• harpA ‘HARPER’ is a traditional Irish harp player and a HARPIST is a classical musician.  This is the same difference between Fiddler and Violinist, or Fluter and Flautist…  The old English ‘er’ ending was kept for the folk or traditional musicians, and the French ‘ist’ ending was adopted for all things ‘high culture’ in Renaissance times.  This is often confused, but now you know!


  • The harp is in the shape of a TRIANGLE with a sound board and hollow body on one side and the sides are called The Neck (top side), the Bow (farthest from the player) and the Body (or sound box, which lies closest to the player).


  • medharperoldstoneharperThe oldest Irish harps were strung with leather or horse-hair that gave a sweet and mellow tone and were used to accompany psalmody (monk’s song in the monasteries).  In about the 9th Century, wire strings were introduced (with the help of the Vikings and their great skills with metals) which were plucked by the finger nails (and damped by the fingertips) giving the harp a strong and vibrant bell-like tone.  It was this kind of harp that lead to the ‘Golden Era’ in Irish harping - until sometime in the early 18th century when harpers were in decline and starting to bind the strings with copper filament and later cat gut (!!) so they could play the strings less painfully with their fingertips like the European harps.  Today we play mostly on Carbon fibre or nylon that gives a bright vibrant tone while the classical harps are now mostly strung with sheep-gut (and the best sheep gut comes from Donegal!).


  • manuscriptharperThe Irish tradition of harp playing was internationally renowned from as early as the 12th Century.  In his work ‘Topographica Hibernia’ printed in 1182, the Welsh nobleman, Giraldus Cambrensis (‘Gerald of Wales’) wrote the most important description of early Irish harping:

    “.....I find among these people commendable diligence only on musical instruments, on which they are imcomparably more skilled than any nation I have seen.  Their style is not, as on the British instruments to which we are accustomed, deliberate and solemn but quick and lively; nevertheless the sound is smooth and pleasant.   It is remarkable that, with such rapid fingerwork, the musical rhythm is maintained and that, by unfailingly disciplined art, the integrity of the tune is fully preserved throughout the ornate rhythms and the profusely intricate polyphony…”


  • coinharperIt was King Henry VIII who formally established the harp as the emblem of Ireland in the 16th Century when he minted coins for his Irish dominion. 


  • The harp was the emblem for Ireland in the British Royal Standard - and after Irish Independence in 1922, it is still the emblem for Northern Ireland where it appears in all matters to do with the state - and on the uniforms of the Northern Ireland police force.


  • Thanks to William Butler Yeats, the harp was kept as the official emblem of the Ireland upon independence in 1922, and is symbol of our nation, on our euro (currency) and is the emblem of President and state as well as many businesses (Guinness, Ryanair) and national institutions (The Arts Council, National Horseracing, Irish Fisheries).


  • The single most important historical event in Irish music history was the Belfast Harpers Assembly in 1792 where 13 mostly old harpers had their music written down by the young musician, Edward Bunting.  This was later published in 3 volumes in 1796, 1809 and 1840.  Thomas Moore found the tunes for many of his Melodies in these books (The Minstrel Boy, The Harp That Once, Believe Me if all those Endearing Young Charms) which are still well-known today.


  • Ireland is the only country in the world to have a musical instrument for its national emblem.


  • janetharpbrian harpThe Brian Boru harp was made 300 years after Brian Boru died. The 14th century harp is, nevertheless, a particularly beautiful one that was made for a member of the Gaelic or Norman nobility in Ireland - which was named after Ireland’s high king Brian Boru who died after the Battle of Clontarf of 1014, exactly 1000 years ago, having just ‘saved Ireland for the Irish’ from the marauding Vikings.  It is the Brian Boru instrument that is Ireland’s emblem.


  • The ‘Janet’ harp was designed for Janet Harbison by the French manufacturer ‘Camac’ and is modelled on the Brian Boru harp, complete with the silver plate ‘bling’ on the front!