A Timeline of Early Harpers in Ireland

by Keith Sanger

The chronological list of harpers was initially compiled over a number of years to serve as a personal quick reference list of stringed instrument players in Ireland with a cut–off point around the beginning of the last quarter of the 17th century. This date was deliberately chosen as it was about then that the harsh effects of the Cromwellian era had finally ended and the recovery leading into the time of Carolan and his contemporaries had begun. The list, along with an earlier version of this introduction, was subsequently used as the basis of a talk[1] and as then, it is important to understand exactly what the list is, which means this introduction is mostly a qualification of the entries.

The Shrine of St. Patrick's Tooth

Image from the Shrine St. Patrick's Tooth, or Fiacail Phadraig ca. 1350-1375 in The National Museum of Ireland in Dublin

A recent essay by a respected Irish Academic started with a somewhat critical analysis of much that has been written on the early history of the Gaels including their music and the harp.[2] While the comment was blunt it was, in general, in line with what is usually termed ‘modern revisionist history’ which has been critically reassessing many of the assumptions of standard textbook works. In line with this approach it seemed sensible to consider what exactly are the facts concerning the early harpers, leaving as ever the question of interpretation to the eye of the beholder.

It would at this point be easy to go straight to the list, but life is never that simple and although a contemporary reference to a musician is a fact, context is also important in terms of interpretation and herefore qualification of what is, or in one or two cases, is not in the list, is required. Hopefully this can be done as neutrally as possible although the line between context and theory at times can be a somewhat grey area.

The further back we go when looking for evidence of early harpers the more dependent we become on the various Annals. Naturally the Annals show an increase in detail and scope the later they are and for our purposes there is little point in trying to go back much before the appearances of entries for contemporary musicians. In other words concentrating solely on historical figures and how they were recorded at the time they were living, or in the case of most of the earlier entries, died. This approach therefore ignores mythical characters and also a few later harpers for whom no contemporary references have yet been found.

Much has been written in the past based on references to music and musicians in very early texts and mythological tales, most of which as we now have them were written down long after the periods they were supposed to represent. How these are interpreted is also undergoing considerable re–evaluation by modern historians and it is increasingly argued that they actually tell us more about the time and people who wrote them down than the period they purport to represent.[3] This revision of history does introduce some degree of uncertainty in how these sources should now be handled. As they were all written after the first factual appearances of named musicians in the 11th century, it seemed sensible not to include any of these very early texts and myths.

The annals of course are not in themselves unbiased. The scribes had their own agendas and a recent work has provided some good examples of how they thought. Using the entries in the Annals of Ulster, Alex Woolf gives as an example how the scribes recorded the incursions of the Northmen. In 802AD it was recorded that Iona was burnt and they appear again in 806AD when 68 members of the Iona community were said to have been slain. Then in 807 it was recorded that they attacked the monastic island of Inishmurray, near Sligo and then attacked the church settlement at Roscommon. As he points out, the fact that Roscommon lies some thirty–five miles from the coast should alert us to the facts that, one, the Northmen were capable of carrying out attacks well inland and secondly, that the chroniclers themselves were occupants of wealthy church settlements and cared little for the fate of the other kinds of settlements. It was conceivable that Iona or Inishmurray could be hit by raids from the sea without warning but any attack on Roscommon must have led the heathens across dozens of miles of settled country occupied by lay people and clerics alike, but of whose fate our chroniclers say nothing.[4]

Apart from the scribes being selective in whom they recorded the geographical coverage was also patchy. Chronicle coverage of the west of Ireland was poor; especially the area centered on Limerick, a longphort which rivalled Dublin in importance.[5] These Viking centres were not temporary camps but settlements organised along Scandinavian lines and they would also have had their own musicians, but despite their being at that time a significant proportion of Ireland’s population it is a factor in the thread of Irelands musical heritage about which we know little.

