Timeline of Select Milestones in the Modern Revival

The musical legacy of the wire–strung harp is a broken tradition. Patrick Byrne, most eminent of the students from the Belfast Harp School to have been trained on the wire–strung harp, died in 1863. It is impossible to listen to or to learn directly from anyone who heard, much less studied with, a harper who was trained in the centuries old tradition of playing wire–strung harp. Anything done with the instrument now, and any attempt to understand the instrument, its techniques and its aesthetics, is necessarily a revival.

The tradition, before Byrne’s death, was sustained by a shared legacy transmitted generation to generation, by a shared material culture, including harps available from knowledgeable builders, and a shared repertory and its technique, passed from player to player and from teacher to student. Knowledge was an integral part of the legacy. With the breaking off of the tradition, however, knowledge is now separate. It is no longer based on experience of the legacy, but rather on study of the legacy from outside. Therefore there are three essential elements to the revival: the growth of knowledge, the making and dissemination of harps, and the cultivation of performance. These latter two, the availability of harps and the spread of performance on them, are both quite dependent upon the first, the establishing of knowledge. This time line tracks these three elements: knowledge, reflected in the building up of a body of research into the harps, their music, their techniques, and the cultures in which they functioned; the availability of harps, seen in the generations of builders using research on the surviving historical harps to recreate the material form of the wire–strung harp; and performance, based on research into the repertory and techniques and into the place in the culture of these instruments, as well as the insights and vision of individual musicians, witnessed most easily, and most widely shared, through recordings.

This is a time line of events in the revival of the wire–strung harp following the death of Patrick Byrne. Interest in recovering the harp and its tradition developed quite soon, in 1873, still within the lifetime of a few remaining harpers. However, the seminal research into the material realities of the surviving instruments, the research without which nothing else could have been accomplished, was done by Robert Bruce Armstrong, and it is with the publication of his research in 1904 that the revival finds its true beginning. From there the time line follows a century of developments in research and publication, experiments with and manufacture of instruments, and the cultivation of approaches to playing the instrument, reflected in a growing “tradition” of recordings. It can be seen that, following slow but steady developments in research and instrument–making through the first half of the century, the revival flourished, achieving a new pace and density of activity. This flowering is reflected by a multiplication of the number of makers and players, new research, and a factor that cannot be seen directly in our entries: a great increase in the contacts and interactions between the various participants of the revival.

The wire–strung harp revival is now firmly established. As of 2003, one hundred years out from Robert Bruce Armstrong’s The Irish and Highland Harps, there are numerically more players and makers of wire–strung harps than at any other time in history. While there are still more people playing gut–strung than wire–strung harps, the wire harp holds its own in many types of music, from historical recreation to performance in folk music groups and experiments in new repertories. The groundwork has been laid, a community of makers and players is firmly established, and will continue to grow from here.

