Ancient Irish Musical Instruments

William H. Grattan Flood
Chapter III

THE subject of ancient Irish musical instruments is involved in much obscurity, which has been intensified by the absurd theories of archaeologists about a century ago. Walker, whose book on the Irish bards was published in 1786, was, unfortunately, misled by Beauford and others; and no writer tackled the question properly till O'Curry's Lectures made Irishmen feel that a knowledge of the Gaelic language was absolutely essential for the elucidation of this and kindred knotty points.

Zeuss's Grammatica Celtica (1853) was the first book to give a real clue to the nature of many old Irish instruments; and the musical references were taken from the glosses written by the Irish monks of St. Gall's, which commentaries make the basis of this epoch-making work. These glosses, as mentioned in the first chapter, date from 650 to 900, and are without any doubt the earliest MSS. we possess which throw light on various musical allusions. However, it remained for O'Curry to present the clearest and most succinct account of references to music, scattered as they had previously been in a very fragmentary way throughout the hundreds of ancient Irish manuscripts critically examined by that much-lamented Gaelic scholar.

To the reader who wishes for an exhaustive account of ancient Irish musical instruments, I can unhesitatingly recommend O'Curry's admirable Lectures, though I do not acquiesce in some of his opinions. Were that eminent Celticist now alive, he himself would have altered not a few of the conclusions arrived at; but, all the same, his list of the instruments played on in pre-Norman days, as recorded in the oldest Irish MSS., is very interesting. Recent Celtic scholarship, especially by German, French, and Irish writers, has been freely availed of in collating the various passages quoted by O'Curry, and I have summarised his list, with some necessary modifications, as follows:—

1. Cruit and Clairseach [harp]; 2. Psalterium, Nabla, Timpan, Kinnor, Trigonon, and Ocht-tedach [stringed instruments]; 3. Buinne [oboe or flute]; 4. Bennbuabhal and Corn [horns]; 5. Cuislenna [bag-pipes]; 6. Feadan [flute or fife]; 7. Guthbuinne [horn]; 8. Stoc and Sturgan [trumpets]; 9. Pipai [pipes]; 10. Craebh ciuil and Crann ciuil [musical branch or cymbalum]; 11. Cnamha [castanets]; 12. Fidil.

Omitting the 10th and 11th, which, after all, were not musical instruments in the restricted sense, we thus find nine instruments in general use among the ancient Irish. The professional names of the various performers were:—

1. Cruitire [harper]; 2. Timpanach [timpanist]; 3. Buinnire [flute player]; 4. Cornaire [horn player]; 5. Cuisleannach [player on the bag-pipes]; 6. Fedanach [fife player]; 7. Graice [horn player]; 8. Stocaire and Sturganaidhe [trumpeter]; 9. Pipaire [piper].

The CRUIT is called crwth by the Welsh, and crowde by the English. Originally a small harp or lyre, plucked with the fingers (as in the case of the Roman fidicula), it was subsequently played with a bow, and is mentioned by an Irish poet who flourished about four hundred years before Christ. It is justly regarded as the progenitor of the Crotta, the German Rotte, and the Italian Rota. St. Venantius Fortunatus (the great Christian poet, A.D. 530-609) calls the Cruit a CROTTA; and we learn from Gerbert that it was an oblong-shaped instrument, with a neck and finger-board, having six strings, of which four were placed on the fingerboard and two outside it—the two open strings representing treble G, with its lower octave. In fact, it was a small harp, and was generally played resting on the knee, or sometimes placed on a table before the performer, after the manner of the zither.

The CLAIRSEACH was the large harp, "the festive or heroic harp of the chiefs and ladies, as also of the bards," having from 29 to 58 strings, and even 60, but as a rule 30 strings. Its normal compass was from CC (the lowest string on the violoncello) to D, in all 30 notes, that is, about four octaves. It was generally tuned in the scale of G, but, by alteration of one string a semitone (effected by means of the ceis or harp fastener), the key might be changed to C or D. "In those keys the diatonic scale was perfect and complete, similar to ours now in use." It may also be added that the ancient Irish played the treble with the left hand, and the bass with the right.

