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Tiny harp

The Wire-Strung Harp



Cnú Deireóil, the dwarf harper of the FiannaIn the nineteenth century the Irish scholar Eugene O'Curry, in his extensive studies of the ancient Irish manuscripts (which he catalogued in the British Museum) found many references to the early cultivation of music. O'Curry identified cruit or crot as a stringed instrument, quadrangular in form. In English translation when cruit became, harp, writers could tell of the musician named Craftiné who played a harp of willow in Ireland, c. 541 B.C. Some one thousand years later, according to other lore, at the traditional gathering of of the early Irish parliament, or Feis, at Tara in County Meath, the day's business was followed by minstrelsy in the banquet hall; the parliament met periodically at Tara until cursed by St. Ruadhan, in A.D. 560. This information, capturing the imagination of the nineteenth-century poet, Thomas Moore, prompted him to write 'The harp that once through Tara's halls'. When Moore set his poem to an old melody, already favoured by several generations of Irish harp players, the occasion was immortalized in song. The Feis, the harp playing, the saint's curse, all stir the imagination, but the true form of the musical instrument played at Tara in the sixth century A.D. unfortunately remains as obscure as that played by the legendary Craftiné in the sixth century B.C.

Roslyn Rensch
Harps and Harpists
Indiana University Press, 1989
p. 92



Most of the early medieval carvings of harp-like stringed instruments are found in Ireland. The earliest-known of these (late seventh or early eighth century) is the carving on one of a pair of pillars flanking a sandstone cross, now located near a small church south of Carndonagh (Donegal); here a barefoot musician identified as King David holds a musical instrument most aptly described as 'a barrel-shaped harp'.

Roslyn Rensch
Harps and Harpists
Indiana University Press, 1989
p. 36



Kells beasts The second bishop of Dublin, chosen by the clergy and people of the then Norse-Irish city and consecrated by Archbishop Lanfranc in London in 1074, seems to have been a native Irishman trained at the Benedictine Abbey at Worcester under St. Wulfstan. In a long allegorical poem, Bishop Patrick made two interesting references to music and the cithara. The first is when one of three beautiful sisters, perhaps three of the Muses, teaches him songs.

Femina tum docuit (prima est) modulaminis odas
Me cithara chordis que sex resonare solebat:
Qua populis modulor, michimet que sepius utor.

Then the woman (she was the first) taught me poems with well-contrived music
On a harp that sounded with six strings
On it I make music for the people; more often I play it just for myself.

Joan Rimmer
The Irish Harp/Cláirseach na hÉireann
Cló Mercier, Corcaigh, 1977
p. 25



Hiberno-Latin hymns make up the largest body of material from any Celtic-speaking region, as well as being among the most unique and striking aspects of early Irish liturgy. They attest to a new fusion between Latin poetry and indigenous Irish verse forms. Some hymn texts refer to the performance of hymns which, as with the psalms, were sometimes accompanied by a lyre or harp.

Fintan Vallely, ed.
The Companion to Irish Traditional Music
New York University Press, 1999
p. 241



Harp carvingIn Scotland, in the area once inhabited by people known as Picts, musical instruments that are obviously frame harps are represented on six monuments. Perhaps earliest is the example carved on a monument known as Aberlemno No. 3, a red sandstone slab over nine feet in height, standing beside the narrow road leading from the town of Forfar to the village of Aberlemno (Angus). Originally this monument must has looked like a much-enlarged version of an illuminated page from a precious religious book, as a decorated wheel cross surrounded with angels, zoomorphic interlace and other patterns, is carved in relief on the slab front which faces the road. The back of the slab, divided into three sections, includes carvings of Pictish symbols (designs of an earlier era whose true meanings have yet to be discovered), a hunting scene and a carving of David Rending the Jaws of a Lion. Above and to the right of David two of his iconographic symbols, a sheep and a harp, are carved. … The appearance of the harp alone provides a sort of 'shorthand' interprestation of the David and Harp motif; the harp itself thus becomes an important iconographic symbols for David's association with music, and all that this implied to the medieval mind. The same theme appears on a second Angus monument, the Aldbar cross-slab, and also on the most northern of the Pict area monuments, the Nigg cross-slab.