The annals were among the earliest texts to be published in academic editions and therefore the entries in the following list reflect published transcriptions and translations. The musicians who are recorded are described in a variety of different ways, players of the tiompan, the cruit, or in the case of a very small and later group, as players of the clàrsach. Others are just covered by the general description of ‘fer teud’ or ‘string players’ and it is noticeable that most, if not all the editors of these annals have translated ‘fer teud’, (and in many cases tiompan players as well), as ‘harper’. This has been an unhelpful mistake which has had the effect of distorting the overall picture and adding additional confusion to an already confused situation.

For example, all the history books which touch on the subject, and usually published in English, say that Angus Og of the Isles was murdered by his Irish ‘harper’ at Inverness in 1490, (or thereabouts). Now this is a subject that is covered by a number of contemporary Gaelic accounts, including four different annals and what is consistent about all of them is that the musician is referred to as a fer teud. Even if we ignore the possibility that the term should just be taken as a generic phrase meaning simply a ‘musician’ and instead take it literally to be a player of a stringed instrument, then the evidence suggests that it could one of two, a ‘cruit’ or a ‘tiompan’. Furthermore, a list of names from the Book of the Dean of Lismore shows that Irish tiompan players were still visiting Scotland some twenty five to thirty years later.[6] Thus the conclusion that Angus Og was murdered by a ‘harper’ should at least be qualified.

Then there are areas of contradiction with perhaps the example of the episode in 1329 relating to the musician called ‘Cam O Kayrwill’ being the most obvious. In many ways it is one of the best documented events involving an early Irish musician that we have. It is mentioned by all the annals and there is also an Anglo Norman account regarding the circumstances that led to ‘O’Kayrwill’s’ death. The musician who, according to Friar John Clyn of Kilkenny, played the tiompan and harp was along with twenty student timpanists at the home of John de Birmingham at Braganstown when some of this nobleman’s own subjects attacked and killed the earl and his household, including ‘O’Karywill’ and his students.

The Norman account provides more details of the political background to the massacre along with names of those involved on both sides and this includes a ‘Nicholas Harper’ who was among those killed and was presumably the earls own minstrel, while among those accused of the slaughter was another harper called John of Ardee. Not too surprisingly the Norman account makes no mention of O’Kayrwill so we have to turn back to the Annals and it is here that the questions start with the account by Friar Clyn, who is the odd one out. His account, written in Latin, was the only one to describe O’Kayrwill as both a player of the tiompan and harp. All the other annalists simply describe him as a player of the tiompan. So it is important to bear in mind when looking at the relative numbers of the types of musicians in the list that while this man was a player of a stringed instrument, it may not have been a ‘harp’ as we now understand that term.

A similar problem occurs with the entry for Murtagh O Coygnan in 1315 who was accused of acting in collaboration with some Anglo Normans in operating a sort of protection racket. The original document, which was presumably written in Norman Latin, was unfortunately destroyed in a fire. Thus all we have is an English transcript in which he is described as a ‘harper’. We have no way of knowing what the word harper was actually a translation of, and just as we have noted the tendency of the editors of the Gaelic texts to translate both Cruit and tiompan simply as ‘harp’ there was quite often a similar approach applied by translators to the Latin words Cithera and Lyra, so once again there is a possibility that the instrument played in this case may not have been a ‘harp’.

No complete history of musical instruments in Ireland can ignore the cultural aspects of the Norman presence in Ireland after 1169. It seems like a statement of the obvious, but prior to the invention of portable electronic sound systems, all music was live and it was the musician who was portable. It was standard medieval practice for minstrels to accompany even armed military expeditions and the Norman Lords were no different. Some of these minstrels may, like their masters, have only visited Ireland for a limited tour of duty. The harper William Dodmore is one example. He had already visited Ireland in the retinue of his original patron King Richard II in 1399, before transferring his loyalty to the new King Henry. The harper then returned again in 1408 with the king’s son, Thomas of Lancaster and may possibly have remained in Ireland thereafter.[7]