Among early representations of the Irish harp we find one in a MS. of St. Blaise, quoted by Gerbert, dating from the close of the ninth century Another one is on the panel of a sculptured cross at Ullard, Co. Kilkenny, dating from the tenth century, and which, as Dr. Petrie points out, is "the first specimen of the harp without a fore-pillar that has hitherto been found outside of Egypt."[1] Sir Samuel Ferguson refers to the appearance of a harp on the cover of an Irish manuscript of the eleventh century, preserved in the Stowe Library, which harp has a fore-pillar and sounding board. There is also a drawing of a harp of 29 strings on a relic-case containing the Fiacail Phadraig (tooth of St. Patrick), formerly belonging to Sir Valentine Blake, of Galway, dated 1350. This shrine-case was ornamented by Thomas, 8th Baron of Athenry, who died in 1376, and it was acquired fifty years ago by Sir William Stokes, father of the late eminent surgeon of that name.

Brian Boru's Harp

Brian Boru's Harp

The so-called "Brian Boru's Harp," though not dating from the time when the hero of Clontarf flourished, has a venerable antiquity, and was almost certainly a harp of the O'Briens. It really dates from about the year 1220, having been made for the famous Donnchadh Cairbre O'Brien, King of Thomond, whose death is recorded on the 8th March, 1242-43. A detailed account of its workmanship is given by Petrie and other writers; and it is here sufficient to mention that it is furnished with 30 metallic strings, having a compass from C below the bass stave to D above the treble stave.

One of the most veracious of Irish chroniclers, Tighernach, who died in 1088, has preserved for us a poem, dating from 620, wherein the Irish harp is extolled. Walker says that "the cionnar cruit, or Kinnor, had ten strings, and was played on with a bow or plectrum." He describes it as "similar to the canora cythara of the Latins of the Middle Ages, and the origin of the modern guitar." Another form of cruit was the creamthine cruit, which the same author tells us was "the crwth of the Welsh," and is said to be the parent of the violin, "but having only six strings." We also have a record of the Fiddle being used in Ireland as early as the eighth century, as is quoted by O'Curry from the poem on the Fair of Carman. In regard to the very favourite and oft-quoted instrument known as a timpan, it has been variously explained as a drum, or a sort of tambourine, whilst an Anglo-Saxon MS. makes it equivalent to a bagpipe! Dr. W. K, Sullivan cautiously tells us (relying on the authority of Dr. Charles O'Connor) that it "was a bowed instrument," whilst the credulous Walker gravely assures us that "a Timpanist [player on the timpan] was simply a musical conductor."

The timpan was, in reality, a small stringed instrument, having from three to eight strings, and was played with a bow or plectrum, being also called a benn crot, or peaked harp, by an ancient Irish writer. Recent research has almost conclusively proved that the Kinnor and the Trigonon, or three-stringed timpan, are identical, whilst the Nabla, or Psalterium—a favourite Celtic instrument from the seventh to the eleventh century—was generally of eight strings, and hence called the Ocht-tedach, or the eight-stringed.[2] We meet with constant allusions in the old annalists to timpans and timpanists; and a skilful performer on the timpan was held in the highest esteem.


[1] There are still preserved Egyptian harps dating from B.C. 2000, but it was during the rule of Rameses II , cir. B.C. 1284, that the harp, from being triangular shaped, assumed its present form. The Egyptians had various other instruments, such as the lyre, single and double flutes, trumpets, timbrels, sistra, etc. Harps are sculptured on the High Crosses of Monasterboice and Castledermot—not later than the 10th century.

[2] Euclid, a name dear to the heart of most schoolboys, tells us that Terpander (who founded the celebrated Lesbian School where Sappho was taught), about the year B. C. 670, invented a new system of musical notation, and extended the tetrachordal lyre to one of seven strings, known as the heptachordal lyre. The Nabla is described in an old Irish tract as "a ten-stringed cruit"; and St. Isidore says that "there are ten chords used in the Hebrew Psalterium, from the number of the Decalogue."