Tiny harp

The Irish Harp in England



HarperOn the continent, the Irish harp must have been known simply as a musical instrument, not in the specifically Irish role which so infuriated English officialdom. We know little about the extent to which Irish harpers moved outside Ireland and Scotland in medieval times. In the twelfth century, John of Salisbury, describing one of the Crusades of the previous century, wrote that there would have been no music at all if it had not been for the Irish harp, and some players must surely have travelled the great (and profitable) pilgrim routes. The skill of the Irish harpers was certainly famous when Vincenzo Galilei described them in Dialogo della Musica Antica e della Moderna which was published in Florence in 1581.

Joan Rimmer
The Irish Harp/Cláirseach na hÉireann
Cló Mercier, Corcaigh, 1977
p. 41



Medieval harpA further example of the social importance of music for knight and courtier in the Middle Ages, as well as a reference to harp playing with the fingernails, is provided by the often-quoted lines from the geste of King Horn: 'And tech him to harpe/ With his nayles sharpe'. This English romance of the early thirteenth century, and its continental equivalent (in both of which the noble hero plays the harp), would have been only one of the many long poems sung or recited by minstrels of the period to the accompaniment of their own harp playing.

Roslyn Rensch
Harps and Harpists
Indiana University Press, 1989
p. 95



Francis Bacon wrote in Sylva Sylvarum 'No harp hath the sound so melting and prolonged as the Irish harp'.

Joan Rimmer
The Irish Harp/Cláirseach na hÉireann
Cló Mercier, Corcaigh, 1977
p. 47



A most frequently quoted source is Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1629), who praised the melting, prolonged sound of the Irish harp in his Sylva Sylvarum (published posthumously), and referred to the use of the harp in various combinations, in his essay on 'Broken Musick or Consort Musick'. The 'Irish Harpe and Base Viall agree well', Bacon noted, but the Welsh harp and the Irish harp 'agree not so well'. As some Welsh poetry of this era and earlier concerns a continued preference for horsehair strings for the harp, Bacon's statement (which might seem to have political overtones) is just a caution against trying to combine the music of a harp with strings of horsehair (or perhaps gut), with one having metal strings.

Roslyn Rensch
Harps and Harpists
Indiana University Press, 1989
p. 98



The Elizabethan enactments against bards, minstrels, pipers and rhymers, were enforced after the promulgation of the Bull of St. Pius V. in 1569, though Elizabeth herself retained in her service, an Irish harper called Donogh.

Wm. H. Grattan Flood
A History of Irish Music
Browne and Nolan, Dublin, 1906
p. 113



Queen Elizabeth was particularly incensed against Hugh O'Neill, Prince of Tyrone, but yet, when that nobleman presented himself at court, attended by a numerous retinue, including his chief bard (O'Gnive) and piper, he was restored to favour, notwithstanding the malignant efforts of Cecil.

Wm. H. Grattan Flood
Op. cit., p. 126


Sir Arthur Basset wrote to Sir Edward Stradling:

"I am hereby to request you to send unto me in Devonshire your servant Thomas Richards by the last day of this instant month, and to cause him to bring with him both his instruments, as well as that which is stringed with wire strings, as his harp, both those that he had when he was last in Devon. I have given some commendations of the man and his instrument knowledge, but chiefly for the rareness of his instrument with wires, unto sundry of my good friends, namely to my cousin Sir Philip Sydney, who doth expect to have your man at Salisbury before the seventh of March next, where there will be an honorable assembly and receipt of many gentlemen of good calling. So hoping you will herein accomplish my request, do most heartily commend you to God's good keeping. From London this sixth of Februrary, 1583. Your very loving friend Arthur Basset."

Walter L. Woodfill
Musicians in English Society from Elizabeth to Charles I
Princeton University Press, 1953
pp 235-236



The large low-headed Irish harp was played to some extent in England in the seventeenth century. The Ayres and Dialogues and Mottects or Grave Chamber Musique of Martin Peerson, issued in London in 1620 and 1630 respectively, seem to be the only published works which mention it by name. It is given on the title page of the Mottects along with virginals, bass-lute and bandora as an alternative 'for want of organs'—not, one suspects, a highly practical alternative—and it is mentioned in the composer's foreword to the Ayres and Dialogues. John Evelyn wrote in his diary in 1654:

In my judgement it is far superior to the lute itself, or whatever speaks with strings.

And in 1688:

... my worthy friend Mr. Clarke, who makes it execute lute, viol, and all the harmony an instrument is capable of. Pity it is that it is not more in use; but indeed, to play well takes up the whole man, as Mr. Clarke has assured me, who, though a gentleman of quality and parts, was yet brought up to that instrument from five years old.

