The Kildare Harp — the Dates

Wakeman drawing of the Kildare Harp

A drawing of the Kildare Harp made in 1895 by Gerald Wakeman.

The dating of this harp is surrounded with a degree of ambiguity. O’Curry in one of his lectures claiming to be quoting a letter from George Petrie states that it had the date 1672 inscribed in Arabic numerals above an escutcheon with the Kildare Fitzgerald arms on the fore–pillar of the harp.[1] Whether this was exactly what Petrie had said or if O’Curry himself had ever seen the harp is not presently known, but the date which does occupy that space, although one digit is open to interpretation, would be hard to misread as 1672; especially as Petrie had once had the harp in his possession for some ten years or more.

Armstrong in dealing with this harp also repeats the statement that it was made in 1672 but does not directly link that statement to the carved date and also acknowledges the then representative of the Kildare family for permission to use pictures of the harp as well as supplying 'some most interesting notes'.[2] The full inscription in which the date occurs and the first, second and fourth digits about which there can be little doubt reads; fecit anno 12*5. In her 1964 publication Morphology of the Irish Harp Rimmer states that the ‘Kildare harp carries the obviously erroneous date 1275’.[3] However by her next publication 'The Irish Harp' this changes to ‘the inscription RFG fecit Anno 1275, (the second figure is uncertain)’.[4] In fact the only uncertainty is the third digit which she had read as a 7 but which may also be read as a 1.

Clearly neither date, 1215 or 1275 can relate to the date on which the harp was made and as it appears to be a part of the original decoration the whole section must have some other explanation. Of the two possibilities the earlier one of 1215 makes a better fit with the historical background of the Kildare family, especially if the ‘fecit’ is interpreted in a more general sense rather than being applied directly to the actual making of the harp.

The family which became the Earls of Kildare first appeared in Ireland when the Norman–Welsh soldier Maurice Fitzgerald, (d. 1176), landed at Wexford in 1169 at the invitation of Diarmait Mac Murchada. He was accompanied by his sons of whom Gerald Fitz Maurice (d. 1204) went on to accrue lands in Kildare, Cork and Limerick. Gerald also acquired Offaly through marriage circa 1193 to Eva, daughter and only heir of Robert de Bermingham, Lord of Ui Failge. When Gerald died in 1204 he left a son called Maurice who was about ten years old at the time. Maurice Fitz Gerald was initially placed in wardship but when he came of age in 1215 he made a fine of 60 marks with the King to have his lands, or rather the lands of Gerald his father bestowed on him. This was successful and subsequently the King ordered the Justiciar to ‘cause Maurice Fitz Gerald to have seisin of the land of Maynooth, and of the lands whereof Gerald his father died seised in Ireland’.[5]

This event clearly throws light on the inscription and engraved date on the harp which can probably be best understood as the date on which those arms were ‘made’ for the young man finally and formerly obtaining his inheritance. He also seems to have been the first of the line who subsequently became Earls of Kildare to have actually been born in Ireland again a reason for making that date a significant point in the in the family history. However, this only provides an explanation of the earlier date so given the various interpretations of the date over the years and to avoid any residual doubt; one of the authors (MB), as part of a programme of detailed examination of the harps at the National Museum of Ireland undertaken between 2007–2011; applied his technique of high resolution stereo–photography to the date section of the harp. This confirmed that the date is indeed 1215.[6]

Having dealt with the actual date carved on the harp still leaves the problem of when the harp was made and where the suggested date of 1672 came from. This first appears in the account by O’Curry, by implication taken from the information provided to him by George Petrie. If the document still exists among the O’Curry papers it may eventually be found, but we do have Petrie’s own description of the harps history given as direct transcriptions from two letters sent by Petrie to the Kildare family when he presented them with the harp. This actually provides a completely different version of his views and makes no mention at all of either the inscribed date on the harp, or in fact makes any reference to an absolute date for its manufacture.

The transcriptions are given in an article on the ‘two Fitzgerald harps’ published by Lord Walter Fitzgerald in 1915.[7] The first letter was written on the 4th August 1849 to the Marquise of Kildare by, as Lord Walter describes him, ‘the Dublin antiquary, George Petrie (son of the Scotch portrait painter, James Petrie, who had settled in the Irish capital)’. The quoted part of the letter reads:

I have been at length enabled to get your ancient harp put into that state which I thought desirable, with a view to its future preservation and appearance, and to make it in some degree more worthy of a place in your ancestral hall. May I be directed as to how you wish it to be conveyed to Carton?[8]

The second letter from Petrie is dated the 8th December the same year and read:

With respect to the Fitzgerald harp which I was so fortunate as to have preserved from destruction, and so happy to be permitted to restore to its right owner, I very much regret that it is not in my power to give your lordship much information; in truth I know nothing of its history. It was obtained from a poor woman in Cook Street, who had bought it at an auction. I conceive, however, that the Instrument very much tells its own history;– First, that it was made for a second son of the great house of Kildare; the earl no doubt, having at the time a harp of his own. Secondly, that this second son must have been a Robert or a Richard;[9] and Thirdly, that it must have been made some time about the middle of the seventeenth century. Judging by the style, or ornaments, I would say that it might be of the age of James I[10], but could not be later than that of his unfortunate son. Now, on referring to the pedigree of the Duke’s ancestors, as given in Lodge, I find a Robert Fitzgerald, a second son, existing at this very time, and to whom, according to every law of historic probability, I would say even certainty, it must be ascribed. This Robert was the next brother to Wentworth, the 17th Earl of Kildare, and father of a second Robert, the 19th Earl, from whom his Grace descends. This Robert, who was a very distinguished person, died in 1697. As the style of the ornament and arms show it could not have been made as late as the time of Robert the 19th Earl. I express my conviction that the harp was made for his father, Robert, the son of George the 16th Earl, and no other conclusion can, I think, be adopted.

