Gaelic harp music was an oral tradition, which was not written down by the harpers. It became extinct in the 19th century, before audio recording was invented.
So to understand the old music today requires full but careful consideration of all the available information.
The old Gaelic harp tradition died out over 100 years ago, but a large part of its repertory survives, fragmented and distributed over many different types of manuscript and printed book from the 17th to the 19th century.
None of these sources was written by or for a Gaelic harper - the old Gaelic harp tradition was an oral tradition that did not use written music notation. Instead, these sources for the music were written down by other musicians, who had got the old harp music from the harpers by ear, either directly or through intermediaries.
The most direct source is the notebooks of Edward Bunting. He visited the last of the old harpers, and sat down beside them, and attempted
to transcribe their playing. Bunting's manuscripts preserve the bulk of
the surviving Gaelic harp tradition. As well as notating the melody
lines of the harpers' tunes Bunting often also noted down elements of
their basses, and he employed secretaries to write down the song lyrics in Irish.
Other tunes from the Gaelic harp repertory survive in
manuscripts and printed editions from Scotland and Ireland. Most tunes
do not preserve their original harp setting, being reduced to a single
melody line, or newly set for other instruments. The task of deciding
what elements of basses and harmonies might be original is a long and
Similarly it is not always easy to judge which tunes
come from the Gaelic harp repertory. Some are obvious enough, such as
the "ports", and those attributed to Carolan. However we know that the
harpers played a wide range of different music including foreign tunes.
Also, given that the role of the harper from earliest times was to
accompany the performance of Gaelic song or poetry, many old Gaelic song airs must once have been standard items in the
Gaelic harpers' repertory.
The sources listed right range in date from the early
17th to the 19th Centuries, that is to say from when the Gaelic harp
was still widely played, to the time of its decline and extinction.
They include both manuscripts and printed editions. Some of the
manuscripts, such as the Wemyss music book, were personal collections of songs and tunes; others such as the Bunting mss were assembled by tune-collectors. The prints are generally very rare, only one copy being known each of the Carolan fragment and Neal.
As well as the facsimiles and editions listed here, a
number of tunes from these sources can be found in recent general
collections. See the books page for more info.
This list is provisional and selective. There are Gaelic
harp tunes preserved in other manuscripts and early printed editions.
Also there may be other editions and facsimiles of the manuscripts and
prints listed above. I would be delighted to hear from you if you have
corrections or additions.