Since many of us have a chance to enjoy outdoor music festivals this summer, I thought it would be fun to examine the history of some ancient Irish musical instruments. First up – the big one – the harp, or as it’s known in Gaelic, the cláirseach (pronounced CLAR-shoch with the ch the guttural sound as in loch). Although the harp may be the emblem of Ireland, recent scholarship has shown that the instrument is not native to Ireland. The cláirseach or Celtic harp is peculiar to Ireland and Scotland and strung with metal strings, which are played with the nails. The instrument was, no doubt, developed in Ireland, but it wasn’t born there. So, where did it come from? Let’s take a closer look at this ancient tradition before we answer that question.
Unlike other harps, this one is traditionally played with the soundbox resting on the left shoulder. The treble strings are played with the left hand while the bass is played with the right. This tradition differs from the Welsh and English styles of gut- or nylon-string playing. In the modern nylon-string tradition, the harp rests on the right shoulder, the treble is played with the right hand (the nimblest in most musicians for playing the melody) while the bass strings are played with the left (for accompaniment). Thus, the fingering resembles keyboard instruments.
Needless to say, it takes a right-handed player (like me) time to get used to Celtic harp fingering. It’s like using your non-dominant hand to write a letter – a complete remapping of the brain, but that’s not a bad thing! Sanger and Kinnaird (1992) provide an intelligent explanation for the reversal of hand positions: the shorter treble strings are “difficult to reach with the right hand. This problem could, of course, easily have been reversed by changing the direction of the tuning pins, but there is no evidence to indicate that this was ever done. We might therefore assume that the [cláirseach] was played on the left shoulder for some particular reason. Practical experience shows that, for a right-handed player, it is easier to guard the left-hand nails from being broken, since one naturally performs mundane tasks with the right hand” (p. 55-56).
The Celtic harp of the Middle Ages consisted of a soundbox, a forepillar, a neck or string-carrier, and strings. The modern Celtic harps retain the same configuration today and are, basically, triangular in shape. What’s fascinating is that all the early harps depicted on stone crosses in Ireland – dating to the 9th and 10th centuries – are quadrangular in shape, resembling something like a lyre. The triangular harp that developed into the modern Celtic harp was crafted by the Picts in the land that became Scotland.
“The earliest examples of triangular-framed harps occur on stones which were furthest from the Scottish centres of Christianity and Irish influence. These are areas which were under Pictish rule, particularly in Southern Pictland, and contain strong pagan, i.e., native Pictish elements. It is possible that in this large triangular-framed harp the sculptors were presenting, not an important accessory of Christianity, but an instrument which already existed in their own native culture. It is unlikely that this harp could have been imported from elsewhere through trade links since no recognizable triangular-framed harps are depicted or found in Europe, or indeed anywhere else in the world, before these 8th-9th century Picto-Scottish carvings” (Sanger & Kinnaird, 1992, p. 20). Thus, it would seem that the triangular-framed harp was a native Pictish instrument, adopted and modified by the Gaels. The earliest pictorial representation of a triangular-framed harp in Ireland can be seen on the 11th-century Shrine of St. Mogue (Sanger & Kinnaird, 1992, p. 17).
In Ireland, the harp developed a strong pillar with a T-shaped section at the midpoint to add extra strength. The harp also decreased in size. The smaller size and solid construction of Irish harps made the frame better able to withstand the great tension of metal strings. Only three medieval Gaelic harps survive today – the Lamont Harp and Queen Mary Harp in Scotland, and the Trinity College Harp in Ireland. “…Few harps have survived simply because the tension of a metal-strung harp kept up to pitch will eventually break the soundboard through fatigue” (Sanger & Kinnaird, 1992, p. 22).
Judging from the light construction depicted in the Pictish harp carvings, the Pictish harps would not have been strong enough to withstand the pull of metal strings. Gut or horsehair would have been likely choices, such as the Welsh harpers used. There is evidence that the Irish harpers disdained the buzzing sound of the Welsh horsehair strings, preferring the clear, bell-like ringing of metal strings. The Welsh word for harp today is telyn, derived from the Irish word teilinn, meaning “the humming or buzzing sound of a bee. This word survives today in Scottish Gaelic as seilleann –a bumble bee” (Sanger & Kinnaird, 1992, p. 23). Thus, the Irish referred to the Welsh harps as “those buzzing things”!
Sanger, K & Kinnaird, A. (1992). Tree of strings (Crann nan teud): A history of the harp in Scotland. Temple, Scotland: Kinmore Music.
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