Other minstrels whose lords, like John de Birmingham, held Irish lands and indeed spent most of their time in Ireland would also have remained with their lords and as a result appear in the contemporary records. For easier comparison the chronological list of harpers at this point runs in parallel with those musicians with Gaelic names on one side while the Anglo–Norman harpers are on the other. This also introduces the grey area where the occupation name of ‘Harper’ starts to become a family surname subsequently used by their descendents. So in compiling the list a deliberately conservative approach has been taken and the list stops with the John Harper in 1519, who certainly was a harper, although we know from the Scottish Records that the occupation name Harper usually still applied to an actual musician there well into the 16th century.

After 1519 the two parallel lists merge into one since after that period there does not appear to be any more evidence for these minstrels who would have been playing the medieval gut–strung harps. This does not however mean the Norman influence has disappeared as among the more numerous references to harpers that start to appear in the records of the English Tudor administrations, we also start to see harpers whose names place their ancestry, if not directly from the Norman minstrels, certainly from that side of the now communal marriage bed. Names like Cruise, Russell, Forstall and Plunkett certainly fall into that group. ‘Brenagh’ on the other hand is the Gaelic version of Walsh, currently the fourth most common name in Ireland; a name which seems to have arisen independently in many parts of Ireland. It was the local form of ‘Welsh’ applied to the native inhabitants of that country who formed the retinues of the original Cambro–Norman lords.[8] Families like De Barry, a Norman Welsh dynasty who provided that well–known early tourist Gerald de Barri, whose observations on Irish music still provides the bedrock on which much of the discussion regarding Irish harps starts.[9]

Many of the notices of harpers during the later Tudor period come from what are usually called the ‘Fiants’, often described as ‘Pardons’ and in turn linked to the Statutes of Kilkenny and its subsequent re–confirmations, with the implication that the harpers, (along with the other practitioners of the Gaelic Arts), were deliberately persecuted.[10] These statutes are now seen as being the legal basis for attempts to exercise some degree of control over the population of the Pale at a time when its boundaries and ethnic mix was constantly fluctuating.[11] The term ‘Fiant’ is the first word of the usual form of ‘fiant literae patentes’, (let letters patent be made), which were a documentary series unique to Ireland and were simply an extension of this process whereby through a surrender and re–grant policy, the Irish chiefs were encouraged to ‘surrender’ their lands to the crown and then to receive a formal title or ‘patent’ from the crown when granted back to them.

This process of establishing the authority of the English crown often included the recording not just of the holder of the land in many cases their families and followers, including the harpers. The first attempt to collect and publish the names of these harpers from the state archives was done by F O’Neill[12] and were the original basis for those harpers included in this Timeline. A more extensive listing is provided by a more recent publication by A Fletcher[13] and as the original state papers have themselves now been fully edited and published, although beyond the scope of this introduction, it would seem likely that an analytical study of these would provide some reasonable estimates of the real numbers of harpers practicing at that period.

As the list stands the picture it provides does not always fit with the more general writings of the early history of harpers in Ireland but this is bound to be a feature of this type of exercise which is certainly going to be affected by the vagaries of surviving material. The relatively large numbers of Anglo Norman harpers compared to those with Gaelic names may simply be a reflection of the greater use of records by the Crown administrators. What is somewhat harder to explain is the ratio of types of instrument used by the earlier Gaelic musicians, especially bearing in mind the possibility that some of those classed as ‘harpers’ may not.

Context is an elastic sort of word and by stretching its boundaries it is possible to suggest one possible explanation. In reading through all the published annals, (and just about all of them have been), overall the number of poets mentioned is considerably higher than the numbers of musicians which is surprising given that the verse was ‘declaimed’ with a musical accompaniment. If it was a case of musicians not really interesting the scribes, why would they record any musicians?

