Anyone who has ever visited The Long Room at Trinity College will have seen the Brian Boru harp. Fewer will be familiar with a second harp owned by Trinity College, known as the Castle Otway harp. This harp is not normally on public display, but every year, at the Historical Harp Society of Ireland’s Scoil na gCláirseach field trip, a small group of us get the rare opportunity to view the Castle Otway harp in the Henry Jones Room.
The Brian Boru harp and Castle Otway harp are both surviving examples of old Irish wire strung harps. This tradition came to an end around 200 years ago, but there is growing interest in reviving and playing this old type of Irish harp with metal strings. Because this tradition was orally transmitted, the way of playing was lost. Present-day players therefore rely on research and on reconstructed playing techniques to learn the old Irish harp and to connect to past traditions.
I have been playing the old Irish wire strung harp for many years. I am particularly interested in playing techniques, and trying to fill the gaps between lost oral transmission and present-day performance. We may never fully understand how the old harpers played, but a lot of research is being done in this area. The main areas of research are manuscript and printed sources of music, study of portraits and other accounts of harpers, and analysis of surviving harps in museums.
The Castle Otway harp in particular has fascinated me for many years. This harp is associated with one particular eighteenth-century harper, Patrick Quin of Co Armagh. He was one of the ten Irish harpers who attended the famous meeting of harpers in Belfast in 1792.
The collector and arranger, Edward Bunting, visited Patrick Quin and wrote down his music. Some of Bunting’s notebooks from his collecting trips survive, and are now in Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections MS4. These notebooks, in which Bunting transcribed directly from the harpers’ playing, are a very important written source for understanding old Irish harp music, but they require interpretation to bring the music back to life. Among the tunes Bunting collected from Patrick Quin, are the first three tunes traditionally taught to harpers. For me, these three tunes have been fundamental for understanding playing techniques for the old Irish harp.
One tune in Bunting’s manuscripts is captioned, “From Paddy Quin County Armagh near the Blue Stone”. When I first read this, I knew the exact location Bunting was referring to; it was a couple of miles up the road from where I grew up. I also knew I was likely the only harp researcher to have this precise local knowledge. This shared personal connection drew me to Patrick Quin and made him come to life in my imagination. I subsequently moved back to Co Armagh, and I began my research on Patrick Quin, while simultaneously visiting his places in the locality. I went on to do a Masters by Research at Dundalk Institute of Technology, which focused on Patrick Quin.
During this research, which brought to light a lot of new information about Patrick Quin, I was very fortunate to have discovered the existence of an important oil painting of Patrick Quin playing the Castle Otway harp. The painting is privately owned and was previously unknown and unidentified. It is very beautifully painted and contains a lot of important visual evidence which informs our understanding of the old harp tradition. It shows Patrick Quin’s posture with the harp, how he is seated on a low bench or stool, the harp resting on his left shoulder, his left hand up in the treble and his right hand low in the bass. These details are borne out by the wear marks on the actual instrument. The painting shows, in remarkable detail, Patrick Quin’s hand shapes, his left hand fingers placed on the strings in a gapped position, and his right hand spread out with fourth finger extended.
I have been studying this painting, thinking about Patrick Quin playing the Castle Otway harp and working on reconstructing his music. But I cannot touch the Castle Otway harp or tune it up and play it, because it is so fragile. I can only look and imagine. What I really wanted was a working copy of the Castle Otway harp, so I could imitate Patrick Quin’s hand shapes and finger positions, as shown in the painting. This desire led me to commission a replica of the Castle Otway harp.
This harp commission project began in 2017 and has involved input from a number of different people. Thanks to Ellen O’Flaherty, I was able to spend a day with harp maker Natalie Surina (Ériú Harps), measuring and photographing the Castle Otway harp. On a second visit, Natalie was able to obtain photographs of the inside of the soundbox of the harp. These provided information about the construction methods and tools used, the arrangement of string holes in the soundbox (which are not visible from the outside), and internal repairs.
I asked harp researcher, Simon Chadwick, to co-ordinate the project. He had arranged for a 3-D scan to be made of the Castle Otway harp in March 2020, but unfortunately, due to Covid-19 restrictions, this could not take place. The harp-building process was scheduled to begin in April 2020, so we had to go ahead without the 3-D scan data. Hopefully the scan will take place in the future to provide even more detailed information for future projects.
The replica harp was made by Pedro Ferreira (Atelier Rumor, Portugal). Pedro and Simon worked together on interpretation of the photographic and measurement data to create templates. Pedro did all the woodwork and construction of the harp, and also the decorative metalwork. Simon made the tuning pins. Pedro and his partner Rita Roberto, between them did the decorative carving and paintwork. Every detail of the new harp aimed to be as close as possible to the original. The harp was finally strung with brass wire and brought up to pitch.
My new harp was delivered in January 2021. It is stunning, and a credit to all those involved in every stage of this project. Unlike the original old Castle Otway harp, which rests quietly in its store room, my new harp is a living thing; it is young and developing. It is just beginning to find its voice as the sound opens up. Its form and shape are still moving and adjusting to the tension of the metal strings. Its strings vibrate under my fingers and I can feel its wooden structure quiver when I play. It is such a tactile object; the strings, decoration, carving and metalwork all ask to be touched.
But it is more than a beautiful art object. This new harp will be both a working musical instrument and a research tool. I look forward to continuing my study of old Irish harp playing techniques and my interpretation of this music, with my new harp to guide me.