Irish Harp
by Gregg Miner, as part of


Of The Father's Love Begotten
(ca. 12th century)


Irish Harp - Clark, ca. 1915

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The Irish are understandably proud of their national instrument, the harp - that haunting, beautiful-sounding instrument with a rich, centuries-old tradition. Not surprisingly then, you could have knocked Ireland over with a feather when it was recently shown that the Irish harp originated in Scotland. I'm sure they'll be debating this one for years (though I'm half Scottish-Welsh, I'm staying out of it).

At any rate, these days the music and instruments of the two countries are freely exchanged, lumped under the broader category, Celtic music (pronounced "kel-tik"). Likewise, the "Celtic" harp is now a catch-all phrase that refers to all the assorted small, non-pedal harps which are meant to re-create historical Irish harps. In truth, none of these new instruments are actually constructed like "true" Irish harps, which traditionally used a hollowed-out, solid block of hardwood for the soundboard and sides, with a separate back piece. This was to withstand the tension of the very heavy wire strings, which the harpist played with his fingernails (he also rested the harp on the left shoulder, with the left hand playing the high melody strings, opposite of today). The modern Celtic harp (which politically-correct harp professionals refer to as the "neo-Irish harp") evolved from a specific instrument produced in Dublin around 1820 by maker John Egan, dubbed the "Royal Portable Harp." This gut-strung, drawing-room instrument was, more or less, just a scaled-down standard European pedal harp, without the pedals (in which the thin soundboard is the separate piece, attached to the one-piece, rounded soundbox). A century later, the Egan model was further standardized in America with the very similar Clark "Irish harp" (pictured here). Clark also standardized the individual sharping levers, placed along the neck of the harp, one for each string - which could be flipped up to raise individual notes a half-step or set to different key signatures (the harp normally being tuned diatonically to Eb or C).

The Clark is a very lovely little instrument, but today, much better-sounding Celtic harps are being made - with thinner, wider soundboards and new nylon string technology perhaps the two biggest improvements. 

I had a strong recollection of this little-known tune from childhood at church - but I was amazed at how it ended up sounding so reminiscent of an Irish air!


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