Roslyn Rensch
Harps and Harpists
Indiana University Press, 1989
pp. 40-41



A harp, proportioned and rounded in appearance like the Tenison Psalter harp, appears several times on tiles, made c. 1270, for the English Abbey of Chertsey (a once great establishment some ten miles from Windsor Castle), where the romance of Tristan and Iseult is again recorded pictorially. In individual scenes done in white clay on the dark red tiles, Tristan plays the instrument for King Mark, plays it while floating alone in a small boat, and gives the lovely Iseult a harp lesson. The activity of each scene might have had its counterpart in contemporary secular life. On the island of Iona, at St. Oran's chapel, the representation of another harp player seated in a small boat is carved on a much-weathered stone slab. The boating figure has been identified as a harpist [sic] of the clan MacLean; whether or not this is true, a secular figure probably inspired this carving.

Roslyn Rensch
Harps and Harpists
Indiana University Press, 1989
pp. 64-65



John of Salisbury, about the year 1165, highly extols the music of Ireland; and his testimony is all the more valuable as he was not very favourable towards this country. He declares that in the Crusade of Godfrey of Bouillon, in 1099, there would have been no music at all had it not been for the Irish Harp, or, as Fuller says, "the consort of Christendom could have made no musick if the Irish Harp had been wanting."

Wm. H. Grattan Flood
A History of Irish Music
Dublin, 1906
p. 56



The Medieval Irish Harp

Irish feastIn 1183, Giraldus de Barri, the Welsh-born Norman ecclesiastic whose family was heavily involved in the conquest of Ireland, paid his first visit to that country. He returned in 1185 with the English Prince John to whom he had by then become tutor. His enthusiastic comments on music and harp-playing in Ireland, written in Latin which is difficult both to translate and to interpret, have often been quoted, but no completely satisfactory elucidation has yet been arrived at. If, however, Giraldus's text is studied in conjunction with what is known of twelfth-century musical practice and with what is known quite precisely and unequivocally about the nature of the Irish harp as a sound-maker, it becomes less enigmatic.

Giraldus went to Paris in 1167 and stayed there until 1172, studying the Latin poets, law, philosophy and theology. As a cleric, he must have been familiar with plainsong and, at least to some extent, with the practice of polyphony as it was used in the Church's liturgy. He must also have been familiar with the secular music which was played and sung in the households of feudal lords and in the capital cities of London and Paris. His literary and artistic standards were those of a cultivated western European ecclesiastic, not of an out-back Norman-Welshman.

In his Topographica Hiberniae, Giraldus berated the Irish as 'barbarians' for what he considered to be their lack of industry, their poor husbandry and disinterest in city life, their flowing beards and odd clothes, their love of leisure and liberty. He granted them splendour of physique and superlative skill in the practice of instrumental music. Whatever music Giraldus heard in Ireland, it did not seem to him barbarous and peculiar; he described it specifically as better executed and more agreeable than that generally heard in England. Whatever its musical idiom was, it seems to have been not far removed from that of Western Christendom, and if we examine Giraldus's words, it appears that he tried to be as explicit as possible in Latin, a language whose vocabulary was not geared to the expression of musical subtleties. His section on Irish instrumental music is worth quoting in full:

I find among these people commendable diligence only on musical instruments, on which they are incomparably more skilled than any nation I have seen. Their style is not, as on the British instruments to which we are accustomed, deliberate and solem but quick and lively; nevertheless the sound is smooth and pleasant.

It is remarkable that, with such rapid fingerwork, the musical rhythm is maintained and that, by unfailingly disciplined art, the integrity of the tune is fully preserved throughout the ornate rhythms and the profusely intricate polyphony—and with such smooth rapidity, such 'unequal equality', such 'discordant concord'. Whether the strings strike together a fourth or a fifth, [the players] nevertheless always start from B flat and return to the same, so that everything is rounded off in a pleasant general sonority. They introduce and leave rhythmic motifs so subtly, they play the tinkling sounds on the thinner strings above the sustained sound of the thicker string so freely, they take such secret delight and caress [the strings] so sensuously, that the greatest part of their art seems to lie in veiling it, as if 'That which is concealed is bettered—art revealed is art shamed'.

