This page gathers historical and literary evidence for old Gaelic harp stringing. This is written information about the nature of the strings used on the old Gaelic harps. Because there is so little hard technical information in the old historical sources, I have included obscure, vague and poetical information here as well.

Early texts use Latin or Gaelic words for the string material as well as for the instrument; we can rarely be certain that we understand exactly what is being referred to by these names, and they may well have been less specific than modern technical organological terms.

As always, if you know of something I have missed out, please do let me know. I will add items here as I discover them.

Gerald of Wales

Gerald of Wales visited Ireland in the 12th century, and described the strings of the cithara used there:

Æneis quoque utuntur chordis, non/quam de corio factis

Moreover they play upon brass strings rather than / more than strings made of gut

Gerald of Wales, Topographica Hibernica, Wales c.11861.

Medieval poetry

Medieval Irish poems mention musical instrument strings.

Téta argait inda chruit, carra óir fuirri

There were strings of silver in the cruit, pegs of gold upon it

Ailill Aulom, Mac Con, and Find ua Báiscne 2.

Timpan aircit ana laimh
fa hor dearg teta an timpain

a silver Timpan in his hand / of red gold, the strings of the Timpan

Forbhais Droma Damhghaire (The Siege of Knocklong)3.

Cruit baoi istigh ar thrí téad... Téad diarann, teud dumha an, An ceadna darccod iomlán.

The household cruit had three strings... / A string of iron, a string of noble bronze, /and one of entire silver.

Agallamh na Seanórach (Colloquy of the Ancients), late 12th century4.

Medieval Breton lays refer to British and Irish harpers:

...ot une harpe a son col qui toute estoit dargent moult ricement ouureeet les cordes estoient de fin or.

...he had a harp around his neck which was richly worked all over with silver and the strings were of fine gold.

Merlin, France, early 13th Century5.

A sa harpe l’a accordée
Qui estoit d’argent encordée.

to her harp it was tuned / which was silver-strung

Galeran de Bretagne, France, c.12306.

Irish harps abroad

Italian music scholar Galilei describes the Irish harp:

...& hanno communemente le corde d’ottone, & alcune poche d’acciaio nella parte acuta...

...and they commonly have strings of brass, with with some of steel in the higher pitches...

Vincentio Galilei, Dialogo della musica antica et della moderna, 15817.

German music theorist and composer Michael Praetorius describes a chromatic Irish harp:

...hat ziemlich grobe dicke Messings Saitten...

...has very big thick brass strings...

Irlendisch harff mit Messinges Saiten

Irish harp with brass strings

Michael Praetorius, Syntama Musicum vol II, 1618-208.

English music scholar James Talbot describes a couple of Irish harps:

Irish Harp
Carries 43 single Brass strings
Irish Harp
...This Instrument being tun’d with Brass strings which draw hard by hand...

James Talbot’s manuscript, c.1690 9.

French music scholar Trichet describes an Irish harp:

les chordes, dont on les monte et garnit ordinairement sont de fil d'archal, comme celles de l'espinette

The strings, which are fitted... are usually brass wire, like those of the spinet

Pierre Trichet, Traité des Instruments de Musique, c.164010.

Wire-drawing in household accounts

There are household accounts which itemise the purchase of wire for stringing Irish harps:

...V ll’ of wier for the harpe ijs and for drawinge of the said wier xviijd...

5 pounds weight of wire for the harp: 2 shillings; and for drawing that wire: 18 pence.

Fitzwilliam accounts, 18th September 159111.

Recycling Giraldus

Giraldus’s description was very influential for a long time, and a number of later writers silently quote or translate Gerald’s elegant Latin, whether or not it is actually suitable or true for the situation they were applying it to. This next example, describing the 16th century Scottish Highlanders, may well be true, the careful use of two different words to translate Gerald’s cithara implying that there is a real distinction being drawn here.

Buchanan is describing Scottish Highland manners:

Musica maxime delectantur, sed sui generis fidibus; quarum aliis chordæ sunt æneæ, aliis e nervis factæ, quas vel unguibus praelongis, vel plectris, pulsant.

they greatly love music, but with their own type of instruments; some have brass strings, others made of gut, which they pluck with long fingernails, or plectrums.

George Buchanan, Rerum Scoticarum Historia, 158212.

