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History of the Harp

The harp has a long and colorful history, to be sure. From the burial chambers of the Sumerians to the halls of the Egyptian pharaohs, archaeologists have uncovered abundant evidence supporting the existence of some form of the harp in ancient times.

Many of these early models of the triangular-framed harp were too large and heavy to be toted about. For nomadic Asian tribes, however, portability was an absolute requirement, and they developed a small instrument they could take from place to place. Of all the ancient harp models, this one is said to bear the closest resemblance to the modern Celtic or Gaelic harp.

The Middle Ages: Golden Days for Harpers

Fast forward to the Middle Ages, with Europe under the rule of kings and the nobility. No Gaelic monarch or high noble of the period would venture far outside the castle walls without his entourage. This entourage included an entertainment committee, consisting of a bard (known as a file) who composed elaborate Gaelic verse, a vocalist (reacaire) who read or sang the poems, and a harper (cruitire) who provided musical accompaniment.

These times were truly a Golden Age for harpers; they were viewed as indispensable by their lords and patrons, and treated as highly valued members of the household. Befitting the harpers' elevated status in medieval Europe, some harps were magnificently carved, and studded with precious gems.

Around the 11th century, small triangular harps appeared in Ireland and the Scottish Highlands. With musicians having to travel a good portion of the time, the instruments were built small so as to be easily carried on horseback or on foot. These being times of scarcity, harp construction was dependent upon locally abundant materials. For example, in Wales, harps were commonly strung with hair; and in Scotland, gut was frequently used; and in Ireland, wire strings predominated. A wire-strung Gaelic harp became known as a clàrsach in Scots Gaelic, and a cláirseach in Irish.

Killed for Playing the Harp

Beginning in the early 1500s, viewing harp music as a key component of the Irish and Scots' national identity, the British monarchy took a keen interest in stamping out harp-playing entirely. The Crown's treatment of harpers ranged from persistent harassment to imprisonment and execution.

Oliver Cromwell took the persecution of harpers to new extremes. In the 1650s, Cromwell ordered all harps and organs throughout Ireland to be destroyed. In Dublin alone, the authorities seized 500 harps and burned them. Harpers in cities large and small were forbidden to congregate.

Queen Elizabeth I clearly shared Cromwell's sentiments regarding harps and harpers, but added a uniquely royal touch—a death sentence. It was a sad day for traditional music when Queen Elizabeth ordered Lord Barrymore in Ireland to "hang harpers, wherever found, and destroy their instruments." Fortunately, faithfully executing such an order from Her Majesty just wasn't in the cards for Lord Barrymore, a closeted supporter of harps and harpers. His household records show that, within a scant two months of the Queen's death in 1803, Lord Barrymore promptly went out and hired a harper of his own.

By the end of the 17th century, the Irish nobility had lost much of what remained of their wealth and influence. This gradual reversal of fortunes spread to the harpers; when their patrons became unable to afford their services, harpers were dismissed and sent off to fend for themselves. Some harpers of the period adapted well to an expanded, itinerant role; their lives consisted of traveling long distances to visit a regular circuit of patrons, and handling all of the entertainment themselves—including composing, singing and playing the harp. Turlough O'Carolan (1670-1738), the famous blind harper and composer, lived the life of an itinerant harper for almost 50 years.

Bunting and the 1792 Belfast Harp Festival

Many believe that the most significant date in the history of Celtic harp music was 1792. In that year, a Belfast Harp Festival was organized with the intention of preserving some of the old music. A 19-year-old professional organist named Edward Bunting (1773-1843) was hired to compile sheet music for the songs performed at the festival. Bunting became the first archivist of Irish folk tunes, and he made it his life's work to travel the length and breadth of Ireland collecting old traditional tunes that were on the verge of disappearing forever. In 1840, the publication of his landmark book The Ancient Music of Ireland saved hundreds of classic Irish airs from extinction.

In terms of popularity with the public, the harp entered a period of persistent decline. Players adopted new harp models from other countries—pedal harps with gut strings—and started using the pads of their fingers, not their fingernails, when playing. The old traditional Irish harp sound, the distinctive resonance produced by fingernails against wire strings, was being lost.

Ancient Harp Music and the Irish Revival

Curiously, a long-dead Edward Bunting re-entered the picture in the 1970s. This was the time of the Irish music revival, when interest in reexamining all the historical records of Irish music hit new highs. A small group of Bunting scholars and Irish musicians conducted in-depth research, becoming versed in the playing techniques, instruments and tunes common to Irish harpers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Another important part of the historical record is represented by the instruments the harpers left behind, held in museums and private collections throughout Scotland and Ireland. As the Celtic heritage revival took hold, instrument makers studied these historical instruments and their construction, and foresaw a growing public demand for instruments built to look and play like the ancient wire-strung harps.

It wasn't long before these instrument makers succeeded in building exquisitely crafted, authentic-sounding replicas of the harps of centuries past. Today, Celtic harps are readily available to any musician seeking to explore the storytelling and songwriting traditions of the old Gaelic harpers.