Thus it happens that those things which bring private and ineffable delight to people of subtle appreciation and sharp discernment, burden rather than delight the ears of those who, in spite of looking do not see and in spite of hearing do not understand; to unwilling listeners, fastidious things appear tedious and have a confused and disordered sound.

One must note that both Scotland and Wales, the latter by virtue of extension, the former by affinity and intercourse, depend on teaching to imitate and rival Ireland in musical practice. Ireland uses and delights in two instruments only, the cithara and the tympanum. Scotland uses three, the cithara, the tympanum and the chorus. Wales uses the cithara, tibiae and chorus. Also, they use strings made of brass not of leather. However, in the opinion of many, Scotland today not only equals Ireland, her mistress, but also by far outdoes and surpasses her in musical skill. Hence many people already look there as though to the source of the art.

Detail from Dagulf casketCithara was a harp. Tympanum possibly meant a bowed or beaten lyre, perhaps adopted from the Norsemen, for some forms of these still survive in Scandinavia. Tibiae were pipes, though Giraldus did not specify what kind. The description of musical performance obviously refers to harp-playing; on a lyre, whether plucked or bowed, there is no possibility of such intricacy. The Latin terms which Giraldus used cannot be put exactly into modern musical terminology for our conception and practice of music are greatly different from those of medieval people. His key words, however, are all to do with particular aspects of styles of polyphonic music as distinct from monophonic music such as plainsong and presumably much secular vocal music of that time.

While the first paragraph describes the general agreeableness of Irish performance, the second seems to describe the playing of florid elaborations in impeccable rhythm, proportion and clarity. And we may note here that is was precisely these qualities that Edward Bunting praised, six hundred years later, in Denis Hempson, last of the harpers in the traditional style. The word translated 'polyphony' is organa… the plural of organum, which denotes both a particular polyphonic technique—that of adding one florid part above a slow-moving tenor—and a piece composed in this technique. Explanatory translations of Giraldus's organa would be 'varieties of music in parts' or 'pieces of part music'. What is here translated as ornate rhythms is in the original crispatos modulos. The latter means literally 'measurement', cantus crispus is known early in the sixteenth century in England as a term for very florid polyphony in many parts, and its musical use is a metaphor taken from the primary meaning of crispus, which is curly or quivering. Irish harpers were, according to this account, incomparably skilled in contriving and playing two-part music with a complex and brilliant upper part, and Giraldus, having first described it in technical terms, reinforces this with a physical description—the tinkling of the high strings over the heavier sound of the bass strings.

The curious second sentence in the second paragraph has puzzled many scholars. The 'fourths and fifths' are exactly those intervals which generally occur at structural points between tenor and added upper part in written polyphony dating from the twelfth century. The 'starting and ending with B flat', however, is enigmatic.

Joan Rimmer
The Irish Harp/Cláirseach na hÉireann
Cló Mercier, Corcaigh, 1977
pp. 28-31


From this era and later, Celtic names for the triangular frame harp appears in manuscripts. The Irish, in addition to cruit, had clairsech, the Scots, clarsach, and the Welsh, telyn. (Also: the Manx, claasagh, the Cornish, telein, and the Breton, telen.) Early evidence of the harp in Wales is lacking, and no extant harps predate the seventeenth century, but telyn is mentioned in a late twelfth-century manuscript of the so-called Laws of Wales. According to the Laws (codified c. 945), a telyn, cloak and chessboard were indispensable to a gentleman, while a virtuous wife, his cushion for his chair, and his harp in tune, were prerequisites for his home.