It is also clear that despite the apparent separation into clearly defined professional orders as suggested by the early legal tracts, many of those professional orders as actually recorded by the scribes combined multi functions. For example, some were described as ‘Professors’ of poetry and law, or history and poetry, or combined a clerical office and one of the other functions. In many cases these multi–faceted individuals also have music included in their curriculum vitae of skills. So it is possible that the shortage of musicians in the annals is only an apparent shortage because in fact the musicians role was also filled from within the ranks of the poets. This would certainly fit with a point made by a number of commentators on the lack of identifiable hereditary families of musicians while at the same time a lot of the harpers bear the names of known families of poets.[14]

Throughout the Tudor administrations there were increases in documentary sources, especially as a result of the Fiants and not surprisingly this also produced an increase in the number of harpers recorded. How far these can be related to the popular but unspecific statements of the ‘there were lots of harpers’, ‘every large house had a harp’ sort, or even the general and perhaps slightly more scientific statements that after the Flight of the Earls in 1607, the poets and by implication the harpers, went into decline, is debatable lacking hard numbers.

Certainly as far as the list is concerned the number of harpers appearing during the seventeenth century seems to be lower than before 1607 which given the continuing increase in documentary evidence is probably significant. However, attributing that all to the events of 1607 and the Tudors is somewhat too simplistic. There is a tendency to overlook the fact that the Flight occurred some four years after James VI of Scotland had settled onto the English throne, and that the final military success of the Tudors during the last part of the previous century had occurred primarily because James, as part of his diplomatic efforts in manoeuvring to succeed Elizabeth, had started to interrupt the supply of Galloglaigh, the West Highland mercenary soldiers who formed the core of the Irish Chiefs military might.

Since the northern Earls were in the most Gaelic part of Ireland their departure was a major blow to the professional Gaelic orders, but it has been argued that by that stage those orders were already in decline.[15] There were also signs that by the start of the seventeenth century harpers were moving further a field in search of patronage and that they and their harps were adapting to chromatic musical forms.[16] However, in looking at the comparative numbers of harpers, context becomes even more important, starting with the simple question of their numbers related to the relative population of Ireland at the time.

Early population figures are always speculative although there is general agreement that the population of late medieval Ireland, in common with the rest of Britain, having been affected by various waves of ‘pestilence’ was comparatively low. One estimate for the early 1520’s suggests a population figure for the whole of England, Wales and Scotland of around 3 million people and that for Ireland possibly as low as half a million.[17] During the rest of the century the population level remained stable although with marked regional variations. The English Pale was relatively well populated and although comprising at most only about a third of the island, probably held around half of the total population. The Gaelic districts were sparsely populated and in some parts uninhabited to the extent that with no population to provide continuity the original place–names were forgotten.

The result of the Tudor military conquest also resulted in large parts of Gaelic Ireland being devastated, Ulster turned into a wilderness and Munster west of Cork almost uninhabited.[18] Set against that background it is conceivable that those harpers who feature in the late sixteenth century records actually represent a considerable proportion of all those harpers living around that period. If that century had been difficult, the next was to get worse. Despite the departure of the Earls, the population rose after 1609 as a result of the plantation of Ulster which introduced large numbers of English and predominantly Lowland Scots immigrants. Even during the Cromwellian period a further 100,000 English and Welsh settlers entered Ireland but the effects of Cromwell’s military campaigns, which fell disproportionately upon the Gaelic and old Anglo Irish Catholic populations, were devastating.

Once again large parts of the country suffered the effects of a particularly vicious conflict and had been traversed by armies who still tended to sweep the land bare of food as they went. By the end, what was a predominantly agrarian economy was in ruins, with the usual aftermath of hunger and weakened bodies then succumbing to disease. Recovery would have been prolonged, even those in the fortunate position to start with one cow would still take some ten years or more to breed back to the position where there were ten cows and similar timescales apply to crops. These were not circumstances under which harpers would have flourished or new harps would have been commissioned and this tends to be confirmed by a reduced number of harpers on the timeline.