Lacking any other evidence it would seem that the source for the 1672 date was O’Curry’s lectures although another twist occurs in ‘Some Account of The Special Exhibition of Ancient Musical Instruments in the South Kensington Museum’ held in 1872 where it was described as ‘an interesting specimen, made anno 1671, was exhibited by the Marquess of Kildare’. having apparently lost a year during its journey.[11] R. B. Armstrong’s account presumably was based on O’Curry, but a further degree of confusion was added by Lord Walter Fitzgerald, who after in fact quoting some of Armstrong’s description of the harp’s measurements then moves on to his own description of the decoration. Noting that 'Above the crest are the initials R. F. G, standing for Robert Fitzgerald, and below the shield appears;– Fecit Anno 1675 (the “6” however, more resembles a “2” — an error of the carver). This certainly justifies Lord Walter’s title for that section of ‘The Kildare Harp, 1675’, a case of making the evidence fit the theory and also probably the original source of Rimmer’s suggestion that the second figure was uncertain.

Therefore if all the firm dates that have been suggested so far for the date of manufacture have no real evidence behind them when was the instrument made? If we return to Petrie’s letter then there is a base on which to build an answer. His argument that the combination of the initials along with the Kildare arms showing that they belonged to a second son cannot be faulted; only Robert Fitzgerald, second son of George sixteenth Earl of Kildare fits the evidence. Born in August 1637 he would have grown up during the troubled years starting in 1641 and continuing through the Cromwell administration. Life for him started to improve from 1661 with the restoration of Charles II, in which he was an active promoter. The King rewarded him with lands in Queen’s County which had been forfeited by the rebellion of Gerald Fitzgerald in 1641.

His progress continued upwards and he was appointed to the Privy Council as well as the post of Comptroller of the Musters and Cheques of the army in Ireland and elected as representative of the County of Kildare in the House of Commons. Having married in 1663; Mary, daughter and heiress of James Clotworthy, the brother of Viscount Massarene, he took up residence at Grangemellon, near Athy and in 1674 when he was appointed joint Governor, with his nephew, the Earl of Kildare of the County of Kildare renewed the lease on Grangemellon for 999 years. This was followed in 1677 by his receiving the degree of LL.D at Oxford from the Duke of Ormonde, the Chancellor of the University. However, by 1685 with the accession of James II he was stripped of all his offices and ‘Irish’ politics continued to intrude and dominate his life from then on, including periods of arrest or confinement. He died on the 31st January 1699.[12]

As the conditions in Ireland over that period of his life which occurred before 1661 were not exactly conducive to commissioning or making harps, and judging by his biographical details the most settled period of his life extended from then to around 1685, the Kildare Harp was probably made sometime during that twenty four year period. Curiously if the mid point of those years are calculated you arrive at the year of circa 1672–3, suggesting perhaps that someone had already drawn that conclusion before.

Both Petrie and Armstrong describe the decoration of the Kildare harp as ‘early Jacobean’, Petrie in fact suggesting as early as James I or at the latest Charles I. However, since Robert Fitzgerald was not born until 1637 the harp must be later than that period and although the ‘style’ may be early Jacobean it must be a later reintroduction of the earlier style. As the most likely scenario for that to occur would have been the restitution of the ‘Stewart’ monarchy in the person of the Charles II, it might suggest that the dating of the Kildare Harp should be closer to 1661 than 1685.

[1] O’Curry, Eugene On the Manners and Customs of The Ancient Irish, Vol. III pages 289, 293–4.

[2] Armstrong, Robert Bruce, The Irish and Highland Harps, 1904, pp. 70–72.

[3] Rimmer, J, The Morphology of the Irish Harp, Galpin Society Journal, Vol 17, (February 1964), p 47

[4] Rimmer, J, The Irish Harp, (1969) p 76

[5] Orpen, G H, The Fitzgeralds, barons of Offaly.Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland. 6th series, 4 (1914), 101/2

[6] There is a scratch or scrape running across the date from the bottom right corner of the figure 2 up to the top tip of the figure 1. The upper end of this scrape visually combines with the end of the serif of this figure to make the serif appear longer and the number resembles a 7. But the enhanced 3D nature of the stereo photographs clearly reveals the difference between the indented part of the scrape and the flatter surface of the serif of the painted number. If this scrape was not there the date would more clearly read 1215.

[7] Fitzgerald, Lord Walter. Descriptions of Two Fitzgerald Harps Of The Seventeenth Century. Journal of the Kildare Archaeological Society, Vol VIII, No 2, (July 1915), pp 133–149; Petrie’s original letters are in the Lord Walter Fitzgerald Papers in the National Library of Ireland, MS.18,850

[8] A footnote by Lord Walter at this point says that ‘Kilkea Castle was at this time being restored’.

[9] Another footnote by Lord Walter at this point explains that the initials R. F. G form part of the decoration.

[10] James the VI of Scotland and first of England.

[11] Engel, Carl, A Descriptive Catalogue Of The Musical Instruments In South Kensington Museum, (1874), Appendix No 2, 367

[12] The Marquis of Kildare, The Earls of Kildare and Their Ancestors: From 1057 to 1773, (1858), 257–266.

Submitted by Keith Sanger and Michael Billinge, 17 September, 2012

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