Frank McNally

An Ir­ish­man’s Di­ary

The Irish Times - - Comment & Letters -

The Trin­ity Harp was played as re­cently as the 1960s. Be­ing 600 years old, un­for­tu­nately, it found the ex­pe­ri­ence trau­matic

When the mu­sic col­lec­tor Ed­ward Bunting chron­i­cled a re­vival of the Gaelic harp in the 1790s, one of the mysteries con­nected with the an­cient in­stru­ment was a pair of strings in the mid­dle known in English as the “sisters”. They were tuned to pre­cisely the same note, in­ter­rupt­ing the di­a­tonic run of the other strings. But no­body could ex­plain why, not even the play­ers – an­cient them­selves in some cases – who were rounded up for the Belfast Harp Festival of 1792. It was just one of those things: a tra­di­tion.

The Ir­ish name for the strings was more telling, how­ever, and sug­gests “sisters” was a bad trans­la­tion. As the “comh­luighe” strings, which means “ly­ing to­gether”, they take on a sex­ual con­no­ta­tion. And this was prob­a­bly de­lib­er­ate.

Mod­ern harp schol­ars be­lieve sex­u­al­ity is a key to un­der­stand­ing the old in­stru­ment, as is the re­al­i­sa­tion that in Gaelic Ire­land, the right and left-hand sides of any­thing were sym­bolic of male and fe­male, re­spec­tively.

Men sat to the right of a fire­place, tra­di­tion­ally, women to the left. The same ar­range­ment ap­plied in churches.

Sim­i­larly, the bass notes of the Gaelic harp were plucked with the right hand, while the left played the higher range.

But as they merged, like yin and yang, they achieved per­fect bal­ance in the comh­luighe strings, as equal part­ners.

This is among the rev­e­la­tions of a new book called The

Trin­ity Col­lege Harp, by Brian Man­ners, sub­ti­tled – with less ex­ag­ger­a­tion that you might at first sus­pect – “Ire­land and the most ex­otic mu­sic in­stru­ment in the world”.

You may know the in­stru­ment bet­ter as the Brian Boru harp (a mis­nomer, be­cause it dates from the 1400s). And you cer­tainly know it, even if you have never vis­ited Trin­ity’s Long Room, where it re­sides.

It’s the harp that pro­vided the model for both the State sym­bol of Ire­land and, fac­ing the other way, the logo of Guin­ness.

But for all its great fame, you have al­most cer­tainly never heard it, nor any harp of its kind, played, be­cause the mod­ern Ir­ish looka­like – in­vented barely a cen­tury ago by John Egan – sounds noth­ing like it.

In fact, the Trin­ity Harp was played as re­cently as the 1960s.

Be­ing 600 years old, un­for­tu­nately, it found the ex­pe­ri­ence trau­matic. As the metal strings were twanged by fin­ger­nails, old-style, cracks ap­peared in the sound­box.

So the ex­per­i­ment is un­likely to be re­peated. And any­way, once was enough to be rev­e­la­tory. An English mu­si­col­o­gist who was present called the sound “rich and res­o­nant, with some­thing of both bells and gui­tar”. But you had to be there. The poor-qual­ity record­ings that still ex­ist re­mind Man­ners of “a bat­tered pi­ano in a sa­loon in the Wild West”. Readers of the book can judge them­selves. A sam­ple is among a num­ber of dig­i­tal au­dio ex­tracts em­bed­ded in the text, ac­ces­si­ble by phone app.

The del­i­cacy of the Trin­ity harp is one of the rea­sons it re­mains mys­te­ri­ous. Its sound­box, or in Ir­ish com (belly), can­not be opened. But a CT scan of an­other an­cient harp, the Queen Mary in Scot­land, has re­vealed small fur­rows cut in­side the sound­box, pre­sum­ably for acous­tic en­hance­ment.

Stud­ies there also sug­gest that the sub­dued brown tones of the Trin­ity in­stru­ment, as seen now, may be a trav­esty of the orig­i­nal. Traces of ver­mil­ion – a dye of sim­i­lar ex­trav­a­gance to gold leaf in me­dieval times – have been found on the Queen Mary. So Man­ners sus­pects the typ­i­cal Gaelic harp may have been “a riot of psy­che­delic colours”.

Such de­tails apart, his book also uses the Trin­ity harp has a gate­way to the his­tory of Gaelic Ire­land in gen­eral, by way of ex­plain­ing why the in­stru­ment was im­por­tant enough to be­queath it­self, uniquely in the world, as a na­tional sym­bol.

And get­ting back to the “comh­luighe” strings, the his­tory con­tains an irony in that the old Gaelic harp was usu­ally played by men, whereas the mod­ern in­stru­ment is al­most ex­clu­sively a fe­male pre­serve.

There doesn’t seem to have been any cross-over where the two co­ex­isted. By some ac­counts, the old tra­di­tion went out with the 1790s gen­er­a­tion, al­though a foot­note in Man­ners’s book sug­gests that the “very last” true Gaelic harper may have been Pádraig Dall Ó Beirne, who died in 1863.

I’m par­tial to the lat­ter the­ory, be­cause that Blind Pa­trick Byrne ap­pears to have been my great-great grand­uncle. But in any case, the book also lists the other old harp-string names Bunting recorded. And it seems poignant to note that, near the “male” end of the range, was one called the “fallen string”.

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