The Trinity College harp

We have two historical accounts of the the Trinity College harp being played, one from around 1760, and one from 1961.

The Irish harper, Arthur O’Neill (1737 - 1816) describes in his memoirs:

...I met a Counsellor Macnamara, then Recorder of Limerick... He had a house in Limerick in which was the skeleton of Brian Boru’s harp, and in consequence of the national esteem I held for its owner I new strung it and then tuned it. It was made of cedar. It was not strung for upwards of two hundred years before; which when done Counsellor Macnamara requested me to strap it around my neck and play it through that hospitable city, which I agreed to do, being then young and hearty and had no care, as at that period I was not very rebunxious among the women ; and the first tune I happened to strike on was the tune of Eileen Og, now generally called Savourneen Deelish and Erin Go Bragh. I played several tunes besides and I was followed by a procession of upwards of five hundred people, both gentle and simple, as they seemed to be every one imbibed with a national spirit when they heard it was the instrument that our celebrated Irish monarch played upon before he leathered the Danes at Clontarf out of poor Erin. The Lord be merciful to you, Brian Boru! I hope in God I will tune your harp again in your presence in heaven. And if it should be the case, upon my honour and conscience I will not play the tunes of July the First nor The Protestant Boys; but I would willingly play God Save the King, and that would be for yourself, Brian!

Memoirs of Arthur O'Neill, chapter 11

In case we should doubt Arthur’s tale, we should note that the early engravings show the harp with iron straps reinforcing the joints at the top and bottom of the pillar, which may have been strong enough to allow it to be strung and played. There are also the numerous cleats inset into cracks in the pillar and soundbox, which look like the work of an instrument repairer. These may have been done at this time to allow it to be strung and played, or to repair damage caused by the string tension.

The strings which Arthur O’Neill says he put on had been removed by the time the harp was illustrated by Rees in 1808.

Arthur says that the harp had not been played for 200 years before him, though another source2 says that harp still had silver strings on it in about 1756.

After Arthur O’Neill’s restringing and performance, the harp was again silent for another 200 years.

In 1961, after its restoration in London, the harp was restrung by Joan Rimmer, using brass wire. It seems that Joan brought some of the strings up to tension, while harpist Mary Rowland played the harp. Little information has been published on these experiments, though I have some audio recording of some of the playing. The BBC archive also holds some items but I have never heard theirs so I am not sure if they are the same as mine. The tunes played on the audio were the Irish tune Umbo agus éiriú from Bunting, and the French dance Jolivete, as well as experiments with sounding harmonics, pedal-harp style. I understand that the sound of the harp in 1961 was, despite the under-tensioned strings, a revelation to musicians who had never heard the voice of an early Gaelic harp before3.

Listen to “Is iombo eru” played by Mary Rowland on the Trinity College harp, 1961.

The brass strings installed by Joan Rimmer were slackened, but remain on the harp to this day.


1. Arthur O'Neill, ‘Memoirs’ in Donal O'Sullivan, Carolan, the Life, Times and Music of an Irish Harper, Routlege and Kegan Paul ^

2. a letter written by Ralph Ouseley in 1783, copied out by J. Hardiman in 1820, is London, Britih Library, ms Egerton 74 f184. Part of the letter is transcribed and cited in W.F. Grattan Flood, The Story of the Harp, 1905, p.41-42. ^

3. Gráinne Yeats, The Brian Boru Harp, online, http://www.wirestrungclarsach.org/blog.asp?blogid=123, 2003 (accessed 9 Dec 2011); Joan Rimmer, ‘The Morphology of the Irish Harp’, Galpin Society Journal, XVII, Feb 1964, p. 41; ^

Simon Chadwick