The original talk at Kilkenny was entitled ‘Irish Harpers BC, before Carolan that is’, and therefore this version of the timeline ended here. By 1670 some recovery was underway and it is therefore worth continuing to explore the background in which Carolan was born and raised. The harpers who appeared at the 1792 Belfast Harp Festival tend to be viewed as the end of a long slow decline from the high status musicians of the medieval period with Carolan and his contemporaries being just one stage in the journey. However when placed in context it is possible to suggest that the story of the harp in Ireland post circa 1670 should be explored as a separate entity.

When set against the historical background there are a number of arguments to support the idea that there was in fact a complete disruption of any continuity during that middle portion of the seventeenth century. In material terms, what were classed by Joan Rimmer as ‘High headed harps’ all appear post Cromwell, consistent with the idea that harp making had restarted after a break rather than a continuous evolution of design.[19] The status of the harpers was also markedly different, although the changes in this case would probably have occurred in anyway. Whereas before 1600 the harper was a member of the professional orders whose position was largely based on family connections, the period from Carolan through to the Belfast Harp School saw the harp more often being used as one of the few occupations that could be undertaken by the blind.

As the post 1670 recovery began the population started to grow and by the end of the century was probably close to two million people, no doubt helped by continuing immigration. Over the course of that century the proportion of the population attributed to this influx had grown to around 27%. Many of these incomers were Scots who continued to arrive in large numbers into the eighteenth century. One estimate suggests that nearly 200,000 Scots had moved to Ireland between 1688 and 1715 alone, a remarkable figure when considered against the fact that the population of Scotland itself had only reached 1.26 million by 1755.[20]

From that two million people circa 1700 the population of Ireland continued to expand until over the next 140 years it had reached some eight and a half million, (or more as the official figures probably under–recorded). Within this growth there were however some important demographic changes. Although as a percentage of the population the number of Gaelic speakers continued to decline, as the total population was increasing the absolute number of Gaelic speakers grew to an estimated 3.5 million by 1820, far more than there had ever been before, albeit coming mostly from the poorest section of Irish society.[21]

Apart from the growth in numbers of Gaelic speakers over the eighteenth century there was also a resurgence in scribal activity. In a recent comment on the disparity of Gaelic manuscripts in Scotland compared to Ireland it was pointed out that only about 10% of the surviving Irish manuscripts were actually written before the middle of the seventeenth century with the majority being down to the greater amount of recopying and transcribing of older manuscripts carried out in Ireland mostly during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.[22]

Against this background the possibility arises that the number of harpers active during the eighteenth century had also increased in number compared to the previous century. However, like Carolan and his contemporaries who were also born into that rapidly rising population, they would have been shaped by a totally different environment to any of their musical predecessors. The age profile of that population would have shifted towards youth and the young are always more open to new influences, reflected by the influences of Italian music on that new generation of young harpers.[23]

It is noteworthy that despite the use by Edward Bunting of the term ‘Ancient’ to describe the music he had collected from the harpers, date–wise most of it actually coincides with that reinvigorated scribal activity described above. Of the few older tunes, none provide any examples of what the harper was doing when in his role of supporting the declamation of Bardic verse; a result perhaps of that devastating break in tradition during the Cromwellian era. Although outside the remit of this introduction and the timeline of the original talk, it does seem to be time for a fresh study of the Irish harpers during the late 17th to the early 18th centuries with a far wider perspective than Donal O’Sullivan’s original work on Carolan.[24]

[1] Historical Irish Harp School, Kilkenny, 2008.

