Irish Harp

Margaret Anne Cusack
start of chapter | Chapter XV

The subject of Irish music would require a volume, and we cannot but regret that it must be dismissed so briefly. The form of the harp has been incorrectly represented on our coins. It was first assumed in the national arms about the year 1540. When figured on the coins of Henry VIII., the artist seems to have taken the Italian harp of twenty-four strings for his model; but in the national arms sketched on the map of Ireland in the State Papers, executed in the year 1567, the form is more correct. That the Irish possessed this musical instrument in pre-Christian times, cannot be doubted. The ornamental cover of an Irish MS., which Mr. Ferguson considers to date prior to A.D. 1064, contains five examples of the harp of that period. This, and the sculptured harp at Nieg, in Rosshire, are believed to be the earliest delineations of the perfect harp. Dr. Bunting gives a sketch of a harp and harper, taken from one of the compartments of a sculptured cross at Ullard, county Kilkenny. This is a remarkable example. The cross is supposed to be older than that of Monasterboice, which was erected A.D. 830, and this is believed to be the first specimen of a harp without a fore pillar that has been discovered out of Egypt. If the Irish harp be really a variety of the cithara, derived through an Egyptian channel, it would form another important link in the chain of evidence, which leads us back to colonization from Egypt through Scythia. Captain Wilford observes,[5] that there may be a clue to the Celtic word bard in the Hindoo bárdátri ; but the Irish appellation appears to be of comparatively modern use. It is, however, a noticeable fact, that the farther we extend our inquiries, the more forcibly we are directed to the East as the cradle of our music. Several recent travellers have mentioned the remarkable similarity between Celtic airs and those which they heard in different parts of Asia.[6] Sir W. Ouseley observed, at the close of the last century, that many Hindoo melodies possessed the plaintive simplicity of the Scotch and Irish.


[5] Observes.—Asiatic Researches, vol. ix. p. 76.

[6] Asia.—See Carl Eugen's valuable work on the Music of Ancient Nations passim.