Roslyn Rensch
Harps and Harpists
Indiana University Press, 1989
pp. 94-5



harperBy the laws of Wales (Leges Wallicae), a harp was one of the three things that were necessary to constitute a gentleman, or a freeman; and none could pretend to that character who had not one of these favorite instruments, or could not play upon it. To prevent slaves from pretending to be gentlemen, it was expressly forbidden to teach, or to permit, them to play upon the harp; and none but the king, the king's musicians, and gentlemen, were allowed to have harps in their possession. A gentleman's harp was not liable to be seized for debt; because the want of it would have degraded him from his rank, and reduced him to that of a slave.

William Chappell
Popular Music of the Olden Time, Vol. 1
1859, reprinted Dover, 1965
p. 5



Although it was the king's minstrels who were at the Battle of the Standard (1138), it is not until the following century that we get definite information concerning them. When Alexander III (d. 1286) was in London paying homage to Edward  I in 1278, his court minstrels were with him, since we know of payments being made to Elyas the "King of Scotland's harper," two of his trumpeters, and two of his minstrels, as well as to four other Scottish minstrels. In this same year a menestrallo Regis Scociae is fouund at Durham Priory. When this king married Yolande Countess de Montfort in 1285, Fordun mentions multi modis organis musicis at the ceremony. Elyas le Harpur, above mentioned, comes in greater prominence in 1296, at the close of the regal career of John Balliol. Seemingly, Elyas had been deprived of his lands by Edward I, who was then in a conquering mood in Scotland, but in this year the English king issued a write to the sheriffs of Perth and Fife which restored to this harper the lands previously held by him. This is one of the many instances of the survival of the old Celtic custom of gifting land to court musicians.

Henry George Farmer
A History of Music in Scotland
London, 1947
pp. 39-40



Harping bardIn Vincentio Galilei's Dissertation on ancient and modern Music, printed at Florence in the year 1581, we have the following interesting information.

... This most ancient instrument was brought to us from Ireland (as Dante says [c. 1300]) where they are excellently made, and in great numbers, the inhabitants of that island having practised on it for many and many ages; nay, they even place it in the arms of the kingdom, and paint it on their public buildings, and stamp it on their coin, giving as the reason their being descended from the royal prophet David. The Harps which these people use are considerably larger than ours, and have generally the strings of brass, and a few of steel for the highest notes, as in the clavichord. The musicians who perform on it keep the nails of their fingers long, forming them with care in the shape of quills which strike the strings of the spinnet.

Edward Bunting
A General Collection of the Ancient Music of Ireland
1809
pp 24-25

Note: Vincenzo Galilei was a lutenist and composer, and father of the famous astronomer Galileo Galilei.



Queen Mary harpHarpe and fethill both they fande,
Getterne and als so the swatrye;
Lutte, and rybybe, both gangande,
And all manner of mynstralsye.

Thomas of Ercyldoune (1219-99)

...to heare the sweet and delicate voice of cunning singers, intermedled with the melodious sound of lutes, cirters, clairshoes, or the other quiet instruments of that kind.

Alexander Hume (1556-1609)

These two quotations tell us much about the lute and clarsach in Scotland. Firstly, and to some surprisingly, the lute has been known in Scotland since the 13th century. Whether arriving via returned crusaders or visiting continental noblemen, it was instantly accepted and became an integral part of the Scottish chamber ensemble for a further 400 years. Secondly, when the lute is mentioned, the harp or clarsach is never far away.

From the household accounts of the Lord High Treasurers of Scotland we find the following, typical of many such accounts documenting payments to Musicians:

1507, Jan. 1. Item, that day giffen to divers minstrales schawmeris, trumpetis taubroneris, fitheralis, luteris, harparis, clarsacharis, piparis, extending to lxix persons ... x.li.xi.s

Here we should note the distinction between 'harparis' and 'clarsacharis'. Too often in our own time the one implies the other. In 1507 the harp referred to was probably the Lowland gut-strung harp; the clarsach was used in the Highlands and Ireland and was strung with brass wire. They were clearly two different instruments, the gut strings being played with finger pads and finger nails being required to pluck the brass strings. However, they obviously existed side by side, and with the lute and 'other quiet instruments of that kind', joined in a mixed consort decribed by Gawain Douglass (d. 1522) in the "Palics of Honour" as a sound of 'soft releschings in dulce deliverning'.