[2] O’Baoill, Colm, Respecting Gaelic Harpers, in Silva Caledonia by Javier Sainz, published by Siubhal, (2008). 44

[3] Fraser, James E, From Caledonia to Pictland Scotland to 795, (2009). 3–11

[4] Woolf, Alex, From Pictland to Alba, 789–1070, (2007). 57

[5] Woolf, Alex, From Pictland to Alba, 789–1070, (2007). 213

[6] The Book of the Dean of Lismore was compiled between circa 1513 to 1540 by Sir James MacGregor, Dean of Lismore and consists of Gaelic Verse and other material. Some of the Scottish Verse from the Book of the Dean of Lismore was edited and published by W. J. Watson for the Gaelic Text Society, (1937). The original manuscript is in the National Library of Scotland. To date the complete name list has not been published.

[7] Southworth, John, The English Medieval Minstrel, (1989). 112–3

[8] MacLysaght, Edward, The Surnames of Ireland, (1991).

[9] Bartlett, Robert, Gerald of Wales 1146-1223, (1982).

[10] There can be little doubt that within the military traumas that affected Ireland during the Tudor period harpers would have been among the many people who died as a result of the conflict. Specific edicts against musicians were certainly made but similar edicts were also made against wandering entertainers in Scotland and the timing and application can be seen to rise and fall in relation to times of war and pestilence, both events where wanderers could be spies or carriers of disease. It has in fact been difficult to find any hard evidence for the deliberate death of a harper during that period. The nearest comes from an unsubstantiated traditional account given without references in the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland in 1904. According to this the Earl of Desmond was in his castle under siege from the head of the head of the Butlers, when the Earls harper admitted the besiegers through a postern gate having made a bargain with the Butlers that he would be raised higher than his master the Earl. The Butlers kept their promise by hanging the harper from his former master's battlements. However, even if true this was in fact a Norman family against Norman family event.

[11] Otway-Ruthven, A. J, A History of Medieval Ireland, (1980). 291-293; Maginn, Christopher, Gaelic Irelands English Frontiers in the Late middle Ages, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, volume 110C, 2010; Morrissey, John, Contours of colonialism: Gaelic Ireland and the early colonial subject. Irish Geography, volume 37(1), (2004), 88–102.

[12] O’Neill, Francis, Irish Minstrels and Musicians, (1913). 23–28.

[13] Fletcher, Alan J, Drama and Performing Arts in Pre Cromwellian Ireland, Sources and Documents from the earliest times until c. 1642, (2001).

[14] Ua Suilleabhain, Sean. and Donnelly, Sean, Music has Ended; The Death of a Harper, Celtica volume 22, (1991). 166. ( www.celt.dias.ie/publications/celtica/c22/c22–165.pdf )

[15] O Riordan, Michelle, The Gaelic Mind and the Collapse of the Gaelic World, (1990).

[16] Billinge, Michael and Shaljean, Bonnie, The Dalway or Fitzgerald harp, Early Music, volume XV number 2, (May 1987). 175–187.

[17] Miles, David, The Tribes of Britain, (2006). 273.

[18] Ellis, Steven G, Ireland in the Age of the Tudors 1447-1603, (1998). 39–40, 353.

[19] Rimmer, Joan, The Irish Harp/Claireachna hEireann, (1977), 55–57

[20] Connolly, S J, Contested Island; Ireland 1460 — 1630, (2009). 404–405: Pittock, Murray, The Myth of the Jacobite Clans — The Jacobite Army in 1745, (2009). 50–51; The figure for Scotland in 1755 was compiled by the Rev Alexander Webster using parish returns provided by his fellow ministers.

[21] O Murchu, Mairtin, The Irish Language, (1985). 26.

[22] McLeod, Wilson, Divided Gaels; Gaelic Cultural Identities in Scotland and Ireland c. 1200 — c. 1650, (2004).61.

[23] O’Sullivan, Donal, Carolan; The Life and Times of an Irish Harper, (1983). vol 1. 144-5.

[24] It is noticeable that when there are major groundbreaking works like ‘Carolan’ and William Matheson’s ‘The Blind Harper’, it seems to take a long time before any new research in those areas is forthcoming. It is certainly a reflection of the thoroughness of the works mentioned but further research is always justified.

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