Monipennie made a translation of Buchanan into English, but he quietly expanded Buchanan’s fidibus to distinguish between clairshoe (for clarsach, i.e. Gaelic harp) and harpe (presumably for continental Gothic bray harp):

The strings of the Clairshoes are made of brasse wyar, and the strings of the Harpes of sinews;

John Monipennie, 159413.

In the late 16th century, Stanihurst wrote a text basically recycling all of Giraldus’s criticisms of the Irish. Here’s what Stanihurst has to say about the harpers:

...qui chordam pulsu (sunt autem ex ferreis aut aeneis filis, non ex nervis ut alibi fit, contextae)

striking the strings (which are however made of wires of iron or brass, and not of gut, as is the case elsewhere)

Richard Stanihurst, De rebus in Hibernia gestis, Antwerp, 158414.

O’Sullivan Beare wrote a refutation of Stanihurst:

qui si praestitisses historicam fidem, fides nunquam ferreas, sed aeneas, vel argentas lyrae, et tympano a musicis nostris aptari, tradisses.

If you were to be faithful to the historical truth, you would pass on the fact that the strings of the lyra are never of iron, but are of brass and silver, and are used also by our musicians on the tympan.

Philip O’Sullivan Beare, Zoilomastix, c.162515.

Lucius also write a refutation of both Stanihurst and Giraldus. Here he is not specifically referring to stringing practice, but describing the harp traditions more generally:

Foramina, ænei orbiculi muniunt ne a filis æneis proterantur.
...fila œna extremis digitis...

The holes are lined with brass circles to protect them against the friction of the brass strings.
...strike the brass strings with the tips of their fingers...

Gratianus Lucius, Cambrensis Eversus, 166216.

later poems and stories

The Irish poet Pierce Ferriter mentions gold strings in his elaborate poems. The first mention is a very subtle musical allusion to a woman combing her hair, with a lot of allegorical symbolsim, so can’t be taken literally:

lar dtraochadh dos na téadaibh órdha

after breaking the gold strings

Piarais Feiritéir, Mo thraochadh is mo shaoth rem ló thú, c.1644-617.

The other reference to gold strings is in a poem praising a beautiful harp:

A comhmaith do chruit sheanma
ni fhuair triath ná tigherna
Móir-thréadach cean is creach
An bhean óir-théadach áiseach.

An equally good cruit for playing / was not obtained by leader or lord / of great herds, obtained by fair means or foul / the useful, gold-strung lady.

Piarais Feiritéir, Mochean d’altrom an oirbheirt, c. 2nd quarter of 17th century18.

The same poem includes further description of “cláirseach an óir” (the harp of gold) in a context which may be referring to stringing or to decorative fittings - the poem is perhaps deliberately unclear.

A story, probably from the 17th century but using archaic language and themes, mentions a fairy musician:

...& is amhlaidh do bhi an tiompan an ghruagaich .i. go ndealguibh oir & go tteaduibh airgid & go coruibh fionnbhruinne...

...and likewise was the tiompán of the brownie, i.e. with pins of gold and with strings of silver and with cor of findruine...

Eachtra ghruagaigh na creige agus na cruite ’s an tiompáin, between c.1520-171219.

A song collected from one of the last of the old harpers in the 1790s includes this line, given as an English metrical translation from the lost Gaelic original:

...his fingers deserve a golden string

Denis O’Hampsey, c.179220.

William McMurchy

At the bottom of a list of measurements of an early Gaelic harp, the Gaelic scholar, piper, harper and poet William McMurchy wrote in about 1750:

Widow Black who keeps a pinnery in Frances Street sells all kinds of harp wire

William McMurchy ms, c.175021.

This would be wire used for the manufacture of pins.

The Trinity College harp

Ouseley owned the Trinity College harp in the late 18th century; he described strings that were on it in 1756:

When given to Counsellor MacNamara, it had silver strings...

Ralph Ouseley, c.178022.

Fanning’s harp

It is a pity that stringing information does not seem to have been collected by Edward Bunting, who noted much otherwise lost Gaelic harp music from the playing of the 18th century harpers, as well as technical details about their playing. In all the Bunting manuscripts, stringing is mentioned once:

Fanning’s harp had thirty-five strings, fourteen below and nineteen aboove the ‘Sisters’ - the eleven upper strings of iron wire

Letter from James MacDonnell to Edward Bunting, c. 183923

i.e. changing from brass to iron between a’ and b’ just over an octave above na comhluighe. None of the extant harps can be identified as Fanning“s.