Robert Phillips, William Taylor
Notes to
The Rowallan Concert, Notes of Noy, Notes of Joy



HarperThe honoured place occupied by the harper in the political and cultural life of Ireland is evidenced by the entries marking the death of harpers in the native annals. The Annals of Loch Cé record the death in 1225 of Aedh Ó Sochlachainn, Vicar of Cong, saí canntairechta ocus crotglesa, maroen re gles do denum do fé nach dernadh remhe (professor of singing and harp tuning who invented a tuning for himself not previously made); and the Annals of Ulster mention the death in the year 1496 of Florence Corcoran, sai cruitire & fhir thed & fer budh roibhind do bel & do laimh (a master harper and instrumentalist, a man melodious in singing and in playing). Many harpers, too are mentioned in the English State Papers, where their names are recorded as those of criminals who had received the royal pardon.

Breandán Breathnach
Folk Music and Dances of Ireland
Mercier Press, 1977
p. 66



Medieval harpWe know little about medieval harp techniques elsewhere in Europe. Strings of metal, though not necessarily of brass were used on some harps, and there are some references to playing with nails like 'Teach him to harpe with his nayles scharpe' which occurs in the thirteenth-century 'Kyng Horn'. But since no European instrument is known to have had the rugged structure of the Irish harp an certainly none had the great one-piece willow soundbox, a considerably different technique must have been needed for them. The use of thumb and first two fingers only, rather than the thumb-and-three-fingers of later harp techniques is suggested by much European iconographical evidence and verified by well-documented conservative practice in the seventeenth century. It may or may not have been used on medieval Irish harps—long nails do, in fact, give a great degree of mobility over the whole hand, provided it is not held in the position of modern harp-playing.

Joan Rimmer
The Irish Harp/Cláirseach na hÉireann
Cló Mercier, Corcaigh, 1977
pp. 33-35



Although in Ireland and Wales in later centuries the harp became associated to a great extent with what is loosely called 'folk-music', this was the result of particular political and social circumstances. The harp has generally been an aristocratic, high art instrument, and nowhere more so than in Ireland in medieval times. It was a valuable object, produced by an expert instrument maker and then often exquisitely decorated. A harper was a skilled specialist musician, and no poor man could have maintained or hired one, any more than he could maintain a race-horse today.

Joan Rimmer
The Irish Harp/Cláirseach na hÉireann
Cló Mercier, Corcaigh, 1977
p. 37


CarolanIn imitation of the ways of the court, and also with a view maintaining some of the old feudal dignity and clan independence, the nobility had their minstrels. We read of the Thane of Calder's harper (1502), the Countess of Crawford's harper (1503), Lord Semphill's harper (1504), and the Laird of Balnagownis' harper (1512).

As in the previous centuries, the great barons who were among the pares, as well as the lesser fry, and the higher clergy, possessed minstrels, generally one or two. We read of the clarsair to the Earl of Argyll (1503,1506), the Laird of Balnagownis' harper (1502), the Thane of Calder's harper (1502), the Countess of Crawford's harper (1503) and lutar (1505), Lord Semphill's harper (1504), the Lord of Ruthven's lutar (1505), "Maklanis [Maclaine's] clarscha" (1506), Lord Fleming's tabronar, Lord Hamilton's tabronar (1506-7). Nor were the clergy backward in this respect since there are entries of the Bishop of Ross' harper (1502), the Bishop of Caithness' harper (1503), and his lutar (1502), the Bishop of Moray's lutar (1505), who also had a tabronar (1506), and the "Ald Prior of Quhitherne's" clarsair (1507).