Timeline of Select Milestones in the Modern Revival
Date Individuals Description of the Event Event Type
1873 Mrs. Mackey, Professor of the Harp at the Royal Academy of Music A “wire–strung harp, exactly copied from it [the Trinity College harp]” was played by Mrs. Mackey in January 1873 at a lecture given by Sir Robert Stewart at Trinity College Dublin. [1] Research, reconstruction, performance
1879 An Irish Harper One of the last surviving of the celebrated Blind Irish Harpers plays the Ancient Irish Harp strung with wire at an Irish Harp Revival Festival in the Rotunda, Dublin. Performer
1892 Lord Archibald Campbell and John Glen Campbell commissioned John Glen, the Edinburgh instrument maker, to make wire–strung harps modelled on the so–called Queen Mary harp. Harp makers
The Armstrong Century starts here
1904 Robert Bruce Armstrong Publication of The Irish and Highland Harps, an important book examining and cataloging the surviving wire–strung harps from Ireland and the Highlands of Scotland. Research, publication
1906 Richard Henebry Henebry made a wire–strung harp copy of the Trinity College harp, and working independently realized the importance of damping the strings. [2] Research, harp maker
1908 Robert and William Savage By this date the brothers had finished their “Fac.Simile” of the Trinity College harp, with missing silverwork and crystals reinstated. It was about 20 years in the making. [3] Harp made
1912 Charlotte Milligan Fox Fox located Edward Bunting’s manuscripts, and subsequently published Annals of the Irish Harpers, a book containing extensive information on Bunting, the harp festivals, the “last” of the wire–strung harpers and the complete memoirs of Arthur O’Neill. [4] Research, publication
1932 Donal O’Sullivan O’Sullivan completed an in–depth analysis of the music contained in the first two published Bunting Collections (1796 and 1809), publishing the result of his research in Journal of the Irish Folk Song Society. [5] Research, publication
pre–1933 Arnold Dolmetsch Arnold Dolmetsch was one of the Fathers of the Early Music movement and prolific in the production of early instruments. By 1933 he had already made the first of several very good reproductions of the Trinity College Harp. Harp maker
1937 Arnold and Mabel Dolmetsch Arnold and Mabel Dolmetsch produced the first recording made of performances on the wire–strung harp. Mabel played one of Arnold’s reconstructions of the Trinity College Harp. [6] Recording
1943 Henry George Farmer Farmer publishes Some Notes on the Irish Harp, a paper describing the contents of a manuscript written by John Bell of Dungannon which includes some notes about wire–strung harpers including Carolan, Hempson, O’Kane, O’Neill and more. [7] Research, publication
1958 Donal O’Sullivan O’Sullivan publishes Carolan — The Life Times and Music of an Irish Harper, which catalogs and presents Carolan’s compositions with notes to the tunes, a biography of Carolan, the memoirs of Arthur O’Neill and more. Research and publication
1961 Mary Rowland Upon the completion of the conservation of the Trinity College Harp by the British Museum, it was re–strung and briefly played by Mary Rowland. Research and performance
1964 Jord Cochevelou Made a “Bardic Harp” with bronze strings. He is the father of Alan Stivell Cochevelou. Harp made
1964 Joan Rimmer An overview of some of the surviving wire–strung harps is made in The Morphology of the Irish Harp, a paper in which Rimmer suggests (though fails to clearly define) a classification system along the lines of “low–headed”, “large low–headed”, and “high–headed”. [8] Research, publication
1965 Elena Polonska Medieval and Renaissance Music for the Irish and Medieval Harps is a recording on which Polanska uses a diatonic wire–strung harp which she calls a “medieval harp”, and a gut–strung harp with levers, which she refers to as an “Irish harp”. Recording
1967 Sean O’Riada Musician and student of Irish music, including the music of Carolan.[9] Studied under Aloys Fleischmann at University College Cork. He recognized the importance of the wire–strung harp and used the harpsichord, another wire–strung, plucked instrument, to evoke its feel and sound quality, in his own performances and recordings, at least as early as his 1967 recording Ceol na nUasal. He encouraged Christopher Warren in his research and experiments, but did not live long enough to work with Warren’s harps and fingering techniques. [10] Research
1969 Joan Rimmer Publication of The Irish Harp, a small book comprised of 78 pages exploring the history of the harp in Ireland. Research, publication
1970 Christopher Warren Warren built a wire–strung harp based on the Trinity College Harp and pioneered the study of nail technique by working from the 1840 Bunting descriptions. He freely shared his harp plans. [11] Research, harp maker
c. 1970 Jay Witcher Around 1970, Witcher began building wire–strung harps inspired by the historical instruments of Ireland and Scotland, influenced further by the work of Robert Bruce Armstrong (1904). Harp maker
1972 Alan Stivell With the recording of Renaissance de la Harpe Celtique and his performances (witnessed by the live concert LP A l’Olympia of the same year) using his father’s wire–strung “Bardic” harp, Alan Stivell introduced the wire–strung harp to musicians, makers and listeners world-wide. Recording
1974 Tim Hobrough Hobrough began making wire–strung harps while living in Canada. Harp maker
1975 Derek Bell Recording with both wire–strung and gut–strung harps, Carolan’s Receipt is released with the following note printed on the cover, ‘It is the first record on which a real metal–strung Irish harp is used by an Irish Harper’. This same year Bell also included a metal–strung harp when he recorded Chieftains 5 with the Chieftains. Recording
1977 Michael Billinge After five years of practical research, Billinge made a wire–strung harp with a hollowed out soundbox and "poker work" decoration Harp maker
1977 Bonnie Shaljean On the recording The Half Door, Shaljean plays on a wire–strung harp with traditional singer and musician Packie Byrne. Recording
1978 Charles Guard Release of Avenging and Bright, a recording that included a wire–strung harp modeled after the Sirr Harp. Recording
1978 Ann Buckley Helped to resolve the differences between early wirestrung instruments. [12] Research
1979 Ann Heymann Let Erin Remember is Heymann’s first recording which includes performances on wire–strung harp. Recording
1980 Grainne Yeats Belfast Harp Festival is a recording from Gael Linn containing performances on wire–strung and gut–strung harps of music from the 1792 harp festival at Belfast, as preserved by Edward Bunting. A booklet published as part of this project contained a brief history of the Irish Harp, articles on the festival and Bunting, and brief biographies of the harpers present at the festival. Recording, research and publication
c. 1982 Peter Kilroy By this year Kilroy was producing wire–strung harps hollowed out of a block of willow after the Trinity College harp. Harp maker
1983 Patrick Ball Celtic Harp I and Celtic Harp II are recordings which both use wire–strung harp. Patrick also performs with the harp accompanying story telling in his live performances (not represented on these particular albums, however). Recordings
1983 Ann Heymann and Alison Kinnaird Harpers Land is the first record to combine the sounds of the gut and the wire–strung harps. [13] Recording
1985 Paul Dooley After five years of research and experimentation, in 1985 Dooley makes the wire–strung harp which he uses on his 1996 debut recording Rip the Calico. [14] Harp maker and Performer
1987 Joan Rimmer, Michael Billinge and Bonnie Shaljean, Peter Holman The May 1987 issue of Early Music presented a gathering of papers on the wire–strung harp. Billinge and Shaljean studied the Dalway Harp as a chromatic harp, while Peter Holman studied cultural aspects of Irish wire–strung harps in the culture of the Stuart Court. Both these papers addressed Irish harpers being well received by mainstream European musical culture and accommodatating the new expectations of the culture. Joan Rimmer studied the structures of Carolan’s compositions. Research
1988 Bonnie Shaljean Farewell to Lough Neaghe is a solo instrumental recording using both gut and wire–strung harps. This is the first CD to feature some of the most important ancient Gaelic wire–strung harp music on a harp constructed with a one–piece willow soundbox. [15] Recording
1988 Ann Heymann A book of lessons for the wire–strung harp, Secrets of the Gaelic Harp utilizes three of the first four tunes taught an Irish Harper according to Bunting’s manuscripts. Instructional tutor
1990 Robert Evans By this year Evans is offering to construct reproductions of eight of the old wire strung harps. [16] Research, harp maker
1992 Keith Sanger and Alison Kinnaird Tree of Strings is an important review of the history of the harp in Scotland, helping to clarify the historical basis for both wire and gut traditions in Scotland. Research, publication
1995 William Taylor Greysteil is a recording on which Taylor plays wire–strung harps and gut–strung bray harp, in company with lute and voice. Recording
2002 Cynthia Cathcart Alchemy of a Rose is the first recording of the wire–strung harp utilizing precious metal strings of silver and gold, as well as brass. [17] Recording

