An Cruitire – The Harper

A couple of years ago I was doing some research at the Loreto College archives in Ballarat when I came across a very interesting book of harp music. Looking a bit like a homemade pamphlet, the tune book was titled An Cruitire (The Harper). All the text for the publication was in Gaelic but the cover, helpfully, had a wonderful drawing of a ‘traditional’ Irish harper on the front. The drawing depicted a male harper sitting on a medieval style stool with a small harp on his lap. The front pillar of the harp was rounded and the small section of the sound box that could be seen was covered in Celtic knotwork. The harper wore a tunic with a belt and had cross bandaged leggings. A circlet encompassed his head and the whole outfit was completed with a long cape that descended from his shoulder to the ground, gathering around his feet. I wondered where this stereotypical image came from, why it was used, who produced the book and what was it doing in the Loreto archive?

I had part of the answer in the reason why I was at the archive in the first place. The Irish Loreto nuns who established the school taught harp to their students in Ballarat. This tune book was most likely a source of repertoire for the students. The Loreto school was founded in the 1870s and instrumental lessons on harp were offered from this time. Initially only pedal harp was taught but later in the century lever harps started to appear in photographs of the music students indicating a shift in the instruments used and the repertoire played.

This change in instrumentation reflected the development of harp playing in Ireland. Traditional playing on wire harp had gradually declined from the eighteenth century onward, despite several attempts to resurrect the tradition with the Belfast Harp Festival and the establishment of the Irish harp societies in Dublin, Belfast and Drogheda. The invention of the single-action pedal harp and then, in the early nineteenth century, the double-action pedal harp and the huge popularity of this instrument meant that hardly anyone played the Irish harp anymore.  For most of this period popular Irish tunes were played on pedal harp encouraging a repertoire of classical theme and variations style interpretations of Irish music produced by harp players like Dussek, Chatterton and Bochsa.

By the 1890s there was a resurgence of interest in Irish traditional culture spurred on by a political movement for Irish independence. The Gaelic League published An Cruitire, a collection of Irish tunes arranged for harp by Owen Lloyd (Eogan Laoide), in 1903. Lloyd was a renowned Irish pedal harp performer but in the late nineteenth century he too had become interested in the resurgence of Irish traditions. He joined the Gaelic League, established in 1893 with the goal to revive Irish culture and language, and began giving concerts on the older style wire harp. Lloyd performed at many events for the League on his wire harp made by Francis Hewson, Dublin, and although the revival of traditional music was not a particular focus of the League’s activities, they nevertheless decided to publish his collection.

An Cruitire small
Front cover of An Cruitire (The Harper) by Eogan Laoide, 1903

The presence of An Cruitire in the archive at Loreto College indicates that the Irish nuns supported the return of interest in Irish culture. The Ballarat school was directed by the headquarters of the order in Rathfarnham where Mother Attracta Coffey (MAC) set the tone and course of harp instruction. MAC was an accomplished harpist and piano player and she produced several books of traditional tunes for Irish harp in addition to an Irish harp tutor book that were the core of harp teaching at many Loreto schools. She also seems to have instigated the purchase of several harps made by James McFall in Dublin for the school in Ballarat, which were used to teach this repertoire. Mary Louise O’Donnell has written a wonderful article about Owen Lloyd and the Gaelic League you can download and read here that gives some more background to Owen Lloyd’s activities with the League and the nationalistic movements of the early twentieth century. So much of the current repertoire we play on harp comes from this period and it is important to understand how the musical tradition of the ancient harpers was reinterpreted at this time to fit preconceived notions of ‘Irishness’. The image on the front cover of An Cruitire is representative of this stereotypical version of the past.

I have arranged one of the pieces from the book that you can download for free using the link below. I want to thank Mary so much for her work on Owen Lloyd. As the book is written in Gaelic, I spent many hours trying to translate the names of the pieces into English so I knew what they were. While some were easy others were a mystery, including the name of this piece. To my delight I found that Mary had given nearly all the names of the pieces in the version of An Cruitire that I found in the Loreto Archives in a footnote to her article. I can now confirm that the piece I have arranged with some small changes of my own is called ‘Carolan’s Planxty’! I hope you enjoy playing this lovely little piece from an historically very interesting collection of Irish harp music.

Carolan’s Planxty

When was the lever harp invented?

Recently I was asked to give a date for the invention of the lever harp. This is actually pretty hard to do precisely but I think we can go back as far as the eighteenth-century hook harp to find a forerunner to the type of lever harp we play now.

The hook harp followed on from other experiments in improving the chromatic ability of the harp. Earlier harp makers had built harps with a double or triple row of strings and even cross strung harps to create greater chromatic possibilities for harp players. The main issue with these instruments was that they were complex to play and difficult to tune. They were also expensive to make and maintain even though it was possible to play a full range of natural, sharp and flat notes.

Nevertheless, in the Baroque era the triple harp became quite popular and Handel even wrote his famous Harp Concerto in B flat for this instrument. There were triple harps played at Henry VIIIs court in the sixteenth century and the Welsh have continued a tradition of triple harp playing right up to the present day. Harps with a single row of strings, however, have endured more widely and for many musicians this is their preferred instrument. The persistent problem harp players have had to face though is how to deal with the increasingly chromatic nature of musical taste without having to double or triple the number of string we have!

The hook harp, with a single row of strings and U shaped ‘hooks’ fastened to the neck of the instrument, emerged as an attempt to solve the need to change the pitch of notes while playing. Invented about 1660 by harp makers from the Austrian Tyrol region, the metal levers or ‘hooks’ shortened the length of an adjacent string raising the pitch one semitone just like a modern lever.

Hook Harp made by Martin Eggert, Germany, first half of the nineteenth century. Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Crosby Brown Collection of Musical Instruments.

The main draw back with the hooks was that they required the player to have a free hand to move them, usually the left. This is no different to lever harps today but the hooks were much more unwieldy. Moving them into place was difficult to achieve quickly and efficiently. They also shifted the alignment of the string considerably making it even more difficult for the harp player to perform with accuracy and good sound production.

Interestingly, the hook harp did not immediately prompt innovation in the hooks themselves as they acted against the string but in a mechanism for moving them. As the hooks had to be operated by hand, the Bavarian harp maker Georg Hochbrucker came up with the idea to attach pedals to move them instead. This early pedal operated hook harp was the precursor of later pedal harps.

From about 1720 when Hochbrucker started making his pedal harps, the main focus of harp makers was on the improvement of the pedal harp, rather than the pursuit of a better lever harp mechanism. It wasn’t until the Irish harp maker John Egan started making his Portable Irish Harps at the beginning of the nineteenth century that lever harps like the ones we play today were made.

With the patronage of the Irish Harp Society and later King George IV, Egan was able to experiment and develop the chromatic mechanisms of both pedal and Irish harps. He offered his customers a range of different types of instruments including a small harp on which he replaced the ‘hooks’ of earlier instruments with ‘blades’. Egan began making these harps during the British Regency period from about 1818 onwards and they were sold to customers throughout Britain, even making their way to Australia. Egan’s harps inspired other harp makers, including the American Melville Clark who made the very popular Clark Irish Harp, and ensured the continued evolution of and enthusiasm for the small folk harp we see today.

Egan, Charles. A New Series of Instructions Arranged Expressly for the Royal Portable Irish Harp (Dublin: John Egan, 1822)



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