The seventeenth century marks the beginning of the end for the old Gaelic harp traditions. The flight of the Earls in 1607 is usually taken to mark the collapse of the old Gaelic aristocracy, on whose patronage the old Gaelic arts had depended for centuries.
Ironically perhaps, it is only starting in the 17th century that we get a clear picture of what the old Gaelic harp tradition was like. Ruaidhrí Dall Ó Catháin lived during the first half of the 17th century. Originally from Ireland, he lived and worked in Scotland1. Many of his compositions were written down in the early 17th century, in the lute manuscripts kept by aristocrats in the East of Scotland2. Da mihi manum3 is perhaps the best known of these tunes.
As the tastes of the wealthy changed, the harp tradition changed too. In 1621 a chromatic Irish harp was built for Sir John Fitzedmond Fitzgerald of Cloyne, Co. Cork4. The Cloyne harp is unique but there must have been others like it, designed not for old Gaelic music but for European baroque consort music5. Gaelic harps were played in consort with viols and lutes in the royal courts of Europe from Spain to Poland6: in Denmark an Irish harper gazes at us from an oil painting of 16227. English writers such as Francis Bacon8 and John Evelyn9 knew and praised the music of the Irish harp.
But cosmopolitan musical tastes were changing fast; increased chromaticism and the development of new and better harpsichords and other instruments, at home as well as abroad, left the old Gaelic harp behind. Diatonic Gaelic harps become much larger after about 1650, leading to the distinctive 'high headed' shape characteristic of 18th century Irish harps10. A typical example from the 17th century is the Kildare of 167211.
Changing musical tastes led to more than instrument design changing. The use of long fingernails to strike the strings - ubiquitous all through medieval times - started to be abandoned in the 17th century12. Instead, the brass harp strings were sounded using the tips of the fingers. Those conservative harpers that retained the old nail technique were increasingly regarded as backward and old-fashioned.
Another harper called Rory Dall - Ruaidhri Dall Mac Mhuirich, lived in Scotland in the second half of the 17th century13. He was patronised by MacLeod of Dunvegan, one of the last Scottish aristocrats to run an old-fasioned Gaelic household. By this time, the role of a Gaelic harper was to be an all-in-one singer-songwriter, composing poems for his patrons set to old tradional tunes, and accompanying his own singing on the harp.