Given the large number of old instruments that survive virtually complete1 from Ireland and Scotland, it seems irrelevant to try and explore the historical repertory and techniques detailed in early manuscript and printed sources2 using modern instruments.
However new instruments are unavoidable simply because none of the old instruments is able to be to be strung and played without sustaining serious damage, and destroying important historical evidence.3
The obvious solution is to make use of accurate modern copies of the old instruments. However...
Since the 19th century, the "Celtic harp" has been romanticised and idealised.4 This quickly led to the abandonment of the old Gaelic tradition of instrument making and playing, and its replacement with a new cosmopolitan style based on European classical instruments and technique.5 This is still with us in in the form of the modern "lever harp".6
The fact that the "Celtic harp" is romanticised and idealised means most people drawn to it have little interest in understanding historical traditions; much more emphasis is placed on the originality of the maker and performer within the familiar bounds of contemporary European classical and popular music.
Harp makers therefore have not felt constrained in the way that for example violin makers have. They lay out new harps seemingly at will, often giving them antique names and even making grand historical claims for them, and their creations find a ready market amongst romantic harpists.7
Accurate historical replicas by contrast are challenging and difficult. Detailed measurements and data on the old instruments is scarce.8 It is hard to string them to give a satisfactorily tone.9 Modern techniques can not be adapted to play them successfully.10
So, even when producing "wire strung" harps instead of lever harps with gut or nylon strings, harp makers have continued to produce hybrid instruments, "styled after" the historical examples, but ergonomically and acoustically designed from the bottom up to satisfy present day musical, technical and aesthetic needs.11 Even the common term "wire strung harp" emphasises these instruments' status as a variant within the modern Celtic harp market.12
This means that serious students of early Irish harp technique have had to struggle on with basically unsuitable instruments, working twice as hard both to assimilate unfamiliar techniques, and to work around the modern compromises of their "wire strung harps". Accurate measured replicas were simply unavailable to the vast majority of students.13
Just this year I have been working with the HHSI to try and create a product and a market for a true "early Irish harp".14 Simplified instruments were commissioned from David Kortier, without doubt the leading maker of serious measured replicas.15 The design deliberately discarded as "luxuries" the features usually hailed as romantic essentials - the carved soundbox, native timbers and decoration - to concentrate on the functional essence - David's detailed measurements of the string positions and spacings of the medieval Trinity College harp.16 So now for the first time a beginner or student can order an affordable instrument that presents them with the ergonomics and proportion of a medieval harp. Whether these instruments will stand the test of time remains to be seen.