Mr O’Neil’s harp

In the romantic novel The Wild Irish Girl, the author Sydney Owenson includes a number of footnotes which quote correspondence sent to her. This from “a very eminent modern Irish bard, Mr O’Neil”:

My harp has thirty-six strings ... of four kinds of wire, increasing in strength from treble to bass

Sydney Owenson, The Wild Irish Girl, 180624

This may well be Arthur O’Neill (1734 - 1816). It is not clear if the “four kinds of wire” refer to different gauges or different metals.

19th century Society harps

At the beginning of the 19th century the last of the indigenous Gaelic harpers died. To continue the tradition, Societies were set up in Belfast and Dublin, running schools initially taught by two of the last of the old harpers, Arthur O’Neill and Patrick Quin. Harps for these societies were made by local harpmakers including Egan of Dublin. The Society schools contnued for a couple of generations, and a few of their students survived to the end of the 19th century.

Some of the Society harps by Egan and others are still extant with their original strings; they have not yet been studied. String regimes were also noted down or published by various sources: Patrick Byrne and Patrick Murney were both harpers from the Schools.

Patrick Byrne’s harp

This specification was dictated to John Bell by the harper Patrick Byrne (1794 - 1863) in about 1840:

Largest wire to be got in Flower the wire drawers Church St., Dublin, 5 wires of this, 3 wires of the next size, 6 of the next, 6 7 of the next, 6 5 of the next, 7 8 of the next, making 34 in all...
...1/2 lb each of the 3 first numbers of brass wire, 1/4lb of next which will string the tennor, then there are 2 oz of course and 2 oz of fine treble wire, this constitutes the whole wire.

John Bell’s notebook, 19th Century25

‘treble wire’ may indicate steel or iron as a contrast to ‘brass’. Without knowing about Flower’s catalogue, we cannot start to put figures to these gradations, and we don’t know how Byrne’s harp was tuned.

Ixion’s harp

An anonymous writer using the pen-name Ixion owned one of the Society instruments; he described its stringing and setup in an article published in 1872:

On the thirty-six string harp the rule is to take the fifteenth string, counting from the top down, as the key-note, and make it G by means of a tuning fork. Lest the wires not bear this tension in the upper octaves, the fourteenth string may be tuned as G in the first instance, thereby reducing the tension throughout. When the harp, however, is strung with sufficiently fine or well-tempered wire, it will bear the full concert pitch, the more so as I believe this pitch has of late been reduced. And I may here mention at once that the eight lowest strings consist of No. 18 wire, the next six of 20 wire, the next seven of 22 wire, the next seven of 24 wire, and all the rest 25 wire brass or steel.

...the highest note at the top is G and the last note in the bass is also G. In some of Egan’s improved harps, however, two additional strings below low G were added, making thirty-eight in all... I have one of Egan’s harps.

...the lowest G string is 4ft. 6in. long, the next G is 3ft., the next G 1ft 8in., the next G 10 1/2 in., the next G 7in., and the highest G 3in.

"English Mechanic and World of Science", Vol. XV, London, 1872, p. 510-1126

His mention of “the rule” makes me wonder if he had taken down instructions from one of the Society harpers. The instruction “brass or steel” is not very specific!

Patrick Murney’s harp

Patrick Murney was one of the very last harpers who had been through the 19th century Society schools. He told James Laverty how to string a harp in 1882:

Use hard drawn wire
No. 18 in the 8 strings nearest the pillar.
No. 20 in the 7 following.
No. 22 in the 7 following.
No. 24 in the 7 following.
No. 25 in the 7 following which are the shortest.

Dictated by Patrick Murney, July 188227

The material is not mentioned.

This chart shows the dates and the materials mentioned.