Henry George Farmer
A History of Music in Scotland
London, 1947
pp. 78-79





And what was there to be heard of Scotland's own music, the old Celtic art? Just as we have seen in Anglo-Norman times, Irish musicians were still finding a welcome in the Highlands and were even received at court. That the native music of the two countries was still considered as one and the same art, finds frequent expression. In the Annals of the Four Masters we read that about 1451, when Margaret the wife of O'Conor of Offaly gave a banquet of honour, she invited the poets and musicians of Ireland and Scotland. We are told in the Buke of the Howlate (c. 1450) of a "bard owt of Irland" who knew about the "schenachy" and the "clarschach," whilst we read in the Book of Lismore (1512-26) that "Cas Corach, the son of Caincinde, ... [was] the best musician of Erinn or Alba," which once more illustrates the one type of musical culture in these lands.

Many a Highland and Irish harper (clarsair) played at court in those days, especially when James IV sat on the throne, for he was possibly the last of Scotland's rulers to speak Gaelic. Here we see the "ersch clarschar" (1492) or "Ireland clarscha" (1502) "clawing" his strings, evidently to everyone's delight.

Henry George Farmer
A History of Music in Scotland
London, 1947
pp. 70-71



At the court of James IV, harpers were particularly encouraged, James Mylsoun (1496-1502), an "Inglis harper" (1502), Sowles the harpere, Alexander, as well as Henry Philp and Bragman (1506). Naturally the Highland clarsech appealed to the Gaelic-speaking king and in consequence we read of Martin Clareshaw and another "erche clareschaw" in 1490, Pate hapar, clarscha (1503), "Odenlis (Ireland man) harper" (1512), and others.

Henry George Farmer
A History of Music in Scotland
London, 1947
p. 74



HarperJohn Major, the Scottish historian, in his Annals of Scotland published in 1521, says (also in Latin) that 'for instrumental music and the accompaniment of the voice they make use of the Harp, which instead of strings made of the intestines of animals, they strung with brass wire, and on which they perform most sweetly'. Even the King, James I, was a performer on the harp, and indeed the historian Fordun, according to his continuator Bower, said that he touched it 'like another Orpheus', while Major comments that, 'on the harp he excelled the Irish or the Highland Scots, who are esteemed the best performers on that instrument.'

A few years later, in 1565, we have an informative account of the instrument by George Buchanan, in his History of Scotland. Writing of the people and customs of the Western Isles, he says, 'They delight very much in music, especially in harps of their own sort, of which some are strung with brass wire, others with intestines of animals. They play on them either with their nails grown long or a plectrum. Their only ambition seems to be to ornament their harps with silver and precious stones. The lower ranks, instead of gems, deck theirs with crystal.'

Francis Collinson
The Bagpipe, Fiddle and Harp
from Traditional and National Music of Scotland,
Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966
reprinted by Lang Syne Publishers Ltd., 1983
[source has no page numbers]



Perhaps, however, as has been suggested, the music which 'some hundreds of Scots harpers' composed in the years the instrument flourished in Scotland, instead of being totally lost, was appropriated by other musicians, including the pipers, when the bagpipes supplanted the harp in favour.

Various records indicate that some Highland chiefs retained their harpers well into the eighteenth century, and place names, such as Harper's Pass (Madhm na Tiompan) and Harper's Field (Fanmore nan Clairsairean) are still noted on the island of Mull, while Duntullim [sic] castle on the Isle of Skye retains its Harper's Window, and Castlelachlan in Argyll has its Harper's Gallery. The names remain to remind us of the one-time importance of the harp in these areas, and this seems especially appropriate when it is recalled that the earliest representations of the triangular frame harp, in this part of Europe, are provided by the ninth-century stone carvings of Scotland.

Roslyn Rensch
Harps and Harpists
Indiana University Press, 1989
p. 113


Trinity college harp The harp which is the emblem of Ireland and is depicted on her coinage is a real one, now preserved in Trinity College, Dublin. It is one of the very few European musical instruments which have survived more or less complete from medieval times, and when it was made, probably some time in the fourteenth century, it was already a recognisably Irish kind of harp. This was the characteristic instrument of Ireland for at least six centuries and by fortunate chance, no less than fourteen harps and fragments have survived, some from every century from the fourteenth to the eighteenth.

... The strings were of thick brass, and they were plucked with long fingernails, not with the flesh of the fingertips. The harp was held on the left shoulder, the left hand playing in the upper register and the right hand in the bass. All surviving Irish harps carry clear wear-marks from this playing position, which was also that of old Welsh harps but is not used for any other harps.