Joan Rimmer
The Irish Harp/Cláirseach na hÉireann
Cló Mercier, Corcaigh, 1977
pp 49-50



Lady with harp Sir Thomas Brook's Pavan/Cormac's Alman/Lord Sheffield's Pavan

Pavans and almans were stately dances popular at European courts during the late 16th and early 17th centuries. What makes these unique is that they were composed by an Irish harper named Cormac MacDermott from Co. Roscommon (?-1618) who was possibly employed at Queen Elizabeth's court, served Sir Robert Cecil, 1st Duke of Salisbury, and was also employed by King James VI [of Scotland, James I of England].

My arrangement of these two pavans and an unnamed alman is a compilation from three parts (Cantus, Tenor, Bassus) surviving in partbooks housed at the Yale University Library.

Ann Heymann
Notes to the recording:
Queen of Harps
Temple Records COMD 2057



Harp By the end of the reign of Henry VIII the resources of the King's Musick included, besides voices, all of the instruments important in the music of western Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, viols, sackbuts, flutes, lutes, virginals, harps, bagpipes, rebecs, and probably recorders. It is possible that some of Henry's Italian musicians played the violin, and quite probable that Queen Elizabeth's did. Under Elizabeth the instrumentation underwent little change except perhaps for the dropping out of some of the older instruments. Apparently the last record of a rebec player in the Musick is for 1558, although some of the other string players may have played the rebec for dancing, and the last musician listed as bagpiper in the Musick died in 1570. …

The instrumental resources changed little if at all under James. It is certain that the musicians now included men who played recorder, hautboy (hoboies), and cornetts. A harper, Gormock McDermott, came about 1603, perhaps the first harper in the Musick since the death in 1565 of blind old William More, long in service to the court. The harp must have become popular, for McDermott's successor in 1618, Philip Squire, received an appointment to teach a child on the Irish harp and other instruments.

Walter L. Woodfill
Musicians in English Society from Elizabeth to Charles I
Princeton University Press, 1953
pp 183-184



The Irish harp was even fashionable in England from 1626 to 1676, and there was a book of instructions published for it in London in 1630, arranged by Martin Pierson, Mus. Bac., Master of the Children of St. Paul's Cathedral—remarkable as being the first printed work in which tunes were arranged for the Irish harp.

There is a quaint letter from the Earl of Cork, Lord Justice of Ireland, dated October 14th, 1632, to his friend Captain Price, in London, which I quote from the State Papers as follows:—

"NOBLE CAPTAIN PRICE,
"Thank you for kindness to my son. The bearer is to give the Lord Keeper an Irish Harp, and Lady Coventry a runlet of mild Irish uskebath sent unto her ladyship by my youngest daughter Peggie, who was so much bound to her ladyship for her great goodness and care of here. … I pray help Mr. Hunt to deliver them, and let me add that if it please his lordship next his hart in the morning to drink a little of this uskuebagh, as it is prepared and qualified, it will help to digest all raw humours, expel wind, and keep his inward parts warm all the day after, without any offence to his stomack."

Wm. H. Grattan Flood
Op. cit., p. 192



Harp It is possible that when the Earls of Tyrone and Tyrconnell and nearly one hundred of the leading Irishmen of Ulster left their native land in 1607 and went into exile on the continent rather than live in an Ireland which was increasingly under English domination, they took harpers with them. The instrument was familiar, in some European circles at least, as an 'exotic' kind of harp. For example, the 1638 inventory of the Hofkapelle of the Landgraf of Hesse at Kassel included 'an old Irish harp', and the earnest Lutheran choirmaster-pedagogue, Michael Praetorius, gave a short description and an illustration of an Irish harp in his Syntagma Musicum of 1619.

Joan Rimmer
The Irish Harp/Cláirseach na hÉireann
Cló Mercier, Corcaigh, 1977
p. 47



Heffernan was a celebrated Irish harper, who resided in London from 1695 to 1725, and there is a reference to him in Drake's Memoirs in connection with the year 1708. "From March 25th to June 5th, 1708, while the captured Irish officers of the ship 'Salisbury,' fifteen in number, under Colonel Francis Wauchop, who came over to England with the Old Pretender, were awaiting trial in Newgate, London, they seldom missed a day without having a visit from one Mr. Heffernan, famous for the harp, which he never failed to bring with him, to divert the gentlemen, and would sometimes leave it there for three weeks to avoid the trouble of fetching it. It is of interest to add that the fifteen officers, after the trial at the Old Bailey, in June, 1708, were exchanged for Hugenots who had been captured by the French.

Another great Irish harper who settled in London in the first years of the eighteenth century was Maguire, from County Fermanagh. He, too, like his contemporary, Heffernan, kept a tavern near Charing Cross, and lived for a time in affluence. Walker tells us that his house was patronised by the Duke of Newcastle and several of the Ministry, from 1753 to 1756, and he died a year later of a broken heart, consequent on neglect by his former patrons.

Wm. H. Grattan Flood
Op. cit., pp. 240-241



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