Person or textdateironbrasssilvergold
Find ua Báiscne c.600-900 argait
Forbhais Droma Damhghaire 8th-9th C. ? or
Agallamh na Seanórach late 12th C. iarann umha arccod
Giraldus 1186 æneis
Merlin 13th c. or
Galeran de Bretagne c.1230 argent
Galilei 1581 acciaio ottone
Stanihurst 1584 ferreis aeneis
Buchanan 1582 æneæ
Monipennie 1594 brasse
Praetorius 1620 messing
O’Sullivan Beare 1625 aeneas argentas
Trichet c.1640 archal
Feiritéir c.1650 óir
Eachtra ghruagaigh c. 17th C. airgid
Lucius 1662 æneis
Talbot c.1690 brass
Ouseley c.1780 silver
O’Hampsey c.1792 golden
MacDonnell 1839 iron
Ixion 1872 steel brass


1. Gerald of Wales, Topographica Hibernica, Wales c.1186, quotation and translation from C. Page, "Voices and Instruments of the Middle Ages", London 1987. ^

2. Find ua Báiscne , text and translation online at ucc.ie ^

3. Forbhais Droma Damhghaire, from the 15th century Book of Lismore, cited in Eugene O’ Curry, Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish, vol 3, p.362 ^

4. Agallamh na Seanórach, late 12th century. cited in Eugene O’ Curry, Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish, vol 3, p.223 ^

5. The Vulgate Merlin, France, early 13th Century, quotation and translation from C. Page, "Voices and Instruments of the Middle Ages", London 1987. ^

6. Anatole Boucherie, La Roman de Galerent, Comte de Bretagne, par le trouvère Renaut, 1888, p.62 (lines 2320-1) ^

7. Vincentio Galilei, Dialogo della musica antica et della moderna, 1581, p143 ^

8. Praetorius, Syntagma Musica vol II, Wolfenbüttel 1618-20, tr. David Z Crookes, OUP 1986, p.62 & pl.XVIII ^

9. Joan Rimmer, “James Talbot’s manuscript: Harps” Galpin Society Journal,16, 1963 ^

10. Pierre Trichet, Traité des Instruments de Musique, c.1640. ed. François Lesure, 1957, p.146 ^

11. Fletcher, Drama and the performing arts, Brewer 2001, p. 422 ^

12. George Buchanan, Rerum Scoticarum Historia, 1582, p21 ^

13. John Monipennie, 1594, in his translation of George Buchanan's History of Scotland, quoted in Keith Sanger & Alison Kinnaird, "Tree of Strings (Crann nan Teud)", Kinmor Music 1992. ^

14. Richard Stanihurst, De rebus in Hibernia gestis, quote and translation by Nicholas Carolan in Éigse Cheol Tíre - Irish Folk Music Studies, vols. 5-6, 1986-2001 ^

15. Philip O’Sullivan Beare, Zoilomastix, quote and translation by Nicholas Carolan in Éigse Cheol Tíre - Irish Folk Music Studies, vols. 5-6, 1986-2001 p.53-6. ^

16. Gratianus Lucius, Cambrensis Eversus, ed. & trans. Matthew Kelly, Dublin, 1848. ^

17. Dánta Piarais Feiritéir, trans. Pat Muldowney. Aubane Historical Society, 1999, p.18-19 ^

18. Dánta Piarais Feiritéir, trans. Pat Muldowney. Aubane Historical Society, 1999, p.42-43 ^

19. N.J.A. Williams, “Eachtra ghruagaigh na creige agus na cruite ’s an tiompáin”, Éigse XIV, 1971-2 ^

20. Edward Bunting, ms29 (Queens University Belfast, Special Collections MS4/29) p.51 (f23r). See also Simon CHadwick, Progressive Lessons for Early Gaelic Harp, 2014, p.37 ^

21. Keith Sanger & Alison Kinnaird, Tree of Strings, Kinmor 1992, p.167 ^

22. Ralph Ouseley, early 1780s, in a manuscript copy by J. Hardiman, 1820, British Library, ms Egerton 74 f184. ^

23. MacDonnell's letter is printed in Fox, Annals of the Irish Harpers, 1911, p.281 ^

24. Sydney Owenson, The Wild Irish Girl, 1806. Vol. 1, available online at www.sydneyowenson.com/TheWildIrishGirl.html ^

25. John Bell's notebook, quoted in Keith Sanger & Alison Kinnaird, Tree of Strings (Crann nan Teud), Kinmor Music 1992. Also in H.G. Farmer, Some Notes on the Irish Harp, ‘Music & Letters’ vol XXIV, April 1943. ^

26. ‘English Mechanic and World of Science’, Vol. XV, London, 1872, p. 510-11. Available on google books in some contries. Thanks to Karen Loomis for sending me this. ^

27. Patrick Murney’s Rules, dictated in July 1882 and published in James O’Laverty, The Irish Harp, in "Denvir’s Monthly", 1903 ^