[1] Freeman’s Journal and Daily Commercial Advertiser. Dublin: Tuesday, 28 January 1873.

[2] Private letter dated 30 June 1906 from William Gratton Flood to Robert Bruce Armstrong item 55 in the Armstrong Catalog hosted by WireStrungharp.com. Another source is a private letter dated 20 February 1907 which has survived as a single document amongst the papers of Fitzpatrick (Castletown) in the National Library of Ireland, Ms.13,983.

[3] Hayward, Richard. The Story Of The Harp. Dublin: 1954. p 10. See also letter dated June 1908 in William Savage to Robert Bruce Armstrong item 8 (inside front envelope) in the Armstrong Catalog hosted by WireStrungharp.com.

[4] Charlotte Milligan Fox’s Annals of the Irish Harpers is available to view in our Library.

[5] Donal O'Sullivan. “The Bunting Collection of Irish Folk Music and Songs: Edited from the Original Manuscripts.” The Journal of the Irish Folk Song Society Parts I-VI, volumes XXII through XXIX. (1927–1939).

[6] Dolmetsch, Arnold. Translations from the Penllyn Manuscript of Ancient Harp Music. The Early Welsh Music Society, 1937.

[7] Farmer, Henry George. “Some Notes on the Irish Harp.” Music & Letters, Vol 24, No 2 (April, 1943): 100–107.

[8] Rimmer, Joan. “The Morphology of the Irish Harp.” The Galpin Society Journal, Vol 17 (February, 1964): 39–49.

[9] Ó Canainn, Tomás. Seán Ó Riada: His Life and Work. Collins Press, 2003.

[10] Acton, Charles. “Rediscovery of Harp Tradition.” Eire–Ireland, VII.4 (1972): 128.

[11] Ibid., pp 114–132. Warren made his harp plans available via Comhaltas Ceoltori for post and packing costs only.

[12] Buckley, Ann. “What was the Tiompan: A problem in Ethnohistorical Organology: Evidence in Irish Literature.” Jahrbuch Fur Musiklische Volks Und Volkerkunde Vol 9 (1978): 53–88.

[13] Description taken directly from the Temple Records website.

[14] Dates and information taken from Paul Dooley’s promotional website.

[15] This is the harp that was made by Michael Billinge in 1977, see reference above in the timeline.

[16] Date is from a price list dated July 1990 that accompanied a printed brochure produced by Robert D. P. Evans.

[17] For research into the feasibility of precious strings on the wire–strung harp, please see The Silver Report available here on WireStrungharp.com as it was originally published in The Folk Harp Journal Issue 143 (Summer 2009): 34–43.

This Revival Timeline Table is being developed with the editorial advice of Sten Maulsby.

Except where otherwise noted, content on this site is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available by contacting us at editor@wirestrungharp.com.

Creative Commons License