pictures), playing techniques and modern re-development, at www.earlygaelicharp.info.

What’s the difference?

Although they may look similar to other triangle-shaped harps at first glance, the traditional Gaelic harp is very different on close inspection. For one thing, the original Gaelic harp had a sound box carved out of a single piece of wood…typically willow.

Some modern interpretations, such as the Dreamsinger harp in the photos above and below, are made using a constructed sound box and different tone woods. Others are made using the traditional single-piece sound box.

Gaelic harp
The author playing a modern wire-strung harp based on the traditional Gaelic harp. This harp has cherry wood for the back and sides and laminated birch for the sound board.
Photo 2009, by John A. Nickel

They were also often highly decorated with carvings, paint, and even gem stones. Modern versions tend to be plainer, because of the cost and time involved, though again, some harpers are willing to pay the cost of a more traditional-looking, richly decorated harp.

Another feature of the Gaelic harp is the presence of sound holes in the front…something not normally seen on lever or pedal harps, but required by the solid back and thicker sound board that both the originals and many reconstructions have.

The most obvious difference, however, is the strings. The traditional Gaelic harp was strung not with gut (and certainly not with nylon!), but with wire (typically brass, though precious metals such as silver and gold are also thought to have been used).

Modern versions also typically use brass, or sometimes phosphor bronze. And at least one prominent player and proponent of the wire harp — Ann Heymann — plays on a harp with strings of gold!

These wire strings produce a distinctive bell-like tone with a very long sustain. The difference in tone is further enhanced by a playing technique that involves using the finger nails, rather than the finger pads, to strike the strings.

The strings are also often more closely spaced than those on lever or pedal harps.

Playing techniques

From writings and drawings, we know that the original Irish harpers definitely played with their fingernails. We also know that, in general, they preferred to play with their harps resting on their left shoulder, or sometimes in the middle of the chest, rather than on the right.

That said, some modern wire harpers (myself included) who first learned to play on the lever or pedal harp find it easier to play “right-shouldered” (and, while left may have been more usual, there’s nothing to indicate that playing on the right shoulder would have been considered “wrong”).

Logic (as well as pictures and some documentation) would indicate that they tended to play with the left hand in the treble as well…though there is also indication that they may have used the right and left hands together, rather than relying on one hand for melody and the other for accompaniment.

The aforementioned Ann Heymann, who was among the first to research and redevelop the Gaelic harp, has developed a technique called “coupled hands” based on this theory that is used by many modern wire harpers.

Perhaps most significant is the shape of the harper’s hands while playing. The relative closeness of the strings, as well as the need to bring the nails into play, requires a more “cupped” hand, rather than the “stretched down” position favored by harpers who play on nylon or gut.

Because of the long sustain of the wire strings,  wire harpers must also work out methods to damp the strings that might be dissonant with other strings that are sounding.

This long sustain also allows the wire harper to create the drone effect characteristic of a lot of Irish and Scottish music.

Here’s a lovely video of Irish wire harper Paul Dooley playing a wire-strung Gaelic harp. Sounds rather different from the lever harp, doesn’t it?:


But which is the “right” one?

Bottom line? From a musical standpoint, there really isn’t a “right” one.

The lever harp may not be a Celtic original, but it is a lovely instrument that has been enthusiastically adopted into the tradition (like many other non-native instruments, such as the tin whistle and the bazouki), and Irish music would be the poorer for its lack.

It’s also both easier to obtain and easier to learn to play, so for the average Irish musician, it’s a very good choice.

The wire-strung Gaelic harp, though, carries with it the very soul of Ireland’s most ancient music. Those of us who choose to seek it out and take it on fall very quickly under its spell.

Not for nothing is it Ireland’s most enduring symbol. And thanks to the work of people who refused to confine it to the dust of history, “The harp that once through Tara’s halls the soul of music shed” is once more to be heard in the land of the bard.

As an Irish speaker and a harper, this makes me incredibly happy.

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9 thoughts on “The Harp that Once Through Tara’s Halls…”

  1. Great article, go raibh maith agat. I’m not an expert, but I think the following nomenclature is accepted by harp players in Ireland. The nylon-strung harp is just called an Irish harp, while the term cláirseach is reserved for the older wire-strung instrument. (However in Scotland, the analogous term clàrsach is used for the nylon-strung harp — possibly because wire-strung harps are almost non-existent there).
    Beir beannacht.

    1. Derek…some harpers, particularly wire harpers, have tried to make that distinction, but it’s an artificial one. But among Irish speakers, “cláirseach” and “cruit” are more or less interchangeable, with “cruit” more usually being used to describe smaller harps. Schoolchildren are taught to refer to the harp on the flag (a rendering of the Trinity harp) as “cruit.” On the other hand, if you were to plunk a concert grand pedal harp down in the middle of the Gaeltacht and ask people “cad é sin?” most would say “is saghas cláirsí í.” When it comes to matters of language, I give much greater weight to the people who actually speak and live through the language. That’s why I prefer the terms I used in the blog.

  2. Thanks for the wonderful article!
    I just started playing harp last winter, and it’s a magnificent instrument. My harp is a super small, super simple 22-string lap harp. I don’t think it’s a traditional Gaelic harp exactly, but it is wire-strung, and I always get compliments on the sound of it. I’ve only tried nylon strings once, and they’re nice, but I love my little wire-strung. 🙂

  3. Thanks for the interesting information about the harps! More especially, however, thanks for the opportunity to hear them played and to see other music segments that appeared on the screen. Ireland is the only nation that has a musical instrument on its flag–the harp. Language and culture go hand and hand, so these segments are a delightful way to learn more about Irish culture and to learn more about the language through its music, particularly in the clips from TG4. Bravo! and More, more!

    1. Glad you liked it, Robert! I’m currently working on one on types of Irish session tunes (basically “how to tell a jig from a reel for the complete session novice”). Music is what got me into the Irish language in the first place, so it’s fun for me to write about.

  4. “The wire-strung Gaelic harp, though, carries with it the very soul of Ireland’s most ancient music.”

    Seeking the ~soul~ of Ireland, weather the musical aspect, the language, the poetic, her dance, or any other thread of her tapestry. This is the reason to learn Irish music,language,story, poem or step. Any other motive is the rhyme of stamp collecting!

    If you don’t own it already look out for a book ~Carolan`s Concerto~ by one Caiseal Mor ISBN;0 091 83652 2.
    is mise mehull

    1. It’s quite distinctive, isn’t it? I love (and play) both kinds of harp, but the Gaelic harp definitely has a special place in my heart. If you like how it sounds, you might want to do a YouTube search for Paul Dooley, Cynthia Cathcart, and Ann Heymann…each has a particular style on this type of harp.

      1. By the way, I love your avatar! I used to have a lovely tortoise shell cat named Khani…we called her our “rainbow kitty”!