April 28, 2022
The harp has been at the heart of Irish music for centuries. Irish musicians will be familiar with the work of Turlough O’Carolan (1670- 1738), who is still well-known both for his melodic compositions and skill as a harper. While the harp itself has changed and evolved, it continues to be a symbol of Ireland to this day.
The wire-strung harp (cláirseach) was the dominant style in Ireland for centuries. Strung with brass (or even precious metals), it is played with the fingernails rather than the pads of the finger as with modern instruments. Due to the long-lasting resonance of the strings, players must strategically dampen as they play. Wire-strung harps produce a unique tone, reminiscent of bells or chimes. After becoming nearly extinct, the Irish wire-strung is experiencing a revival in recent years. Listen to CIM instructor Chad McAnally play O’Carolan’s Air “Mabel Kelly” at the 2014 All Ireland Fleadh Cheoil:
Most popular in modern Irish music is the nylon-strung harp or lever-harp. This style of instrument shares many characteristics with orchestral pedal harps, but uses small levers to change the pitch of notes, rather than an intricate system of mechanics. Though historically strung in gut, most instruments are now strung in nylon or other synthetics, which are much more stable and long-lasting. Lever-harps come in a wide variety of sizes and styles; from small lap harps to full-size floor instruments, making them an accessible choice for players of all types. Lever-harps produce a warmer sound and are popular as both solo and ensemble instruments. Listen to CIM instructor Hannah Flowers play a set of slip jigs in Co. Louth, Ireland:
Article by Mattie Ernst, Center for Irish Music Instructor and Bookkeeper.