Joan Rimmer
The Irish Harp/Cláirseach na hÉireann
Cló Mercier, Corcaigh, 1977
pp 1-2


Nor can we forget the harp, although this national instrument had already been pushed aside by the lute, mandore, gittern, and viol. It was however, still cherished in the Highlands, as William Kirk tells us in his Secret Commonwealth, wherein we read of "our northern Scottish and Athol men" being "much addicted to and delighted with harps." That was in 1691. A letter to Robert Wodrow in 1700 also mentions that the music of the people about Inverlochy and Inverness-shire included playing on the clarsech or Highland harp. Among the "Upper Ten" a harper was still attached to a household as part of feudal dignity, in precisely the same way as in Ireland, as Barnaby Rich shows (New Description of Ireland, 1610). Indeed, harpers from Ireland were frequent in Scotland. Rory dall O'Cahan spent most of his life there (1601-50), and left his imprint in the many puirts (ports), notably Rory dall's port in the Straloch MS (1627-29) which Burns used later for Ae fond kiss. With those who went south to the "Promised Land" with James VI in 1603 and after, the clarsech still found acceptance, since in the inventory of the belongings of Robert Ker or Carr, afterwards Earl of Somerset under the accolade of James, we find "two Irish harps." These were doubtless Scottish harps, but they still carried the name of their original provenance—"ersch clarsechis." ... John Gunn (An Historical Enquiry) tells of a Roderick Morison, "one of the last native Highland harpers," who composed the port called Suipar chuirn na Leod "about 1650," and a certain John Garve Maclean, "an excellent performer on the harp," who flourished even earlier. He was in the service of the Macleans of Coll.

Henry George Farmer
A History of Music in Scotland
London, 1947
p. 202



Save perhaps in the Highlands, the old clarsech or harp was becoming neglected. John Gunn (Historical Enquiry) gives 1734 as the approximate date of disuse. He says the Murdoch Macdonald "appears to have been the last native harper of the Highlands of Scotland." It is claimed that he was a pupil of Rory dall, but this could not have been Rory dall O'Cahan. He then entered the service of the Macleans of Coll as their clarsair, and was functioning as such in 1734. He retired to Mull, where he died. Still, the most famous Irish harpers were welcomed even in the Lowlands, just as Rory dall O'Cahan had been fêted there in the previous century. Both Denis Hempson (1696-1807) and Ecklin O'Cahan (fl. 1773) performed in Scotland, which shows that ears there were still attuned to the clarsech's delightfully quiescent tones. The former played before the Pretender in Edinburgh, and the latter is alluded to by Boswell in his Tour in the Hebrides.

Henry George Farmer
A History of Music in Scotland
London, 1947
p. 280



Edward BuntingEdward Bunting (1773-1843) was given the opportunity of 'first hand' preservation of the music of the last of the Irish harpers, when he became secretary of a gathering of these musicians in Belfast, Ireland, on 11-13 July 1792. Of the ten harpers who attended, most were blind, all save one was over forty, and the eldest player, Denis Hempson (in his late nineties) still played in the ancient manner of plucking the strings with his long fingernails.

Roslyn Rensch
Harps and Harpists
Indiana University Press, 1989
pp. 109-110



Denis HempsonThe Downhill harp was played for many years by Denis a Hampsy—better known as Denis Hempson, the last Irish harper to use his long fingernails to pluck the harp strings. It was probably the Downhill harp that Hempson played for Prince Charles Edward at Holyrood palace in 1745. When Hempson died, at the advanced age of 112, the harp was left to the Bruce family of Downhill Derry; subsequently it was acquired by the firm of Arthur Guinness Son & Company, Dublin, where it is now exhibited.

Roslyn Rensch
Harps and Harpists
Indiana University Press, 1989
pp. 125-127



The Irish harp in England

The Ancient Music of Ireland site has MIDI versions of music from the Bunting collection.

Lark in the Morning's history of the celtic harp



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